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Holly's Hacks: Duck Season Gear
I love me some over-priced duck gear as much of the next guy, but I also like cheap and home-made things that improve my hunts.
When I posted last month about my last hunt of the 2021-22 duck season, I got a lot of comments on my … um … unique home-made headgear. I thought it might be worth sharing some detail about my favorite items this year, and asking about YOUR hunting hacks as well.
Yeah, I know they sell these, but every store-bought mask I’ve ever used has made it challenging to get duck calls to lips. After I sustained some painful damage to my neck in a car accident in 2014, I needed to ditch my hat for a couple years because the bill limited my field of view, and looking up to see past it hurt. I needed a mask that met my needs exactly.
I bought a lightweight dark tan motorcycle balaclava and slashed the edges of the mouth hole to widen it (think the Joker). I cut straps of camo netting and sewed them to the balaclava in layers, then fringed it. Then I sewed an un-fringed panel to cover the giant mouth hole I’d created, which also covers my call hand. To keep my glasses from fogging up, I sewed a gear tie into the bridge of the nose so I can crimp it - that does the trick most of the time.
The only downside of this mask is that the eye opening tends to creep up, exposing my white forehead. That's why as soon as my neck healed as much as it was going to, I started wearing a hat on top of the balaclava.
This is my favorite new thing this year, inspired by Remi Warren’s Apex Predator show. The upshot of the show I saw was that it’s not enough to camo up; you need to match the foliage where you’re hunting.
I thought for ages about sewing stubble straps to one of my duck hats, but I never came across the right material. One day last season, though, I was in Michael’s and stumbled on dirty-colored decorative fish net. Even better!
I cut out enough to cover the hat, stitched it to the top in various places and left some net hanging over the edges.
To connect it to the plastic bill, I drilled little pairs of holes in the bill and used very thin leather necklace material to tie the net down in a couple places.
When I’m hunting, I grab bits of vegetation I’m sitting in and thread them through the net, making sure that bits hang off the edges, but none that would obscure my view when shooting.
This has been INCREDIBLE because it changes the outline of my head substantially. It makes it easier to get birds close, and buys me a little extra time when I stand to make the shot. And when I’m jump shooting and ducks catch my movement, they can’t immediately tell that I’m human. I love this thing.
I thought I was brilliant to have come up with it, until I realized I had reinvented a WWII helmet.
Cheap carabiners and hair bands
I use these for everything - hair bands for keeping things like my ghillie mask and camo netting rolled up, carabiners for hooking things to my pack frame (see below), or to the D-ring on my waders.
I use both carabiners and hair bands for my jerk rigs:
I use a Motion Duck spreader jerk rig with a 1.5-pound folding anchor, and you do NOT want to drop the anchor in the water before it’s connected to the rig. So I attach it to a wader D-ring with a carabiner until everything’s connected.
I twist a hair band around the spool to keep the line from constantly uncoiling, both for storage and during use.
I hook a carabiner to a couple stalks of bulrush or cattail where I’m sitting and run the jerk line through it to keep the spool handy, instead of constantly dropping it in the water - damn hard to find at 0-dark-30, and I hate getting my gloves wet.
Buying tips: Find hair bands at your local supermarket in the hair care section, and cheap carabiners are all over Amazon. Mine are shiny and metallic, but I haven’t had a problem with that because they’re small. Buy (and take into the field) more than you need of both, because you will drop them in the water, and lose them in a pocket that you forget about until the end of the season.
Two important questions for any hunt are what can I take to eat and how will I carry it?
The first question is easy (I like a home-made trail mix), the second surprisingly fraught. I hate snacks that come in wrappers because wrappers tend to blow away in the wind, and I hate littering.
You can use zipper-lock bags or reusable plastic containers, but the former are hard to open with gloves and the latter always risk dropping your lid in the water.
Last season, I found my solution: spice shakers with flip-top lids. The 8-ounce shakers I bought hold about 600 calories of my trail mix (dark chocolate chips or dark chocolate M&Ms, pistachios and crushed Fritos - DON’T JUDGE). I can shake out a mouthful at a time and snap the lid shut in a hurry. I never lose the lid. And they’re reusable. Problems solved.
Pack frame for decoys
This is not an original idea; I stole it from one of my bosses at California Waterfowl, Jake Messerli.
Most duck hunters at our public refuges get their gear into the marsh using awkward, heavy carts. Not Jake, though. Jake hitches his decoys to a pack frame.
Pushing a cart is hell on my lower back, and a thousand times so when I have to push one down muddy roads.
For some reason, I let the pack frame idea marinate for years before executing.
When I first ditched my cart, I bought a decoy backpack that could hold three or four dozen decoys. What a disaster! It rode on my hamstrings, and it was more comfortable carrying everything slung over my shoulder than in my pack.
Then I tried just traveling light, with maybe half a dozen decoys I could sling over my shoulder. That works in some places, but there are other places you really need two or three dozen dekes.
This year, I finally bought the damn pack frame.
The frame I got is from Sportsman’s Warehouse’s house brand, Rustic Ridge. It cost $75 with shipping, and honestly, it’s a pretty crappy pack frame. It came set for someone about seven feet tall. The hip belt wouldn’t stay on my hips, sinking to become a chastity belt (useless, and not just because I think chastity is overrated). The chest strap sat right on my nipples (a perpetual problem with packs made by men, for men), giving it a little unwanted BDSM vibe. The chest strap height is only minimally adjustable.
I thought about buying a quality pack frame, sized for me, but I was recoiling at the thought of spending hundreds more for something that would spend most of a hunt day suspended in marsh water. So I adjusted this one as much as it could be adjusted and made do.
By the end of the season, it was working pretty well for me, and by that I mean I could take more gear into the field and I no longer endured back pain for hours after my hunts.
You can hook your gear to it in whatever way works for you - no need to overthink it. I use lots of carabiners, hair bands and whatever else is handy. But here’s the system that worked well for me for connecting Texas-rigged decoys to the frame:
Maintenance: After each hunt, I make sure it’s in a place where the fabric can dry out, especially the padded hip belt. I’ve been spraying joints and pins with some WD-40 to prevent rust because I’m not sure what they’re made of, but so far everything seems rustproof.
Buying tips: Make sure the top of the frame can be adjusted upward to keep decoys from bouncing on your butt. If you’re buying in-store, try it on and see how adjustable it is. Remember that unloaded, the hip belt will probably ride on your hips where it’s supposed to (mine does), but when it’s fully packed, you need to know if it’s going to hold tight or sag (mine loosens and sags). If you get a chance, throw something heavy on it to test that.
Rigging: For your decoys, use Texas rigs with the smallest size lead weight possible - typically, 2 ounces is as low as they go, unless you make your own (that’s what Jake does - he uses 1-ounce weights, which are fine if you’re not in strong wind). If you’re hauling two dozen decoys, cutting from 4-ounce weights to 2-ounce weights saves you three pounds. You’ll feel that when you walk a couple miles in clunky waders.
What are your hacks?
I love hunters’s inventiveness! If you’re not planning to patent your hacks and make a fortune off of them, please share them in comments here.
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