by Jarrett Fletcher
I remember shooting my first gadwall as a young hunter and being relatively unimpressed. In fact, I didn’t even know what kind of bird our dog had just retrieved. Many waterfowlers have shared this experience, but seasons are changing, duck populations are varying, and gadwalls are becoming an integral part of the waterfowl experience.
Historically a much-less abundant and un-appreciated species, gadwalls now rank third in annual harvest estimates, second only to mallards and green-winged teal. Gadwall populations have increased about 13% to 3.26 million birds in 2019, which is 61% higher than their long-term average. This increase is all the more impressive considering the overall 1% decrease in waterfowl populations this past year.
As conservationists we ask, “why are gadwall populations doing so well?” and as hunters, “how can we take advantage of this phenomena?”
Potential Reasons for the Increase in Gadwall Populations
Any population increase among waterfowl species depends upon multiple seasons of successful breeding and nesting. There are three potential aspects of gadwall nesting that have contributed to their success: the tendency to nest late, the landscape of their nesting ground, and a preference for big water.
Gadwall tend to nest later than most waterfowl and pick their sites on grassland-dominated landscapes. Early nesters (such as mallards and pintails) are more vulnerable to predators, due to the lack of cover after the spring thaw and the little amount of prey available. However, the late, mid-June nesting gadwall has an abundance of cover due to new and growing vegetation.
There is also an abundance of prey for predators at this time of the year as well, drawing the focus off nesting sites. Many land-based predators can’t even reach most gadwall, due to their penchant for nesting on islands in open water. Thus, hen gadwalls and their young have a much higher chance of surviving the nesting season.
Gadwalls also tend to favor large bodies of water for nesting. Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, attributes recent gadwall success to the amount of good water in the Prairie Pothole Region, one of the primary nesting sites for gadwalls. Mike Anteau, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist, notes that changing farm practices and environmental factors are also resulting in larger ponds on nesting grounds in this region. So even in drier years, such as 2019, these larger bodies of water are more likely to remain, providing gadwall with more nesting opportunities than other species of ducks. All three of these factors are likely at play in the recent increase in gadwall populations.
Tips for Scouting, Hunting, and Harvesting Gadwall
As hunters, we must recognize the opportunity before us. Gadwalls are increasing at an exponential rate, their migration is consistent, they decoy and respond well to calls, and they taste good. What more could we ask of them?
Scouting. There’s no rocket science behind scouting gadwall; simply look for the species in your regular scouting routine. They enjoy wide-open spaces, but also frequent swamps, flooded timber, and ponds. Often, they hang out with coots, green-winged teal, and spoonbills. If you see them in or near hunt-accessible areas, there’s a good chance they could provide a good hunt in the coming days.
Decoys. Many hunters believe that gadwalls are hyper-wary birds that do not decoy well. However, this is not necessarily the case. With the right decoy spread, gadwalls will work just about as well as any other waterfowl, and sometimes better. A good decoy spread reflects the makeup of the species in the area you’re hunting. Your goal is to look as natural as possible.
For example, if you’re in the heart of Arkansas where gaddies tend to funnel in alongside or behind mallards, spoonbills, and green-winged teal, throwing in a couple of gadwall decoys into a diverse spread should suffice. If you’re using a decent amount of hen mallards, you may not even need them! However, if you’re in an area where gadwall mix primarily coots, you’re better off throwing out as many coot decoys as you can find with some gadwall decoys thrown in. If you don’t have gadwall decoys, hen mallards can do the trick. A small water spread of 16-22 decoys in small groups of four or five should work.
Calling. According to James Buice, hunters should “take the amount of calling you normally do, cut it in half, and then divide that by a quarter” when calling gadwalls. This is good advice. I’ve seen gadwall flare due to calls more than anything else, whether it’s a hail call to get their attention, or a feeding call to try to get them to finish. If you do need to get their attention, try a quick hen greeting call. If they begin to work, lay off the calling and watch. I’ve personally watched groups of gadwall circle four or five times and finish beautifully in a set of decoys without any additional calling. Patience and learning to read them is key. If they’re making noise after a couple of passes, it may help to grunt lightly, but nothing more. If they’re circling quietly, stay off the call. Focus instead on getting good movement among your decoys.
Cover. Gadwalls can be wary when it comes to anything unnatural in their habitat. If you plan to hunt them, make sure you’re as covered as you can be. Seek to blend in with the terrain around you. Camouflage your face and hands. You can’t always be 100% hidden, but do your best. Staying hidden can make all the difference when getting a group of grey ducks to commit.
Patience. Perhaps more than any other duck, gadwalls demand patience. They are notorious circlers. They may circle five to eight times before committing to a group of decoys. Stay hidden, limit head movement, and be patient.
In summary, use decoys that reflect the natural makeup of ducks in the area, call sparingly, make sure you’re covered, and be patient.
In the upcoming 2019-2020 season, hunters will likely see more gadwalls than ever before. These birds are flourishing and quickly becoming one of the continent’s most abundant and widely distributed duck. They demand our respect and appreciation, as well as our pursuit and effort. We hope this post gives you the tools to both this season.
As I’ve gained experience as a hunter, rather than being unimpressed by the old grey duck, harvesting one brings me satisfaction and gratitude. They offer the same opportunity to every hunter, especially as we learn to respect their subtle beauty, resilience, and yes, even their incessant circling!
May your straps be filled full of grey ducks this season!
 Waterfowl Population Status, 2019. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, August 19, 2019.
 Matt Young, “Gadwalls: The Wonder Duck.”
 David Hart, “Boom Time,” Wildfowl Magazine, (September 2019), 11-12.
 Tom Carpenter, “Gadwall: Tips for Hunting an Underrated Duck,” 2014.
 James Buice, “Gadwall: The Gray Duck Dilemma,” 2016.
*Cover Photo by Rod White