JEFFERSON CITY - Rabbit hunters may nod drowsily through summer evenings while rubbing the ears of their favorite beagle hounds. Conscientious bowhunters may spend an hour at the target range now and then to keep their shooting skills sharp. But for a waterfowl hunter, there is no such thing as an off-season.
Successful duck and goose hunters tend to be obsessive. They have to be. If you're a waterfowler and you find yourself idle on evenings and weekends from the end of January, when most goose seasons close, until the opening of teal season in mid-September, you ought to be worried.
Worry No. 1 for most duck and goose hunters is their equipment. Hunting gear sustains a lot of wear and tear over the course of Missouri's four-month waterfowl season (almost eight months if you hunt snow geese). July and August, when it's too hot for many outdoor activities, is the perfect time to hole up in the garage and touch up the paint on decoys. Start by scrubbing them with a stiff brush to remove dirt and flaking paint that would keep the new paint from sticking.
While they are at it, smart waterfowlers mend holes in decoy bags and replace weak anchor cords. This is also a good time for those who got a little too excited as birds settled into the decoy spread last season to patch pellet holes in plastic decoys. The rattling pellets inside easily identify the decoys that need this treatment.
Looking over their supply of serviceable decoys, many hunters will worry they don't have enough. Mid-summer is a great time to make purchases, since retailers aren't likely to be sold out and may even have equipment from last year on sale.
Duck boats get touch-up paint and repairs this time of year. Handling this critical piece of equipment may also remind the hunter of modifications he thought of in the marsh months earlier. Now is a good time to work on them. This also is a good time to look for signs of metal fatigue at stress points, caulk leaky spots and tighten loose bolts. Make sure your registration is up to date, and check the serviceability of safety equipment onboard.
Another perennial waterfowl hunter's worry is his four-legged hunting companion. The off season is a long dry spell for retrievers. Unless exercised and drilled, they get out of shape and forget important lessons. A dog that won't sit quiet as birds circle overhead or can't remember how to respond to hand signals can be less than helpful when the action commences. Now is also a good time to deal with shots and other veterinary needs.
Remember that retrievers are adapted to cold weather and can get seriously ill if worked too hard in warm conditions. Train early and late, and leave plenty of time for rest and water breaks. If you train in your yard, buy a kiddy pool and fill it with cool water to help your canine partner stay cool. Discontinue training at the first sign of overheating or fatigue.
Hunters' skills can use work during the off-season, too. Practicing unassisted can just reinforce bad habits, but audio tapes are available to guide the way to more effective calling. Frequent outings to shoot clay targets will help hone wingshooting skills. This reduces crippling and means more birds in the freezer.
A worry that doesn't occur to some hunters, but should, is the possibility that they could be caught without all the required permits. Hunters who pursue doves, snipe, rails, woodcock or other migratory birds in Missouri need the $6 Migratory Bird Hunting Permit and a state hunting permit. Those who hunt ducks, geese or other waterfowl need a federal duck stamp in addition to these other permits. Buying permits now saves time and potential disappointment.