Waterfowling is Big Business
Forget the Golden Age of the middle of the last century. today’s waterfowlers are wading chest-deep in some of the best conditions in modern times. A stable, and in some cases increasing, number of duck and goose hunters are enjoying an unprecedented boom in both numbers of birds migrating and length of seasons. Manufacturers and retailers are recognizing this trend and are jumping on the duck boat bandwagon with a host of new product lines and marketing efforts that are reaching an increasingly young and hungry group of waterfowl hunters.
“In terms of species abundance, variety, and availability, it’s never been better for most hunters alive today,” says James Powell, director of communications for Ducks Unlimited. “Growing, stable, and healthy waterfowl populations for significantly more than a decade have led to long seasons and generous bag limits for most species and in most flyways, with few exceptions.”
According to the most recent Trends in Duck Breeding Populations survey jointly released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service in July 2016, overall duck populations were estimated at 48.4 million, 38 percent higher than the 50-year long-term average. That includes a projected fall flight index for mallards, the most popular target for duck hunters, at 13.5 million, one of the highest totals on record. A growing population of Canada geese adapting to urban areas has led to August and September seasons for these nuisance populations, while the Spring Snow Goose Conservation Order keeps dedicated waterfowlers in the field through April and May. In some areas it’s possible for hunters to chase some type of waterfowl 10 months out of the year.
In recent years, there has been a broader awareness and acceptance of waterfowling in and among the general public and in all forms of media. Whether you attribute that to the explosive popularity of Duck Dynasty or the efforts of conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, which have both grown significantly in public recognition over the past five to 10 years, waterfowl hunting and that unique way of life has really captured the attention of other hunters, and even nonhunters, who now seem to be intrigued by duck hunting and the waterfowling lifestyle.
“I definitely experience professionally through my travels and personally through my 13-year-old son and his friends that duck hunting has become cool again,” says Powell. “I routinely see the DU duck head and other waterfowl-related stickers on truck windows. I also see waterfowling apparel worn at school and around town. And waterfowl camo? It’s everywhere. A younger generation seems to really have embraced waterfowling as not only okay to do, but as a fashionable and socially acceptable lifestyle to embrace.”
Powell also notes the phenomenon is not limited just to guys. “I see it across the entire gender, race, and income-level spectrum. I keep reading in reports there are fewer and fewer duck hunters around, but what my eyes see, and my ears hear, is that there are lots of us out there.”
After years of decline, anecdotal evidence suggests that waterfowler numbers are increasing or, at the very least, stabilizing. And more to the point, these hunters are passionate and dedicated to their sport, perhaps even more so than other casual hunters. In terms of gear, waterfowling is one of the most equipment intensive of the hunting pursuits, requiring a spread of decoys, a lanyard full of calls, weather-beating apparel, insulating waders, a durable shotgun, and, of course, a case of shells. Consider this, too: A deer hunter may shoot one cartridge a season, but a waterfowler may go through a box (or more) of shells a day. Bottom line: Waterfowlers require a wide variety of products, and they’re more than willing to spend the dollars to get them. Manufacturers and retailers who ignore them do so at their own peril.
“I see and hear marketing experts turn their noses up at waterfowlers as a desired demographic because there aren’t as many of us as there are big-game hunters,” says Powell. “That’s a short-sighted mistake, in my opinion. We’re a stable, once-again growing group that is more passionate and committed to our pursuit than anyone else I can think of. And importantly, we spend more on gear, on average, than other hunters.”
For whatever reason, waterfowlers thrive in the worst conditions imaginable. From crashing waves to wind-driven snow and sub-zero temperatures, the more difficult the elements, the better the gunning, or so goes conventional wisdom. It’s this kind of weather that duck and goose hunters regularly find themselves battling, and for that, they need apparel that keeps them out in it. It doesn’t hurt if it looks good too, with swamp-specific camo such as Realtree Max-5, Mossy Oak Shadow Grass, and Optifade Marsh serving as a mark of honor signifying membership in the brotherhood and sisterhood of waterfowlers.
A number of brands have recognized the need for functional, quality apparel (including footwear). Tech-forward tailor Sitka introduced a waterfowl line a few years back and recently expanded on it with a line just for duck hunters who find themselves deep in the dark timber. Drake and Banded both led the way in terms of waterfowl-only apparel makers. Even the big-box stores are in on it, with Cabela’s touting its Northern Flight line and Bass Pro trumpeting its long-standing Redhead brand. All this competition for duck-hunter dollars has led to increased innovation and, for waterfowlers, better gear that works as advertised.
“Waterfowling has gone through several changes in the last decade, all revolving around equipment,” says John Gordon, public relations manager for Banded Holding, which recently acquired the popular waterfowling brand Avery. “The four-wheeler has given way to the UTV side-by-sides, surface-drive mud motors are more the norm than novelty, decoys have become ultra-realistic, semi-auto shotguns equipped with high-performance choke tubes have taken over in the fields and blinds, and nontoxic shotshell technology has made new offerings better than lead loads of years past. However, maybe the biggest change has been on the apparel side of the business. High-tech fabrics have spilled over from the mountain expedition and skiing worlds, and have helped create clothing that is lighter, warmer, and more comfortable than anything duck and goose hunters have worn before.”
Older waterfowlers, and those of us who hunted through the 1980s and 1990s in hand-me-downs, might not recognize the trim, tech-forward footwear and apparel hunters enjoy today. That leap from the ski hill to the swamp has led to better-performing products. Gone are the cold, rubber waders, cotton-waffle long johns, and bulky parkas, all of which have been replaced with modern wool blends, aerospace-grade insulations, and advanced laminates that shed wind and rain without adding bulk or weight. And while the price tags may match the technology, waterfowlers rarely balk if it means staying warm and dry in the worst weather.
“Gone are garments that kept you warm and dry but sacrificed comfort,” says Gordon. “Consumers in this hunting environment are looking for the same things we value at Banded—performance and comfort. And we listen to consumers to improve constantly on our existing designs. So, we develop and test new gear with those standards in mind. How does it hold up under extreme conditions? Will it last for years under the duress waterfowl hunters put on it on every hunt? Is it as comfortable as possible in hunting scenarios? These are the questions each of our products must pass in order to come to market.”
The other big-ticket item (not counting shotguns) for which waterfowlers willingly part with their paycheck is a realistic decoy spread. While there are hunters who find success with a handful of old blocks, most duck and goose hunters prefer dozens of the newest dekes to lure flocks that are experiencing increased pressure up and down the flyways. Like apparel (and many other categories), decoys have also benefited from modern manufacturing techniques and a renewed emphasis on quality construction versus hitting a nominal price point.
“Decoys have seen the most advancement in the waterfowl world, with a constant evolution to be more lifelike in the carvings and molds, and to be more realistic with the paint and painting process, as well as flocking and the flocking process,” says Mario Friendy, western sales manager for Avian-X decoys and Zink waterfowl calls. “There are always new materials being discovered, new processes to make those products, as well as new ways to promote the products at a point of sale or in the media.”
Like apparel, the market is wide open when it comes to decoy manufacturers, with all of them trying to hit the X where durability, performance, realism, and affordability meet. Avian-X, now under the Synergy umbrella, is certainly one of the big players, but Avery/Greenhead Gear, Flambeau, Final Approach, Higdon, and Tanglefree are all competing to be at the top of the decoy pile. The motion-decoy market also continues to be a hot seller, with manufacturers like Lucky Duck and Mojo leading the way in innovation with advances in different types of motion, different decoys, and multiple spinning-wing decoys at once on one frame to make setup quicker and easier.
“At Avian-X, we are fortunate enough to have Fred Zink and Jimmy Wren, both of whom have been in the decoy industry for a very long time,” says Friendy. “They have the thought process to always be ahead of what is next or to be bold enough to create what should be the next big thing in decoys. It is just incredible how realistic and durable the decoys have turned out. Paint adhesion has always been the biggest downfall on waterfowl decoys, and these two have taken that to the next level for our company and have certainly set the bar for the waterfowl decoy market.”
Little Things Equal Big Returns
Like any hunting endeavor, waterfowling also has room for lots of smaller add-on items and, of course, hunters are always looking for a better mousetrap. The underlying theme is that consumers seek the best quality goods at the best prices, as well as the newest gear and gadgets.
One growing segment retailers should consider adding to their mix is packs and bags. Whereas once waterfowlers went to the blind with little more than a call or two and a box of shells, now they have everything from a stainless, insulated cup (likely a Yeti) to decoy remotes and batteries, a call for every situation, and a handful of energy bars. All that stuff requires something to carry it in, and most manufacturers are now offering an expanding selection of blind bags and packs designed just for waterfowling.
Among the hottest growth categories are portable, above-ground blinds, such as the Tanglefree Panel Blind and the A-Frame from Avian-X. The latter is so popular the company has had a hard time meeting demand, and other manufacturers are sniping some of that business with their own models.
“Those old A-Frame blinds that were so popular on the East Coast decades ago have come full circle,” says Friendy. “Geese got so used to getting shot at on the edge of a field, they changed their behavior. So, hunters changed tactics, giving birth to the layout blind. A few years ago, Fred Zink got the vibe that the geese were getting very hip to the layout blind game and decided to go back to his roots of hunting out of an A-Frame-style blind. After success again using that style blind, he then created the Avian-X A-Frame blind. The difference from the old-school A-Frames is that this one is portable, lightweight, and can be moved by two hunters in just minutes.”
Whatever new waterfowl gear hits the market this season, the one quality hunters demand is durability, so equipment must address the specific gear needs of hunters who routinely deal with mud, water, ice, and the worst conditions imaginable.
“Real-world durability is the always-just-out-of-reach holy grail of waterfowling gear,” says Powell. “Waterfowlers can rip, tear, and generally demolish anything we use. It’s just a different environment to be in than you and your gear experience during any other activity. We want gear we can’t break even if we try.”
Capturing the Spend
Due to the sheer numbers of whitetail hunters alone, deer hunting dominates the fall product mix, but smart retailers leave room for other pursuits as well. Among the most gear intensive is waterfowling, and waterfowlers aren’t afraid to open their wallets. Capturing that spend should be a top priority for anyone on the business side of the industry.
“Waterfowling incorporates the very best of experiences—braving the elements and adverse conditions, hunting together with friends and family in beautiful settings, and the challenge of wingshooting wary, but abundant, ducks and geese,” says Powell. “Retailers and manufacturers need to capture and share that experiential story through their product-marketing campaigns. Done right, we can all create a growing base of passionate, conservation-minded waterfowlers and a new generation of customers. That outcome will benefit the outdoor sports industry, the waterfowl resource, and our society and culture.”
Avery Heritage Jacket
A throwback to the good old days, this 8-ounce waxed cotton classic is water- and windproof. Chest pockets are fleece lined, while the lower pockets can be stuffed with a box of shells. $220. averyoutdoors.com
Browning Wicked Wing Timber Fleece Hoodie
Next-level layering blends stretchable, mid-weight fleece with a smooth outer to make slipping on a shell easier. Wind- and water-resistant material on the sleeves are added protection. $186–$199. browning.com
Drake MST Guardian Jacket
A slimmed-down shell with the same waterproof, three-layer construction found in their breathable waders. All seams are taped, cuffs are made from neoprene, and even the zippers are water-resistant. A toasty fleece liner is inside. $300–$310. drakewaterfowl.com
Nomad Heartwood LVL1 Base Layer
A lightweight wool-blend base layer wicks moisture away from the skin. SilverZ material eliminates odor at the microbial layer. $55. nomadoutdoors.com
Banded Redzone Breathable Elite Waders
Banded built this set of insulated waders from advanced materials and fully taped seams, then reinforced key wear areas with an additional 900-denier facing. $380–$400. banded.com
LaCrosse Alpha Burley Pro
A warm neoprene lining finished with a durable rubber outer. Now available in a pattern designed for the wetlands: Sitka’s Optifade Waterfowl Marsh. $170–$200. lacrossefootwear.com
Sporting Dogs at Work and Play
Q&A with Steve McGrath, Director of Marketing, Signature Products Group
SHOT Business: What trends are you seeing in the sporting dog category?
Steve McGrath: We are seeing the gear getting more specialized to the intended activity, meaning there has been considerable interest in upland and waterfowl as separate categories. Not only have the products become more targeted, but we’ve also seen things getting away from the “one size fits all” mentality. Pet owners want performance and fit out of the box, which has become a priority on vests. We’ve also seen an uptick in sales on the lifestyle pieces like beds, solid-colored collars, and leashes.
SB: How are sporting dog owners shopping and what are the buying?
SM: Well, it’s not just men. The spouses in many cases are the ones buying for their pets. We offer a wide variety of Browning training items, but the off-season purchases are just as likely to be pink and light-blue collars. Dogs are a part of the family and treated the same when it comes to buying goodies for them.
SB: Are sporting dog owners just buying field/hunting-related dog gear or are they also interested in lifestyle gear and products designed to make pets comfortable in the home?
SM: The pet product category has grown to much more than just hunt/field-related gear. It’s a passion the owners seem to want to live 24/7. The Browning-branded items extend far beyond camo-clad pieces. We have a lifestyle category that competes right with the performance side of the business. Everything from pet beds to dog dishes and, of course, the toys are selling well in the Browning line.
SB: What can retailers do to capitalize on that trend and capture more dollars related to sporting dog owners and enthusiasts?
SM: The retailers who have seen the most success have set aside a specific aisle or area for the pet products and carried those items year-round. Pet products and accessories have no season; collars, leashes and toys will sell at any time of the year. When a retailer hosts a waterfowl weekend, or something similar at the beginning of a new season, don’t forget to highlight the pet gear. It sells. spgoutdoors.com
Flambeau Outdoors Storm Front Pintail
A bull sprig is a waterfowler’s ultimate late-season trophy, and these bulky resin blocks are painted in Flambeau’s UVision highlights for enhanced visibility. A versatile keel design makes for all-season use. $79, per six. flambeauoutdoors.com
GHG Pro-Grade Fully Flocked Mallards
Avery has added mallards to its flocked collection, with a soft-touch exterior that looks like real feathers and eliminates fowl-flaring glare. Anatomically correct shape and plumage detailing are enhancements. $100, per six. greenheadgear.com
Avian-X Goose Sleepers
Just the ticket on cold, snowy days when geese lay up even during a feed. One-piece shells based on carvings from world-champion decoy carver Rick Johannsen stack easily. Available fully flocked or with flocked heads only. $140–$160. avian-x.com
Mojo King Mallard
Mojo has reinvented the motion decoy with the remote-controlled motor, wing mounts, and a drop-in battery in a housing separate from the body. A rubberized skin slipsover the top. $170. mojooutdoors.com
Hard Core Man Cave
A cavernous blind, yet with a low profile. Its comfortable, padded seat and headrest are easy on the back during long, all-day hunts. Waterproof tub-style bottom. $280. hardcore-brands.com
Dive Bomb C1 Crane Silhouettes
Chasing cranes is a hot trend, and these large dekes pull birds in from afar. Features include a textured body with a realistic paint job. $150, per 12. divebombindustries.com
Rig Em Right Step-Up Jerk Rig
An old-school jerk rig adds motion to an otherwise static spread. This one includes an anchor, main line, and four oversize decoy clips. $40. rigemright.com
—Opening Spread Photo by Tess Rousey