Ken Barnes photo

Shown is what might be considered a true waterfowl sportsman's perfect set up — a small, shallow pond with duck and goose decoys, and a near invisible blind in the rear.

Many, many years ago I read a magazine article that covered the five steps it took to become a true sportsman in regard to waterfowl hunting.

I cannot remember the exact words that were written, but I do recall the basic tenet of each of the steps. I have thought about this at various times in my hunting career, and have tried to pass it on to others that I have met. I would like to think that sometime during all the years I have spent in the field, that I finally achieved the end goal...a true sportsman.

The first step I would call "bad shooting." I would be so anxious to pull the trigger that I would take poor shots. Trying to bag a bird that was way out of gun range, or at a terrible angle. I did this often, and it got me nowhere.

The second step is not too hard to recall because I absolutely went through it. Bagging my first ducks at the age of 13, it was, "If it dies." I used to shoot on my uncle's pond at the old Gilbreath Brothers club near Wasco, and I remember thinking all I wanted to do was get a full limit of birds if possible. Big ducks or small ducks. Bad eating or good eating. It didn't matter. Just be a killer.

Not a great thought, looking back. But that was me, and that was my mindset for a few years. Getting to the third step changed all that. I became more "selective" with the birds I was taking. No more Shoveler, or occasional diving ducks that did not fare well at the table. Just try and bag drake Teal, Pintail, and Mallards.

These were always the best eating. But, I still had the thought about taking a full limit of birds if possible, every time I went out. This stayed with me for a number of years, also.

Somewhere in this time frame, I began to meld into what I termed the fourth step..."the set up." During all these years, I was the person that handled and owned almost all of the decoys used during the hunt. I still am to this day. I would clean and wash all my decoys before opening day, and make sure they were weighted properly. I had all the material used to build a blind.

Stakes, netting, and stools. If decoys became too faded or worn, I would replace them with new ones. I began to think more about the spread of decoys than the taking of a full limit of birds. It can be amazing what moving a few decoys can do to make the ducks work better. Some years back, Steve Merlo and I were in the Wilbur flood area with a couple of other guys.

The Pintails kept shying off of our decoy placement for some unknown reason, so finally Steve said he was going to move four decoys. The other hunters just laughed and said it would not make any difference with only that slight change.

Boy, were they ever wrong. From that point on the birds were dropping in right through the slot Steve had created. It was during this period that I became more concerned with what was in front of me on the water, and not what was in my game bag. This of course, led to the fifth stage.

The true sportsman has very little concern about how many or what type of waterfowl he has taken. Instead, he is just happy to be out in the field enjoying the wonders of nature that God has blessed us with.

He is with friends and trades stories with them. He lets other members of the hunt take the shots because he enjoys watching the birds work the spread. He is in awe of beautiful sunrises. One thing that helped me get to this point was when I began filming hunts with my friends. I gave up shooting, and was only concerned with getting a great clip on film. It is still true to this day.

Being a true sportsman can be summed up with the following quote ... "Success is measured by the total experience — the appreciation of the out-of-doors and the animal hunted, the process of the hunt, and the companionship of other hunters."

Ken Barnes is a record setting shooter and longtime outdoorsman from Kern County. Email him at with comments or column ideas.

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