by Wade Bourne
Late in the season, duck hunters must adapt to changes in the birds' behavior brought on by hunting pressure and pair-bonding
It's a frustration every duck hunter experiences: Passing birds see your decoys or hear your calling, and they lock up. The ducks look totally committed as they sail downwind. But when they turn back toward your spread, they level off and circle again instead of finishing. Then, inexplicably, the birds keep going. Your decoys just failed the reality test. This is especially common late in the season, when hunting pressure makes ducks decoy-shy.
"You're in trouble when ducks get higher on that second swing," says Jackie Van Cleave, a full-time guide on duck-rich Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee. "They don't usually come back. If this becomes a pattern, you should change your decoys or calling style."
Adapting to variations in the birds' behavior is one of the keys to successful duck hunting. The following tips from 10 seasoned waterfowlers may help you form an effective strategy for hunting decoy-shy ducks.
By modifying these suggestions to fit your situation, you should be able to bag increasingly cautious birds as the season wears on.
1. Jackie Van Cleave, Samburg, Tenn.
Van Cleave spends virtually every day of the duck season in his Reelfoot Lake blind. It sits at the edge of a one-acre pothole bordered by thick brush and is on a flyway between a national wildlife refuge and nearby feeding areas. When the feeding flight is on, action in Van Cleave's blind can be spectacular.
He begins the season with 300 decoys scattered around the pothole with an open landing zone in front of the blind. But when ducks get decoy-shy—usually after three or four weeks of hunting pressure—Van Cleave radically changes his setup.
"I pull half my spread and set the remaining decoys in a wad in the middle of the hole, right in front of the blind," he says. "I really clump them close together. When ducks are swinging this spread, I use more motion (with a Mallard Machine or jerk-string) and a lot less calling. I don't know why this is more convincing, but it is. Ducks will try to land at the edge of the spread, which gives everybody in the blind a good shot. I've done this for years, and it works."