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."
2. Dr. Brian Davis, Little Rock, Ark.
Davis, a regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, is a lifelong hunter who has pursued ducks throughout Arkansas and many other states. When birds get decoy-shy, Davis, like Van Cleave, makes a major adjustment in his spread.
"I hunt in rice fields, where many hunters leave huge spreads out all year," Davis says. "They work well early in the season. But by late December and January, the ducks have started pair-bonding. Then I do better with a small spread that mimics this change in the birds' behavior."
Specifically, Davis sets 6 to 12 decoys in widely scattered pairs. "I'll put a drake and a hen right in front of my layout blind," he says. "I'll rig the hen on a jerk-string to give her some movement. Then I'll set the other pairs up to 30 yards away both upwind and downwind.
"This time of year, the hens are starting to avoid the big flocks," he continues. "Instead, they are dispersing out with their mates and fattening up for their return trip north. So having just a few decoys in scattered pairs is more realistic for working mostly singles and doubles. Also, I call very little over this spread. Late in the season, the ducks work better to a subtle approach than to more aggressive tactics."
3. Skipper Dickson, Shreveport, La.
Dickson primarily hunts mallards in flooded fields and brush thickets in northwest Louisiana. "These are the most educated ducks there are," he notes. "By the time they get here, they have been called to and shot at all the way from Canada. They're tough!"
Still, Dickson maintains a high rate of success when hunting these birds by employing increasing degrees of subtlety and realism. "When ducks get decoy-shy, I start hunting over six or eight decoys that I set each morning," he says. "I don't put these in the middle of the pocket. Instead, I put them where they are in the shade or partially obscured by brush. I want the ducks to see them, but not get a good look.
"I always use motion," Dickson continues. "I want subtle water movement—ripples instead of noisy splashing. So I go with a jerk-string or a feeder decoy with a bilge pump that spews water out the back, like a Pulsator. And when things get really tough, I go to my secret weapon—a dozen mallard stuffers. They are a lot of trouble, but I think they're worth the effort."
Dickson also pays attention to the number of drakes and hens when setting decoys. Sometimes he sets bachelor groups of drakes. Other times he sets more hens than drakes. "I like some of the hens to be alone and look available to circling drakes," he explains.
And finally, Dickson calls sparingly and quietly. "I want ducks to have to strain to hear the call," he says. "With shy ducks, it's better to give them too little calling than too much.