by Wade Bourne
It's the fourth quarter and the game is wearing long. Energy levels are waning, equipment is broken, but the outcome of the "contest" still hangs in the balance. A good final effort can tilt the game in your favor, and fortunately, there's plenty of time left to build on the score.
I'm not talking football but duck hunting. The 2010-2011 waterfowl season is drawing to a close, but as Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over till it's over." Duck season doesn't end until the sun sets on the final day. Opportunities still abound, but fourth-quarter hunters have to try harder and hunt smarter to end the season on a high note. Ducks on the wintering grounds have been pressured for the past several months. They've seen and heard it all, and they've become doubly wary of decoys and calls. This means late-season waterfowlers must hunt the best way they know how.
Here are seven tips from some of the savviest duck hunters in the country about how to make the fourth quarter of duck season a rally instead of a flop. Readers who follow their advice will be a lot more likely to end the season with a bang—or a bunch of them—instead of a bust.
1. Move to Big Rivers
When January brings deep-freeze conditions, Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Keith Allen of Scott City, Missouri, moves his duck-hunting activities to the Mississippi River. In high-water stages or low, Allen finds concentrations of both dabblers and divers on the big river, simply by launching his boat and covering water.
"Sometimes we'll find them in the willows along the banks of chutes and behind sandbars and islands," Allen says. "We'll hunt these birds from a boat-blind, setting only two- to three-dozen decoys where we jump ducks up."
Other times he likes to use layout blinds on sandbars, again where he flushes ducks. Allen and his hunting partners dig their blinds into the sand a few inches deep, and then put out several floating decoys and a few full-body decoys in front of the blinds. He also likes to use black duck decoys on the sandbars for their high visibility.
Allen's last tactic—to hunt ducks resting in the slack water behind wing dikes—works especially well when the river level is low. "When we flush some ducks, we'll throw out our decoys where the birds were sitting, and take the boat around to the other side of the wing dike and park it," he explains. "Then we walk over and hunt from the rocks, waiting for the ducks to return to their resting spot."
Allen and his hunting partners always use a dog, so they don't have to get the boat every time they drop a duck on the water.
2. Less is More When Calling Late-Season Ducks
Ryan Crew of Pinson, Alabama, recently won his state's duck calling championship. He's also a Hunter's Specialties pro-staffer and is avid about hunting ducks in Alabama and eastern Arkansas.
When it comes to calling late-season ducks, Crew says location and moderation are the keys to success. "Find where ducks want to go, set up there, and call only as much as you need to keep their attention. Don't call when they're flying toward you—they're already doing what you want. I'll usually call a little on the corners or when they fly over and have gone downwind 60 to 70 yards. That's when I may give a little comeback call to turn them. Then I'll get quiet again."
In the late season, many ducks will circle and circle, looking for the source of the calling. "They'll pick you out if you call when they can get a good look, so wait to call until they're going away from you or until they're looking into the sun," Crew advises.
And don't blow a feed call "to fill dead time." Crew says a hunter does not have to make "duck noise" constantly, especially late in the year. "I think you're better off using a soft call and making a few natural sounds and almost letting the ducks work themselves instead of trying to force the action."
3. Keep a Hole Open after Freeze-Up
Shane Wells of Rochester, Kentucky, hunts over four acres of flooded corn in the Green River bottoms of this state's west-central region. In years past, Wells and his partners typically did well until freeze-up. Then they would struggle, breaking ice and battling to keep their hole open and natural looking.
Not any longer.
Today Wells runs two Ice Eaters, large underwater fans that circulate water so ice can't form. He powers these machines with a 3,000-watt generator set at a remote location and connected to the Ice Eaters via a long underwater power cable.
"We place two Ice Eaters about 10 yards apart and facing in opposite directions," Wells explains. "With these units we can keep a hole open that's some 50 yards long by 20 yards wide, even on the coldest nights. This gives us extra days to hunt when we wouldn't have been able to do so otherwise. And when ducks fly over and see that open water, a lot of them will fall right in."
Another benefit from the Ice Eaters: the current they create keeps decoys moving naturally in calm, windless conditions.
4. Switch to a Small, Lifelike Spread
Mario Friendy of Sherwood, Oregon, is the western regional manager of the Mossy Oak pro staff. An avid waterfowler, he mainly targets puddle ducks in shallow potholes in the lower Columbia River basin.
When it comes to decoys, Friendy says there are three dynamics that come into play in the late season: "One, the ducks are in full plumage. Two, they're paired up for mating. And three, they've been called to and shot at so much they've become spooky. What worked in the early season won't usually work in the latter days."
At the start of the season Friendy sets aside five new decoys: a mallard drake and hen, two pintail drakes, and a spoonbill drake. To keep them as fresh-looking as possible he doesn't take them out until the late season. Then, when the birds start getting spooky, he swaps his weathered decoys for these "fresh five," which are bright and natural looking. If he's hunting a pothole, he'll set the two mallards to his left, the two pintails to his right, and the spoonbill drake to his far right, by itself. Front and center of the pothole is left wide open for the ducks to land. "By this time of the season, the ducks just like to land by themselves," he explains.
Using what he calls a "stealth approach," Friendy hunts from layout blinds or boats that are fully grassed. For the most part he blows mallard drake and pintail whistles and waits patiently for as long as ducks want to circle.