4. Follow the Ducks to Hot Foods
Dabbling ducks typically consume a diet of three types of food: invertebrates, seeds and other natural vegetation, and carbohydrate-rich agricultural crops. Dabblers gorge on invertebrates when molting and in spring as nesting season approaches. They switch to seeds and other natural vegetation such as millets, sedges, smartweed, aquatic vegetation, and grasses in the fall. When the mercury plunges and ice covers shallow-water habitats, mallards and many other dabbling ducks turn quickly and dramatically to "hot" (high-energy) agricultural crops like corn, buckwheat, rice, and milo.
Hunters who understand this succession of waterfowl food preferences can focus on the right foods at the right times and thereby increase their hunting success. During the late season, this often means hunting in areas where hot foods are readily available.
Tony Vandemore is co-owner of Habitat Flats, a premier duck hunting operation in north-central Missouri. Each year Vandemore floods some 2,700 acres of moist-soil vegetation and hot food crops (primarily corn). "Before that first big cold spell, we'll have some ducks roosting and loafing in our flooded corn, but they won't actually be eating corn," Vandemore says. "But when the first hard freeze comes, the ducks will shift almost immediately to feeding on corn, and the number of birds in the cornfields will rise dramatically. I mean, the difference is like night and day. We'll go from maybe a couple thousand ducks roosting in a flooded cornfield to having them come from as far away as you can see."
His biggest concern during the late season is water management rather than crop management. "We focus on keeping some water open to hold ducks in our fields. We use pumps and Ice Eaters to keep holes from freezing," Vandemore explains. "Also, we don't hunt these open holes, which we leave as our resting areas. Instead, we hunt in nearby fields that are frozen. The ducks will still come into them, land on the ice, and knock the stalks down to get to the ears. They'll go through them like combines."
This means late-season waterfowlers should scout for hot foods to find ducks. They should watch for birds feeding in dry cornfields. They should focus on management areas with flooded grainfields. And they should be alert for heavy rains inundating bottomlands and backwaters.
Vandemore offers one more tip: "During a hard freeze, ducks won't feed until the warmest part of the day, usually from noon to 3 p.m. So don't hurry to get out early in the morning, and don't shoot too late. We never hunt a hot food area all the way till sunset. Instead, we'll quit early so they'll have at least an hour of daylight left to come back in to feed," he says.