by Wade Bourne
Some duck hunters have an almost forlorn attitude about the late season. The excitement of the early season has come and gone. Hunters' energy is waning. The big pushes of new ducks have mostly occurred, and those birds hanging around have seen and heard it all. This is why many hunters get the notion that the late season is just something to endure to finish the marathon.
But nothing could be more wrong. The truth is, the last few weeks of the season can offer some great shooting—perhaps the best of the year. Yes, conditions have changed. Many ducks have become hunter-savvy and hard to work. Still, these birds have feeding and mating urgencies in the late season that make them vulnerable to hunters who employ strategies to match this special time.
By learning about duck behavior in deep winter and tailoring your hunting tactics accordingly, you can sprint to the finish line instead of dragging across it. Truly, the late season can be a time of excitement and bounty instead of exhausted resignation that the end is finally at hand.
In late winter, most puddle ducks change their behavior patterns in response to the mating urge that grows stronger as their northward migration approaches. By early winter, many mallards have established pair bonds for the spring nesting season. So, by January their daily patterns are influenced more by the need to maintain pair bonds, obtain food, and build energy reserves than by the drive to find a mate.
"Paired ducks shun large groups of their own kind in traditional feeding areas. Instead, these birds tend to shift into shrub/scrub habitat—thick cover where they can isolate themselves," says Dale Humburg, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited. "Typical places would be swamps with button bush, willow, and other dense vegetation."