By Wade Bourne, Copyright 2007
Late season waterfowl hunting is either the best of times or the worst of times. It can be when bird numbers are high and frigid temperatures are causing them to move and work better as they search for food. It’s also a time when waterfowl are the most educated from months of hunting pressure making them tough to fool with decoy or call.
Good hunting or poor, one thing is certain about the late season: it’s when a hunter must use all his know-how, resources and energy to achieve success. The “tough” must get going to meet the special challenges that the late season presents.
Hunters who scout thoroughly and alter their strategies to changing conditions can hunt right to the final bell, and many times those last few trips are the best of the season.
Adapting to Change in the Late Season
The main key to success in the late season is keeping up with duck and goose movements and hunting where they are today, not where they were a week ago.
For instance, when frigid temperatures lock up shallow marshes and flooded fields, waterfowl are forced to bigger water where depth, wind and currents keep the surface open. Watch from shore, or go exploring in your boat. Look for a raft of birds on the water, or try to discern where ducks or geese are passing over the lake or river. Set up either where the birds were resting or beneath their flyway, hide the best you can, and wait for more birds to show up.
If you discover a flyway over shallow water where thin ice has formed, break out a hole for your decoys. To do this, crunch out a large circle, then slide free-floating ice sheets beneath the unbroken ice bordering the new hole. This looks like an open pond to ducks passing overhead, and the lack of ice in the hole allows decoys to move naturally.
Another late season opportunity may come on the heels of a heavy rain with resultant flooding. When creeks and small rivers rise and spill over their banks, they provide a fresh new feeding opportunity, and waterfowl can show up in droves. If such a flood occurs, scout for birds from a duck boat. A portable boat-blind is a handy way to set up when a concentration is located.
The important thing is to go where the ducks and geese are at this time of year. Scout continuously. Be mobile, and make adjustments when weather and water conditions change.
Altering Hunting Methods for the Late Season
By late season, it’s not uncommon for “local” ducks and geese to become blind-shy, hole-shy and call-shy. Gunning pressure is a fast educator, and birds learn to avoid potential danger.
This means hunters must get sneaky in their hunting tactics. Alter calling methods to match the mood of the birds. If aggressive calling methods are scaring them, tone it back.
Pay close attention to concealing yourself from “prying eyes” overhead. Lie on the ground and cover your layout blind with natural cover. If hunting in flooded timber, move back from the edge of a hole in favor of thicker cover. Take time to add natural cover to your boat blind to make it blend in better with the surroundings.
Try hunting with fewer, better quality decoys; float-hunting or jump-shooting ducks on flowing creeks; or laying out in dry fields where waterfowl are feeding. Be innovative in recognizing new opportunities and try different tactics.
Equipment Considerations for the Late Season
Harsh weather can play havoc with waterfowl hunting equipment, especially shotguns and outboard motors. Don’t allow gear to deteriorate as the season wears on. Keep everything finely tuned to meet the rigors of late winter.
Keep shotguns dry. If you slosh water into your gun, have a pocket rag handy to wipe the action and trigger mechanism immediately. This helps prevent the action and trigger mechanism from freezing. It’s also a good idea to take it apart, dry it and wipe it down thoroughly at the end of the day. This keeps it free of grime, powder and oil buildup. When cleaning, use synthetic oil that won’t thicken in sub-freezing temperatures, and wipe all excess oil off. Don’t use a petroleum-based oil that will thicken as the air gets colder.
Take your boat motor to a qualified mechanic and get it serviced before the season starts. Make sure the grease in the lower unit is changed. Also, discard old gas, refill with fresh gas and add de-icer and a little extra oil (with 2-cycle engines) to the fuel. This stops ice buildup in the fuel line.
Developing a Late Season Mindset
Finally, late season waterfowl hunting requires the right mindset, like a dominating linebacker or a long distance runner with the finish line in sight. Refuse to be defeated. Block out the discomfort of harsh conditions and the weariness of extended pursuit. "Keep on keeping on" until shooting time is over on closing day.
For the last part of the season can bring the greatest rewards. Satisfaction in any endeavor comes through completing difficult tasks. By staying the course, bucking the elements and applying the advice offered above, waterfowl hunters can achieve new levels of success and enjoyment of their sport.
Look at it this way, you can rest after the season end!
With more than a million supporters, Ducks Unlimited is the world’s largest and most effective wetland and waterfowl conservation organization. The United States alone has lost more than half of its original wetlands - nature’s most productive ecosystem - and continues to lose more than 80,000 wetland acres each year.