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."
Humburg says pair bonding occurs earlier in wet years. As a result, the birds' shift to thick cover happens earlier in wet years than in dry years, when pairing is delayed.
"Hunters who understand that this shift takes place must decide whether to hunt in the thick places or the more open habitats," he continues. "There might not be as many ducks in the shrub/scrub wetlands, but if you are in the right spot, some good shooting can be found in this dense cover."
So, does this mean that late-season hunters should abandon flooded fields and move into the thickets? Not at all. "In January, a fair number of ducks still aren't paired, and they will be in larger groups in feeding areas." Humburg explains. "These flocks will hold more drakes than hens, and these males are usually anxious to find mates, which can make them more responsive to calls and decoys.
"So, a hunter has to make a choice: hunt the thick areas where pairs can seclude themselves, or hunt the flooded fields where unpaired ducks are more abundant. Often the latter option is the better one in the late season."
Tactics for Late-Season Hunting
As mentioned previously, hunters should abandon the mindset that the late season brings slow hunting. It brings different hunting, and those who adjust to the differences can enjoy good shooting right to closing time. This means changing tactics to match the conditions and challenges of late winter. Early-season tactics aren't nearly as effective down the home stretch.
In the late season, duck hunters should tailor their calling to specific scenarios, such as large flocks, pairs, or singles. Large flocks signal a mass movement of "new ducks" up or down the flyway, and this is when hunters should call persuasively in terms of volume and frequency. This is a good time for two callers to work together to draw big flocks to the spread. Aggressive calling can also be effective on single birds late in the season.
In shrub/scrub habitat, however, paired ducks are not really focused on other birds, and as a result, they are not very vocal. It's usually better to tone down your calling in these areas, relying heavily on chatter and single-hen quacks rather than more aggressive calls.
Set a realistic decoy spread
Like calling, late-season decoy spreads should be tailored to different hunting situations. In fields and open areas, hunters should set large spreads with more drakes than hens. This provides a natural look for both migratory flocks and unpaired males.
In thick cover, spreads should be small, and hen-and-drake pairs should be scattered broadly with plenty of room between the pairs. A wide landing area should be left in front of the blind, since ducks may be reluctant to land close to other decoys. And in this situation especially, decoys should be clean with bright colors to show mating plumage of the drakes.
Also, in the shrub/scrub environment, hunters should employ some means for decoy movement—a jerk string, a swimming decoy, kicking water, etc. Agitating the water's surface can be crucial to convincing wary ducks to come in.
It's surprising how many hunters get lackadaisical about concealment in the post-Christmas period. By this time, ducks have been hunted all the way down the flyway, and they are especially wary of suspicious-looking setups. Yet, many waterfowlers hunt from threadbare blinds—cover blown off, shooting holes open, boat slips exposed, etc. An afternoon spent rebrushing can be a great investment for late-season hunting.
Likewise, when freelancing in swamps or flooded areas, allow enough time before the hunt to set up a temporary blind that offers full concealment from circling birds. Getting in a hurry and not hiding adequately is a costly blunder in the late season.
Anticipate major movements
Some of the best shooting of the season occurs when new flights of ducks arrive. This can happen when cold and snow push birds down the flyway or when ducks on the wintering grounds shift locations in response to changing weather and habitat conditions. Hunters who anticipate when a new push of birds will show up can enjoy banner days.
Mallards, in particular, are hardy ducks, and they often won't leave an area until ice and snow force them down the flyway. Thus, in a mild winter, some birds may linger at mid-latitudes until the late season. Even in January, hunters should keep an eye on the weather forecast. A strong winter storm in the upper half of the country can still mean new ducks in the lower half.
Also, after ducks have arrived on their wintering grounds, significant weather changes there can lead to major movements of birds up or down the flyway. Conversely, when a thaw occurs and warming winds blow from the south, these same ducks may quickly shift back up the flyway. These seesaw movements occur more than many hunters realize. This is why late-season hunting can turn from famine to feast overnight when a warm front replaces a cold front.
Adjust to extreme conditions
Significant changes in water conditions often dictate where ducks will feed and loaf and where late-season hunters will find them. When a freeze hits, ducks generally move from shallow, freeze-prone spots to nearby areas where the water will remain open longer. A typical scenario would be birds leaving sloughs and flooded fields for open water on a lake or river. Ducks might linger in these areas for two or three days. If freezing conditions persist, they will move farther south to find better feeding conditions. But as soon as the freeze recedes, ducks can show up again quickly, gravitating to areas that thaw out first (usually, the last places to freeze).
When a hard freeze occurs, ducks sometimes pack into an area with open water, using their body heat and water movement to keep the hole open. Late-season hunters who scout and find these open holes can experience unbelievable shooting. In this situation, flush the ducks and then pack decoys tightly into the hole to resemble how the birds were utilizing the spot. It's also a good idea to put some full-body decoys on the ice around the hole.
Flooding is also possible in the late season, and following heavy rains, ducks throng to newly inundated fields and woods for the fresh food that becomes available. A January flood can draw spectacular numbers of ducks and provide fantastic shooting.
I once talked to an Arkansas hunter who made an advantageous late-season discovery. A hard freeze had locked up all the shallow water, and ducks were sitting tight on area refuges. But this hunter learned that the birds were flying out in early afternoon to feed in harvested soybean fields after the sun had thawed the mud enough for the ducks to pick up waste beans. This hunter and his friends enjoyed great shooting lying on the ground beneath mud-smeared tarps where the ducks had been feeding.
This is a good example of adjusting tactics to late-season conditions. Hunters who recognize opportunity and know how to take advantage of it can stay in the action right to closing day. Then you can end the season with a snicker of satisfaction instead of a sigh of relief.