Lessons for the Late Season

The author self-evaluates and revamps his approach for the final weeks of duck season

Just look at yourself. I’m serious. Find a mirror and take a look. Eyes burning red like campfire coals, with bags dark as swamp water. You’re too tired to even wash your face, let alone shave. You mumble in the shower. Yesterday you forgot to rinse the shampoo out of your hair.

Your garage is no better. Decoys and lines twisted into wads like leftover spaghetti. A mound of
festering waders. And your truck. Holy mother of Mr. Clean, how do you stand the filth? And is that an empty Funyuns bag on the floorboard?

You need to get ahold of yourself. You need to put some order into this late-season chaos before somebody gets hurt.

I feel your pain—including the knee pain, back pain, and stomach pain from too many gas station burritos. We’re all gnawing the bones these days, scratching out the last few hunts.

There’s not a lot of gas in the tank. We burned both ends of the candle the week after New Year’s Day. But there’s nearly a month of duck season left, and you can’t go limping into the last few innings.

It’s hard to slow down, because it feels like slacking off. If you absolutely can’t stay off the water, then try a few new ideas. Scout thick cover that will hold wary birds—buck brush and young timber, backwater sloughs, back channels in cattail marshes. Hunt a little more strategically—hunt the weather fronts, hold off until the migration days, wait for the birds. Hunt the wind—it breaks up ice and moves stale ducks to new water. Float a creek. Hunt smart, because the time is coming in just a week or two when your back will be against the calendar for real, and you won’t give yourself permission to recharge.

When I get bogged down in the late-season slump and the weather’s off and the ducks are stale as old bagels, I focus on the most elemental parts of duck hunting. Pare away the gadgets and anything complex. Take no more than a half-dozen decoys. Pack a jerk cord but leave the motion decoys at home. Walk in if you can, if for no other reason than to burn off some of those gas station burritos on the way. 

I learned this lesson for the eighth—or possibly twenty-eighth—time two seasons ago. I took a buddy to a stunning cypress brake carpeted in duckweed and thick with coontail. We hiked through the woods, then waded the timber, passing a stake blind practically gleaming in the moonlight.

My buddy hesitated. “We’re not hunting here?” he asked.

“Nope,” I answered. “Any ducks around today are still around because they know what a big square box means. Come on.”

We posted up just 50 yards away, on a secondary channel that opened up in the cypress brake. No dog, no blind, no nothing to draw attention. Five decoys and a jerk cord. We hugged the dark sides of those trees like we were hanging on to our mothers on the first day of kindergarten, our faces buried into the bark.

When the ducks came they were skittish as squirrels, zipping through the trees on a recon sortie, then circling into the gloaming light. They banked hard in the airspace near the stake blind, as if some invisible force field was pushing them away. I watched with one eye still stuck to the trunk.

We had a lot in common with these stale ducks. They were worn down from the season’s rigors, weary of constant vigilance, and timid of their own shadows. But then they let their guards and their feet down, and David and I stepped around from our trees. For a moment, everything seemed in its place: the sun low in the east, the buttstock snug in the shoulder pocket, late-season green-winged teal just about to touch the water.

That’s how you get your head on straight when you can’t find two matching gloves in the garage. Baby steps. Go back to simple. Clear your head and start working on those decoy lines. Because that person in the mirror knows what’s out there: more to come.