by Wade Bourne
It's the fourth quarter and the game is wearing long. Energy levels are waning, equipment is broken, but the outcome of the "contest" still hangs in the balance. A good final effort can tilt the game in your favor, and fortunately, there's plenty of time left to build on the score.
I'm not talking football but duck hunting. Waterfowl season may be drawing to a close, but as Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over till it's over." Duck season doesn't end until the sun sets on the final day. Opportunities still abound, but fourth-quarter hunters have to try harder and hunt smarter to end the season on a high note. Ducks on the wintering grounds have been pressured for the past several months. They've seen and heard it all, and they've become doubly wary of decoys and calls. This means late-season waterfowlers must hunt the best way they know how.
Here are seven tips from some of the savviest duck hunters in the country about how to make the fourth quarter of duck season a rally instead of a flop. Readers who follow their advice will be a lot more likely to end the season with a bang—or a bunch of them—instead of a bust.
1. Move to Big Rivers
When January brings deep-freeze conditions, Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Keith Allen of Scott City, Missouri, moves his duck-hunting activities to the Mississippi River. In high-water stages or low, Allen finds concentrations of both dabblers and divers on the big river, simply by launching his boat and covering water.
"Sometimes we'll find them in the willows along the banks of chutes and behind sandbars and islands," Allen says. "We'll hunt these birds from a boat-blind, setting only two- to three-dozen decoys where we jump ducks up."
Other times he likes to use layout blinds on sandbars, again where he flushes ducks. Allen and his hunting partners dig their blinds into the sand a few inches deep, and then put out several floating decoys and a few full-body decoys in front of the blinds. He also likes to use black duck decoys on the sandbars for their high visibility.
Allen's last tactic—to hunt ducks resting in the slack water behind wing dikes—works especially well when the river level is low. "When we flush some ducks, we'll throw out our decoys where the birds were sitting, and take the boat around to the other side of the wing dike and park it," he explains. "Then we walk over and hunt from the rocks, waiting for the ducks to return to their resting spot."
Allen and his hunting partners always use a dog, so they don't have to get the boat every time they drop a duck on the water.
2. Less is More When Calling Late-Season Ducks
Ryan Crew of Pinson, Alabama, recently won his state's duck calling championship. He's also a Hunter's Specialties pro-staffer and is avid about hunting ducks in Alabama and eastern Arkansas.
When it comes to calling late-season ducks, Crew says location and moderation are the keys to success. "Find where ducks want to go, set up there, and call only as much as you need to keep their attention. Don't call when they're flying toward you—they're already doing what you want. I'll usually call a little on the corners or when they fly over and have gone downwind 60 to 70 yards. That's when I may give a little comeback call to turn them. Then I'll get quiet again."
In the late season, many ducks will circle and circle, looking for the source of the calling. "They'll pick you out if you call when they can get a good look, so wait to call until they're going away from you or until they're looking into the sun," Crew advises.
And don't blow a feed call "to fill dead time." Crew says a hunter does not have to make "duck noise" constantly, especially late in the year. "I think you're better off using a soft call and making a few natural sounds and almost letting the ducks work themselves instead of trying to force the action."
3. Keep a Hole Open after Freeze-Up
Shane Wells of Rochester, Kentucky, hunts over four acres of flooded corn in the Green River bottoms of this state's west-central region. In years past, Wells and his partners typically did well until freeze-up. Then they would struggle, breaking ice and battling to keep their hole open and natural looking.
Not any longer.
Today Wells runs two Ice Eaters, large underwater fans that circulate water so ice can't form. He powers these machines with a 3,000-watt generator set at a remote location and connected to the Ice Eaters via a long underwater power cable.
"We place two Ice Eaters about 10 yards apart and facing in opposite directions," Wells explains. "With these units we can keep a hole open that's some 50 yards long by 20 yards wide, even on the coldest nights. This gives us extra days to hunt when we wouldn't have been able to do so otherwise. And when ducks fly over and see that open water, a lot of them will fall right in."
Another benefit from the Ice Eaters: the current they create keeps decoys moving naturally in calm, windless conditions.
4. Switch to a Small, Lifelike Spread
Mario Friendy of Sherwood, Oregon, is the western regional manager of the Mossy Oak pro staff. An avid waterfowler, he mainly targets puddle ducks in shallow potholes in the lower Columbia River basin.
When it comes to decoys, Friendy says there are three dynamics that come into play in the late season: "One, the ducks are in full plumage. Two, they're paired up for mating. And three, they've been called to and shot at so much they've become spooky. What worked in the early season won't usually work in the latter days."
At the start of the season Friendy sets aside five new decoys: a mallard drake and hen, two pintail drakes, and a spoonbill drake. To keep them as fresh-looking as possible he doesn't take them out until the late season. Then, when the birds start getting spooky, he swaps his weathered decoys for these "fresh five," which are bright and natural looking. If he's hunting a pothole, he'll set the two mallards to his left, the two pintails to his right, and the spoonbill drake to his far right, by itself. Front and center of the pothole is left wide open for the ducks to land. "By this time of the season, the ducks just like to land by themselves," he explains.
Using what he calls a "stealth approach," Friendy hunts from layout blinds or boats that are fully grassed. For the most part he blows mallard drake and pintail whistles and waits patiently for as long as ducks want to circle.
5. Go Overboard with Natural Camouflage
Mike Miller lives in Canon City, Colorado, where he is a regional manager of the Mossy Oak pro staff. Miller hunts the river bottoms and potholes of eastern Colorado. In the late season he scouts extensively and changes locations virtually every hunting day. His stock in trade is building temporary blinds or using layout blinds next to loafing areas where ducks come back to rest after feeding in nearby grainfields.
Miller says ducks are extremely skittish during the late season in his area. This is why he goes to great lengths to "over-camouflage" his blinds. "If I'm building a temporary blind, I might use camo netting as a base layer, but I'll finish the blind with whatever grass or cover is natural to the site," he says. "I may use deadfall timber or willows or cattails. And I'll pile it on. I want my blind to totally conceal my hunting partner and me."
According to Miller, it's extremely important to provide overhead cover in addition to covering the front, sides, and back of the blind. "Late-season ducks will circle over the blind and look down, and if they spot anything unnatural, they're gone," he says. "So I make sure I have plenty of overhead cover that provides a shadow that I can crouch down in."
Using layout blinds shortens the work required to disappear from the birds' view, but he's just as fastidious about covering these portable blinds with natural vegetation as permanent blinds. "That's what they sew those little loops on the blind cover for," he notes. "I stuff them liberally so my blind looks like a bump that rises out of the ground. The blind material should be the same color and consistency as the natural vegetation on-site."
6. Adjust Decoys for Late-Season Divers
Scott Glorvigan of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, hunts his state's big lakes for divers—mostly scaup, canvasbacks, and "ringbills" (ring-necked ducks)—and says these birds get spooky late in the season. They also gather into large flocks. These two factors require hunters to change their tactics if they want to continue having good shooting through the season's end.
Glorvigan likes to hunt off the biggest point on the lake, hiding his boat-blind in the reeds or cattails just offshore and setting out three-dozen decoys off the tip of the point. "First we'll run a 75-yard line of canvasback drake decoys at a 45-degree angle from the downwind corner of the boat. These big, mostly white decoys will attract ducks from a long way off," he says.
"Next we'll set the raft (main group of decoys) out from the upwind corner of the boat, and we'll leave a big gap (20 yards wide) between the boat and the near side of the raft. Also, we'll spread the lines of decoys in the raft wider apart to give the big flights more room to land."
And what's his main secret to success? "We watch the first couple of birds or flights to see how they respond to our setup. If they come in, great. But if they fly over but don't try to land, they're telling us they don't like the way the spread looks. If they're swinging but not committing, I'll change something. I may move the decoys out a little farther. I may pick up a line of decoys to open up the spread even more. I'll keep changing things to get the response I want."
7. Keep Your Shotgun Clean and Dry
Mark Coin of Lewisburg, Kentucky, is the owner of Down-N-Dirty game calls, but don't let that fool you—he's a fanatic about keeping his shotgun clean. Coin spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he says gun cleaning is a religion. "I carried this practice over into my hunting life," he says. "I'm almost obsessive about cleaning my shotgun and using the right products to keep it operating in extreme late-season conditions, when most malfunctions occur."
For starters, Coin uses nonpetroleum cleaning products. "I use a dry lubricant instead of oil when cleaning in the late season. When oil combines with carbon residue, it forms a gunk that'll slow down your action. I've seen hunters take oil and squirt it all over their shotgun, inside and out. This is absolutely the wrong thing to do."
Coin contends that gas-operated shotguns, especially, should be broken down and cleaned after each hunt. Extra care should be taken to remove carbon buildup on the gas piston and magazine tube. (One good cleaning agent for this is mineral spirits, available at most paint stores.)
Another tip: Hunters using shotguns with synthetic stocks should remove the butt pad or sling swivel and drain any water that has collected in the stock. If left unattended, this water will freeze on cold days and impair the shotgun's action.
"You can't be lazy about cleaning your shotgun," Coin says. "You've got to keep it clean and dry so it'll cycle."