By Wade Bourne
The last few weeks of the duck season can be the best of times or the worst of times for waterfowlers. Duck numbers peak on migration and wintering areas, and hunting pressure often subsides as fair-weather waterfowlers turn to less-demanding pursuits. And even in the mildest winters, powerful cold fronts inevitably arrive in December and January, bringing fresh flights of ducks that are eager to work into decoys.
But during the late season, glacial temperatures can also turn marshes into ice-skating rinks. Waterfowl can become downright paranoid after being called to and shot at for several months. And weeks of rising early and braving theelements can take their toll on even the most avid waterfowlers.
This is the late season, when the hardiest hunters count down the final days in the blind with a mix of melancholy and relief. The sport's true diehards are like NFL linemen in the playoffs, ground down and patched up but in the game to the end. Following are five tactics from veteran waterfowlers that will help you make the most of the final days of the season.
1.Don't Miss Migration Days
Newly arriving ducks and geese generally provide good shooting because in unfamiliar territory the birds actively seek out other waterfowl to locate food and shelter. Hunters who are attuned to the weather, anticipate the arrival of new birds, and are in the blind when fresh flights show up often experience some of the best hunting of the season.
John Evans of LaCenter, Kentucky, plans his hunts to coincide with heavy waterfowl migrations. For six decades Evans has hunted on Axe Lake, an oxbow off the lower Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi. This area is in the neck of the proverbial hourglass, where ducks migrating along both big rivers converge.
"I've had some wonderful days when big flights of new ducks came in high, and you almost didn't have to blow a call at them to get them to work," Evans recalls. "Those flight days are something else."
And, he says, such days are predictable. "When there's a strong cold front moving into central Illinois, we can expect to see new birds," Evans explains. "The ducks generally come on the leading edge of the front. They start arriving when the winds are kicking up at 10 to 20 miles per hour from the north and the temperature is falling. They come in high, and they come down in big sweeping circles over Axe Lake. We always hunt the north (upwind) side of the lake, since the birds want to land there to get out of the rough water."
Evans says these migrating ducks have a different look and attitude than "local" birds that have been in the area for several days. "They're easy to identify. They're not leery at all. They look anxious to get down out of the wind and the weather that's driven them down the flyway," he says.
The key to timing the migration is keeping up with weather forecasts. "TV and Internet weather information is so good now, there's no excuse for not knowing when a front is coming," Evans says. "You just follow what's happening to the north of you, and when conditions get right, you'd better get in the blind. I've seen days when nothing was moving at all, and then suddenly it's like somebody's flipped on the switch. Ducks started pouring in."
2.Explore for Open Water
It's Waterfowling 101. When shallow marshes and flooded fields freeze, ducks and geese move to where open water can still be found on big rivers, lakes and estuaries. But during sustained cold snaps even the big water can lock up tight, and that's when hunters have to be inventive and energetic to find the last bastions of open water on an otherwise frozen landscape. Any ducks that remain in the area will use these spots, often in large numbers, and hunters who locate these honey holes will enjoy some of the best shooting of the season.
Initially, waterfowl will maintain a small area of open water in their preferred habitats, says Jim Reid of Wichita, Kansas. "This is just a natural way that ducks keep a hole open. Some fly out to feed while others stay behind. It's like they take turns feeding and staying in the hole to keep it from freezing," he says.
After a few days of single-digit temperatures, however, waterfowl often abandon these isolated pockets of water, forcing hunters to look elsewhere. "The second place I look for open water is where a natural spring empties into a stream or a marsh," Reid says. "The groundwater bubbles up at a temperature of 52 to 55 degrees, and it will keep water open when everything else is frozen. I've seen a lot of ducks pack into small spring-fed holes. Another type of spot I look for is where a river narrows and the current flows faster, usually in riffles. Sometimes pools below these riffles will stay open during a hard freeze—and again, the ducks will pack into them."
When all else fails, Reid says, waterfowl will congregate around manmade warm-water discharges. "These will often be the last places in the country to freeze over," he explains. "They can be below a power plant, a waste-water treatment plant, or any other place where warm water is released into a river or slough."
How can hunters locate these hidden hotspots? "There are no shortcuts," Reid says. "You have to put in the road time and the looking time. I've found spots by driving back roads and watching where birds are flying. I've actually hiked along waterways to find spring holes and open riffles and pools. I've followed birds from feeding areas back to their resting spots. The best times to scout are at dawn, at midmorning when the ducks are flying back after feeding, and again in late afternoon when they're heading to roost after feeding."
3.Locate Rested Birds
By the time waterfowl reach their wintering grounds, the birds have received a thorough baptism by fire. They have become ultra-wary of blinds, decoys and calling. At these times, the best way for waterfowlers to enjoy consistent success is to locate "rested" ducks and set up in places where the birds feel safe.
This is certainly the case where George Cochran hunts. A professional bass fisherman based in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Cochran chases ducks every day of the season, mostly on Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area southwest of Stuttgart. This 30,000-acre expanse of flooded timber receives heavy hunting pressure, and by late December, ducks learn to avoid open holes and big decoy spreads.
"By Christmas they're rafting up in thick places—sloughs with a lot of buck brush or younger, thicker timber," Cochran notes. "The ducks pile into these spots to rest and feed on acorns. They don't call much. Unless you see them going in, you can be close to them but won't know they're there."
Cochran and his buddies spend hours scouting for these hidden spots holding rested birds. "When you locate a fresh supply of ducks, if you shoot them two or three days in a row, they'll leave and go someplace else," he says. "So when we finish a hunt one morning, we'll go looking for new resting places. When one spot plays out, we always try to have a new, undisturbed place waiting."
When Cochran locates rested ducks, he hunts them "with kid gloves on." He uses only a few decoys and a jerk string to ripple the water's surface. He calls to passing ducks one time to get their attention, and then he depends on feeding chatter to finish them.
"You've just got to be patient and let them come when they want to. But if you call too much, they're usually going to get suspicious and leave," he says.
Besides Bayou Meto, Cochran also hunts along the White and Cache rivers when late-winter rains flood the surrounding bottomlands. "There are some 200,000 acres of hardwoods that flood in this region, and the ducks get in them thick," he explains. "I've learned that if the water starts dropping where you've been hunting, you need to move farther downstream. The ducks follow the crest of the flood. Areas where the water is highest and freshest is where you'll find the most ducks, and if you get there before most other hunters do, you can have some fantastic shooting."
4.Follow the Ducks to Hot Foods
Dabbling ducks typically consume a diet of three types of food: invertebrates, seeds and other natural vegetation, and carbohydrate-rich agricultural crops. Dabblers gorge on invertebrates when molting and in spring as nesting season approaches. They switch to seeds and other natural vegetation such as millets, sedges, smartweed, aquatic vegetation, and grasses in the fall. When the mercury plunges and ice covers shallow-water habitats, mallards and many other dabbling ducks turn quickly and dramatically to "hot" (high-energy) agricultural crops like corn, buckwheat, rice, and milo.
Hunters who understand this succession of waterfowl food preferences can focus on the right foods at the right times and thereby increase their hunting success. During the late season, this often means hunting in areas where hot foods are readily available.
Tony Vandemore is co-owner of Habitat Flats, a premier duck hunting operation in north-central Missouri. Each year Vandemore floods some 2,700 acres of moist-soil vegetation and hot food crops (primarily corn). "Before that first big cold spell, we'll have some ducks roosting and loafing in our flooded corn, but they won't actually be eating corn," Vandemore says. "But when the first hard freeze comes, the ducks will shift almost immediately to feeding on corn, and the number of birds in the cornfields will rise dramatically. I mean, the difference is like night and day. We'll go from maybe a couple thousand ducks roosting in a flooded cornfield to having them come from as far away as you can see."
His biggest concern during the late season is water management rather than crop management. "We focus on keeping some water open to hold ducks in our fields. We use pumps and Ice Eaters to keep holes from freezing," Vandemore explains. "Also, we don't hunt these open holes, which we leave as our resting areas. Instead, we hunt in nearby fields that are frozen. The ducks will still come into them, land on the ice, and knock the stalks down to get to the ears. They'll go through them like combines."
This means late-season waterfowlers should scout for hot foods to find ducks. They should watch for birds feeding in dry cornfields. They should focus on management areas with flooded grainfields. And they should be alert for heavy rains inundating bottomlands and backwaters.
Vandemore offers one more tip: "During a hard freeze, ducks won't feed until the warmest part of the day, usually from noon to 3 p.m. So don't hurry to get out early in the morning, and don't shoot too late. We never hunt a hot food area all the way till sunset. Instead, we'll quit early so they'll have at least an hour of daylight left to come back in to feed," he says.
5.Take Advantage of Changing Weather
Ducks can get "stale" during the late season, but a sudden change in the weather can stir the birds up, improving hunting prospects dramatically. For example, Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Travis Rowlett of Fallon, Nevada, watches the weather forecast for storms that will bring high winds to his region. When one of these storms approaches, he heads to nearby Lake Carson because he knows that when the wind kicks up, the ducks will fly.
"When a storm system moves in off the Pacific Ocean, it slams into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and dumps its moisture on the western slope in California. But the wind pushes over the mountains and down the eastern side into Nevada,"Rowlett explains.
"Lake Carson is a shallow marsh with a lot of cattails. When a windstorm comes in, the ducks will fly the edges of the lake, looking for quiet areas where they can ride out the blow. So my hunting partners and I boat or wade in ahead of the storm and set up in a protected spot. We know that when the wind kicks up, the action will pick up with it."
Rowlett adds that high winds can also break up ice cover on the lake, opening up new resting areas for waterfowl. "High winds can tear up a lot of ice in one night," he says. "The next morning is another prime time to go hunting."
But even in favorable weather, it's vital for hunters to be mobile and versatile. "If the birds aren't working your spot, pick up and move to where they're flying," Rowlett advises. "Get up and move quickly. Don't stay where you're not getting any shooting and watch ducks work somewhere else."
The same strategies Rowlett uses in Nevada will work in other parts of the country and in other types of weather, including snow, rain, low clouds and fog. Changing weather conditions can spur a flurry of activity in waterfowl. Hunters who study how the birds respond to these conditions and react accordingly will see their slow hunting turn fast in a hurry.