By Wade Bourne
Hope may spring eternal in the hearts of duck and goose hunters, but enthusiasm often lags during the last few weeks of the season. Waterfowlers are human, after all, and not completely impervious to harsh weather and tough hunting conditions. Spooky birds that are reluctant to decoy aren't exactly easy quarry. And mental and physical exhaustion from so many long days in the marsh can make it difficult to muster the gumption to hunt hard until the season's final bell.
Those who stay in the game, however, can be rewarded with some of the best hunting of the year. The key is to adjust your tactics to the unique conditions and demands of the late season.
These seven tips from expert waterfowlers will help you hone your hunting strategies to ensure that your season ends on a high note.
1. Let Your Decoys Do the Calling
Ed Larson, waterfowl products manager for Cabela's, hunts primarily along the duck- and goose-rich Platte River corridor in southwestern Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. Toward the end of the season, the influx of new birds has all but ceased and the ducks that winter in this area have settled into obvious feeding and roosting patterns. These ducks have been called to and shot at since September and have become adept at avoiding hunters. To get them to finish, Larson tones down his calling style.
"I'll call aggressively at first to get their attention, but when I know they're listening, I'll go totally silent and let my decoys do my calling for me," Larson explains. "I don't blow feeding chuckles or confidence calls. I'll just keep quiet and let the ducks work. If they start to fly away, I might get back on them with the call. But as long as they're showing interest in my spread, I'll remain quiet."
Larson also advises late-season hunters to experiment with different calling and decoy tactics when the birds become cautious. "You shouldn't just sit back and watch ducks reject your setup without trying something new," he says. "If the ducks are not following the script, keep changing things up until you find the combination that entices them to finish."
2. Add Realism & Downsize Your Spread
Late in the season, most ducks are already paired, and drakes like to settle down with hens on secluded waters where there's little competition from other males. To mimic this natural behavior, Cory Foskett of Clayton, California, sets out only four decoys-two drakes and two hens deployed in separate pairs several yards apart-on small marsh ponds surrounded by tules.
"By the end of the season, ducks have had months of hunting pressure in the Pacific Flyway. They've seen and heard it all," Foskett says. "To get the birds to decoy, we have to make our setup look as realistic as possible. Less becomes more this late in the game. That goes for decoys, motion, and calling. We use fully flocked, extremely realistic decoys. We rig a jerk string to provide movement and surface disturbance. And we call sparingly."
Consistent with this minimalist approach, Foskett and his partners also avoid hunting from blinds. Instead, they hunt with marsh seats in the thickest natural vegetation on the upwind or crosswind side of the pond.
"That's all we do," Foskett says. "We just go small and subtle for late-season birds, picking away at them one and two at a time."
3. Keep Your Retriever Focused
Late-season hunting can be tough on retrievers. Professional dog trainer Tom Dokken of Oak Ridge Kennels advises retriever owners to take precautions with their canines in cold weather. These include giving retrievers extra food and water to keep them properly nourished and hydrated, as well as protecting them from cold and ice with a neoprene vest. In addition, he suggests several training drills to help keep retrievers focused and disciplined as the season winds down.
"It's easy to let obedience slide as the season wears on," Dokken explains. "To keep this from happening, you should do some steadying drills at home between hunts. Throw some dummies, but don't send the dog. This will reinforce the lesson that he's not allowed to go out unless sent."
When the hunting action is slow, Dokken tosses a training dummy to give the dog a few retrieves. "In extreme cold, you should give a dog some exercise to warm him up," he says. "Younger dogs especially can get impatient if the ducks aren't flying. They need some action. I throw a dummy every now and then just to give a young retriever a reason to keep sitting there."
4. Hunt the Thaw
Tommy Akin, who hunts flooded rice fields in Missouri's Bootheel region, says that several days of subfreezing temperatures can turn shallow-water areas into ice rinks. When the ice starts melting, however, ducks quickly return to these places to feed. Akin targets these returning birds, which he says are hungry and will decoy as well as ducks during any part of the season.
The key is timing the thaw just right, which requires watching the weather forecast for a warming trend when your hunting area is in a deep freeze. "When the wind shifts back to the south and you've got bright sunshine and the temperature climbs back into the 40s, it's time to go hunting," Akin says. "We go to our field by mid-morning and start working to open a hole on the downwind side of our pit. We use a four-wheeler to break the ice into little chunks so the wind can clear out a hole. The hole doesn't have to be big, just 20 to 30 yards wide-enough to get a good ripple on the water."
The open water is the main attraction, so Akin sets out a small spread consisting of a dozen floater decoys plus several full-body decoys on the ice around the edge of the hole. The final touch is to set out some wing-spinners. "Ducks see the flash of the wings and come looking for the hole," he says. "They'll often come straight in without circling."
5. Experiment with Motion Decoys
Spinning-wing decoys are great attention grabbers, but by the late season, ducks have seen enough of these motion decoys to become guarded. Chuck Smart of Mojo Outdoors still uses spinners as the season wanes, but tones them down so they don't spook wary ducks. "That flash of wings will still attract ducks from long distance," he says. "But when the birds get close, you may have to rely on subtler movement. Jerk strings, swimmer decoys, and water agitators can all help you finish ducks."
Smart often starts out with two or three wing-spinners mounted on poles, but if the first couple of flights don't respond positively, he changes things up. "Sometimes I move my spinners 20 to 50 yards behind the blind," he says. "Other times I may put a floating Mojo Mallard under some buckbrush so there's still some flash but not as much. I'll keep trying different things until the ducks start coming in. Usually this involves using subtle motion. The ducks won't change; it's up to the hunter to make changes to get the ducks to come in."
6. Give Large Spreads a New Look
Waterfowl guide Garry Mason hunts from a large open-water blind on the Tennessee side of Kentucky Lake. By mid-January, ducks can begin moving back up the flyway if the weather is mild. Mason targets these returning birds by changing the look of his decoy rig. "These new birds showing up from the south seem more interested in resting than feeding," he says. "To get them to decoy, I reset my spread to look like a big raft of resting ducks."
Mason's floating blind is positioned about 40 yards from the shoreline. He sets his spread of about 250 decoys close to the bank, packing them in as tightly as possible without allowing them to bump into each other. He also places a number of full-body decoys on the mud along the water's edge and scatters several pairs of mallards in the deeper water around the blind.
"The ducks are mostly paired up, so having a pair of decoys here and a pair there is very natural looking," Mason explains. "Birds flying up the lake see the big raft of resting ducks and usually try to land in the open water between the pairs. This makes for some great shooting from the blind."
7. Show Your Shotgun Some TLC
Harsh weather and extended use can make shotguns malfunction late in the season. Autoloaders with gas-operated actions are especially vulnerable to breakdowns. "You have to keep the magazine tube and piston on a gas-operated shotgun as clean as possible," says Steve Felgenhauer, a company gunsmith for Browning. "Powder residue builds up during each hunt. If you don't clean it off, the shotgun eventually won't cycle shells and your autoloader becomes a single-shot."
To prevent this from happening, Felgenhauer recommends disassembling your gun after each hunt. Use a dry, oil-free rag to remove the powder buildup on the magazine tube and piston. And if you use a spray cleaner on your shotgun during a hunt, store the gun with the barrel down so loosened gunk doesn't seep into the action tube.
Another problem to look out for is water collecting in the gun stock and turning to sludge in the recoil tube. "If the shotgun's bolt isn't closing, you may have a moisture problem," Felgenhauer says. "Moisture gets in from rainfall or by dipping the gun in water. This can happen to any autoloader."
To drain water from the stock, remove the trigger guard and stand the gun with its barrel down to allow the water to seep out. Alternatively, you can remove the recoil pad or sling swivel stud and drain water through the screw hole. Once the gun dries out, use a high-grade, water-displacing gun oil to lubricate the action.
"If they treated their cars like they treat their shotguns, most hunters would be walking," Felgenhauer adds. "Shotguns should be cleaned regularly and thoroughly. With proper care, most guns will shoot dependably from the first day of the season to the last."
Additional Late Season Tips:
- When shallow waters freeze, try float-hunting from a kayak or canoe on free-running streams or small rivers. Float or paddle quietly, hug the insides of bends, and be ready for ducks to flush from pockets of slow-moving water and from behind logs.
- Watch the weather forecast for a sustained warm front with strong southerly winds. This can trigger a "reverse migration" of ducks from south to north during the last days of the season.
- Add extra camouflage to your blind. Blinds tend to get a worn look as the season progresses and typically need rebrushing to hide hunters effectively in the final weeks.
- Use an Ice Eater or Higdon Ice Blaster to keep ice from forming in the decoys during a hard freeze.
- On sunny days when grainfields are frozen hard, consider hunting in the middle of the day. Sometimes a warming sun will thaw the top layer of ground, which frees corn kernels and soybeans that the ducks and geese can then eat. The birds know this and will come to feed in the warmest part of the day.