By Steve Felgenhauer
For many duck hunters, the morning ritual—setting decoys, early breakfast at an all-night diner and the camaraderie—are as much part of duck hunting as the hunt itself. No one loves a morning in the blind or a sunrise any more than I, but drastic times call for drastic measures.
Early season wasn't working for my hunting partner, Mike and I. Morning after morning the parking lot at our public ground "honey hole" looked like Christmas at the mall. Needless to say we didn't hunt. We had to find another way. Quite by accident Mike took an afternoon off and headed to the blind. "The ducks were rolling in!" Mike yelled excitedly into his cell phone.
The plan formulated. "Tomorrow we will sleep in and get into the blind after everyone has gone," Mike announced.
Our anticipation could hardly be contained.
The plan worked for a few days, but soon, it seemed others had caught on to our plan. We again were sharing our spot with 25 of our closest friends, whom we had never met.
"A lot of hunters are missing some great hunting because of the misconception that you have to be out there before daylight and the flight is early," says Hunter Johnson, an Avery Outdoor Pro staffer from Searcy, Arkansas.
Johnson, who co-owns Gumbo Calls, has been guiding waterfowlers for the past 12 years.
Johnson knows his clients. "Most hunters want to be out there early and if the ducks haven't started coming in by 8:30 they think they are not going to and give up for the day," says Johnson. "To be successful you have to be there when the ducks are. We shoot the majority of our ducks between 9–11 a.m."
Johnson feels hunting pressure has caused waterfowl to adapt; avoiding traditional hunting practices.
One of the areas he frequents, in southeast Missouri borders Otter Slough Conservation Area, a well-known waterfowl destination, where hunting by law requires the hunters to stop hunting by 1:00 p.m.
"The ducks get conditioned to this and by 2:00 in the afternoon, there are ducks everywhere," claims Johnson.
Johnson also utilizes public hunting areas close by but claims, "Early morning resembles a boat race as no one is allowed on the water until 4 a.m. and it's a mad dash to get the choice spots. Many of the areas restrict hunters to 15 shells, but by 8:30 a.m. it's slowed down."
The early morning action is usually glimpses of wood ducks which arrive much earlier than other ducks and finds hunters with a mite fewer shells than what they started.
"The lull in action forces these hunters, many of whom are inexperienced hunters, to give up and go home," says Johnson. Putting his hunters in these freshly vacated premises often produces a limit in a short time frame, all the while sticking with the required 1:00 p.m. curfew.
"The ducks get accustomed to hunters leaving the area by 11 a.m., and will go in and feed without feeling pressured, giving us a few hours of great shooting." says Johnson.
Late Season, Late Hunt
When Johnson is facing colder conditions with highs in the low 30s, he often lets his hunters sleep in, eat breakfast and get to the blind around 11:30 a.m. Busting ice at this time provides an ideal place for birds to land. Johnson stumbled across this technique by observing ducks in nearby refuges where birds congregated in tight groups at night when temperatures had frozen all other water.
Johnson contends the ducks know there is no other water available so they sit in large groups in the only open water they know. "The ducks sit in this place afraid they will lose their spot due to freezing water, but they have to feed," says Johnson. "Once the temperatures begin rising late morning, early afternoon and their overnight spot is safe from freezing over, the ducks come off their resting place in a feeding frenzy."
The Sun to your Back
Johnson claims little is done differently when setting out his decoys for a late hunt versus an early morning hunt. "We ensure our hunters are in the blind with the sun to their backs. If anyone is going to be blinded by the sun, I want it to be the ducks, not the hunters," says Johnson. "On colder days we will group our decoys a little tighter, later in the season we will spread out the decoys and even begin pairing up a hen decoy with a drake rather than a traditional wad of random decoys."
Hunt Long, Hunt Wrong
During the full moon, ducks tend to feed at night and the birds will rest during the mornings. This tends to produce slow mornings; therefore Johnson prefers to hunt the afternoon during the full moon, as duck activity will pick up as the evening shadows grow.
Johnson has noticed if these areas are hunted all day, it takes 3-4 days of no pressure for that particular blind to recover. Johnson feels the birds must have a time when no one is shooting at them or they will leave an area and not return for days or perhaps even a week.
"I enjoy going to McDonalds, but if I get shot at every time I go, I'm going to stop going," says Johnson. "Ducks are no different. If the birds feel pressure all day they will begin avoiding that spot."
So next duck season, plan on sleeping in a few mornings.