By T. Edward Nickens
The grind of duck hunting can catch up to you near season's end, leaving you worn down, burned out, and running close to empty. At the same time, deep in your weary bones, you know that the next few weeks can be the best of the season. And so you press on, keeping your boot on the gas till those last splendid hours of legal light.
Here are the 10 deadly sins of the late-season waterfowler, and tips for keeping your focus when your body's tired but your heart is still very much in the game.
Neglecting Your Duck Blind
The Problem: At this time of year, every duck and goose on the continent knows to avoid anything that resembles a blind, and they're looking hard for anything out of place. After one hunt last year, Josh Pelletier, an Avian-X pro-staffer and hunting properties broker in North Carolina, flew a drone over his favorite swamp blind and was shocked by what he saw. "We thought we were well hidden, but the blind top was really beat down," he says. "Late in the season, birds will circle and circle and often come right over the blind as they give the decoys a hard look. They could look right down our gun barrels."
The Fix: Dedicate a few hours to giving your blind some late-season TLC. Stow a hand pruner and cable ties to make cutting and attaching brush quick and easy. Be especially vigilant with overhead cover: Pelletier uses cut brush and tree limbs to give his blind a makeshift roof. And keep in mind that concealment doesn't stop with the blind. Completely cover up your boat and ATV with camo netting, brush, or grass.
Moving Too Much
The Problem: With birds that have been pressured from Canada to the Gulf Coast, you can't get too nonchalant about staying still in a duck blind. "Little movements that you could get away with early in the season are going to hurt you during that last month," says Mike Checkett, a Ducks Unlimited development director who worked for years as a wildlife biologist. "Camaraderie is a huge part of why we love to hunt waterfowl, but the late season is no time for a bunch of joking around in the blind."
The Fix: Double down on face and hand camo, and be extra cautious about movement. Call from a sitting position. Stay low and kneel in the bottom of the blind. That can help keep birds from flaring at the last minute. Communicate with your hunting partners as birds are working, and designate one hunter to keep an eye on the back side of the blind so folks aren't constantly looking around. "In the late season," Checkett says, "every movement has to be more subtle."
Trashing Your Surroundings
The Problem: After weeks and months of hosting waterfowlers, hunting sites can start to look like frat houses. "Most of our hunting is in rice fields," says Gene Carter, an Avery-Banded pro-staffer and owner of Sutter Basin Duck Calls in California. "We leave decoys out for weeks at a time, and I've been in blinds where you can see decoys that are half-sunk, upside down, or bunched up and entangled from the wind. It's easy to get lazy about these details, but they matter, especially in the late season."
The Fix: Dedicate an hour after a hunt for serious housecleaning. Clean off mud-covered decoys. Remove any that are pocked with holes and sloshing with water. Pick up all trash and shotgun hulls around the blind. Touch up shiny metal on blinds and boats with spray paint. "We all let our guards down at the end of the season," Carter says with a laugh. "But you really have to think about what the ducks see when they look down at your spread."
Shooting the Same Shells
The Problem: If you don't adjust shotshell choice to match plunging temperatures, you're handicapping yourself before you ever pull the trigger, says call maker Fred Zink, who holds nearly two dozen duck and goose calling titles. For starters, it often takes more pellet power to bag late-season waterfowl such as mallards, Canada geese, and diving ducks than it does teal and other early migrants. Further, Zink is convinced that brutally cold weather changes shotshell ballistics. "Subzero temperatures can slow down pellets because the denser air offers more resistance," he explains.
The Fix: When the temperature drops to 0°F and below, step up a shot size or two. If you're not shooting high-velocity shells of 1,500 fps or better, try these faster loads. It also helps to stow your shells in a warm place in the blind. If you're in a field blind or hunkered down in a frozen slough, keep shells in a small bag or pocket inside your jacket or waders.
Staying Home in Bad Weather
The Problem: Early in the season, we're all glued to the weather reports with our fingers crossed for the big fronts that put ducks and geese on the move. That focus tends to fade late in the season, which can put hunters at a disadvantage, says Pelletier. "Day-to-day changes matter in the late season more than ever," he explains. "If it's cool and clear with a bit of a moon, all your birds might come to the decoys within 10 or 15 minutes of each other. On cold, rainy days, however, ducks often dribble into the decoys in smaller groups, and you can shoot them all morning."
The Fix: Have the patience to wait for the right weather—which can be ugly weather. Overcast skies and low clouds seem to break up duck flocks. And even wet weather can be a plus. "Drizzling rain is great for hunting waterfowl," Pelletier says. "It helps hide hunters. It covers up any ripples and splashing you might make, and ducks and geese don't like rain in their face any more than they like the sun in their eyes. They tend not to circle and circle to size up the spread. During a cold rain, they're going to dump right in."
Calling Too Much
The Problem: "People call way too much, and way too loudly, late in the season," Carter says. "My duck club in California sits right next to a national wildlife refuge. In January, I don't hear nearly the volume of duck and goose talk as I do in the early season. That's a great reminder for me to keep it down in the blind."
The Fix: Calling less frequently and more quietly means calling smarter. Listen to the birds, Carter advises. "When they talk to you, answer back, but don't give them much more than that." A seven-note greeting call might be trimmed back to three or four notes. "It's just enough to say, We're down here!" he says. "And if the birds are silent, just hit them on the corners, when they're turning as they circle the spread, and let the decoys do the work."
Ignoring Pairing Behavior
The Problem: Part of the reason why hunters may see fewer birds—or fewer large flocks—late in the year is that the mating season for many duck species is well under way, which can cause big changes in the birds' behavior. "Late in the season, a lot of birds have paired up and they don't want to go to the singles bar anymore," Checkett says. "Their biological needs have changed. They can ignore big groups and head for a quiet dinner in the back of the restaurant."
The Fix: Smaller spreads can often draw birds that are looking for mates. To simulate a courtship ritual, Checkett will put a single hen in the middle of the decoys, with four or five drakes trailing behind. "In a lot of places during the late season, 90 percent of the mallards are paired up," he explains. "But a drake flying around sees a hen with several drakes, and he thinks he might have a chance too. I've taken a lot of Mississippi Flyway ducks with just a courtship setup: one hen and a handful of drakes."
Missing Reverse Migrations
The Problem: Hunters spend all fall waiting for cold fronts to bring down the migrants. In the late season, though, you should flip your frame of reference. "A late-season warming trend can bring on the best hunting of the season, for both ducks and geese, as waterfowl return north on a strong south wind," Zink says.
The Fix: Keep an eye on the five-day forecast, and think about the first places that freeze up in your area. Often, it's marshes and sheet water. "That's where you want to be during a warm-up," Zink explains. Decomposing vegetation keeps marsh water a bit warmer, so it doesn't take much of a thaw to open up a wetland. Warm rain runs off frozen ground into low-lying areas, where it can melt enough snow and ice to uncover food sources. "Throw a south wind into the mix," Zink says, "and the birds will go into a feeding frenzy."
The Problem: October's knoll-top goose pit or double-decker blind in the buckbrush might not cut it during the last weeks of the season. "When ducks and geese are first migrating in the fall, food is everywhere," Zink says. "That's not the case in the late season. You need to look for waterfowl to be in nontraditional places. Birds are going to find the food and go to the food, because so many resources have been depleted."
The Fix: Get mobile, which means getting out of your pit blind or favorite hide. Take advantage of any means—boat blinds, portable blinds, or no blind at all—to move to where birds are feeding. This is the time of year to shoot geese from ditch lines and hedgerows, because the middle of the field has been scoured. "Hunting on the X is way more important later in the year," Zink says.
The Problem: With the season winding down, many hunters get overly anxious about going out with a bang. "I see it all the time," Carter says. "Too many people are looking for the limit instead of the experience. They focus on numbers. The late season is a time to relax. Watch the sunrise. Listen to the wind. Just be patient and you'll be surprised at what can happen."
The Fix: This one is easy. Hunt hard. Have fun. Bundle up. And take a newcomer to the season's big finale.