January 10, 2024
For many hunters across the country, it was a slow start to the duck season. Then, we were stuck hunting stale birds. Luckily, with a shot of winter weather to the north, birds are dropping in and now is prime time to get after them. Here are some late season moves I’ve made to help find consistent success.
Don’t Shoot the Roost
I recently posted a trail camera video on Instagram of ducks roosting and snacking on a pond I hunt. I said something about "Tomorrow should be a good morning." Several comments were made about forgetting the morning and hunting it in the afternoon when all the birds were there.
What viewers didn’t see were the five prior hours of footage I had of birds building in that spot. I went in the next morning and shot a limit in less than 15 minutes as ducks came around in small flocks. I returned two days later with a buddy, and we were done in 45 minutes. Four days after that my dad and I went in and shot limits in less than an hour.
This wasn’t the only spot where multiple hunting opportunities in one spot recently happened. We had multiple great shoots on creeks, flooded fields, rivers and sloughs. The key was scouting—in person and/or with trail cameras—and getting in and out of the spot, fast. If you don’t limit early, so what, get out of there before birds start coming back to roost in big numbers and it will extend the hunting opportunities in that location.
This is the time of year my wife hollers at me for looking at my phone too much. Actually, what I’m often checking is the weather. Specifically, I’m tracking rainfall along with wind direction and intensity. I’m also checking cellular trail camera footage to see where water levels are, how they’re fluctuating and if winds are moving food around—which is evidenced by feeding ducks. I’m also watching the cellular footage to see if birds are feeding or roosting.
Water is everything late in the duck season. If a creek rises in the timber and greenheads start piling in, hunt it soon. If rivers rise and sloughs fill to the brim, hunt them because new food sources will immediately be exposed. Don’t wait, because just as fast as water levels rise, they drop, meaning you may have no place to hunt.
Find places where birds want to be and you might be able to hunt it two days in a row, or two out of three days. When I find places where I know my shooting window could be brief, I like going in with a small decoy spread the first day to assimilate the birds just arriving, shoot fast and get out of there. If you can vacate an area before many birds start returning, head back the next day with more decoys. A buddy and I did this twice this season and had great hunts on back-to-back days.
Smart Decoy Spreads
Late season ducks are smart. Where I hunt, they’ve seen so many wing decoys they often flare from afar. Now is when I sparingly use a jerk cord wing decoy or pull it out of the spread altogether. I also step-up my other decoys.
The last few weeks of the season is when we get a lot of pintails showing up, along with more shovelers. I love both the pintail and shoveler decoys due to the white which captures bird’s attention from afar. I’ll run a Motion Ducks Spreader with pintails, and in big water another spreader with mallards.
I get a half-dozen new spoony decoys each season because I love the whiter than white glow they offer. This year I went with the Final Approach Live Floating Shoveler decoys which come in a six-pack of drakes. They look incredible and the first time I put them on the edge of the spread, wigeon and spoonies piled into them. When hunting flooded fields, sheet water or ponds I like putting the shoveler decoys in the shallows, where food might be floating. This is where it’s important to know how storms and water fluctuation impact food sources.
We have loads of wigeon where I hunt and when they graze on fresh sprouting grass, they get in a compact ball and mow it down. For the past three seasons I’ve been expanding my silhouette spreads, and this year got even more Big Al’s wigeon decoys. These are a game-change for quickly and easily increasing the size of a spread.
I’ll use at least five dozen wigeon silhouettes when those are the target bird in pressured areas. When targeting mallards that have been hammered, a spread of 15 dozen silhouettes–with a mix of pintails-is not an overkill. If hunting private lands, decoy spreads can be smaller because the birds are often less pressured, or at least feel more relaxed. Then again, big spreads my help pull in birds faster and from farther away.
Another move that helps fool pressured ducks is to include full body mallard decoys this time of year. Mix these in with the silhouettes, often at water’s edge, and put some floaters nearby. Tying in full body decoys with floaters and silhouettes can be highly effective on wise birds.
Wherever you hunt late season ducks, know their food sources. Be aware of what new food can become readily available with rising or falling water. Know how temperatures impact plant growth, even insect propagation.
This season we were hit with unseasonably warm temperatures in November which saw rye grass sprouting two months ahead of time. That’s what wigeon, mallards and pintails were grazing on and they’ve been steadily hitting it. Later in the season we got hammered with loads of rain and this knocked down lots of weed and grass seeds. High winds further dispersed these food sources. In the final two weeks of the season we often see ducks feeding on crustaceans in our area, so will hunt shallow water and fields that hold them.
Late season ducks are wise and the smarter you hunt them, the more shooting opportunities you’ll have. Scout, pay attention, set decoy spreads to mimic what you’re seeing and don’t over-call. Constantly calling to educated birds only further educates them. Call just enough to get their attention then let the decoys do the work.
Note: Scott Haugen is a full-time freelance writer and photographer. Follow is adventures on Instagram and Facebook.