5 Waterfowl Guide Tricks for Late-Season Duck Limits
If chasing ducks during the final days of the season is on the agenda, then put these guide tricks into motion to bag a buzzer-beater limit of quackers
To say that Jim Lillis knows a few things about ducks would be an understatement.
After all, the North Texas resident has more than four decades worth of duck hunting experience under his belt as this is written.
In fact, so strong is his knowledge and passion for the web-footed fowl that fly southward each year that it led him to be a guide for 13 years, a Ducks Unlimited employee for a similar amount of time and a volunteer for his local DU fundraising dinner for more than 40 years now.
Along the way, he has learned a few things about chasing quackers, especially later on in the year when the mallard hunting really gets good in his Red River Valley neighborhood.
The number one trick being to watch the late-season weather, being ready to hunt when a powerful cold front roars south, something that folks in Lillis' neck of the woods often call a "blue norther."
"Usually, really cold weather means that new birds are coming into (our) state on the fronts," said Lillis. "If you have (been having) warmer weather late in the season, then you are hunting birds that have been there for some time and they’re harder to hunt."
So what does Lillis look for when he watches weather forecasts as the season wanes?
He says in general, if it's freezing down past Interstate 70 and on towards Interstate 40, there should be a good push of late season birds into Texas, Louisiana and other southern states.
Lillis discovered that truth first hand in the early 1980s when a series of bitter cold fronts brought nasty winter weather south of the Red River during the Christmas holidays.
"Those fronts really pushed a lot of mallards down into North Texas, especially onto the rivers and the bodies of water that weren't frozen up," Lillis recalled. "We were shooting limits of mallards just about every hunt. Some of the guys I was guiding had hunted everywhere else and they claimed it was the best they had ever seen."
What is the second piece of advice Lillis gives to hunters hoping for some similar late-season shooting success?
"(Well), I'd say get out and do a lot of scouting," advises Dr. Duck.
"In other words, if you want to be a successful late-season duck hunter, you're going to have to leave the La-Z-Boy and the fireplace and get out and put some effort into your hunting," he added.
"In waterfowl hunting, to be successful throughout the season, you've got to work at it. The days where you went out to your old reliable duck blind and shot ducks are probably over (in many places). If you want to shoot a limit these days, you've got to find the birds, then get where they are going and work at it."
When snow and sleet are falling on the decoys, such cold and winter weather can bring superb late season gunning. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Once a hunter finds a good late-season spot to hunt, Lillis says that a third trick is to adjust the size of the decoy spread, especially when hunting larger bodies of water like a windswept reservoir or a large river system.
"If I’m hunting a big lake, I'd probably use close to a hundred decoys," said Lillis. "On a smaller body of water, you can probably get by with a dozen or two."
Now keep in mind that in some portions of the country – in the duck-rich state of Illinois, for instance – sometimes less can be more.
According to Rick Wombles, a longtime guide in the Pike County area, the idea is to give the late season ducks something different to look at.
Like his counterpart down in Texas, Wombles has plenty of experience chasing late-season ducks, doing so in the mallard rich Mississippi Flyway for many years as a guide and outfitter.
"Later in the season here in Illinois – after you’ve had the big spreads out earlier in the year – a lot of times, we’ll pick ‘em up and only have a dozen or two dozen decoys out there on those last few hunts," Wombles told me a few years back after a hunt at his Hopewell Views Hunting Club.
"Otherwise, they'll start shying away from the regular rigs later on in the year."
Back down in the southern end of the Central Flyway, Lillis often accomplishes the same thing – a different look – by adding a splash of color and confidence to his spread with a few pintail or green-winged teal dekes tossed out with his standard mallard blocks.
And whether it is a few Canada goose floaters or some full bodies wadding in the wind, simulating a few geese in your rig probably never hurts anywhere.
One key to any decoy spread is how attractive is the landing zone that you create in front of your blind.
"I’m a firm believer in leaving a definite hole out in front of your blind," said Lillis. "I like to do a horseshoe or a J-hook upwind of the blind, leaving a definite hole for the ducks to land into. I like to spice (that hole) up with a half-dozen teal decoys or maybe a little group of mallards that look like they just came in and landed in that hole. That tends to draw in birds."
If late season demands attention to the weather, scouting chores and the decoy spread, then the fourth thing is that it brings a need to adjust calling strategies.
"I'll call moderately at first and watch the reaction of the birds," said Lillis. "If they respond well to that, then I'll get after them. But if a flock or two peels off and acts call shy, then I'll back off and do a minimal amount of calling."
Wombles agrees and says to be sure and not over-do it during the final days of the waterfowl hunting campaign.
"Later in the year, I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is that they overcall or call too loudly," he said. "If you call too much and too loudly, it doesn’t sound natural (to a duck)."
"I don’t think that the ducks are burned out (as much) by things like big decoy spreads late in the season as much as they are on a lot of calling," he said. "Tone down what you do. I like to do more five-note landing calls or a few lonesome hen quacks. I'm not as big on feed chuckles late in the year, but the main thing is don't over-do it."
An exception to this idea are those windy frontal passage days when there are a lot of high-flying birds migrating to the south. In that case, consider turning up the volume a bit says J.J. Kent, a waterfowling outfitter who guides in both Texas and Oklahoma.
"Flight birds are usually moving pretty high, so you've got to get their attention," said Kent. "You've got to call loud if you want to get those birds to hear you and drop in from on high.
"(With flight birds) you've got nothing to lose because they're moving south and aren't necessarily coming to you, so you've got to find a way to get their attention and cause them to look at your spread."
Finally, in addition to watching the weather, effective pre-hunt scouting, the adjustment of decoy spread size and species and toning down your late-season calling efforts, a fifth trick is to not stay married to your late-season spot for too long.
In other words, you've got to be mobile and willing to go where the ducks are.
"(These days) a body of water you have historically hunted over may not be as good as it used to be (because of urbanization, agricultural changes and weather conditions)," said Lillis. "That may mean that you may have to go searching for new hunting spots."
If all or some of this seems like a good amount of work, well, it can be.
But to be successful on late-season ducks – either as a professional guide or a veteran weekend warrior – then putting these various guide tricks into practice can be just the ticket.
The ticket for some late-season success that comes as a group of greenheaded mallards wheels by overhead, turns on a dime, cups their wings and comes barreling straight into the decoys with their orange feet hanging low.
If you can shoot straight, then last gasp or not, it just might be the sweetest hunting of the entire season.