Ducks & Geese at the Buzzer
September 24, 2010
Waterfowlers who know where to look and how to position decoys can score late in the season. Here's how to bag those smart birds.
Author Mike Gnatkowski with a pair of chunky mallards shot on the last day of duck hunting season. Photo courtesy of Mike Gnatkowski
The waning days of the waterfowl season are a bittersweet time for me. I cringe, and bemoan the passing of one of my favorite times of the year. It seems like only yesterday that we were painting decoys and readying blinds for the upcoming season. How quickly we've gone from swatting mosquitoes and admiring the brilliant colors of early-season wood ducks to watching for goldeneyes, wearing extra socks and planning for one last hunt.
But at the same time, I have to rejoice at the prospects of the great gunning that the last few days of the season always bring. Cold and ice bring a certain urgency to waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. Taking advantage of this last-chance binge is a surefire tonic to tide me over until next season. But to do so requires planning, scouting and perseverance to take advantage of ducks and geese at the buzzer.
Scouting is paramount during the waning days of the season. While most of the birds will have moved south, the remaining ducks and geese will be concentrated on open water. And open water is at a premium at this point in the season. Most of the shallow marshes, ponds and inland lakes will be locked up solid, but large rivers, impoundments, reservoirs and big wind-swept natural lakes usually remain open until the end of the season, and fidgety late-season waterfowl naturally gravitate to them.
Your job is to find where the birds are concentrated. To do so requires a little extra time watching trading and resting birds with binoculars. Pinpoint their location and set up in the same location the next day and chances are good that the birds will return. Veteran waterfowlers know which bodies of water tend to freeze up last and they target them during late season.
Another late-season hotspot is flowing water. Rivers and swift-flowing streams often remain open right through the winter months and are a magnet for late-season waterfowl. There are several ways to hunt moving water. The best is floating. Launch a canoe at one access and float quietly down to the next takeout. Usually, one hunter paddles while the other watches ahead for birds, and the hunters take turns.
It's easy to get mesmerized by the sparkling icicles hanging on streamside vegetation and the sound of the current lapping at the sides of the canoe while you glide silently along - that is, until a flock of black ducks suddenly explodes from under tag alders an arm's length away amidst raucous quacking and flailing wings, waking you from you winter daydream. Late-season float-hunting can be pure excitement or contented solitude.
Most of the ducks you'll encounter during the last days of the season while float-hunting will be hardy black ducks or mallards, but I've shot thick-skinned wood ducks and goldeneyes right up until the closing bell.
Laws regarding float-hunting vary from state to state. Be sure to check your hunting regulations before hitting the river.
Another option is to walk the banks or wade streams and jump-shoot. Birds tend to collect in slack-water areas that remain open. Once you walk a stream a few times you become familiar with certain places where birds concentrate. It's easy then to plan a quiet stalk to jump-shoot surprised birds.
Throwing out a few decoys and waiting for birds to return to open streams or rivers can pay dividends, too. With few sanctuaries of open water for late-season birds, the ducks and geese rousted from their resting areas often return in short order. Tossing out a few dekes and hiding in the bushes can produce some fast shooting.
The one thing ducks and geese need besides open water is food. Diving ducks are going to be the most common targets on large bodies of water late in the season, although big concentrations of red-legged mallards often use big reservoirs and lakes as roosting areas when ice locks up other areas. Look for diving ducks - like redheads, bluebills, goldeneyes and buffleheads - to trade back and forth between feeding areas that harbor aquatic vegetation and crustaceans.
The ideal situation is to set up between two feeding areas and decoy small flocks of birds that are trading. Leave the big flocks of birds alone, if possible. Midmorning and early afternoon seem to offer the best action on divers, and on many days the ducks will move back and forth all day long. Often, it pays to wait until after sunrise to set up so you can get a fix on where the birds are trading that particular day and not go through the trouble of putting out a big spread and then having to move or watch flocks of birds passing just out of gun range.
Late-season gunning often means capitalizing on species that aren't around during much of the year. A few years ago my son Matt's 12th birthday and his first waterfowl hunt coincided with the last few remaining days of the waterfowl season.
During my scouting I found a shallow area where dozens of buffleheads were feeding on submergent vegetation on the south end of our local lake. Next morning we were set up with a spread of bluebills and goldeneyes just as the sun was peaking over the horizon. Right on cue the buffleheads started strafing us in knots of two to a dozen birds. Matt's little 20 gauge was the perfect medicine for the diminutive divers. His waterfowling career couldn't have started on a better note.
Puddle ducks usually head out to find waste grain in the surrounding fields early and late in the day. Their internal furnaces require a lot of food to keep them warm when the mercury drops, and waste grain is a carbohydrate-rich source of energy. You have two options with these birds - follow them and set up where they are feeding, or wait until they return to open water at midday or in the evening. Both strategies work. Both strategies require scouting.
Field shooting can be a here-today, gone-tomorrow proposition. Late-season ducks and geese are constantly on the move, jumping from one field to the next as they exhaust the supply of high-energy grain. Hunters need to be mobile to stay on top of these movements. Decoys, spreads and blinds need to be portable.
One invaluable tool I've found for field hunting is a recliner called the LongNeck Hunter. This padded, camouflaged recliner makes lying in a frozen corn field a whole lot more comfortable on my 40-something back. You can carry the recliner like a backpack and it comes in corn field and shadow grass camo patterns. Toss a few cornstalks over it - or dress in white if there's snow cover - and you're invisible. Another option is to pick up a camouflaged, inflatable bedrol
l from places like Cabela's to lie on. It makes lying in a cold corn field much more comfortable.
Decoy spreads in the late season seem to run to the extreme - either you need a whole bunch or just a few will do. How many depends on where you're hunting and the species you're targeting. Hunting divers on big water often requires large decoy spreads.
Diving ducks often amass in huge groups, and pulling passing flocks requires a fair number of decoys. Sixty to 100 blocks would be considered a normal late-season diver spread. Usually, savvy waterfowlers deploy bluebills with a mix of canvasbacks or redheads and geese. Make sure at least two-thirds of your decoys are painted as drakes to maximize their attraction.
I like to add a small knot of goldeneyes or bufflehead dekes off to the side of the main spread to attract these species. If you're just targeting whistlers and butterballs, you can get away with as few as a half-dozen decoys. The same goes for black ducks, which tend to feed and rest in small flocks.
Setting and picking up a big spread of decoys in cold weather can be time-consuming and frigid work. Most hunters simplify the process by rigging their decoys on mother lines when hunting big water for divers. A heavy 4-pound weight is attached to each end of a 90-foot length of 1/4-inch rope. Let one end into the water. Attach a short 2- to 3-foot section of decoy line to each decoy and a halibut clip.
Snap the decoy lines onto the main line using the halibut clip at 6- to 10-foot intervals along the line as you drift until it is full of decoys; then stretch the line out and drop an anchor on the opposite end. Lay several lines next to each other. Eight to 12 decoys can be attached to each line. Attach two lines together to make a long lead off the outside of the spread to draw passing birds into the center of the layout. You can add a few decoys on single lines to round out the set. Decoys set in this fashion look surprisingly lifelike and are a snap to pick up, even with warm neoprene or heavy gloves on. You can simply toss them into a collapsible leaf container instead of wrapping them up, too.
Hunters accustomed to hunting smaller bodies of water need to make sure they have sufficient anchor line and heavier weights on their individual decoys when hunting big water and rivers during the late season.
Decoy spreads for field hunting are a matter of personal preference and logistics. Usually, the rule is the more the merrier when field hunting. If you can drive in to the field, that's fine. But if you're on the move following trading birds, carrying decoys or not setting up in the same place two days in a row, smaller spreads are more practical.
Goose silhouettes work great for decoying both mallards and geese. One hunter can carry several dozen. Shell decoys are another option to give that three-dimensional look. Usually, you won't need more than that. One thing you will need is some way of sticking them in the ground. A friend made me a punch consisting of a T-handle, stirrup and sharpened pointed rod that works great for punching holes for decoys in frozen ground. Another alternative is to bring a cordless drill. The drill can also be used when you're setting decoys on the ice.
Bunching decoys is a good idea when you're gunning at the end of the season. Late-season ducks and geese find safety and warmth in numbers, so group your decoys more tightly than you would earlier in the season. But leave plenty of room for approaching birds to land.
Waterfowling late in the season when few other hunters are out or when conditions are severe can be dangerous, and hunters need to take extra precautions. Equipment must be in tip-top shape. Hunters relying on outboard motors to get them out hunting or safely home should take extra precautions in cold weather.
Use high-octane fuel and synthetic-based oil, which is less affected by cold weather. Put fresh plugs in and carry a spare set. Hotter plugs might be in order in colder weather, too. Make sure your battery is fully charged and in good condition.
Guns should be thoroughly cleaned at least once during the season, ideally right at midseason before the weather turns cold. If you're using the gun under extreme conditions, the best policy is to keep lubricants to a minimum. Clean the gun completely and then apply a very light film of oil or graphite to the mechanism. Keep your gun as dry as possible and work the action every once in a while, especially if you're using a pump gun.
I like to use heavier loads when hunting toward the end of the season, too. Birds have more and thicker feathers then, and more fat. Heavier loads and larger shot provide cleaner kills. I've found that a 1 3/8-ounce load of No. 2 steel performs well under late-season conditions for ducks. Big Canada geese require BB or BBB shot.
Life-saving devices are a must whenever you're waterfowling, but they are especially critical when you're hunting in cold, nasty conditions. At the very least you should have an inflatable suspender-type life jacket on at all times. A slip into the water when you're running, setting decoys or retrieving a bird could be a life-threatening experience.
Carry a first-aid kit equipped with waterproof matches or a lighter, a flashlight and extra batteries, snacks, a whistle and flares. A little propane heater can help take the chill off you or warm up some soup. Modern-day conveniences like cell phones and GPS units can be a godsend if you remember to carry them. Always let someone know where you will be hunting and when you plan on returning.
You can't take advantage of duck and geese at the buzzer if you're too cold to stay out hunting. You definitely must be present to win in this game. Fortunately, modern clothing makes it easier than ever to stay warm and dry.
Two areas of concern are your hands and head. I normally wear a baseball-type cap when hunting during much of the season, but the last days just before the season-ending buzzer sounds it's a good idea to stuff a stocking-type knit hat in your shooting bag. It will keep your head warm. Research indicates that 90 percent of heat loss is through the head.
Bring two or three pairs of gloves when hunting in cold weather. Bring one to wear while you're hunting. The type with a Gore-Tex shell and Thinsulate lining are water-resistant and warm. Bring a spare pair plus a pair of neoprene gloves for picking up decoys. Neoprene gloves aren't as warm as insulated gloves, but they keep your hands warm when you're picking up dekes and allow good dexterity.
They say all good things must come to an end. That's especially true with waterfowling. Fortunately, if you play your cards right you can enjoy some of the best hunting of the season right before the buzzer sounds. I like saving the best for last.