Adapt Your Duck Tactics to Tar Heel Seasons

On some days, ducks will swarm your decoys. Then, on other days, no ducks will toll to your spread. Here's how to adapt to changing conditions to keep the ducks coming your way.

Once upon a duck season, in a salt marsh not far away, I experienced the hunt of a lifetime. Hunters had set up their decoy spreads all around mine, and all of them were having good luck. Multiple shots were being fired at big flocks of ducks, primarily consisting of blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, pintails and widgeons. The blue-wings and pintails were still dusky from their summer molt. But the green-wings and widgeons were at their full color on that November opening day of the season.

Still, while other hunters were having no trouble filling their bag limits, I was struggling to down ducks. The mainspring in my semi-automatic shotgun had rusted from saltwater droplets that had seeped into the stock. New to hunting with semi-autos, I had not removed the stock to lubricate the spring. Over the off-season, corrosion had taken its toll and turned the action into a sluggish mechanism that spewed red dust from the rear of the receiver when a shot was fired. Now, on opening day of the best segment of the season, I was hunting with a single-shot shotgun.

Nearly every time a flock would start to toll to my decoys, another hunting party would open up on another flock setting its wings to their decoy spread. The result was that my opportunities would flare away on wildly flashing wings while still out of shotgun range. During the riots of waterfowl that did decoy successfully, I was careful to choose a target and dump it with a single shot.

Eventually, the marsh around my position fell silent as the other hunters filled their bag limits. As the only hunter remaining, I sweated and slapped mosquitoes while, one by one, the buzzing of a half-dozen outboards died away in the distance.

Whether it was those other hunters that kept the ducks stirred up on their way back to the launching ramps or whether the ducks just were not finished flying can only be the subject of speculation. But the fact is that they flew well on into the morning. The bag limit was five ducks way back then, with a bonus of two teal and two scaup on top of the five. Scaup were rare on that particular marsh during the early part of the season. But this was one of those golden days when luck was on my side, despite having the misfortune of shooting a mechanically challenged non-repeater. By 10 o'clock, I left the marsh with nine ducks and made it home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Seasons and bag limits have changed since that long-ago day. The main body of duck season now opens the first or second week in November instead of the third week of the month. There is a teal season in September and a short season in early October, primarily to take advantage of the state's high population of resident wood ducks. Bag limits shrunk to three ducks after my "single-shot" hunt and then expanded back up to six. Still, one thing remains constant. Studies show that, despite what many hunters believe, duck numbers reach their peak in North Carolina in November. Hunters who wait for the colder weather of December and January are missing out on some great shooting opportunities. Opening day in November is the best day to blow the rust out of those mainsprings and take a limit of waterfowl.

Teal begin arriving in the state in September and are one of the most numerous ducks throughout the season, including November, when their numbers are holding high. Both blue-winged teal and green-winged teal are abundant in November, and a decoy spread should include at least a half-dozen or so teal decoys. Shovelers also show up early in the season and will toll to almost any type of decoy, including teal decoys.

Justin Marsh took this pair of shovelers from a coastal marsh. Shovelers decoy readily to many decoys and are common in North Carolina in November. Photo by Mike Marsh

While teal will toll to other species of duck decoys quite readily, they prefer to land with their own kind. By setting a few teal decoys in the center of the spread or off to one side and very close to the blind or boat, a hunter can dictate landing terms to the speedy little birds. Decoying teal close to the gunner give better opportunities for the tight shot patterns needed to take them cleanly, and it provides time for follow-up shots before they streak out of range. Teal are not particularly wary ducks, so decoying them beside the hunter's location is usually not a problem.

Other birds that are otherwise extremely wary can be taken easily during a warm day in early November because they have not been hunted. Mallards tend to decoy quite readily during the first few days of the season and then by the end of the first week of shooting become skittish of decoys and out-of-place projections - like blinds or brush - that may conceal hunters on points of land.

Wood ducks are always abundant in the state until very cold weather arrives in late December or during January. Hunters who are tired of hunting lakes for mallards that have become wary can find them in the coastal rivers, swamps and beaver ponds along with the wood ducks that naturally take to the trees. Wood ducks are typically not as wary as mallards, but mallards secreted inside the swamps sometimes pick up their colorful counterparts' relaxed attitudes. The same logic applies to black ducks. However, black ducks are subject to special prohibitions and recently have not been legal birds during November. Still, they can be taken sometime beginning in December or January, so hunters should check the hunting regulations before shooting any black ducks.

Staying away from popular waterfowl hunting areas and heading into a swamp or coastal stream is a great way to find these swamp-loving ducks after opening week. A small decoy spread placed in an oxbow or in a hidden flood plain swamp out of the current flow or on a shallow bar in the main channel will toll ducks that use a river as a flyway. Ducks roosting in surrounding swamps also offer pass-shooting opportunities even if they do not set their wings over the decoys. After lifting off from a roost at daylight, ducks often travel above channels and use them as navigation routes. Once the early-morning flights are over, hunters who use canoes and other small boats that can be maneuvered with paddles to get to a hunting area and set out decoys can jump-shoot resting ducks at any time during the day on a river or stream, even while heading back to the boat launching area.

It takes two hunters for a good day of jump-shooting. One hunter paddles while the other shoots from the bow of the boat. A lone hunter in a kayak or one-man boat can also have great jump-shooting, but it is much trickier to learn how to drop a paddle and pick up a shotgun when an opportunity arises in the form of a duck. Streams with lots of tight bends work best for jump-shooting. By keeping the boat close to the inside of a creek bend and slipping silently around the corner, hu

nters can surprise a flock of mallards that may be so wary they will not decoy to even the most realistic manmade duck.

On coastal marshes, widgeons show up in November but may reach their peak in December or January. While not as wary as reservoir mallards, the more they are hunted, the more decoy-shy they become. Still, they are one of the most impressive ducks when they do decide to land in a decoy spread. Often, they will circle several times while consulting with one another in whistling conversations before they make up their minds to toll to a flock of decoys.

When you are hunting in a coastal sound or large river, widgeons should make up most of the flock of decoys during a November hunt. The white on the drakes' heads and the white patches on their flanks create high visibility, which is important when hunting on big water. Also, nearly all types of coastal puddle ducks will decoy to widgeon decoys. Setting out mallard decoys in a puddle duck situation on a coastal sound is much less productive than setting out widgeons, because not many mallards are found on the sounds.

Gadwall numbers have seemed to be exceptionally high in recent seasons. While gadwalls will toll to widgeon decoys, it never hurts to be prepared for their appearance. During the early part of the November season, hunters should set a pair of gadwall decoys in a spread composed primarily of widgeon decoys as "convincers." As gadwall numbers climb, hunters should continue adding gadwall decoys to their spreads. By the end of the season, depending upon what ducks are still in the area, the decoy flock for most success might be weighted more heavily in favor of gadwalls over widgeons.

Gadwalls and widgeons are always migrating through the coastal areas. On any given day, the birds can be exceptionally wary or incredibly naïve. This can be traced to migration peaks that occur during the season. Other duck species are frequently easy to call in early in the season and get warier as the season goes on, of course. But the different degree of wariness exhibited by gadwalls and widgeons is so profound that they seem to have bipolar personalities. I believe that when they do migrate, they come from long distances from areas with little hunting pressure, and they hopscotch across many other areas that are hunted hard to come specifically to North Carolina's sounds. Without the educational process of decoying and being fired upon in several states or provinces, flocks of these birds can seem ridiculously easy to decoy at times.

November is a great month for ducks to migrate. Scientists think migratory instincts are triggered by the length of the day. Therefore, some species and individuals are compelled to migrate on specific days each year. Other migratory urges are triggered by a dwindling food supply or freezing conditions that make food difficult to find or by a favorable front with a northerly wind that helps ducks fly great distances south. A full moon also seems to bring fresh flocks south, perhaps because waterfowl can take advantage of extended light periods at night or because of the restlessness that comes to many wild creatures during a full moon.

All of these conditions can bring naïve ducks into a particular marsh or swamp. A sound that has very few gadwalls on one day, for example, may be chock full of the gray ducks after the passage of a front or the full moon. Hunters must therefore keep an eye on astronomical information for indications that changes in the numbers and composition of waterfowl flock are on the way.

November often brings the first hard frosts to the state. Sometimes these freezes cover farm ponds and swamps in skim ice. Small water bodies that freeze send ducks to larger water bodies nearby. This is a time when swamp ducks like wood ducks and mallards can be hunted successfully on big water, even if they have been shot off the same water body during the early days of the season. Large reservoirs like Jordan Lake are notorious for good shooting during freeze-ups. Even the coastal sounds benefit from freezing conditions because they are ringed with public and private impoundments that are shallow and ice over quickly. On the sounds, widgeon, teal, gadwalls, pintails and black ducks concentrate following a freeze. If freezing conditions remain long enough, the ducks will fly farther south, making the marshes and reservoirs empty of many of the puddle ducks.

All is not lost, however. The faithful waterfowl hunter knows that the cold weather conditions that send puddle ducks south also bring the hardier diving ducks in from the north. The peak migrations of divers usually occur following extended cold periods in Yankee land. These cold periods generally occur during December or January. However, cold fronts can hit earlier, and smaller migrations of divers will routinely occur during November as well.

Ring-necked ducks are some of the first divers to show up, and they can arrive overnight in incredible numbers. Suggs Mill Pond, High Rock Lake and Harris Lake are notorious for their high concentrations of ring-necked ducks.

Redheads and scaup follow the ringnecks. Incredible numbers of scaup arrived in the state during the last season, with high concentrations on all of the sounds and New River. Several of the electric power plant cooling lakes also had high numbers of scaup. Canvasbacks arrive last and are generally taken on the larger coastal rivers and sounds.

Anytime a hunter sets a spread on a coastal body of water or large reservoir, he should have some diving duck decoys in the pattern. The bulk of the divers in a decoy spread should be scaup, because all diving ducks will toll to scaup decoys. However, if other ducks seem to be more numerous, it can pay off to set out decoys of the same types as the ducks that are concentrated in the area.

As the season progresses, a decoy spread on large water bodies may become more productive if composed principally of diving ducks instead of puddle ducks. Once the puddle duck numbers have diminished because of southward migration, hunters should rely more heavily on divers for the fastest shooting. Large concentrations of diving ducks can be frustrating to hunt from shore blinds because they tend to raft up in huge masses offshore and only provide good shooting opportunities when there is windy weather to unsettle the flocks.

A layout boat can be the answer for hunters who gaze wistfully at the huge blankets of diving ducks on the water. Using a layout boat can provide a good opportunity for afternoon shooting because scouting for areas currently used by the ducks is the key to success.

Hunters can find flocks of ducks by power-boating through an area and towing a layout boat along or securing it inside the larger craft. Once a good resting and feeding area is found, the layout boat is set out and anchored. Most layout boats hold one hunter, and a second hunter must "tend" the shooter in the layout boat by retrieving downed waterfowl. Once the first hunter has his limit or has shot a pre-arranged number of ducks, the hunters switch places. A handheld two-way radio help to keep communication constant between shooter and tender. Layout boat shooting can be some of the fastest shooting in the state once the divers arrive, and staying in close contact can add more fun to the hunt.

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