November 05, 2021
If you've spent any time at all chasing ducks, you’ve experienced it firsthand. More ducks than there are stars in the sky, as my father used to say, on opening day. Then … nothing.
Maybe there’s a wood duck here or there on day two, but the bulk of what was seen on the opener has seemed to disappear. At 10 years old, I didn’t understand it.
"They’re still there," my old man would tell me, his hand on my shoulder. "We just need to look a little harder for them."
Now, almost 50 years later, I have a better idea of what happens after the frenzied activity of the opening day of waterfowl hunting season, and how to hang more birds on the strap during the days and weeks that follow.
1. SCOUT SMALL
Expansive public marshes can provide excellent hunting for the opener; however, these same waters are often heavily pressured. As such, they see a sharp drop in bird activity during legal shooting hours following the chaos of day one.
If the public marsh is the only hunting grounds you have access to, start looking at previously unexplored possibilities within its boundaries. Are there any new, perhaps recently acquired acres on the area? Any spots that haven’t yet been well publicized?
A chat with the WMA manager might be insightful. And while you have his or her ear, ask about beaver activity. Have the critters dammed a creek, which in turn backed up water into a small stand of cottonwoods? It doesn’t take long for ducks, especially hard-hunted birds, to find such out-of-the-way waters, but these spots often go unnoticed by hunters—at least for a short time.
Off the area, I continue this philosophy of scouting small, a process made easier today thanks to mapping apps and Google Earth. Whether on a device or paper topographic map or while scouting in your vehicle, look for little, oft-unnoticed places where birds feel safe, like farm ponds, backwaters or something as seemingly insignificant as a wide spot in a meandering creek.
2. SAY SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Like many waterfowlers, I always have a mallard call on my lanyard. Or two. But during the days following the opener, after ducks have been exposed to a cacophony of screaming highballs, long-winded comeback calls and machine-gun-fire feeding chuckles, something a little different might be in order. If I’m tired of hearing it, I assume the birds that made it past the opening three days are too. Fortunately, there are plenty of sounds you can make that not only draw attention to your rig but can lend an element of realism to your spread.
"Leave the mallard call in your pocket because everyone’s pounding away on those," says world champion caller, Sean Mann, of Maryland. "Have it with you, because you might need it, but it’s all about the change-up after opening day."
Alternatives to traditional mallard calls include gadwall calls, pintail and widgeon whistles, teal and wood duck sounds, even the eerie dwweeeek of a drake mallard.
3. SET SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Look around any popular public marsh during opening week, and chances are good you’re going to see mirror-image spreads scattered across the WMA; two- to four-dozen mallard decoys and one or two spinning-wing decoys. Do they work? Sometimes, but the fact is that repetition doesn’t look real, and it doesn’t take long for the ducks to figure it out.
"Pay attention to other hunters," says John Walls, a Delaware-based duck calling champ. "We like to do the exact opposite of what others are doing. We keep it simple. Use a dozen decoys at most and make (the spread) look as relaxed and natural as possible. And use a jerk cord."
I’m a huge fan of multi-species spreads, especially on public waters. A couple pairs of mallards will be in the mix; however, the bulk of the rig will consist of gadwalls, widgeons and northern shovelers. A pintail or two, along with a pair of drake buffleheads, add long-distance visibility, while an off-set trio of black ducks bumps up the realism. Want to really set yourself apart from the masses? Set two dozen coot decoys with a jerk cord in the center, along with a pair of mallards off to one side.
4. SKIP THE SPINNER
Spinning-wing decoys over water aren’t as effective as they were 20 years ago, partly due to the fact everyone has one. Or two. Or six. As tough as it might be, consider leaving the SWD under the seat, and instead operate a jerk rig or two to create on-the-water motion in the spread. If you can’t bear the thought of forgoing the electronics, set a spinner 75 yards downwind of the spread and partially obscured by brush, cattails or some other natural screen as a subtle enticement.
5. STAY MOBILE
One of the biggest mistakes a hunter can make after opening day is to be reluctant to change locations on days when the ducks don’t show up. To stay mobile, I pack light: a smaller, less gear-intensive blind bag with just the essentials; a dozen quick-set, Texas-rigged decoys and a two-block compact jerk cord; a simple stake-style blind or ghillie jacket. Equipped as such, I can pick up, move and re-rig in short order, whether the relocation is 500 yards or 5 miles from my initial spot.
6. DON'T FORGET FIDO
In the frenzy that is opening week, it’s easy to forget the vital role your retriever plays in your day-in, day-out success, and how important it is to keep her on top of her game, even if the gunning is short of stellar.
"Keep a bumper in your blind bag to reward your dog’s patience with retrieves on a slow day when the birds seem shy," says Bob Owens of Lone Duck Outfitters and Kennels of Parish, N.Y. "Remember to make sure the dog is having fun and using the skills you’ve taught it."
These in-the-field reminders don’t have to be intense; five minutes here and five minutes there will help keep both of you prepared.
7. HUNT THE TIDES
While inland waterfowling on any given day starts at oh-dark-thirty, hunting ducks on the coast is a whole different ballgame. Coastal waterfowlers know all about hunting the tides, but the twice-daily ebb and flow can become even more of a factor following the opener.
"Hunt the tides, not the time,” says Larry Seaman, a third-generation bayman and avid duck hunter from Long Island, N.Y. “Tides rule everything when it comes to hunting salt marshes. Sometimes, low tide will be in the middle of the day—not a time most hunters would think is best for ducks. But I’ve had some epic puddle duck hunts in the middle of the day when it’s coincided with dead low tide.”
8. TAKE THE SECOND SHIFT
In keeping with this concept of time, don’t be shy about hunting mid-morning or even midday following the opener, whether on the coast or not. Ducks, like humans, operate more or less on a routine, but their day-to-day schedule is radically changed with the advent of hunting season. Birds change their habits and adapt to these intrusions by leaving the roost earlier, coming back later and adopting an altered internal clock.
This means a hunt from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. might make all the difference, assuming fewer hunters and increased bird movement. Or maybe 12 to 4 is the ticket. Just as the ducks broke their routine, you also should be flexible.
9. CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
Let’s be honest: Few waterfowling experiences can hold a candle to opening day, even when the competition from other hunters is stiff. But this fast-paced day of days is a major contributing factor to the challenges and frustrations that follow day one. So, perhaps it’s wise to step back, re-evaluate and, at least momentarily, switch your focus just a bit.
"After opening day, adjust your expectations, change up your goals and limit the size of your hunting party," says Captain Mike Bard, a Jordan, N.Y.-based outfitter. "Instead of going out with a group of four or five, go with one or two. That way, each of you will hopefully have a greater number of individual opportunities."
Think of it this way: You’re only a week in, and there’s a lot of season to come—traditionally the best part of it. These next couple of weeks might be the perfect time to work with that young dog or get a new hunter into the field and train him or her in the basics of concealment, decoy spreads, calling, scouting and duck identification.
Consider it all preparation for when the north winds blow, the mercury drops and the real game begins. It’ll be here before you know it.