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Duck Hunting the Ebbs and Flows of November

This month means migrating ducks some days, lulls on others in the Midwest. A smart hunter can find success either way.

Duck Hunting the Ebbs and Flows of November

Find duck hunting success during periods of active migration and the season’s inevitable lulls. (Shutterstock image)

Witnessing flocks of migrating mallards pouring down from the ether into a decoy spread is one of the greatest sights any duck hunter can experience. While peak migration varies from region to region, for much of the Midwest, November is prime time.

Waterfowl hunters habitually keep tabs on weather trends throughout the season, and big migration days are often relatively easy to pin down. There may only be a few days’ notice, but avid duck hunters will do anything in their power to ensure they’re underneath migrating flocks when the time comes.

Unfortunately, conditions are not always conducive for migration. If ducks to the north have food, water and refuge, and the weather is warm and stable, few will be motivated to move on to another zip code. Hunting can get tough during these notorious mid-season lulls, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw in the towel.

SCENARIO ONE: THE BIG PUSH

When big November cold fronts push through Canada and the Upper Midwest, birds are going to migrate. Naturally, the intensity and duration of said migration largely depends on the front’s severity. However, generally speaking, any time favorable winds and cold temperatures occur to the north, you can count on some ducks to migrate.

Some of the best days are under clear blue skies when birds are pushing south out in front of a system. The backside of a passing front can also be an excellent time to get under the big flocks that are tired of fighting the weather farther north. This is particularly true when a storm is nasty enough that migration is not feasible. And, if there’s a genuine winter blast ripping across the continent, think hard about clearing your schedule for a couple days to ensure you can be there when the ducks arrive.

Top Spots

Hunting big water in traditional migration areas is the one of the best ways to capitalize on new arrivals. With big water, however, there are many prime areas to consider. Shoreline points or vegetation that forms a point by extending into marshes and bays are good, as are islands, coves and oxbows associated with large rivers. And don’t forget flooded crops and large moist-soil units in waterfowl management areas, either. Of course, hot spots that attract migrating ducks first are no secret, and other hunters are likely thinking along the same lines, so plan accordingly.

Decoy Strategies

Big decoy spreads are the norm when targeting migrating ducks. It’s not uncommon for experienced waterfowlers to go with 10-dozen or more decoys to maximize visibility to birds migrating at high altitudes and convey a sense of security. To help achieve this mass, think about bolstering a decoy spread primarily comprising mallards with other species such as pintails, gadwalls and black ducks. It also never hurts to throw out a string or two of divers, especially brightly colored drake canvasbacks, redheads and magnum bluebills. The easier it is for ducks to see your spread, the better.

Also, consider using a variety of decoy poses, including sleepers and resters. Again, the goal here is to have a big footprint while looking like contented ducks going about their business as usual. This is also a perfect time to dust off the B-team decoys. Well-worn, ugly decoys do a great job of bulking up the main body of the spread.

Setup Secrets

The most effective decoy spreads often extend uncomfortable distances from the blind (see top illustration at right), but make sure to leave plenty of open space where you want birds to land. If the spread is too tight, migrating birds are prone to land on the outside edge, out of range. This is a situation where good calling, at the right time, can make a huge difference. Like any waterfowl hunting scenario, playing the wind is a critical factor. Flocks of migrating ducks often choose to light in open water, as opposed to calm shorelines or the back of a sheltered bay. When possible, try to set up for a wind quartering from behind your position or even perpendicular to a point.




This serves a couple of purposes. First, incoming flocks won’t be staring directly at hunters on approach, which reduces the likelihood of getting busted when all those eyes see movement or catch a reflection off glasses or firearms. Secondly, ducks are far more likely to feel comfortable setting in over open water where they can see everything in their midst. Avoid forcing birds to approach shadowy areas along shorelines and near vegetation or in front of boxy blinds.

Crummy weather will always get ducks moving, and hunting may be good just about anywhere when this is the case. However, if you want to see the big show—waves of migrating flocks as they arrive—you better hunt where the new birds want to be. Usually, that means big water.

Duck Hunting How To
Illustration by Peter Sucheski

SCENARIO TWO: THE BIG LULL

Eventually, some migration-weary ducks will scatter to smaller, more secure spots within the area, oftentimes joining up with other birds. During a normal season, this process tends to repeat itself enough that duck numbers build up and provide some consistent hunting action.

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Small-Water Tactics

It’s important to adjust tactics when hunting smaller areas, and oftentimes it only takes a few decoys for birds to center-up properly. Shots are often extremely close, so smaller shot sizes and lighter loads run through open chokes work great. And, contrary to big-water hunts for migrating ducks, loud and long calling sequences are usually not necessary on smaller bodies. Many times, no calling at all makes more sense. Fancy blinds usually aren’t needed either, and simply hiding in thick vegetation or up against a tree in the timber does the job just fine.

From a logistics standpoint, this sort of hunt is pretty easy. However, it’s not the best time to invite a whole bunch of your buddies to come along and hunt. Think a slightly smaller footprint. Get in and out quickly, and hopefully some of the birds will settle back in so you can hunt them again.

Watch the Weather

Unfortunately, all the ducks in the world do not guarantee full straps. The fall of 2020 is a prime example of what happens when unseasonably warm weather follows big migration days, causing ducks to become less active—especially during daylight hours. A full moon only exacerbates the issue. This sort of malaise can go on for days or even weeks, and it can be very frustrating for hunters. When this occurs, it’s prudent to take advantage of any hiccup in ongoing flat-weather conditions. Precipitation and high winds, for example, often force birds to break from their regular pattern, if only for a few hours. This might be just what it takes, however, to get a crack at them.

Find the Roost

Knowing where ducks are roosting and loafing is critically important. But hunters also have to ask themselves if it’s worth hunting where ducks are spending the majority of their time. Ideally, you’d like to leave these spots alone and target ducks in nearby locations they frequent, or even take on a dry-field hunt, instead. Hunters who are disciplined enough to hold birds in these spots often enjoy some success when others don’t. They know if the roost is “burned,” the opportunity to hunt those ducks again likely disappears.

That being said, extenuating circumstances might dictate whether it’s advisable to target reclusive ducks tucked into a shaggy pothole in the middle of a field. If agricultural activity is going to disrupt the birds, your season is closing soon or a big freeze is imminent, it’s probably time to go for it.

The bottom line is that the best opportunities during the month of November might be drastically different from day to day. Experienced duck hunters should prepare for any eventuality and be willing to make the necessary adjustments in tactics in order to maximize their potential in this challenging time of the season.

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