December 06, 2016
Everybody loves that first day of duck season. The birds haven't been hunted, just about any decoy spread or call seems to work, and it's good shooting all around.
But as winter drags on, the birds get warier. Some have been shot at on every stop of the journey south, and by December they've seen every configuration of decoys, heard every quack, whistle and feeding chuckle out there. They circle just out of range and spook when somebody tilts their head wrong.
But the season doesn't have to be over just because the birds have gotten smarter. Hunters just have get smarter to hunt skittish late-season birds.
DECEMBER DUCKS ARE DIFFERENT
Ducks and geese, like many animals, change behavior as fall turns into winter, and smart hunters change with them. Doing a little biology homework to figure out what the birds' natural tendencies and behaviors are at this time of year can pay off big in the field.
Most species of ducks and geese are monogamous during a breeding season (with Canada geese it's often for life), and by December these pair bondings are well established. Setting decoys in multiple pairs and singles rather than a large group mimics natural tendencies at this time of year, and makes for a more convincing spread. Not only does this mimic the real pair bonding that's occurring, it also presents something different to birds who are used to seeing large, unconvincing decoy spreads.
December ducks (and geese) have seen and heard it all. A single decoy can be more convincing at this time of year than the huge spreads used the first few weeks.
Keep this in mind when calling as well. Hunters are no longer trying to sound like a hen trying to attract drakes, but rather content, bonded pairs with a few singles in the mix. Mix in lots of feeding calls and single quacks to match calling with the look of the decoy spread.
Make sure to pay attention to the look of the blind, pit or boat as well. Waterfowl have sharp eyes, and by late in the season they'll be wary of anything that stands out. Cut natural cover from the hunting area to brush up the blind to blend in with surroundings, if allowed.
Most hunters were taught not to go fruitlessly blasting away at any bird, but rather to wait until the birds were in range and the chance of a kill high.
There's a fine line between taking a well-considered long shot and "skybusting" and it only gets finer as the season progresses. As birds get warier, in-the-face shots in the decoys become fewer. However, there are ways to enhance range to touch birds that won't fully commit.
Hunters can enhance terminal ballistics by increasing pellet size, or boost muzzle velocity by switching to loads with higher feet per second. Higher velocity can increase the downrange energy of lighter pellet materials such as steel.
Whatever shells are chosen, don't hesitate to pack plenty of them during the late season. Woodies and mallards usually take only a single shot to fold, but late season often sees arrival of canvasbacks, redheads, scaup and other diving ducks.
Whether it's true or not, these ducks seem better at absorbing shot. If the first shot doesn't fold 'em up, keep on shooting until they drop. Then, if they're moving on the water, or holding heads up, keep on shooting, particularly on divers, which can dive below water to disappear.
Waterfowl like water, it's right there in the name. So frozen water is a problem. Birds can see a long ways from their vantage point and will seek out open water over a large area.
Many hunting clubs and private landowners solve this problem with a bubbler, which keeps a small section of water constantly churning so it doesn't freeze. But there are other ways to keep water open.
The simplest way is by breaking up ice before setting out decoys. Break the ice into large pieces that can be easily removed from the hole by hand or slid under the remaining ice in large sheets. Neoprene gloves are good, but a mid-size landing net can save hands, and makes it easier to scoop up smaller pieces of ice that break off.
If there isn't time to break open a big hole, hunters can simulate open water on top of the ice by chopping a small hole in the shallows, stirring up the muddy bottom and splashing the muddy water across the top of the ice. The muddy coloring makes it look like shallow, ice-free water from the air, especially with the addition of a few shells decoys. If there's snow on the ground, hunters can even add a few full-body standing decoys with snow piled to cover the feet.
If there's just no water at all, hunters can fake it with large sheets of plastic laid out in a depression in a field. Use tarps or Visqueen sheeting, generally white or clear, to create a small "pond."
If in corn or another crop with decent stubble, punch some of the stalks through the plastic around the edges to give the impression of depth. Bring a bottle of water or two to sprinkle the plastic with. This will give the plastic more reflection and shine. Hopefully, it will look like open water from the air when everything else is frozen. Take the keels off decoys or use a few shells to add ducks.
Check The Weather Channel
Weather data is available everywhere these days, from the TV to smartphone apps, so there's no excuse not to use it.
Most hunters check the weather any-way, but by late season, early birds have moved through already and the only birds around are the locals, who know every pothole and cornfield in three counties.
However, a big weather front further north can push down new birds, which will actively scout the unfamiliar territory. These ducks will be looking to get out of the wind and weather that prompted them to fly south in the first place.
FOLLOW THE DUCKS
Many martial arts follow the principle of using an enemy's strengths against them. The same thought processes applies to duck hunting. If the birds are over pressured and gun shy by Dec-ember use that for an advantage.
Know where the heavily hunted public land and hunting clubs that birds are likely to avoid are located. Know where the ducks like to roost and feed, and the likeliest paths between them.
Birds have a tremendously wide field of vision at the heights they're flying, and will often spot a hidden slough or a small pothole that is hidden from the ground. Level the playing field with Google Maps and satellite photos to help find these hideaways.
Once honey holes are found from the air, take a drive to figure out where they're at on the ground, who owns the land and how to access them. Always seek out permission to hunt if they're on private ground, of course. Once permission is gained, hike in to check
them out. Even if they don't hold
ducks throughout the year, late in the season they might just offer a safe haven for ducks and geese that are getting shot at everywhere else.