South Bama's Tough Late-Season Ducks
September 28, 2010
By the time migratory ducks reach South Alabama, they've run a gauntlet of birdshot, and that makes them harder to fool. These tips can help you overcome the problem. (December 2005)
Photo by R.E. Ilg
Duck hunters in South Alabama are no different from others across the rest of the country when it comes to the anticipation of waterfowl season each year. With the action approaching, South Bama waterfowlers are busy brushing up blinds, painting decoys, prepping the duck boat, practicing their duck calling and stocking up on ammunition.
Being so far south, Cotton State duck hunters must wait for several weeks as hunters farther to the north get the first crack at the ducks. The reports of early success coming from the northern states cause the hardcore Alabama hunters to tremble with excitement.
When the opening day finally arrives, Bama hunters can usually expect some fair waterfowl action. For many, the action is less than anticipated, but as the season progresses and the weather fronts push through with more regularity, more ducks are pushed south, and success rates improve. While the duck numbers may increase, the success rate for hunters is entirely up to the hunters themselves.
Migratory ducks that have made the long, difficult journey from the prairies of Canada and states along the Canadian border have probably learned a lot along the way. Birds making this centuries-old migration have seen it all. By the time they reach South Alabama, most have earned a Ph.D. in hunter avoidance.
Since the ducks have learned so much along the way, hunters have to use all their knowledge and skills in order to be successful hunting the educated ducks that have made it this far south.
Hunting ducks during even the most bountiful fall flights can be difficult this far south. However, there are several tactics you can use to take your share this season. Let's look at a few ways to outsmart these waterfowl.
WHERE TO FIND DUCKS
In order to shoot ducks, you have to be in a place where there are ducks. The No. 1 priority of ducks that reach South Alabama is food. Find the food, and you find the birds.
Most of the ducks that reach the southern coast are grass-eating species. Gadwalls, teal, widgeon, pintails and shovelers are all looking for areas with large mats of grass on which to feed. Once they find a food supply, if left undisturbed, they can stay on it for weeks.
There are several different grasses available to South Bama ducks. While not the most desired, milfoil grass is abundant in the Mobile Delta. Ducks feed aggressively on the milfoil if more desired grasses are unavailable.
Widgeon grass is a small stringy grass found in shallow, hard-to-reach areas. Find ducks feeding on widgeon grass during an afternoon of scouting and then return the following morning before daylight. Your results should be very satisfying.
Ribbon grass is a flat-bladed grass that grows in creeks and along riverbanks. Bigger ducks, like mallards and mottled ducks, feast on ribbon grass if they find it. If you find patches of ribbon grass before or during duck season, make a mental note of the locations. Be sure to check back throughout the entire season, especially after a strong front has blown through and new ducks are in the area.
Grasses are not the only food that you should be on the lookout for. In the Mobile Delta, many creatures thrive in the brackish water environment. Small seed shrimp can be a target of opportunistic ducks looking for food in secluded areas.
Seed shrimp and a variety of invertebrates use the grasses along the marsh bank to protect themselves from predators. Often, when the tides recede, the shrimp and invertebrates hide in the many drains that come from the marsh.
Ducks, especially teal, quickly pick up that these drains are pouring out food. Once a group of teal or shovelers find this situation, their numbers can build quickly.
When you are hunting heavily pressured ducks one of the most important ingredients for success is your concealment. Whether you are hunting from land or from a boat blind, disguising your hunting location is very important.
Always construct your blind from materials found in the area you are hunting. Hunting along a riverbank, you should build your blind with canes, logs or grasses found nearby, so your hunting location blends in with the background.
When constructing a land blind or a boat blind, you should avoid giving the blind an unnatural box-shaped look. Try to provide the blind an irregular shape to help it blend in with the surroundings. Be sure to include some kind of overhead cover to hide you from ducks circling high above. Sometimes a simple camouflaged net, secured with a couple of clothespins, does the trick.
Look for areas with a natural blind to hunt from. These types of places can range from a bushy point that extends out to the water's edge to an old logjam on a sandbar. These are places the ducks have probably seen since their arrival and should not scream out "danger" to the birds
Concealment also includes your camouflage. During early season, when grasses and leaves are still green, you should pick camouflaged clothing with more green in the pattern. As the season progresses into deep winter, use more tan or dead grass patterns.
Many educated ducks that reach South Alabama have seen many hunters along their journey. A nice round face looking up from a blind at approaching ducks has probably tipped the ducks off before, enabling them to live another day. This is something that is engrained in their instincts to prolong their survival.
Facemasks are a must when you are hunting educated ducks. The masks are particularly important on sunny days. Make sure the mask is comfortable, well fitted and, of course, easy to see through.
Camo face paint is also an option, but the mess it creates is often not worth the effort. In a pinch, you can even spread mud on your face to break up the outline. This should be a last resort, but it is one I am sure we all would use to have a successful hunt.
Ducks that have survived to reach the coast have learned quite a bit about being cautious when approaching other flocks of ducks or decoys. With that in mind, it is imperative that you make your decoy spread as natural as possible.
Be sure to use decoys that are of the same
species as those ducks you are hunting. If gadwalls are the most numerous waterfowl in the area, you should have the majority of your spread consist of that species.
If you are hunting puddle ducks, make sure your spread does not contain more than a token couple of diver decoys. If you are hunting divers, the reverse is true.
Late in the season, convincing wary ducks to commit to a decoy spread can be accomplished with numbers. Instead of the usual three to four dozen decoys, you can increase your spread to closer to a hundred or more to put ducks at ease.
Some hunters go in the complete opposite direction, using only six to nine decoys in an attempt to fool wary ducks with minimal numbers.
Lee Minto of Mobile has hunted ducks on the Mobile Delta for 40 years. Over that time, he has picked up a trick or two to fool educated ducks. One of his methods might seem strange, but Minto has used it successfully many times over the years.
"After the season has been going for a couple of weeks, the ducks get mighty smart. They rarely decoy within gun range without making numerous passes. They always seem to find something wrong and sit down out of gun range," Minto said.
"I have discovered that it is easier to go look for an area in midmorning that has ducks that are already settled in and blinds nearby. I approach them with my boat, and when they jump to leave, I scurry in the nearest duck blind. I then quickly throw out three to six decoys and get loaded fast," Minto explained.
According to Minto, it does not take long for some of the birds to come back. When they do, they often decoy right in.
"I try and get covered up as soon as possible and be very still. With only a few decoys out, the ducks must think some of their gang has already settled back in again to start feeding. Often the ducks decoy right in, offering easy shots. If that doesn't happen, it's easy to pick up the few decoys and move to another area," said Minto.
SCOUTING FOR DUCKS
Finding huntable groups of ducks gets more difficult as the season progresses. This is where the hardcore duck hunters get their chance to shine. Heavily hunted ducks start seeking out sheltered areas where they can feed or rest unmolested.
The large open places where ducks show first in early fall can be like poison to pressured ducks. Start looking in more secluded places, like the dead ends of creeks, small saddles on the side of the river or sandbars.
Other hunters in a hurry to get to the "best" spot often bypass such places.
Two years ago, I kept seeing a group of gadwalls building their number near the boat launch as I came in from miserable hunts. When the group surpassed 50, I decided to go for it.
As I watched boat after boat leave the launch that morning, I hoped that no one would see me and laugh as I hunted so close to the launch. As the morning progressed, I only had one opportunity. Almost ready to give it up at 8:00 a.m., I saw a nice flock of 10 gadwalls cruising in. They came so close I should have gotten three! But, in my excitement, I only downed two. The other four to fill my limit came within an hour after that, as the late-arriving ducks came in to feed at this unhunted area. The only person laughing at that point was me!
Calling ducks into shotgun range can be the most satisfying part of your hunt. However, calling ducks that do not respond positively can also be aggravating. Ducks not responding to your calls can cause you to scratch your head, wondering what went wrong.
After the first couple of weeks of the season, you should call sparingly, just enough to get the ducks' attention. Once you have their attention, it is left to the decoys to do the rest of the convincing.
Mallard calls are the most popular made. Most every duck hunter has hanging around his neck a call built to sound like a female mallard. Because of this, ducks have been serenaded all the way down the flyway with these calls.
Ducks reaching South Alabama can be very unresponsive to mallard calls. However, whistles can be very effective at luring ducks into range. I prefer a call that mimics the sound of widgeon, pintails and teal.
Many ducks, and especially the three mentioned, make whistling sounds. Using a whistle instead of a regular call sometimes interests these ducks into coming closer. Just be sure to include decoys of ducks that whistle in your spread to complete the realism.
SELECTING THE RIGHT AMMUNITION
Because of the situation with wary ducks in South Bama, longer shots are required. Reports of ducks 20 yards out and right over the decoys might sound great, but the reality is much tougher.
While outlandishly long shots at spooky ducks are not suggested, you should consider ducks at 40 to 45 yards killable with the right shotgun shells.
Start out by placing a decoy out at 40 yards and another decoy five yards beyond that one. Do not shoot at anything beyond that last decoy!
Increase your size of steel shot from No. 2 or 3 to BB shot. Ducks can be effectively dispatched at 40 yards using BB shot. It only takes two to four pellets to drop a large duck at this range.
For those who cannot stand the thought of losing pellet count by using the larger shot, there is an alternative. Hevi-Shot is a non-toxic alternative shot that drops ducks dead at considerable range. By using a No. 4 or 6 Hevi-Shot, you can retain pellet count and still maintain lethality.
The only drawback with Hevi-Shot is the price. However, if you are a reasonably decent shot, and you do not hunt every weekend, the cost may not seem so steep. Give it a try and see for yourself.
DON'T BE A DUCK SNOB!
The most abundant and popular duck in the Mississippi Flyway is the mallard. The problem is the mallard is primarily a grain feeder. With farmers leaning toward cotton production in South Alabama, there is little to attract mallards.
On the other hand, gadwalls, teal, widgeon, scaup, ringnecks and shovelers are all readily available to South Bama hunters in a typical duck season. Taking advantage of the sudden appearances of these ducks gives you the chance to salvage a season in a state where we receive only a trickle of the Mississippi Flyway.
Two years ago my good friend Steve Lyda extended an invitation for a duck hunt on a farm pond he had access to. According to Lyda, the pond was holding over 100 ring-necked ducks.
After meeting at a 24-hour coffee shop, we left for the farm in heavy fog. I was already starting to have second thoughts about the hunt when Lyda assured me that the conditions would be okay when we arrived.
Once there, we got on the upwind side of the pond in a cluster of bushes, put out a dozen ring-necked decoys and waited for daylight. The ringnecks did not disappoint, as they came into the pond at daylight in waves! Because so many ducks descended on the pond that morning, we were able to pluck 12 drake "blackjacks" from the group, in what proved to be the most exciting hunt of the year.
Some hunters do not think of targeting teal during the regular duck season, either. Green-winged teal can become quite abundant in South Alabama, especially after a strong front blows through.
Be on the lookout for green-wings throughout the season. The birds prefer very shallow water and can often be found on mudflats. They also take up residence in the channels that run through the mudflats, making them difficult to spot. This is where a good pair of binoculars comes in handy.
Green-winged teal are very reliable ducks. What I mean by that is, as long as they are not disturbed or moved by weather, you can spot them one day and be confident they will show the next morning.