Expert Tactics for December's River Ducks

Most major rivers in the Northeast contain open water throughout the waterfowl hunting season, and ducks abound wherever they can find food and shelter. Try these proven tips for hot shotgunning action near you this month.

Mallards are the most common species encountered by December river duck hunters, but other puddlers and divers are also a possibility. Photo by Tom Migdalski

By Jason Haberstroh

It was a clear, frosty Saturday morning just before Christmas. We were nestled within a group of five small islands that speckled the middle of the river less than 20 miles from our largest city. Pockets of foot-deep, calm water between the islands were dotted with mallard decoys. The scene looked the same a week ago when we were scouting, except that live mallards filled those same shallow, open spaces!

A half-dozen plastic bluebills swam the main river about 30 yards to our left to lure in any lonely divers that might fly by. In the pre-dawn darkness, we set up our blind on one of the islands at the base of a recently overturned tree that had finally bowed to persistent floodwaters. The wiry root system provided good cover and prime shooting positions. We each poured a cup of coffee and settled in while listening for the telltale quacks of wandering ducks.

Suddenly, three mallards zoomed overhead in the dull light, banked out toward the main-river channel and circled back, dropping in perfectly. My hunting partner and I each splashed a curly-tailed drake.

By 10 a.m., we were admiring the full spectrum of colors on a varied limit of ducks while observing our former quarry contentedly feed and preen among the decoys.

When winter's freezing weather finally clamps down, the swamps, backwaters, ponds and small lakes that many ducks favor are no longer open. Ducks that were widely scattered in fall become concentrated in the remaining open water. The key to late-season duck hunting is to find the open water. Of course, the shores and bays of the larger lakes are good places to be for late-season duck hunting, but physical distance becomes an issue that precludes many of us from regularly enjoying those traditional duck-hunting bonanzas.

However, there are usually local inland waterways that maintain open water through the winter and hold good numbers of ducks during the late season. The most viable open-water option probably wanders accessibly close to every hunter reading this article. That big, local river that robbed you of a fortune in fishing tackle last spring can redeem itself by providing some great winter duck hunting this month.

While most other bodies of water sit lifeless under a coat of ice in December, many major rivers will be teeming with ducks. Current, fluctuating water levels, warmwater discharges and barges keep resting, roosting and feeding areas open.

River archipelagos, islands, peninsulas and creek mouths provide great setups for cold weather river duck hunting. A day or two of scouting will reveal enough hotspots to warm your gun barrel on any chilly winter day.

Precise location is utterly important to being a successful duck hunter, and late-season duck hunting emphasizes that fact. Instinct tells ducks the areas that they want to be in; a hunter's well-laid decoys and melodic calling is secondary to nature's orders. Set up in areas where you have recently seen ducks. If you don't have a lot of time to scout, call state park offices or your state's wildlife commission; they may be able to help narrow your search. Or the best thing to do if you have limited time is to take a day of hunting and split it into a hunting/scouting excursion. A half-day's investment in scouting can provide many future days of quality duck hunting.

When you find ducks, know that they are in that particular area for instinctive reasons. So, if you see ducks somewhere, hunt that specific place. Even if you spook them off while scouting or approaching to hunt, don't worry about it, set up there and they will likely soon return.

During the late season, expect to encounter large resident and migratory dabbling (puddle) ducks, primarily mallards, black ducks and widgeons. A variety of migratory diving ducks (or sea ducks), including buffleheads, bluebills (greater and lesser scaup) and goldeneyes, will also be staging or wintering in open rivers, too.

Dabbling ducks prefer to rest and feed in shallow water around peninsulas, creek inlets and in the water bordering islands; whereas diving ducks habitually frequent the deep water in the center of a river.

Diving ducks will sometimes rest and feed near shore and will often come into or pass over decoys near inlet fringes, islands or points.

Dabbling ducks prefer shallow, slow water when they stop to feed and rest, so choose a land structure that features these characteristics and offers places to hide. (Shallow water is not only more attractive to hungry ducks, it is also easier to set out and pick up decoys!)

Diving and dabbling ducks from the remote reaches of Canada are relatively easily decoyed. They rarely encounter hunters or experience any human contact in the vast spaces of water and extreme latitudes in which they spend the warmer months. As they descend the latitude ladder or head toward ocean water, they start to encounter hunters, especially around the borders of the Great Lakes. Still, many migrant ducks, especially divers, are ignorant to hunters and will decoy well within shooting distance of an open anchored boat, which likely represents a tiny island to them.

Diving ducks usually stay in a relatively tight area and swim more than fly, so it's best to get there first. In many cases, even if you stop and set out decoys within their sight, you'll often be shooting at ducks within minutes. To find them, ride the river in your boat with a pair of binoculars in hand, searching for flocks of ducks or white spots (goldeneyes, buffleheads and bluebills all have white either on their heads or bodies).

Quality resting and feeding areas are limited when ice covers much of the river, so different species of diving ducks can be found together in flocks or even near mallards and black ducks.

If you don't have any diving duck decoys, set out your mallard decoys, and then add a dozen bufflehead or scaup decoys to the mix. Don't intermingle dabbling ducks and diving ducks, but set them out in separate groups to lure in both species.

If you have a duck blind-type boat, a very effective dabbl

ing-diving duck double setup is to anchor your boat about 25 feet out from a group of small islands void of large standing trees. A well-camouflaged boat becomes just another island to passing birds. Current is reduced around the perimeter of land structures, so it should not be difficult to set up.

River archipelagos attract ducks for a number of reasons. First, a group of bare islands provide security because they are surrounded by water and lack thick cover. Dabbling ducks will even gather on these small islands to rest. Also, the water within or surrounding these tiny islands is usually shallow and relatively slow moving, both features dabbling ducks prefer.

Meanwhile, divers are attracted to these areas by the company of other ducks and the rich feeding possibilities. Search for islands where the surrounding water has vestiges of underwater plant life because the primary food of dabbling ducks is aquatic vegetation. Diving ducks supplement their diet with aquatic seeds and plants.

Set puddler decoys in the shallow water within and on the periphery of the islands. Place some diving decoys in the main river away from the boat. Set the decoys 10 yards closer than the range at which you are consistently accurate with your shotgun. Most diving ducks are not suspicious of hunters and the close proximity of your decoy spread gives you a better chance to score on small, swift ducks such as buffleheads or goldeneyes.

When setting decoys in the main-river channel, be sure your decoy lines and anchor weights are sufficiently heavy for the depth and current conditions. In strong current, a pound or more of weight may be necessary to keep your decoys from becoming river flotsam.

Anchor on the archipelago's windward side or end, where the wind is directly or quartering to your back. That way, incoming ducks will always be in front of you. No matter how you position yourself around a group of islands, keep your diving decoy spread perpendicular from your boat in the main-river channel.

This setup will entice both dabbling and diving ducks to land among your decoys. The puddle ducks may circle a few times before coming in, but migrant ducks, both dabbling and diving, will pitch right in.

If your boat lacks duck blind accessories, don't worry. Some of my best hunts have been out of a spray-painted 12-foot rowboat with camouflage burlap covering the length of the boat like a blanket.

The biggest drawback when hunting from a rowboat or similar boat with a shallow hull is that shooters must keep a low profile, which often means you'll be shooting at ducks while you're curled up in the bottom of the boat.

When hunting from a small boat, or even a larger one, make sure to take two anchors. You don't want your "tiny island" swaying in the wind or current. Especially important when hunting from a smaller boat is to anchor with your bow pointing upriver to maintain maximum stability. If you happen to forget one or both anchors, old foundation blocks or even large rocks can substitute as makeshift anchors.

If your duck boat is a johnboat or canoe, or if you prefer to hunt from land, pull your boat up on an archipelago island and hunt from the island. Even though these bare islands lack cover to hide behind, small boats can be made to blend in nicely. Just stay low and well hidden under an artificial blind.

Long, thin peninsulas and moderate to large islands with cover are sometimes the best and most comfortable setup for hunting late-season ducks. There's dry land to set your feet on, yet there is enough surrounding water so that ducks feel comfortable.

No setup is as simple and cozy or as effective. Natural cover makes a perfect duck blind. Ducks that have survived their first season are wary and not easily fooled. Natural covered peninsulas and islands accomplish that task well.

When deciding exactly where to set up on an island or peninsula, current blockage is the foremost consideration. Dabbling ducks want to feed, rest and preen in minimal current. The downriver ends of islands or the downcurrent sides of peninsulas are prime places to set your decoys in the surrounding shallow water.

The tips of skinny peninsulas also make good double-duck setups. Set some dabbling decoys in the slack, shallow water on the peninsula's downriver side and around its tip.

Place diving decoys at least 30 yards out from the end of the peninsula to ease any natural wariness diving ducks may feel about being so close to land. Some diving ducks will find your decoys very suitable and fly right in, while others may keep their distance. Diving ducks prefer to stay in open water and away from land structures, though they will often feed close to a protruding or isolated shoreline, especially when there's readily available food or other ducks are present. The majority of your dabbling decoys should be in slack water behind the peninsula, but place some just around the tip because these decoys will be more visible and inviting to both types of ducks looking for a place to land.

If your setup is on the downriver end of an island, set your diving decoys directly to the side of your position in the main river. If the top of the island, your hunting position and the diving decoys were points, they would make a right angle if lines were drawn connecting them. Scatter your dabbling decoys in the slow-moving, shallow water below and to the sides of the island.

Creek mouths are excellent locations for late-season duck hunting. The same conditions that dabbling ducks prefer among river islands also exist in creek mouths, i.e., shallow water, remnants of aquatic vegetation and light current. Place decoys at the creek's end or in shallow water where there is some vegetation.

Although diving ducks are stronger and can swim well in current, they also frequent shallower water near creek mouths to feed on vegetation, mussels or small fish that are more abundant in these areas. String some diving decoys directly out from the creek entrance and on the downriver flat that extends below the creek mouth.

Ducks that fly off the river to feed in nearby grain fields will often exit and enter the river via tributary creeks. The last half-hour of the evening is a great time to wait near a creek mouth and pass-shoot flying ducks.

Always use as many decoys as you can, but as few as a dozen will invite small groups of ducks. In fact, as the late season progresses, ducks may become shy of large decoy spreads and be more willing to land in an area with fewer decoys. Ducks want security, and if they have routinely found that lots of ducks mean danger, they'd rather land with a few ducks or none at all. In fact, there have been times when I've had to stuff a few decoys back into the bag to get some shooting.

In addition to security,

ducks need food, so it's worthwhile to add feeding decoys to your dabbling decoy spread (these decoys look like the back half of a duck). Feeders will give your setup more realism and may provide that little extra attraction that hungry or decoy-leery ducks need before they commit.

Nevertheless, if you only have a dozen resting decoys, remember that you might shoot more ducks than another hunters with 100 blocks out using all the specialized equipment on the market. Location always trumps numbers and types of decoys. Hunt in a place where ducks want to be, set out some decoys and you'll get plenty of shooting.

Calling late-season ducks can be tricky. You want to grab their attention, but ducks that have been dodging steel shot stay clear of obnoxious duck calling. Therefore, it's best to use feeding chuckles or just a few greeting quacks. Use the hail call only when ducks are at a distance or it appears that they will pass you by.

Most diving ducks are quiet and make very few loud calls. Low-volume whistles, quacks or squawks are typically the only sounds you'll hear from diving ducks, and by that time, they should be within range of your shotgun.

For diving ducks, your decoys substitute as your call. Place decoys in areas that are highly visible to ducks flying along or resting in the river.

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