Our Late-Flight Duck Hunting
September 30, 2010
Hardy Minnesotans keep on waterfowling right up until the bitter end. If you are one of those brave souls, here's where you can find the late-season ducks.
Photo by D. Robert Franz
By Noel Vick
To be perfectly honest, opening day of duck season does little for me. Sure, there's the camaraderie of waterfowl camp. Ours is pretty much a typical deer camp, complete with great meals, fine cigars and post-hunt afternoon beverages at lakeside. But as for the actual hunt, I'm not big on armies of camouflage and the tactical warfare involved in procuring the best spot on the water. Yes, I too have been part of a heated verbal exchange on the water.
No, my season gets rolling several weeks after the opener - long after the fair-weather crowds depart, long after fall colors have peaked, and long after thin-skinned teal and wood ducks have headed south. My season is more about breaking shoreline ice, snowflakes vanishing on the surface of the big lake, and an icy-cold solitude tempered by the drumbeat of wings not yet seen.
Lately, we Minnesotans have had 60-day duck seasons. In 2002, in fact, hunters were waterfowling until Nov. 26. But if you're like me, they might as well strip it down to a 30-day season, as long as it's the latter 30 days.
Duck hunter extraordinaire Chip Leer of WildSide Diversified is daffy for divers and the late flight, too.
"What really excites me is the push to big water," said Leer. "The puddle ducks are gone and most of the little stuff is frozen. Everything is bigger - the flocks, the decoy spreads, the water, the boats."
And guess what? Even the birds are bigger if you're talking curly-tailed mallards, prairie-pothole-raised scaup, and those blurs of white and black known as goldeneyes.
Leer resides in Walker near the shores of Leech Lake - a distinguished waterfowling destination - and has guided as far north as Lake of the Woods - the mother ship of domestic big water. The experience of years of bucking whitecaps and stalking divers gives Leer a learned perspective on late-season hunting. And in his mind, site selection is the most decisive constituent of success.
"When birds hit a large body of water," says Leer, "they tend to loop or circle and come relatively close to shore. And long points, the obvious ones, give you the best chance of cutting them off."
Earlier in the season, when dabblers mixed with divers, protracted points were good spots but not great spots. But now, with inner bays and sloughs likely sealed with ice, main-lake jettisons are central. Plus, as Leer says, points often yield firmer footing, so you can erect blinds on shore, and that beats bobbing around on waves. It's safer, too.
Actually, Leer considers his Lund Alaskan - a pre-eminent duck hunting craft - more of a ferry to reach onshore blinds than a blind itself. Oftentimes, late-season shooting positions are situated great distances from boat landings, too, so it's imperative to travel safely, which includes wearing a personal flotation device and communicating to parties on shore where you're going and when you're coming back.
On a premium point, Leer contemplates and then inaugurates his decoy spread. And his dekes aren't placed in pods but rather in flocks. This is late season. Singles and doubles are expired characteristics. Sure, oddball, wayward birds will get suckered in, but that's not what Leer prepares for. His trap is set for massive invasions.
"We'll put out 12 to 15 dozen decoys, maybe more if we're hunting in a large party," Leer says. "More guys mean more decoys and bigger spreads."
Every hunter worth his or her weight in bismuth possesses a clandestine template for arranging decoys, so I won't elaborate on Leer's private brew. However, he does forward a few key components, which are universal.
"First, I like to set three or four dozen decoys in tight and upwind, but not right in front of us. Then I take another couple of dozen decoys and make a loose circle downwind, opposite the first set." Next, he creates a 20- to 30-yard gap - the killing fields - and positions another two or three dozen decoys in a collection and connects those to a three- to six-dozen bird string that tails off toward the North Pole, well beyond knockdown range. If all goes as planned, incomers will swing, hook, run the string and cup their wings in the gap before folding like a napkin.
Typically, his front sets consist of keel-weighted goldeneye decoys, while comparable bluebills make up the remainder. Both varieties boast intense patches of white, which are magnetic features to circling and ogling birds.
As mentioned earlier, Leer was a guide on Lake of the Woods and to this day considers it one of the finest - if not the finest - venue for late-season wingshooting. Explicitly, he sanctions U.S. waters within the Northwest Angle, more specifically, shoreline points on Little Oak and Garden islands. Nearby Canadian parcels offer premium gunning as well, but you'll have to deal with the licensing hullabaloo to partake.
Opportunities manifest along Lake of the Woods' south shore - Big Traverse Bay - as well. The washed shores of slender Pine Island create a harbor-like fortress, buffering the lakeside of Four Mile Bay. The island itself presents hunting prospects to both the north and south. Four Mile Bay is a shallow and sprawling tract with a storied duck hunting history. Abundant and scattered stands of bulrushes along with thick walls of cattails afford numerous shooting positions. Bostic Bay, Bostic Creek, Zippel Bay and Long Point also lure and shelter late-flight birds.
Lately, Leer's been scattering steel closer to home, mostly on 100,000-acre-plus Leech Lake. This beefy reservoir of the Mississippi River is a renowned recuperation station for migrating ducks and geese. Several of its backwaters and bays are loaded with the submerged vegetation and emergent wild rice. Of particular interest are Steamboat Bay, Sucker Bay and Boy Bay.
Despite the size of Leech's many bays - many unnamed ones, too - it's the points that earn Leer's consideration. Adhering to his own suggestion, he camps on a hard-bottomed and drawn-out main-lake point. A few of his darlings are Five Mile Point, Ottertail Point and Stony Point.
Equally as fruitful can be the islands. Pelican Island and Bear Island are Leer's top picks. And it wouldn't be prudent to abandon the subject of Leech Lake without identifying the Walker Bay Narrows. This familiar funnel between Walker Bay and the "big lake" bustles with both commuter traffic and gunners, but despite the chaos it still ranks high on the statewide depth chart.
Truthfully, there aren't many poor picks along the Upper Mississippi River as it winds through north-central Minnesota. The mixture of wetlands and waterways supplies a premium blend of food, shelter and large late-to-freeze surfaces.
Lake Winnibigoshish, at 70,000 acres, is a prime example. It, like Leech, is forged from the Mississippi River and is as rife with waterfowl as it is with walleyes. Principal shoreline points down the north, northwest and west shorelines put hunters in touch with swinging flocks. Third River Flowage - a bay-like tributary to the northwest - features wall-to-wall bird habitat and plenty of places to hunt from. Likewise, connecting lakes - Sugar and Cutfoot Sioux - tend to fill up with last-chance ducks.
Karl Kleman is another eager bird hunter who'll take an icy benchseat and bluebills over tepidness and teal. To him, a skim coat of ice escorted by sleet simply means more birds on big water and fewer competitors to contend with.
When asked what motivates him most, specifically, about late-flight shooting, Kleman responded: "The fact that in the late fall, evenings are better than mornings. I shoot more ducks between 2 p.m. and dusk than around sunup." That allows Kleman more sleep on the weekends and an occasion to bust out of work early during the week.
Similarly to Leer, he operates with flotillas of decoys, not just a few. Kleman's usual "Minnesota spread" consists of three dozen bluebill decoys - preferably G&H brand - spanned out into a "J" hook formation that curls back toward the vacant firing zone. On the inside, detached from the bluebills, Kleman plops down a dozen loose and relaxed mallard dekes. And to seal the deal, he integrates two or three floating Canada goose decoys. They provide the comfort and safety factors cagey ducks long to see. Plus, a big goose tastes wonderful when grilled on the Weber.
During the late season, Kleman's classic "J" hook armada is routinely positioned off a jettisoning point, one that offers a backwind (best) or lateral breeze (second choice). You'll never catch Kleman taking headwind, because he says ducks just won't hit the deck with wind at their heels.
Besides wind direction, Kleman selects a spot based on the whereabouts of birds. Yep. Sounds elementary, but it's amazing how many waterfowlers fail to scout. And it doesn't get any easier than during late season. There's no striving and straining to expose woodies in the weeds or teal in the tangles. Nope. Divers will be offshore, or at least not buried in the gunk along shore. And there's a fighting chance of spying larger flocks rafting in the open water.
Kleman's customized late-flight protocol doesn't end with scouting and picking points. He packs heavier steel, shooting primarily No. 2 shot, 3-inch magnums. "Bluebills and other big divers are tough to drop," he explains, "and everything's got a little extra body fat this time of year. And then there's the goose thing. Good luck penetrating one with something lighter than a No. 2."
In addition to bolstering his ammunition, Kleman also modifies his calling. "I've never heard a bluebill quack," Kleman says. He uses a conventional mallard-style call - the same woodwind he played in October - but instead of hailing and quacking, he "purrs" or "flutters."
"You make the sound with your tongue," he says. "Lots of short bursts, not the long and loud stuff. Divers won't decoy to those tunes."
Kleman stresses how important it is to tote adequate lighting. He wears a miner's-style headlamp and carries a couple of spotlight flashlights as well. "You don't want to lose decoys around freeze-up or you can kiss them goodbye." Leer told a story about how he and a partner lost track of some decoys on what would later become the final day before it iced over. They retrieved the decoys the following spring.
Outfitting oneself for the conditions is a no-brainer, too, but worth noting. Kleman says to dress with the assumption that the temperatures are going to be in the 20s or 30s with a dash of snow, maybe rain. Both he and Leer tote portable heaters, too. Kleman favors the Mr. Heater Buddy, which draws juice off a disposable LP cylinder. Leer leans toward the flameless Coleman ProCat heater, which runs on the same fuel.
Kleman's final tactical proposition relates to hiding.
"The later in the fall you get, the thinner the cover gets," he says. "A lot of the bulrushes will be down and the cattails thinned, so I bring plenty of camouflage material, mostly canvas."
On to the hotspots.
Kleman's hit list begins out west in Elbow Lake. "There are tons of good lakes and deep sloughs out there," Kleman says. "It's one of my favorite areas. It might be my first pick for the last couple weeks of the season."
Massive Lake Osakis sees its share of divers, too. "The head of the lake's area (narrow north end) can be really good, too," says Kleman.
Another favorite of his is Clear Lake near Farming. Kleman says the deep, bulrush-filled lake loads up with bluebills, and invites the occasional stray snow goose, too.
From there, he earmarks the Albany area, which is conveniently close to St. Cloud and none too far for metro residents, either. "There are a lot of deep ponds around Albany, and on any one of them you can shoot a mixture of mallards, goldeneyes, ringbills and bluebills," he says.
If you prefer bigger water, Kleman recommends Clearwater Lake in Wright County. For late-season prospects, he likes the midlake narrows and various pieces along the north and west shores.
His next vote goes to the Crow Wing River. "The stretch between Wahoo Valley (Wadena area) and Huntersville is well known for its late-season hunting," says Kleman. "There's another good hunk between Staples and Leader, too."
In the same general area, Kleman names neighboring Lake Alexander and Fish Trap Lake. Alexander's midlake islands and Fish Trap's back bays are perennial local favorites.
Kleman likes Margaret Lake, which is dead center on the map in the Brainerd area and links up to recreational mecca Gull Lake.
Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist Jeff Lawrence has some vital information as well.
"There are bunches of options," says Lawrence, "from west-central Minnesota to the big lakes in north-central Minnesota, and south-central and southwest Minnesota, too."
Without question, though, a discussion with Lawrence quickly reveals his liking for west-central Minnesota. "The field hunting for mallards and geese can be excellent," he says.
He also highlights the waterfowling opportunities along the Mississippi River from Pool 4 south to the Iowa border. The span of water is known for its late flight of birds, and multiplicity of species, too.
In addition to highlighting a handful of regions, Lawrence offers a few general tips, too. He stresses the importance of watching the weather, especially what's occurring in Canada and extreme northern Minnesota. Lawrence says that the occurrence of stormy weather to the north foreshadows the influx of new, migrating ducks. Scouting also rates high on Lawrence's list, as does knowing where the best food supplies exist.
Seasoned hunters and waterfowl authorities alike will tell you this is just the tip of the wing, as far as proven late-flight sites go. There's the whole Thief Lake area in northwest Minnesota; the Glenwood area and Lake Minnewaska; the metro's Lake Waconia and many nearby potholes; deeper cuts from Marshall to Worthington; and even our most illustrious walleye fishery, Mille Lacs, has late-flight opportunities from its many points and islands.
In short, it does get down to reconnaissance. Watch what lakes and sloughs the divers utilize during spring's reverse migration. See what ponds are saturated with local dabblers and/or southern-breeding divers. Food supplies must be positive. Avoid those ponds - as spacious and idyllic as they seem - that birds don't frequent, because they're likely devoid of desirable vegetation and edible invertebrates.
And this November, even if you're not hunting and maybe just driving around, pay attention to where birds are sitting. That information may someday prove invaluable.
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