January 25, 2021
As the 2020-21 duck season nears the finish line over the next few days, waterfowlers in many parts of the southern U.S. are hoping to bag a last-gasp limit of quackers as the current season's buzzer prepares to sound.
But since we're inside the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter now, time is short and the tactics that might have worked earlier in the season aren't going to do much good now.
So how can you bag a final week limit of ducks? There are three keys to keep in mind, including the first one of finding some huntable ducks as a couple of guide friends have endeavored to teach me over the years.
One of those guides was the late J.J. Kent, a man who built the successful Kent Outdoors guiding operation north of Dallas and scouted for hours and hours every afternoon.
The other guide is Dakota Stowers, the young man that Kent mentored, a likable guide in his 20s who now runs the very busy and successful North Texas Outfitters operation not far from Wichita Falls, Texas. Like the late Kent did, Stowers now burns some gasoline each day in the wide-open southern Great Plains country, putting lots of miles on his pickup truck each fall.
He noted a few days ago that such hard work has been very necessary to this year's NTO hunt success.
"This season has been tough on hunters in North Texas and southern Oklahoma," said Stowers. "We've consistently stayed on birds (through our daily scouting), but we've been shooting mostly gadwalls, or gray ducks, as many hunters call them."
'Stuck in November'
For most of the season, the lack of severe cold weather and snowfall up north has made the afternoon scouting chores of Stowers and his multiple NTO guides that much more important.
When one hunt is over, the birds are cleaned, and the clients are taking a nap, NTO guides are hitting the highways and county roads near Waurika, Okla., taking a look at one of the dozens of properties they hunt in a several county area.
Mallards, the king of south-central Oklahoma duck hunters most years, are the hoped-for pot of gold at the end of the scouting rainbow. But so far this season, greenhead numbers have been a bit thinner than normal.
"It seems to me like we are still stuck in November," said Stowers. "It never really got cold up north, so mallards and late season birds are staging up around Nebraska and Kansas. As long as it doesn't freeze up there, they really have no reason to leave with open water and food around."
But there are other ducks to hunt, and when Stowers and his crew find some in the late-afternoon hours, that's where they'll have a group of clients the next morning hunting out of A-frame blinds that are grassed up well.
With any luck, there will be plenty of duck traffic the next morning on the small lakes, stock tanks, or sheet water where the ducks were loafing and feeding the afternoon before.
While southern Oklahoma and North Texas both have more surface water than most people might believe, the problem is that one good duck shoot then starts the scouting process all over again.
Take the Time
So, what can the average duck hunter learn from how these guides operate in a region filled with small waters? If at all possible, take a few hours the afternoon before a hunt, look over the places you can throw decoys the next day, find the best concentration of late-season birds, and then be there at the crack of dawn the following morning.
"It's a whole lot of windshield time and time behind the binoculars to find huntable numbers of birds for each day," said my late friend Kent.
J.J., whom I had the privilege of hunting with a number of times before a heart issue took him from this earth in untimely fashion, once told me that if he had learned anything in his years of guiding duck hunters, it was this: some years are great, some years are poor and most years are somewhere in between.
And in all of those years, the best hunting success usually comes to those who work the hardest to find it, whether you're a full-time guide or a weekend warrior like I am.
Less is More
A second key for a late-season limit of ducks is the spread. And according to both Stowers and Kent, when it comes to decoys, right now, less is more.
Kent had hundreds of decoys hanging in his big shop and so does Stowers. But while bigger spreads might be the ticket for early season hunts, they can be a liability now.
In fact, a few years back, Kent called me up and told me of some late-season success…with barely any of his decoys on the water. In fact, the Avian-X pro-staffer had put out only six mallard decoys, five Canada goose decoys, and a single jerk rig decoy.
"We've gone to a small spread mentality," my late friend laughed as he related the tale of another successful January hunt. The buzzer-beater ducks had worked the spread much more warily than they had before Christmas, but the end result was a handful of clients limiting out on gadwalls, mallards, and a few big Canada's for good measure.
Over the years since I first started duck hunting as a high-schooler back in the 1980s, I've also found that a key to late-season decoy spreads is to match the hatch, so to speak.
By late January, the reverse migration is kicking into gear near my Red River Valley home and we're starting to see shovelers, pintails, wigeon, green-winged teal, and redheads on our duck straps. As a result, I'll add a few of those decoys to the late season spread or even go to a January decoy rig all but devoid of mallard blocks.
The Right Call is All
The third and final key to bagging a limit of buzzer-beater ducks is to get the calling right. And when it comes to last-gasp serenades of mallards and their fowl kin flying over the spread, less is more here too.
"Right now, (late January is) the bottom of the ninth and we're all walking on eggshells as duck hunters with stale, end of the season birds," said Kent, who was also a pro-staffer for Zink Calls.
Kent relied on a Zink Power Hen 2 call, one that would give out "…a soft highball or two, a few subtle feeding chuckles and quacks and that's about it."
"It's more soft-selling the birds than calling them in right now, more of trusting that my scouting efforts were good and the decoy spread will do its job," advised my late friend.
When it all comes together, the hunting can still be good at the tail end of the season, even when there's a TV crew in camp to film a show.
"We did all of the things I mentioned above - hard scouting, just the right touch on the decoy spread and just enough calling," Kent told me a few years back about an episode that ended up airing on Sportsman Channel.
What was the result?
"We really got into them and slammed them," said the late Kent. "We got several limits over (that late season) weekend, the majority of them mallards with a few gadwalls, teal, pintails and Canada geese mixed in. It was good stuff."
Just like it can be for any duck hunter willing to work hard as the 2020-21 season winds down over the next few days.
Get it all right and you can end the season on a high note, one that produces a duck hunter's smile that will last all the way into next fall, all thanks to a last-gasp, buzzer-beater limit of ducks.