December 07, 2015
Watch Pat Hogan and G.O. Heath, the newest member of the NAW team, take a break from hunting whitetails in favor of chasing waterfowl on Arkansas' Grand Prairie.
Outdoors people associate November with many things — football, Thanksgiving, raking leaves, the first snow, the end of fishing season and harvesting the last hardy vegetables. But easy duck hunting isn't one of them.
Late-season duck hunting is when sportsmen must try different techniques to draw wary waterfowl within gunning range if they want to bring home a game dinner.
This month is known for tough hunting because many ducks have departed for warmer climates, and the remaining ones were downed on opening day or chased from popular hunting areas during the season.
Unfortunately, we're getting little help from new migrants because the big Canadian waters are still open, and their birds, which can provide such hot gunning in December, haven't yet been forced southward.
But there are still plenty of resident birds in our area; it's just a matter of finding and fooling them, which doesn't get any more challenging than now. Here are some techniques the pros use for late-season duck hunting.
USE FEWER AND DIFFERENT DECOYS
Ducks like security, and if they associate seeing lots of ducks with danger, they will set in at spots with only a few ducks or none at all. As late season duck hunting progresses, educated waterfowl become shy of large spreads and are more prone to land in an area with fewer decoys.
"Always use as many decoys as possible," is common advice, and it's good advice under most circumstances, but as few as 12 to 18 can draw plenty of birds.
Besides feeling safe, waterfowl also need food, so adding a few "duck butt" or feeding decoys (which look like the back half of a duck) to your rig will make it appear different from other spreads.
Although they're smaller than full-sized decoys, feeders give your rig more realism, a look of security, and they offer extra attraction that hungry or decoy-shy ducks need to sway them.
SCOUT FOR ACTIVITY
Even if you don't own feeders and only have a dozen resting decoys, if you're in the right spot you may shoot more ducks than other hunters with 100 blocks. Location always supersedes numbers and types of decoys. Hunt where ducks want to be, set out a few decoys, and you'll get plenty of shooting.
"My advice for late-season duck hunting", says Capt. Ned Kittredge, a guide and lifelong waterfowler, "is to do your scouting homework and determine where the birds are resting and feeding.
In theory, if you're in the right place, all you need is one decoy. I've used dozens of decoys in a cornfield flooded after one of those ugly November rains, only to have the ducks fly right on by because there were too many dekes.
Going back a day later with just one decoy, my biggest and best 'smoothie' black duck, the birds were almost suicidal."
TRY SILHOUETTE DECOYS
Silhouettes are easily packable, and can add large numbers of birds to your rig without overcrowding the water with too many floaters. A handful of goose silhouettes won't scare away ducks, and actually add greater visibility and confidence to your spread.
Silhouettes also give you a higher profile atop the marsh in situations where your floaters are sitting down low, such as during low-water conditions.
When you use silhouettes, make sure some of them are quartering into the wind. If all of your silhouettes are facing directly upwind, approaching birds will lose sight of them if they are flying directly in line with those flat decoys.
As the birds cross your rig from above, seeing the silhouettes at differing angles also gives an illusion of motion.
BLIND WITH LOCAL MATERIALS
After scouting an active location, build your blind by assembling only local, natural materials. This means extra and sometimes strenuous work, such as stacking rocks or logs on a riverbank, cutting reeds from the marsh, piling waterlogged branches on a lakeshore or using cornstalks from a snowy field.
"Some of the best late-season duck hunting I've experienced," says Kittredge, "is when I stacked ice chunks gathered from the edge of the bay. Here's this ugly white object of a blind, and because it fits the terrain, the birds don't hesitate.
This isn't the time to use just prefab factory blind materials. At the very least, go the extra step by setting up your commercial netting and then dress it over with native stalks, reeds or branches."
BLIND FROM BEHIND
The easiest, and sometimes most successful, late-season duck hunting technique is using no blind at all. Rather than setting up a big unnatural structure in front of you, which the birds have now become wary of, nestle into structure that hides you from behind by breaking up your human silhouette.
I do this very successfully. By just snuggling into a cut in the riverbank and below the high-ground/high-water line, I virtually disappear while in plain view. If you can find a location with the sun at your back so you're hidden in the shade, you'll be invisible if you hold still.
I also often hunt rocky islands in the late season. I simply settle in among the boulders on a camo boat cushion, and I have a wide-open view and unobstructed gun swing while the birds remain clueless.
"One of the secrets to successful late-season duck hunting is better cover," says Capt. Hal Herrick, a guide with 45 years of waterfowling experience.
"You have to try harder to hide yourself, your dog and your boat. Wary waterfowl are wary about everything.
Be sure your blind or hiding spot is perfect in all aspects and don't neglect any details of your preparation. And when the birds are working don't move a muscle until the very last moment, regardless of how excited you are.
That's a common mistake made by beginners."
TRY A NEW TECHNIQUE
This may be the time to change your hunting strategy. Rather than waiting in a blind for ducks to come to you, you may have to go to the ducks. November is the perfect month to try stalking, jump-shooting or floating rivers and creeks that attract birds when small waters freeze.
It doesn't matter how many times wise birds have avoided decoy rigs when you're sneaking up on them.
The first important rule when floating a river is to have a boat of a suitable size. That means using one that is small enough to be inconspicuous and shallow enough to drift across skinny waters.
But the boat needs to be large enough to safely accommodate one or two gunners without high risk of capsizing. Rolling a tiny canoe into frigid November water quickly leads to hypothermia and drowning.
When floating down on unsuspecting waterfowl, keep your profile as low as possible and always cut the corners to get in closer to birds sitting behind a bend. Swinging wide lets ducks see you sooner, and they'll often flush before they're within range.
Also important is not to announce your presence. Avoid bumping around in the boat or running into rocks or logs. Don't make a lot of big ripples, which will travel ahead of you and alert suspicious waterfowl.
The best float-hunters camouflage themselves and their craft to look like drifting debris. You may start with a good paint job or by rimming your boat with camo netting, but then cover that — especially around the bow — with local materials such as brush, stalks, reeds or aquatic vegetation.
The front of your boat blind must be high enough to conceal a reclining hunter but low enough to see and shoot over when he sits up.
Try some of our different late-season duck hunting techniques this month. Chances are you'll be in for some hot action while others come home empty-handed.