January 17, 2024
When shooting light arrived, we knew we were in a bad spot. My buddy Austin Crowson and I were hunting a slough, and it didn't take long to realize we were set up between two groups of fellow hunters.
The group to the north was a couple hundred yards away on a gravel bar that extended into the river. The hunters to the south were closer, in a bigger slough. Ducks were flying, but with all the public-land pressure, none were dropping into our decoys.After an hour of seeing ducks but not firing a shot, we pulled the decoys and moved to the head end of the slough.
We cut our decoy count in half to two dozen, including a dozen wood duck decoys tucked tight to the brush. A couple groups of mallards rounded out the spread. We stood in nearby alders, and soon ducks started bombing in. By 11 a.m. we had our limits.
Moving to a secluded part of the slough and downsizing our decoy spread paid off. Our goal was to simulate newly arriving ducks into the thickest, most protected part of the slough. It worked.
With the height of duck season comes growing pressure. Here are more moves that will help bring success.
MIX IT UP
For some of us, the late-season ducks we hunt are still migrating south. For others, the ducks are on their wintering grounds. Then there are those of us who see an influx of ducks already heading north by the end of the season, whereby adding to the number of birds seen. Whatever your situation, there's likely a mix of duck species where you hunt, meaning your decoy spread should follow suit.
Mallard and pintail decoys are the go-to species this time of year, but consider adding wigeons, shovelers and even a few divers to the set. Wigeons and shovelers have been doing well in the Pacific Flyway, and these gregarious birds can quickly make a spread look very lifelike. The white patches on wigeon, spoonbill and diver decoys add contrast to a spread that allows ducks to see them from afar, giving you the edge. Sprinkle the spoony decoys amid the mallards and pintails, set the wigeon decoys along the edges and block the upwind end of the spread with a tight wad of divers.
Two additions that can make a difference late in the season are a couple full-body honker decoys and a dozen coot decoys. I took some old mallard decoys and painted them black with a white bill, and they work just fine as coot fakes. Place the coots in groups of three or so among the other decoys, or place them all in a tight group at the edge of your spread to simulate a feeding flock. Set a wigeon decoy or two next to the coot flock, as wigeons routinely move in on feeding coot flocks to feast on vegetation stirred to the surface.
I like placing two standing, full-body honker decoys—one upright, one feeding or relaxed—on land to add confidence to the spread. Geese are wary birds, so if ducks see them in a particular spot, they're often inclined to join them. Placing a few floating wigeon decoys near the honkers creates a realistic look.
Confidence can also come in numbers, which means going with large spreads can be a good move. When hunting lakes, sheetwater or flooded fields, large decoy spreads create a sense of calm. On sheetwater I like mixing in 20 dozen or more Big Al's silhouette duck decoys with a few dozen floaters. Adding a half-dozen floating goose decoys and a few dozen goose silhouettes to the upwind end of the spread helps ducks see it from afar and often keeps them from passing through the spread. Big decoy spreads are meant to stop ducks, not bring them over for a passing shot.
STEP UP THE QUALITY
A move that's helped me attract pressured ducks late in the season is using higher-quality decoys. Two seasons ago I started running a couple dozen Final Approach fully-flocked mallard decoys. Not only do these dekes work well on foggy, rainy and freezing mornings, they look like the real thing on sunny days, too. In fact, I'm confident there are days I've had better success on pressured ducks when running two dozen fully-flocked decoys instead of six or eight dozen plastics.
Another move that's made a difference is adding full-body standing mallard decoys to the spread. Be it on gravel bars, along flooded creeks, in wet fields or on the edges of ponds, placing two groups of a half-dozen big, full-body mallard decoys can make a difference.
MOVERS & SHAKERS
In states that allow it, motorized swimming decoys are must-haves for late-season hunts. Mallards, coots or anything that throws water and creates a ripple will work, and having two or three in the spread is better than one.
Motorized decoys cannot be used in my home state, so hunters rely on jerk cords. I've had the best success with Motion Ducks Decoy Spreader, which puts into motion seven ducks at a time. In the late season I'll run two of these in different parts of my spread to create movement in different places. On days when the wind is swirling, I'll reposition the spreaders multiple times to make them more visible to approaching ducks and to create precise landing zones.
In the final four to six weeks of the season, I pull my spinning-wing decoys. I do this because everyone I know uses them all season long, and I think the static position of a "flying" duck is something pressured ducks grow wise to. You might say I'm overthinking things, but I believe this has helped lure in educated birds.
In some places, freezing water will force ducks to move. In others, an increase in rain and flooding will disperse ducks. In either situation, think of where a blind can be best situated and what kind of blind it should be.
While you may like hunting with several buddies from an A-frame, if birds aren't using water near a ditch or fence row, this blind might not be feasible. But if you hunt alone from a one-man blind or a layout, then you might be better equipped to hunt where the birds are.
Last season, five of us planned on hunting a flooded canal, but the evening before the hunt, the water receded and the ducks moved to the middle of the field. So, I begrudgingly called three buddies and uninvited them. There was no way all of us could hunt where the birds had moved to because there wasn't enough cover. Instead, one friend and I hunted from layouts and had a great day. If you want to kill ducks, sometimes it comes down to minimizing your footprint, which means downsizing the blind and/or the hunting party.
The more you hunt, the more you realize how the challenges of late-season duck hunting varies from week to week. Hunting smart, making wise choices and adjusting your setups accordingly are keys to consistent success, as are creating looks birds in your area have not seen.
If something isn't working, fix it. If a couple flocks of ducks pass over the decoys, assess the blind to make sure there are no black holes that could be causing them to flare.
Study the decoys and adjust them according to shifting winds and how birds are reacting. Adding and pulling decoys, whereby creating strategic landing holes, can be all it takes. When it comes to late-season ducks, overthinking things is rarely a bad idea. Refusing to make necessary changes often is.
- The Slayer Calls Ranger is easy to use and gets ducks' attention.
I like calling ducks, but I'm not great at it. Many of my hunting buddies are way better than I am. But that doesn't keep me from practicing, continually trying new calls and calling on every hunt.
I do a lot of hunting alone, and one call that's been a game-changer for me the past two seasons is a single-reed call dubbed the Ranger from Slayer Calls ($134.99; slayercalls.com). This call is loud, crisp and easy to run. It's great for catching the attention of distant birds with a loud blast or working birds in stiff winds. For late-season, high-flying flocks, I know I can cut loose on the Ranger and the birds will hear me. When wary birds circle wide, I'll hit 'em hard with the Ranger and often talk them into the decoys. I used this call on more than 75 duck hunts last season, and it's with me again this winter.