January 06, 2021
By John N. Felsher
Southern duck hunters have every right to be jealous of their Canadian and northern-state brethren. After all, they get the first crack at blissfully uneducated ducks before they migrate down the flyways. By the time the birds reach the Gulf Coast, they've run a weeks-long gauntlet of shotgun blasts and received PhDs in evasiveness.
"Later in the season, birds can smell a rat pretty quickly," says Cody Young, an avid Alabama duck hunter. "If something doesn't look right, birds can tell instantly. When things get tough, southern duck hunters must be able to adapt."
As the season wears on, we must dig deep into our bag of tricks to fool wary waterfowl, but first and foremost we must identify where the ducks want to be. Those locations tend to have three vital elements—food, open water and security.
"Scouting is critical to hunting ducks," says Buster Cooper with Bust-A-Duck Guide Service and lodge in Gregory, Ark. "We scout every afternoon. We watch what the birds do and where they want to go. We don't want to be out in the ducks' front yard—we want to be in their living room, sitting on their couch waiting for them to come back."
WHERE TO LOOK
To be successful late in the season, you've got to know where to look for ducks. After a severe cold front, look for open water. Natural springs or an artificial warm-water discharge can keep water open. Hunters who find open water in a frozen landscape can enjoy outstanding gunning. For this reason, when ice covers the ground, many waterfowlers tow their boats to the nearest river.
"Fresh water is the key to late season waterfowl hunting," says Tom Cooper, a Mississippi Flyway representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It is imperative that hunters search for fresh water, like a sheet of new standing rainwater or a river that is on the rise. When a river rises, hungry birds follow the crest to eat the new food that's made available."
In a newly inundated field flooded by a rainstorm or river, ducks can find substantially more seeds and other delicious morsels. On private lands many waterfowlers plant millet, rice, corn or other grains ducks like and periodically flood those fields.
"We're right against the Mississippi River," says Jeff Dauzat with Fin & Feather Guide Service in Buras, Louisiana. "In late season, we'll move into some areas that are rarely hunted. When the tide comes up, it floods those fields."
Many sportsmen ante up big bucks to hunt private leases. Then they build giant blinds and surround them with hundreds of decoys. Setting these huge decoy spreads takes a lot of work, so many people leave their blocks out all season. However, birds grow accustomed to seeing the same pattern day after day, and this can tip them off that something isn't right. At a minimum, periodically change the spread by adding, moving or removing some decoys. Also swap out species from time to time. For instance, use more teal early in the season and more mallards later.
However, since so many hunters up and down the flyways use mallards, the real ducks eventually become wary of big greenheads. Use decoys that match the dominant species in an area, but also include dekes with more white on their bodies, like pintails, wigeons, shovelers, bluebills and scaup.
"I use a lot of pintail decoys," says Larry Robinson with Coastal Wings Guide Service and Lodge in Bay City, Texas. "Decoys with considerable white really show up well in rice fields and moist soil units. Later in the season, we might put a pintail hen next to four drakes to simulate a courtship ritual. Also, we might mix in a few bluebill decoys."
In the past two decades, many waterfowlers have added spinning-wing and other motorized decoys to create motion in a spread. Where legal, motorized decoys work great early in the season, but they can spook ducks later on.
"I was one of the first people in Arkansas to use the original Robo Duck," says Buster Cooper. "Those made many people think they were great duck hunters since they didn't have to do anything to attract birds aside from turn it on. Now, we only use them in the mornings, just for the flash. After that, we take them down because birds have seen those kinds of decoys from Canada all the way down. We've gone back to old-school methods like jerk strings. In timber, we kick the water to make some commotion."
A jerk string consists of one or more anchored decoys attached to a cord stretching back to the blind. Pulling the string makes the decoys bob up and down, creating lifelike rippling on the surface.
In a permanent-blind situation, place an anchor with a hoop or pulley attached to it in the pond. If the anchor doesn't already have a pulley or wire hoop, place such a device close to the anchor, but between the anchor and the blind. Run a dark or camouflaged sinking cord through the pulley or hoop to the decoy. Some hunters place a metal stake to mark the location of the anchor. Attach a black bungee cord from the decoy to the stake so that the decoy snaps back into place after you pull the cord.
In a temporary situation, you could attach a hoop to a portable anchor, such as a chunk of lead, and run a cord through it to make a jerk string. When done correctly, the decoy should create a commotion in the water when you pull the cord.
In places with both ducks and geese, a few goose decoys might bring in more ducks. Place specklebelly goose decoys in pairs or small groups on mudflats or dry ground off to the side of the blind at maximum shooting range.
"In late season, ducks get so leery of decoy spreads that we'll put out a specklebelly spread on a dry field," says Buster Cooper. "On cold days in January, when ducks are feeding in dry fields along with specklebellies, we'll kill a lot of mallards that way."
Some people hunt from the same large, comfortable blinds for generations. Any ducks that stick around a spot for a while quickly learn to avoid those blockhouses. In late season, find a secluded spot to hide in natural cover.
"It's nice to sit in a big heated blind," Buster Cooper says. "In late season, we get away from our blinds to go where the birds want to go. I tell my guides to move early and move quickly if they see ducks going somewhere else. Those birds are going there for a reason."
Ironically, hunting on public land can give waterfowlers a slight advantage. Even if the same public pond is hunted every day of the season, no two parties ever set up exactly alike, so birds see something different each day. On public land, pick out several places in case other hunters get to the prime spot first.
In the late season, birds might seek security and relief from hunting pressure by dropping into tiny potholes or wide spots in flooded timber. In these hidden havens, place a few decoys and hide in any available natural cover.
"We try to set up on small potholes adjacent to bigger waterbodies," Dauzat says. "Ducks like to raft up in the middle of the big lagoons late in the season. They only get up if boats come by and stir them up. They'll swoop around and drop into small potholes."
Good calling can bring in ducks, but too much or bad calling might chase them away. As the season progresses, call less and hide more. If birds look like they want to land, keep quiet and still. Most hunters use mallard hen quacks. Vary the calls. Use low drake tones, instead of boisterous quacks. Throw in a few wigeon, pintail or teal whistles for variety.
"Some people are addicted to calling," says Canaan Heard with Faulk's Game Calls. "I've never heard a duck quack more than three or four notes at a time. Do a few light quacks and maybe a feed call."
By late season, the farther down the flyway waterfowlers hunt, the more they need to step up their game. To fill limits in these waning days, go where the birds want to be and keep them guessing.
Three of the South’s top public-land duck destinations.
Louisiana: Pass-A-Loutre WMA & Delta National Wildlife Refuge
The Mississippi River creates a vast marshland in extreme southeastern Louisiana that annually attracts millions of ducks and geese. Waterfowlers can hunt the 115,000-acre Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area or the nearby 48,800-acre Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
"The Delta offers fantastic hunting, but people need to know where they are going," says Jeff Dauzat, owner of Fin & Feathers Guides in Buras, La. "Hunters need to watch the tides. That might mean not leaving the dock before first light in order to wait for high tide."
Tennessee: Reelfoot Lake
Created by a series of 19th-century earthquakes, Reelfoot Lake looks like a broken cypress swamp. The average depth of the 18,000-acre lake near Hornbeak, Tenn., is less than six feet. Fowlers can draw for public blinds or hunt private blinds or boat blinds.
"Reelfoot Lake is one of the best places to hunt on the Mississippi Flyway," says Mike Hayes, owner of Blue Bank Resort on the lake. "The reason it’s so good is because the Mississippi River bends around the lake. Birds take a shortcut straight across Reelfoot."
Arkansas: Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA
Not as well known as Bayou Meto WMA, Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA comprised 6,684 acres near Gregory, Ark. The moist-soil units and flooded timber attract many mallards. Also check out the nearby 73,000-acre Cache River NWR.