November 26, 2019
By M.D. Johnson
If you’ve hunted ducks for more than a year, you know all about the mid-season lull. Heck, for that matter, maybe you witnessed it firsthand your very first season afield. What, you ask, is this mid-season lull? If you’re unfamiliar, try this. Go into a small, windowless room, stuff a towel under the door, turn off the light, and stare at the wall. What do you see? Nothing, that’s what. Now, imagine it’s duck season. Swap the room for the marsh and the wall for the sky.
That’s right. You’re seeing exactly the same thing.
It happens, this mid-season lull phenomenon. From the Rockies to the Pacific, there will come a time when the skies seem void of ducks. You struggle for one. You struggle for none. The internet resounds with a chorus of bellyaching. We need weather, writes one hunter. The birds are stale, posts another. Oh, woe is me. Where are the ducks?
There are those who make it sound easy and, for them, while still work and often a challenge, combatting the November lull is just like handling any other down time. A Pacific Northwest icon, Kennewick’s Bill Saunders owns and operates Bill Saunders Calls and Gear, and runs Big Guns Waterfowl Outfitters, a full-service duck and goose hunting operation in Washington’s Columbia Basin. Now retired from competitive goose calling, Saunders has no shortage of titles under his belt.
I asked Saunders to define this lull, and then, having provided a definition, to discuss how he goes about dealing with it.
“What is [the lull]?” he asked. “Hell, I think I’m in a lull all season long anymore, what with the warmer weather we’re experiencing. But the lull? During that time, we’re waiting for our first push of northern [migrating] birds, and we really haven’t had any weather to push the birds down ahead of schedule.
Essentially, we’re hunting the same birds we’ve been hunting since the season opened. They’re stale. They’re beat up.”
Ah, the infamous stale ducks. Refuge ducks. Mythical creatures? Real?
“I’d say [stale ducks] exist,” said Saunders. “You can set your watch by these birds. You see a five-pack of mallards at 10 o’clock. Three hens and two drakes. I’m seeing them every day. I’ve called at them. They’ve seen my decoys. They’ve seen my blind. They may even recognize my style of hunting. With these, you’re waiting for something to change. You’re waiting for weather. You’re waiting for wind. You’re waiting for them to screw up so you might get a crack at ‘em.”
Definitions aside, here are Dr. Saunders’ suggestions for handling this most frustrating, albeit traditionally inevitable, turn of avian mid-season events.
DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT
If this article and Saunders’ commentary were to have a common denominator, it would be this: Do something different.
“This applies to any hunting or fishing endeavor,” he said. “Do something different. And if that doesn’t work, do something crazy. Maybe I’m going to set five decoys. Maybe I’ll set 500. If I’m calling a little, I’ll call a little bit more. And if these adjustments don’t work, then maybe it’s time to try something radical. Something major.”
I know. It’s easy to get into a rut—a routine—especially when there’s not much happening, e.g., the mid-season lull. You set the same 24 mallard decoys in essentially the same pattern on the same puddle of water. You use the same double reed blown in the same cadence and volume as you did the day before.
Oh, they’ll be back, you think, as you stare at an empty sky. Again, I know. It’s tough to move. It’s tough to change, to leave the routine behind and try something new. But that’s what you have to do. Scout a new backwater. Float an unfamiliar section of that small river you’ve been meaning to see. Heaven forbid, leave the spinning wing decoy at home. Different isn’t easy, but now, different might make all the difference.
RETHINK YOUR DECOYS
“If I’m waiting on ducks during the lull,” Saunders said, “I’m always partial to downsizing my spread. I think the birds get tired of seeing that same spread of ‘X’ number of decoys time and time again. Not only mine, but everyone else’s, too. I’m talking to other guys, trying to get an idea of what they’re doing, so I can do something different. But the easiest thing I’ve found now is to downsize. Hell, I’ve gone to as small as three decoys. Six decoys. Just a tiny little spread.”
I’m with Saunders on this point; however, my typical spread usually numbers no more than 18, so I don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room there. What I will do, in addition to dropping down to a dozen, is to substitute my mallard blocks for something else. Something different.
Now, I’ll run what a good friend of mine refers to as the carnival spread. You name it, it’s there: a couple mallards, widgeon, pintails, shovelers, gadwall, a wood duck, and a pair of cinnamon teal. For visual enhancement, perhaps a drake bluebill or a couple drake ringnecks.
If, as Saunders suggests, I’m leaning toward the radical side of things, I’ll set a dozen coots in a tight ball, with two mallards—drake and hen—off to one side, and a jerk string in the middle.
GIVE EM’ THE GOOSE
“Hunting ducks over a goose spread is probably one of the most overlooked tactics available,” Saunders said. “If I hunt ducks in a field, the only reason I put duck decoys out is so my hunters know that we’re actually duck hunting. And we’re starting to do this more and more over water in areas where there are decent numbers of Canadas. I mean it makes sense. No duck is going to look down and see two dozen ‘geese’ on the water, and not think it’s an inviting place to sit and stay. He doesn’t have to see mallard decoys. It’s all about thinking outside the box.”
Again, I concur. In fact, my usual—and I will refrain from using the words regular or routine-—small water spread from November on consists of eight to 12 flocked Greenhead Gear Canada floaters, and half a dozen mixed mallards, widgeon, and pintails set in groups a few steps apart, with a two-teal Rig ‘Em Right jerk string in the middle.
Concealment, as it is throughout the whole of the season, is paramount, as is what I call a “Quarter-To” set up. I’ll position my blind, be it an Aquapod, portable, or what-have-you, 90 degrees to the wind and the spread. Ducks will then work left-to-right or right-to-left, but they won’t be looking at my hide as they work.
Little things like this can make a huge difference during the lull when opportunities are at a premium.
LEAVE THE BLIND BEHIND
And while we’re on the topic of blinds. Maybe it’s time to leave the blind behind and do something (yep, you guessed it) a little different. I know, it’s all about greenheads at 25 yards over decoys from a box or boat, all of which have followed a ladder of notes down from the heavens to hover innocently over your rig. Right? Maybe. Maybe not.
Maybe it’s time to ask yourself if you’re a chaser of mallards or a hunter of ducks. Come November’s downtime, you’ll see me throwing the layout boat onto the Columbia hoping to intercept the first waves of bluebills. Or I know a couple small streams and Back 40 ponds that are tailor-made for jump-shooting. And there are three or four secluded beaver swamps, all reminiscent of the waters I grew up hunting in Ohio, and all of which, on any given day, may hold a handful of wood ducks, mallards or grey ducks. Variety, as is said, is the spice of life.
“This is the time of year when I tell my hunters that ‘a duck’s a duck,’” Saunders said. “When it’s cold and there are a lot of birds around, sure, we’ll wait and work through them. We’ll pick out the mallards or we’ll pick out [only] the greenheads. But during the lull, a duck’s a duck. If we sit around and wait for mallards, we might be here all day. Hell, we might be here all week.”
DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL
Here’s what I’ve always told up-and-coming turkey hunters at my seminars: As long as your mistakes have nothing—nothing—to do with safe gun handling, ethics and your representation of hunters nationwide, go ahead and make them. It’s how you learn. Experimentation is key. Improvisation is key. Adapting to changing conditions is key. And successful waterfowling is all of these and more.
“I do see this younger generation, the YouTube generation, as being somewhat afraid to break out of the box or break from tradition,” Saunders said. “Maybe that has something to do with the low participation in calling contests and fishing tournaments. This generation seems to be hesitant or reluctant to fail. Part of trying something new and mastering that something new is a willingness to accept failure. Maybe it’s a lack of experience or applied knowledge. Winning. Losing. Whatever it may be. All of it; it’s the only way to become successful.”
Don’t be afraid to fail. No truer words have been spoken about waterfowl hunting, particularly when the topic turns to dealing with the dreaded mid-season lull.