A few changes in hunting tactics can make the difference on these shy, late-season birds. Three effective late-season hunting tactics are smaller holes, smaller spreads and smaller calling.Small spots
One change in tactics I love to employ when the birds become decoy and blind shy is to hunt ditches, puddles and potholes. I used to scout a good bit from the air, and it was very easy to find ducks in small drainages, sloughs and out of the way holes while I was high above in an airplane.
Not everyone has access to an airplane, but you do have access to aerial maps on the internet. While you can't observe daily duck movements from aerial maps, you can at least get a bird's-eye view of your territory, and you can find the exact locations of small water.
In a sea of flooded rice, soybean and corn fields, lakes and brakes and flooded timber, where do you start looking? Think small. You're not thinking about finding 1,000 birds on a 100-acre field; you want to think about finding 20 or 30 birds in a spot the size of your yard.
Find a handful of birds in a hole that is barely larger than your kill zone. Look for a hole that is out of the way and not likely to be hunted by others. A few of my favorite examples are listed below.
• Ditches. The Gin Hole was one of my favorites. It was nothing more than a ditch between two cotton fields that had grown up in willows. I found this spot one day while flying, and glimpsed a few mallards splashing in the water. The opening below was so small, I only noticed it for a moment before the trees again obscured the open water.
I circled around and flew the length of the ditch, observing two elongated openings, no more than 10 yards wide and 50 yards long, but they were packed with ducks. It doesn't take many ducks to pack a hole that small, but I got permission to hunt this spot, and I was glad I did.
I came back with my brother, and we stamped out two limits of mallards in no time. A few days later, I came back with a paying client, and we both limited on mallards and managed to take a band.
The following year, I took a few groups of hunters to the Gin Hole, and we had great hunts. Each hunt yielded fast, up-close shooting, and put grins on the faces of all of my hunters. Most of the time, the ducks were in the decoys before we ever noticed them. There was very little calling to be done here, and you had to flush the birds and let them fly out before you took the shot; they were just that close.
The willows along the sides of the ditch were 30 feet tall, and the birds had to fly in and out of the ends of the hole. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. You had to get your birds quickly because only a few were using the hole, and if you missed your chance, they weren't coming back any time soon.
• Potholes. Not far from my front porch was a place I called the Water Tower. You can guess why I called it that; there was a water tower just across the field from this beautiful little cypress and tupelo gum brake.
Actually, the Water Tower hole was a brake that had been ditched and was relatively dry all summer. During the winter months, the field runoff would fill the brake, and it held a few dozen mallards from time to time. The "hole" was no more than 1 or 2 acres in size, and it resembled the bulb of a thermometer in shape, surrounded by trees. The round end was to the north and a narrowing strip of open water extended to the south. The only water within a mile of this hole was some local catfish ponds.
On days with a brisk north wind, the birds could pitch in behind the trees and get out of the wind on the north side or the "bulb" of the open water. It was one of those spots where you had to do your work early or wait out the returning birds well into the day.
When the birds came in to the Water Tower hole, they came in right at shooting time. If you didn't kill them, you'd be lucky to see them return by 9 a.m. The shooting was sporadic - singles, pairs and sometimes small groups would come in, but there was rarely a time when you had more than 10 or 12 birds work at once. After the daylight frenzy, flights might arrive once every 20-30 minutes.
A dozen decoys was all you needed to convince the birds to land, and a little leg movement in the hip-deep water made waves across the entire hole. After a hunt at the Water Tower, you had to let it rest for a week or more. But it typically produced limits of birds every 10 days to 2 weeks.
• Puddles. I once hunted a spot, called the Bremen Hole, where a lone cypress tree stood in a small depression in a soybean field. There was a turn row running alongside this hole, and it was on a ridge some 10-15 feet higher than the earth around this tree. A canal ditch ran on the opposite side of the tree from the turn row, and a good rain would flood this hole.
Sometimes, the water would be 10 feet deep, making this spot impossible to hunt and undesirable as a feeding spot for puddlers. But when the waters receded, there was a nice little puddle no more than two feet deep between the high turn row and the cypress tree. This puddle was about 50 yards wide and 200 yards long after a rain. At times, it was much smaller than that.
The cypress tree was covered with vines that climbed from the ground up into the branches, and the low-hanging limbs made for a perfect hideaway. It was almost too easy at times to stand under the limbs of that old tree and watch the ducks circle as if they were a tether ball on a pole.
I believe a man could've worn blaze orange and still killed ducks while standing under that tree. The birds didn't pay the least bit of attention to you at all.
The Bremen hole was such a duck magnet that I witnessed birds passing by another blind down the ditch one morning and come straight to me. The other blind was in the middle of a corn field, with open water about thigh deep. The water in the Bremen hole had frozen solid overnight, and was only a few inches deep. I broke the ice with my atv to no avail. There was very little open water underneath the huge chunks. I stomped out holes in the mud next to the ice and put decoys in each footprint. I put a few decoys in the ice, and laughed as I stood back and noticed that none of them were sitting upright.
It made little difference to the ducks. They ignored the corn field blind, and made a beeline for our cypress tree. We snatched quick limits in the sub-freezing conditions, and had a band to show for it when we got home. The boys in the corn field blind hardly fired a shot.
The Bremen hole was good for a hunt once every week or so, and when we hunted it, we usually brought home limits of mallards. It was another "producer" that required very little calling or skill but, made me look like a duck-hunting genius when I got back to the camp.
You can't hunt holes of this size very much. One hunt a week will usually be fine, but sometimes hunting it once every two weeks is all the hole can stand. Hide amongst the natural vegetation - behind a large tree trunk, between the thick button willows, snuggled under vines and grasses along the bank. If you do your homework, and scout well ahead of season, you may find enough of these small locations to last you throughout the season.
Sometimes, these holes are not leased by hunting clubs or individuals, and you may gain hunting access to them from the landowner for little or no money. A knock on the door, a friendly smile and an offering of fresh ducks after the hunt will usually go far.Small calling
I'm sure you've heard someone say that the ducks they were hunting were "call-shy." It doesn't necessarily have to do with the calling abilities of the hunter, but it has more to do with the biology of the duck.
Ducks begin pair bonding prior to mating. In Mississippi, this pair bonding can be in effect at the beginning of duck season. It is not uncommon to see pairs of birds coming in to the hole in early December, and the pairs are very strong by the end of our season. Paired birds are not as likely to respond to a calling bird on the water.
For this reason, the loud, attention-getting notes that are sometimes effective in the early-season are largely ineffective late in the season. The drake and hen are matched up, and they want no part in competing with unpaired birds down below. Take advantage of this by avoiding the high-balls during the late season. Instead, make the quack and contented hen call your noise of choice late in the year.
Jeff Estes from Charleston recommends softer call notes late in the year.
"Cut back on the volume and the longer notes, such as doing quick three- to five-note comeback/greeting calls with a little feed chatter. Single quacks are a big help in the late season also. I probably use a duck whistle more in the last couple of weeks than any other time.
"Ducks in the late season have heard every brand of call made, so you have to mix it up. Call at the ducks when they are on the corners, and let them do the rest. Calling at ducks coming straight at you or directly overhead will hurt you more than help."Small spreads
Late-season duck hunting can also mean a change in your decoy spread tactics. Ducks may no longer be looking for large groups of birds to socialize with, since pair-bonding has taken place. Smaller, less-competitive spreads may attract ducks more readily than larger, multi-dozen spreads.
Estes says smaller spreads are key late in the year.
"[The} majority of the birds are paired up in the late season, and your spread should be no different," he said. "I pair them up and put them out to where they are separated pretty well in the spread, using no more than a dozen, maybe 1 1/2 dozen."
Mark Edwards, from Pascagoula, echoes Estes' advice.
"When hunting ducks in the late season, I think a key strategy is to change the way you look at your decoys," he advised. "After being shot at for a couple months all the way down the flyway, ducks get call-shy and decoy-shy. We try to use smaller numbers of decoys, since the ducks have gotten accustomed to seeing large spreads of mostly mallards.
"The smaller decoy spreads seem to make the birds more confident, and more accurately represent the smaller flocks of late season ducks.
"For the same reason, I strongly believe in cutting down the number of drake mallard decoys late in the season, ditching the motion decoys and putting in more gadwalls than mallards.
"It also helps having a few decoys with a little white in them like widgeon or especially a couple of pintail decoys. The white flash is an excellent visibility aid when you have a smaller number of blocks in the spread."
Use small spots, small calling and small spreads to your advantage this duck season. Paying attention to these small details can lead to big success when it comes to hunting those wary, late-season birds.