Think differently and ‘do the opposite’ to try to outsmart mid-season ducks that have grown wise to the tricks of waterfowl hunters
We have all been there before. Duck season is at the halfway point. Opening day excitement has worn off. That sweet spot we call “mid-season” is upon us and, with it, comes…stale ducks! If this were a movie, we would now hear menacing music.
So, what are stale ducks? Honestly, I hadn’t heard the term until I was in my thirties. I now know the telltale symptoms of stale ducks in the first few minutes of a hunt.
- They begin to circle just close enough that you think they might decoy but just far away enough that doubt creeps in.
- They start to “bump and run” whereby they cup their wings and dive toward the decoys then pull up about sixty yards out for yet another pass.
- When you blow your call they either snub you or beat a path in the opposite direction.
- They begin to frequent off-the-beaten-path areas that offer less pressure from predators, both wild and human.
How to Hunt Stale Ducks
What does the average duck hunter do, then, to outsmart stale ducks during the mid-season blues? In these trying times I turn to two icons of pop culture for inspiration: Steve Jobs and George Costanza. Allow me to explain…
Steve Jobs led Apple through a successful advertising campaign many years ago by simply proposing that people “Think Different.” My interpretation of the theme of the campaign was to think and act differently than everyone else in order to achieve success.
George Costanza of “Seinfeld” famously changed his life (for at least one episode) when he had an epiphany to do the complete opposite of his every instinct.
I encourage both new hunters and grizzled old veterans to try a few of the following ideas. Who knows, maybe you’ll fool a few stale ducks into your decoy spread this mid-season.
Think Differently: Reconsider Your Typical Decoy Spread
Ducks see hundreds of decoy spreads as they migrate south each year. I’d be willing to bet a day-old donut that many of those decoys spreads contain three to five dozen decoys, mostly mallards. I, too, often deploy such a spread. Sometimes it takes thinking differently, however, when trying to fool stale ducks.
One of my favorite schemes is to set a spread of only two decoys: one drake and one hen mallard. This “nano-spread” has worked at least a couple times each year over the last four or five seasons. And, hey, if it doesn’t work, you only have two decoys to pick up after the hunt!
Another trick up my sleeve is to set a spread of five black duck decoys. Black duck decoys have great visibility by contrasting well against shallow water in a puddle duck hole. I use five decoys because my duck mojo superstition against even numbers often gets the best of me.
Do the Opposite: Change Hunting Locations
I’m all about scouting and finding the exact spot where ducks want to be. But sometimes I feel like that coveted honey hole actually contributes to stale duck behavior. They get so used to that spot that any small variable like a new “island” that wasn’t there yesterday or duck calls that sound a little tone deaf can make them act a little weird.
While scouting, pay attention to the periphery of areas and you may see a flock sneak into a secluded backwater spot away from the main congregation. I once watched a couple flocks of mallards disappear into a semi-wooded area at a local public marsh. When my hunting partner and I explored the area, we flushed a hundred or so mallards from a clearing in the trees that was only the size of a backyard swimming pool. Thirty minutes later we walked out with two limits of greenheads simply because we explored beyond the honey hole.
Think Different: Reconsider Decoy Motion Tactics
One can search the internet and find hundreds of articles about adding motion to decoy spreads. Spinners, splashers, and wave makers all have their niche. The longer the season goes, though, the more chances ducks have to experience the rush of pellets whistling by their tail feathers every time they approach a motion decoy.
More and more I find myself on a tangent from other hunters’ motion tactics by using probably the oldest motion decoy in the book: a jerk cord. They’re simple, they’re old school, and, darn it, they work. Make your own out of some decoy line and a bungee cord or buy a pre-made kit. Give it a try this season, especially on a day with little wind, and you may be surprised at the reaction from those ducks you thought were stale.
Do the Opposite: Change Your Hunting Times
Up at dark-thirty. Set up an hour or more before sunrise. The early hunter gets the duck, right? Well, yes, it’s true that ducks tend to move more in the early morning hours. But I have yet to shoot a duck wearing a wristwatch. Ducks move more because of their stomachs and disturbances than by clock-watching, so try to get out when there are fewer hunters out pressuring them.
During the mid- and late-seasons, my family often hunts the 10:00am-2:00pm shift. Yes, we see fewer ducks trading around, but the ones we do see typically work our decoys better. It’s that whole “quality vs. quantity” debate. The point is, if 95% of the hunters in your area hunt the dawn patrol, then many of them may be snoozing during mid-day while you’re shooting ducks.
Think Different: Reconsider Your Attitude About Game Bags
I’ve navigated through many philosophical stages during my more-than-thirty-years as a waterfowler. In my teens it was all about limits. In my twenties and thirties it was about finding a balance between being a hunter, a father, and a husband. Now, in my forties, I find myself chasing the experiences, the sights, the smells, and sharing those times with my family and a few close friends.
A successful hunt now involves feasting on the subtleties of a sunrise and stealing glances of my two sons prodding each other in the duck blind. If a bird happens to make it onto the game strap, well, that’s the proverbial icing on the cake.
I’ve started using this Zen-like approach to help cure the mid-season blues. First, I set my own limit of 1-2 birds per hunter per outing. This allows me and a hunting partner to move into an area, harvest a few birds, then make a quick getaway so as to not disturb the birds in the area. We’ll let the birds rest for a couple of days then head back for another short but hopefully successful hunt.
My family prefers to eat our harvest fresh and a few birds over a few days does just fine to keep my two teenage boys’ bottomless stomachs happy. If you’re all about filling game straps then this tactic may not be for you. But if you’re about sharing quality time with family and friends in the field, this might be your ticket.
Stale, mid-season ducks are kind of a love/hate thing. We love that we are still in the “meat” of the season with lots of ducks hanging around. We hate that they are fickle, frustrating, and can sometimes elicit colorful language from otherwise calm, cool, and collected hunting partners. Perhaps “hate” is too strong a word for the fowl we all passionately pursue. Get out there and think differently, do the opposite like ol’ George Costanza, and you may just change your perspective on those frustrating fowl!
Brad Stefanoni grew up hunting quail and waterfowl in southeast Kansas, where for the past 20 years he’s been passing on what he learned to his wife and their two sons. His diverse background includes work as a biologist, a science education center director, an outdoor writer and a developer of public/private partnerships. With a degree in wildlife biology, Brad’s current work-in-progress is transforming his family’s 80-acre farm into a living laboratory of upland and wetland habitat. His passions include spending time with his family and black Labrador retriever pursuing waterfowl and upland birds, and fly fishing.