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Tips for Late Season Duck Hunting

Tips for Late Season Duck Hunting

A pair of mallard ducks prepare to land in late winter weather.

Exploring late season duck hunting tactics and strategies to increase your odds.

When late-season ducks get weary, they head to the Pond. It’s a shallow mudflat the size of a tennis court brimming with bulrush, cattail, and all sorts of other foods ducks go crazy over. At high tide, the Pond maintains a depth of about a foot. It’s the perfect feeding depth for dabbling ducks. Here, they can eat, sleep, and loaf around all day without ever dealing with the harassment of a hunter. 

The Pond is a late-season duck sanctuary, but hunting it is no picnic. Despite all the grass, there are few places to hide. Despite all the ducks, it’s about a forty-minute boat ride from the nearest ramp. Hunting places like this requires a little bit of tenacity and a lot of luck. More than anything, it requires knowing how to fool pressured late-season ducks, which boils down to strategy.

Pressured Birds Are Smart Birds

Ducks that have made it into the late season have earned their stripes. They’re commanders in survival. They’ve turned every close call into a learning opportunity. Every out-of-place decoy taught them how to spot a hunter. Every off-tone duck call taught them how to hear a hunter. Every whiffed shot taught them never to fall for your tricks again. Waterfowl hunting gets more challenging through the season, especially in pressured areas, and it tends to culminate in January. By this time of year, cookbook hunting strategies no longer work, and the ducks just ain’t where they used to be. 

I motored out to the Pond well before sunrise on a snowy January morning, cutting through a thin film of ice that had solidified overnight. The wind blew out of the northeast, and it scoured my cheekbones and every other bare area my thermal clothing couldn’t reach. It’s cold. Bone-numbing, frost-biting, duck-hunting cold, and I’m doing everything I can to grit through it. I planned to set up with the wind to my back, so I pulled up my motor and paddled in, carving a channel through the frozen water and clearing out a plot for my decoys before tossing them out. I wedged the bow of my sneakbox up into the grass, and it disappeared in a grove of bulrush. The moonlight cast a porcelain reflection on the ice as I settled in, waiting for the sun to break. I hear whistling wings and distant duck chatter in the dark, and hail calls are close by. But this was the Pond, and these birds were veterans. This was no easy hunt. 

Making Late Season Duck Decoy Spreads Look Natural

Just as the sun eclipsed the horizon, the early morning flight unfolded. Ducks are zigging and zagging like insects scrambling after flipping over a rock. In the dull light, I caught the silhouettes of a trio. They break from a greater flock and circle over my decoys, swinging in wide arcs as if they were attached to my decoy spread by a string. Then, they float gently, lowering until they hover just above the water.

One of my favorite things about duck hunting is watching ducks stool into decoys. It’s a sight I don’t take for granted, mainly because it’s never guaranteed. I’d bet, in my life, I’ve had three or four times as many ducks check out my decoys and keep flying than actually commit. Cupped wings drive me to the edge of anticipation, and every time the plan comes together, I try to figure out what worked and why.

That day on the Pond, I had a few things going for me. For starters, the whole marsh was frozen over. It’s a perk of late-season hunting. Ice does two things: it cements other hunters in their beds and keeps ducks in the few remaining open bodies of water. Typically, you can find open water by finding fast-flowing pockets or create your own by breaking ice like I did that morning. The fewer options pressured birds have, the better the hunt. 

The second thing I had going for me is that these ducks don’t have much reason to second guess what they’re looking at. My decoy spread consisted of two black ducks and three mallards. They floated in the open water and moved fluidly in a soft breeze. If they weren’t moving in the wind, I’d be using a jerk rig to keep my decoys alive, and I’d be using it sparingly. Vicious jerks raise the alarm, but subtle movement looks organic. 

My decoys were also aligned naturally, not in any fancy configuration. Three mallards huddled in one corner of my spread, and two mallards clung tight to each other in another. Not a thing looks out of place. Small spreads like this keep wary ducks comfortable. Large late-season spreads can look unnatural. By now, ducks know what a hunter-made decoy configuration looks like, and these can add more risk than reward. The more decoys you have, the more pressured birds can pick out as wrong. The same holds true for spinning wing decoys and overcalling. 

Less Duck Calling in the Late Season

As the trio lowered their feet, I got excited and ripped out a single quack to keep the birds committed. The sound that leaves the call, however, is anything but the low, raspy quack I want. It’s a piercing, high-pitched siren that sent my whole body curling into a regretful wince. The cold froze my reeds together, and my fumbled quack cut through the still air like a fire alarm in a library. It sent those birds rocketing right out the back door. 

Despite the challenge posed by hunting pressured birds, success doesn’t require much hunter interaction. I know this and pound myself with the lesson as I watch those birds disappear into the distant sky. The key to not doing it again is to contain your excitement. Ripping out a duck call can feel empowering. It makes hunters feel like they’re doing something. But hunting pressured, late-season ducks is a process built on passivity. It’s an affair designed by intent. Build the right decoy spread in the right pocket. Set up in an area the ducks already want to be. And when it comes to attractions, less is always more.

Where Late-season Ducks Want to Be

One of the best things about the Pond is that it’s a refuge. Not only is it far from the boat ramps and walk-in hunting areas, but it’s a sanctuary built on shallow water and duck forage surrounded by highly pressured hunting areas. When ducks get shot at along the periphery streams, they end up here. When they bust hunters up near the wood line, they turn around and stool in. The Pond is where the birds want to be when the going gets tough, and hunting late-season pressured birds is all about finding places like this. That can require combing through digital maps, paying attention to the patterns of other hunters in your area, or scouting with boots on the ground as late season hits.

I lost sight of the trio and settled into my embarrassment. Then, I tucked away my calls in my hunting jacket and sank deeper into the grass. It was still the early morning flight, and despite scaring off those three birds, there were still dozens in the air and more to come. 

Shotgun blasts cracked off in the distance. Their echoes radiated from the distant treeline, and when they reached me, it was a faded static. From one of those blasts, I noticed a hoard of birds moving an undulating ball above the meadow. At first, they were tiny pin-pricks piercing through the orange sunrise canvas. But soon, the mass grew. It twisted and broke, sending doubles off to my right and small flocks out in front. A few shot up in elevation and took on V-formations; others stayed low to the grass, checking out every pocket of water they passed by. I watched and waited. My finger felt for the trigger and hovered over it gently. The birds have swallowed the Pond. They’re on all sides. Then, I hear a jet. It’s the sound of cupped wings hissing through the cold marsh air. Above and behind me, six black ducks missiles zeroed in on my decoys. I raised the butt of my gun to my shoulder and nuzzled it in tight. I raised the barrel, leveled the bead, and held it to the sky. 

I discovered the Pond after a humbling duck season about a decade ago. Marred by skunked hunts and missed opportunities, I took a boat ride just after the season ended. I twisted up the familiar tidal stream and ended up lost in a maze of unknown territory. Soon enough, I pulled up on a shallow mudflat. Upon arrival, dozens of pintail, gadwall, and wigeon launched high into the sky. I marked the area on my map and made plans to hit it the following season. Ever since, I’ve been returning to the Pond year after year, but never more than a few times. One of the most significant risks of finding a late-season sanctuary is hunting it out. Pressured birds need a place for refuge, so when you find a good one, keep it that way and hunt it sparingly.

The crack of my shotgun soared over the meadow, and soon it faded to the sound of swishing sedge in the slow breeze. My heart thumped, and the marsh settled back to quiet. Over the horizon, I noticed that the clouds had turned from orange to white. The sun hung high behind them, and the ducks continued to fly. It was the last hunt I’d have this season, and I reminded myself of that as I sat back against the bulrush and stared up into the sky. The cold wind continued to cut across my cheeks. It’s just me, the Pond, and the ducks, and this time next year, I’ll be here again. 

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