The duck migration is underway: shorter days, colder weather, and wintertime precipitation are moving ducks from their northern nesting grounds to the south. The duck migration and duck season can be divided into several stages, not only by the days on the calendar, but also by the duck’s biology and breeding cycles.
Early Season Duck Hunting
Hunting at the marsh, in the blind, or in a duck boat anytime from late September to around the first of December can be considered early season, depending on how far south in the flyway you are hunting. Some hunters even “chase the opener” following opening days from north to south as duck seasons open along a flyway. Seasons in the Dakotas, New York, and Washington come open much earlier in the season than Texas, California, or Florida.
No matter when your opening day kicks off, early season tips and tactics will help you get more ducks in the decoys during the first stage of the duck migration.
Early Season Puddle Duck Species
Certain duck species are commonly known to migrate earlier or later in the season. There are no hard and fast rules, but as a guideline, early season hunts generally offer your best chance at a mixed bag of ducks. During the early season, before the cold really sinks in, look for these ducks on your hunt:
Blue-Winged Teal – Blue wings can’t take the cold and are among the first ducks to head south. In fact, their migration begins so early that many states hold early September teal-only seasons. The southern reaches of North American flyways still enjoy some late season blue-winged teal hunts, while most hunters won’t see a blue wing after the first frost.
Green-Winged Teal – Like their blue wing cousins, green-winged teal begin their southern migration early in the season. However, green wings can still be found in many parts of their flyways later in the season as well. Green wings will often be found mixed with bigger, hardier ducks late into the season.
Wood Ducks – Wood ducks are an interesting species and very unique among other ducks that hunters pursue. While most ducks are looking for shallow potholes, smartweed, and millet, wood ducks fly south following the crop of nut mast trees (e.g., oaks). Wood ducks are among some of the first ducks to start their trip southbound in the fall.
Northern Pintail – Pintails tend to prefer milder temperatures. Known to be extra wary, and a prize for many hunters and most flyways, the first big pushes of ducks from the north often offer your best chance to take a long sprigged pintail drake.
American Wigeon – Also known as the baldpate, the American wigeon is a prized duck in many flyways. These sturdy little flyers are known to hang just on the edge of the freeze line and southward when it comes to winter weather.
Gadwalls – Gray ducks or gadwalls are common in many flyways. Because they are readily decoyed and called to your spread, gadwalls are a great duck to pursue. Similar to the wigeon, gadwalls are usually found on the edge of the freeze and snow line during their migration.
Mallards – The most iconic duck of them all, the mallard duck is tough and sturdy, making themselves at home in frozen landscapes, seeking out small pockets of open water on large reservoirs and lakes, and river riffles during late season. Mallards are also versatile and begin to show up for many hunters during the first few weeks of regular season.
Divers – Diver ducks bring their own mix to the early season duck hunting game. Species like redheads, ringnecks, and canvasbacks move south with their puddle duck relatives. Diver ducks are generally found on larger bodies of deeper water (such as lakes and reservoirs) rather than marshes.
Early Season Duck Hunting Tips and Tactics
Hunting the Early Season Migration
The early migration is greatly influenced by weather. Northern cold fronts and storm systems will begin to push birds south in migratory waves. Hunters should keep a close eye on the forecast. Watch for northern winds, winter precipitation, and cold nighttime temperatures.
Hunting right before a cold front, during a cold front, and the day after a front is a key early season tactic. Early season “fresh ducks” provide the ideal hunting situation.
Decoying Early Season Puddle Ducks
Hunting ducks during the early stages of the season calls for tactics that match the migration. Scout for pools of isolated water that ducks are using to loaf and feed.
Less is more – Setting a spread of decoys dictated by the size of the pool is ideal. Often, two dozen or fewer decoys are needed for decoying early season ducks. Our large mesh decoy bag (carries 24 decoys) makes it easy to carry these decoys into a remote pond. You can use full body floating decoys or “feeder butt” options, which simulate a puddle duck tipped over while feeding.
Motion is Key – Live ducks obviously swim, feed, and dive when they are on the water. For passing ducks coming into your decoy spread, motion on the water and among your decoys is critical. On little or no wind days, consider adding a jerk cord to your decoy spread to help add motion on the water and the decoys. Utilizing a motorized spinning wing decoy, where legal, can create motion and flash in your spread to help finish ducks into shotgun range.
Calling to Early Season Ducks
Using duck calls during the hunt is full of tradition and romance. All types of materials from wood to acrylic have been used to create duck calls. Whether you are quacking like a mallard hen, whistling like a pintail, or peeping like a teal, calling to ducks is a critical part of hunting ducks.
When calling and hunting early season ducks, less is more. When ducks are coming to your decoy spread, put the call down. Call softly to working ducks, mostly in the corners when they are flying away from your spread, and help “talk” them back into your setup. When pursuing multiple duck species during the early season, it’s important to keep your calls organized. Try our braid DIY call lanyard to keep several calls handy and at your fingertips.
Early Season Duck Shot Shells and Choke Selection
Early season duck hunting generally provides the highest likelihood of a mixed bag hunt. Smaller and lighter birds such as teal, wood ducks, and widgeon are a good possibility in your decoy spread during the early season.
Matching your shotgun choke and shot size according to the type of hunting and the ducks you are pursuing is critical. During the early season, smaller ducks worked inside of 35 yards are suited to shot sizes #4 or #3 steel shot. Paired with an improved, improved modified, or modified choke makes an ideal setup for hunting early ducks.
From early, to mid, and finally late season duck hunts, the pursuit of waterfowl during the winter migration is a fantastic endeavor full of tradition, heritage, and outdoor adventure. Put your decoys to work, select the right shotgun setup, and call some ducks into your spread this season.
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