There’s something about the pursuit of ducks in the late season. Big fat mallards, fully plumed widgeons, and late season flocks of various species of ducks, hanging on until the spring warm up and their return to the north. It’s just special.
As the duck season progresses, so does the cycle of the ducks’ breeding seasons, the food sources the ducks are targeting, and the locations the ducks are found. When the late season phase of duck hunting lands in your lap, it’s time to adjust your tactics and find the X.
Late Season Duck Decoying
Smaller Decoy Spreads for Late Season Ducks
Duck decoys are at the heart of duck hunting. Used strategically, duck decoys are arguably the duck hunter’s most critical tool, apart from your shotgun and shells. As late season creeps in, drakes and hens begin to pair up for their long trip south, and the spring breeding season ahead.
Consider utilizing a smaller decoy spread during late season hunts to mimic these pairing ducks. Twelve to eighteen decoys is more than enough of a spread this time of year. One theory lends itself to leaning hen-heavy with your late season spread, with hopes of attracting more passing drakes looking for their southbound partner. Group your decoys into smaller family type groups of three or four decoys together on the water with space in between groups.
Using a Spinning Wing Decoy in Late Season
There’s no doubt about it, spinning wings and mechanical motion duck decoys have changed the duck hunting game. During early season, many hunters run two, three, and sometimes even four or more spinning wing decoys in their spread. These decoys add an attractive flash and motion to your spread that catches the attention of passing ducks. The “spinners” provide a level of confidence that other ducks are landing, and the coast is clear.
However, as late season duck hunting gets underway, it’s worth the time to reconsider your spinning wing decoy strategy. By now, just about every duck flying south from their nesting grounds has seen a spinning wing decoy or two. The element of surprise for young of the year birds is long over, and educated birds are what remains.
Consider Downsizing Your Spinners – Try using just one spinning wing decoy in your spread – two at the max. If you get too flashy, you might push the educated birds off.
Put it Low to the Water – In early season, you may have used a long pole to get your spinner up and really attract attention. As late season develops, try using a floating spinner, or set your spinner pole so that your decoy is just above the water’s surface.
Use a Remote Control – During late season hunts, spinners still work wonders at attracting passing ducks. Circling ducks looking for a place to land, however, can sometimes be wary of your spinning wing decoy. Try using a remote control on your spinning wing decoy, and shut off the spinner as soon as the birds lock on and give you that first pass.
Move the Spinner – Moving the spinner to the very edge of the landing area in your spread can help take the decoy out of the direct line of late season suspicious birds. If the situation lends itself, you can even place your spinner on the far side of your blind, or past your decoys (upwind).
Late Season Duck Food Sources
Pursuing ducks throughout the hunting season requires hunters to locate birds to hunt. As the season progresses, flocks of migrating ducks look to varying food sources. From the early season floating vegetation, smartweed, and millet to the calorie-rich crop fields of late season, successful hunters follow the birds and their flight path from the roost, to feed, and back again.
Late season ducks require feed high in calories and carbohydrates to make it through winter’s cold fronts and to start their southern migration. Look for agricultural fields such as corn stubble, harvested bean fields, milo stocks, etc. Even if you don’t plan on hunting the crop fields, learning the birds’ flight path from roost to feed can help you identify potholes, ponds, and other bodies of water the birds may use to loaf on during the day.
Finding Late Season Ducks
Hunting ducks during late season can be an emotional roller coaster. Locating huntable birds is one of those ups and downs of the emotional duck hunting joy ride. Picking apart the birds’ habits and habitat can help you locate groups of ducks that will offer you some of your best hunting of the season.
Late Season Ducks on the Ice – Ice-up or hard water can seem to be an insurmountable challenge during late season. In fact, frozen lakes and marshes can concentrate what ducks are in the area. Focus on small open holes or feel free to use an axe and break open your own landing zone.
Big Water Ducks – Look for deep water holes on larger lakes and reservoirs that birds are keeping open. Exposed wind-driven shorelines will be the first place the ice will break up on these lakes, and open water will move onto the top of the ice, attracting the ducks.
Frozen Marshes – Emergent wetland marshes with heavy weed and forage growth sticking through the ice will often open up pockets when the afternoon sun heats the weed stems, melting the ice around them. These areas of broken ice and open water can be extremely productive afternoon spots.
Moving Water – When a deep and heavy cold front locks up all the area lakes and marshes, the ducks will often move to riffles, sandbars, and pools on creeks and rivers that are being kept open by moving water.Hunting moving water brings with it its own challenges. Decoy lines may need to be lengthened to accommodate swift water pulling down the front of your decoys. Sand bars and gravel bars can move overnight, making navigating moving waters an interesting challenge.Gang rigging decoys from a single weight along open slack water is a great technique to setting and retrieving your decoy spread on moving water.
Using a floating gun case and floating blind bags is always a good idea during duck season, but can mean the difference between losing gear and saving it when hunting moving water. Take special care, and pay attention to dropping temperatures both for the safety of you and your hunting dog when you’re out during late season. On those really cold mornings, bring a thermos full of coffee to warm your insides up. Finally, get out there and enjoy those late season days of duck season. If you put in the time and find some ducks, the successes of late season hunts are fantastically rewarding.
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