Jason Patterson | Waterfowl Regional ProStaff Manager, Mississippi Flyway
In no time at all waterfowl seasons will be coming to a close and this how to article will be helpful for you in trying to find some last ditch efforts to locate some ducks before the final whistle blows.
When I first started duck hunting 20 years ago, I had no idea on where to start; I am an Indiana deer hunter by trade, growing up in the cornfields of southern Indiana. I have deer hunted all my life and I wanted to try something different. I decided I wanted to be a duck hunter, which was a bad mistake because it has been a passion of mine ever since. Late season can be a time of transition and weather changes, new ducks migrating and ducks leaving for warmer areas this time of the year. We will discuss what to do when your backwaters freeze up and you have to pack up and go elsewhere.
What do I mean by crunch time? Well if you hunt the bottoms like I do, it is the sound of ice, so thick you can drive a truck on it! If temperatures are below normal, then most of the bottoms will freeze up this time of year and you have to find alternative ways to hunt. Waterfowl will either go south or find open water. This doesn’t give you a whole lot of options. One option is to find a river system, and these bodies of water usually stay open throughout the winter and can be a safe haven for migrating waterfowl.
Hunting rivers, on the other hand, can be tricky, dangerous and fickle at times. We have a blind on the river itself and this blind has produced good numbers over the years. You can also set up on a river bank or hunt out of a boat blind and have good success with a little bit of leg work. One bit of advice is that if the bottoms freeze up, then you better head to the river because that is where the ducks will be.
Tips and Tactics:
So far during this waterfowl season, the ducks have been plentiful at times and then non-existent. With the freezing temps this year, ducks have flocked to the big water and the results have been great for a lot of blinds on the river and the bottoms. We killed more ducks in the first three weeks of the season than we killed all last year.
When hunting open water one of the first things you have to do is put safety first. Make sure your gear can survive the water. Floating gear like a blind bag or gun case is certainly helpful. Big water can be dangerous with winds pushing waves three to five feet high. Water is dangerously frigid this time of year, so please wear your life jackets and take the precautions needed when venturing out. Dress warm and don't neglect your head, hands and feet, and try not to go alone if at all possible. Basic duck hunting knowledge with a few tricks up your sleeve will bring you good results. One thing about hunting the big water is that you will get to shoot a wide variety of ducks, so the chances of filling your limit are much greater.
Pay close attention to your camo this time of year. We primarily use Mossy Oak Bottomland and we make sure our blinds are freshened up with new brush. But as always, match the camo you wear to your background. We find many times when setting up a blind on a river bank that our Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades Camo is the way to go.
Mallard decoys are what the majority of us use, and they will still comprise the overall look of your spread. The one thing about river systems is that a wide array of species fly up and down these major tributaries, and using a few different looks in your spread can get you a few bonus ducks on tough days. Our decoy spread numbers about 200, mostly mallards with pintails, bluebills and few gads thrown in for good measure.
By using a variety of decoys on big water, it adds realism to what the big river ducks are used to seeing. Ring necks and blue bills love to use the river and they seem to like few decoys of their own kind. Jack attacks, like we call them happen frequently and are a nice added bonus to your daily bag. We are also firm believers in using black jugs to imitate more decoys in your spread; they look surprisingly realistic when birds are working your spread. It also gives more depth to the layout of your spread. You can use less decoys when incorporating the black jugs to give the perception of more decoys. We use only Avian-X decoys by Zink; they are very realistic. Try to get away from your older decoys. Waterfowl will decoy much easier to a realistic set up with good decoys
When you are hunting open water, calling techniques will vary with the time of year and the mood of the ducks. Keep an open mind when late season waterfowl hunting. Hunting pressure has taken its toll on every duck that has ventured down the flyway and they have heard it all. Basic knowledge says that less calling works better in late season. This is always not the case; you have to read the body language of the birds in order to coax them into your spread. The majority of the time this means flaring ducks through trial and error. Sometimes they like soft and subtle, sometimes loud and obnoxious. There have been days when they liked everyone in the blind calling, to no one calling at all. Don’t have a mindset to call a certain way before you even get to the blind. We try to double up with a variety, using both a single reed and a double reed to give the perception of multiple ducks.
Another bit of useful advice is don’t forget your drake call, a lot of hunters have forgotten about this little jewel. There have been occasions when ducks would only come in to the call of the drake. Primos and Flambeau make great calls and are well-known names in duck call manufacturing. This call will do it all, and I have never found a call more realistic.
If time is running out on your waterfowl season, it’s time to try your last second shots at bagging a few birds. When the bottoms have iced over and you are at your wits end, try your hand at hunting rivers. Open water hunting can be very rewarding and offers you a few more days afield when all the backwaters have frozen up. Do your research and plan accordingly. Pull all your decoys out and head to the river. You just might have a day you will never forget.