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Author: John N. Felsher
After dodging shotgun blasts from the arctic to their wintering grounds, surviving ducks become quite adept at spotting people and avoiding them. To bag wily late season waterfowl, hunters must change tactics and remain flexible. They should remember that less often means more -- birds in the pot, that is!
"In my opinion, blind hunting for geese in late season is almost impossible," said Patrick Milligan, manager of Grosse Savanne Lodge near Lake Charles, La. "If birds have been in an area for a while, they know where the blinds are. Whenever they see a box with decoys around it from a mile high, they know there are probably hunters around and are going to stay away from it."
Big, roomy, permanent blinds make hunting more comfortable and provide some protection from the elements, but they might actually repel ducks and geese. A massive blockhouse sticks out like a lighthouse in a desert. From the air, ducks and geese can easily see into a box blind with no top cover.
Several companies sell realistic portable blinds. Some blinds resemble tree stumps, highly effective when placed along a wooded shoreline. Some blinds resemble hay bales, which geese would expect to see out in a crop field. Other blinds actually look like large geese. Hunters lie prone in them and pop the top to fire.
Frequently, "no blind" makes the most effective camouflage. If hunters can conceal themselves in natural cover and remain still they might bag more birds. Brush, thick reeds, trees or rocks provide good natural concealment for well-camouflaged hunters. Unfortunately, sportsmen seldom find perfect indigenous materials in the best hunting places. However, they can usually make a good blind from nearby suitable native materials.
Even in quality cover, nothing causes incoming birds to flare more than an over-anxious hunter jumping too soon or a human face peering back like a beacon from behind vegetation. If caught in the open, hunters should remain absolutely still, even while standing, but lower or cover their eyes. Eyes reflect light. A camouflaged face mask gives hunters extra concealment.
Ironically, too many decoys could also telegraph a hunter's position. A few well-placed decoys in a pothole offer a more realistic appearance than 350 mallards spread over a lake. In late season, most puddle ducks prefer to remain in small flocks or pairs than in huge concentrations.
Since most hunters use mallard decoys, magnum greenheads might actually spook ducks. Vary species. Pintails or wigeons add more white to a spread. Even if birds cannot discern paint jobs from high altitude or in low-light conditions, they may detect size differences between mallards and teal. Spread several species across the pond in small, yet distinctly separated flocks or pairs. Place a couple goose decoys along a shoreline or on a mudflat. A couple coot decoys at the extreme range give a spread a different look and create shooting marks. One or two blue heron or white egret "confidence" decoys along a far shoreline add realism.
In the last few years, electronic decoys became quite popular. Contrasting rotating wings create flashes resembling landing ducks or geese. Other electronic decoys dive or move on the surface to create a bit of realism to a standard spread. Some vibrate, making waves ripple across the surface on calm days.
"We put a spinning wing decoy right in the middle of the spread in a kidney-shaped pothole cut out of a swamp in western Kentucky," said Wade Bourne, author of the book Decoys and Decoy Strategies. "I stuck it right in the middle of the landing hole and let it spin constantly. A number of times, we sat in the blind and couldn't see a duck anywhere. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by ducks just hanging over the blind on all sides."
Motorized decoys work well on young birds, high-flying or migrating ducks looking for a secure place to land and rest. Ducks spot the flash or movement and feel secure. Robotic decoys work best on bright, cold days with little wind when ducks can easily spot them. Winds, overcast or choppy waters make robotic decoys difficult to see, negating the effect. By late season, though, ducks may grow accustomed to robotic decoys and avoid them.
Many hunters leave decoys out all season. That saves considerable time and effort but could become a major mistake. Ducks see the same species in the same configurations each day. They become suspicious and avoid the area. Hunters on large leases can change locations to avoid hunting the same ponds too often.
Even hunters with limited access to one or two ponds can change the way a spread looks. They can pick up a few decoys or move them, subtracting decoys as the season progresses. Change the configuration by taking up mallards and replacing them with teal in a slightly different area. Any change helps.
Ironically, hunting on public land keeps things fresh. Most public hunting lands prohibit permanent blinds or leaving decoys out overnight.
Moreover, many public areas only allow hunting during certain hours and certain days. That forces people to change the shape of the decoy spread for each hunt. Even if people hunted the same public pond every day of the season, no two groups would ever place decoys in exactly the same configuration. Birds see a little variety that could indicate life.
On public land, hunters may sometimes find rivals already in their favorite locations. Therefore, public land hunters must scout new territory. That could actually help them put more birds in the pot by forcing them to keep up with changing flight patterns.
Hunters in small boats can keep up with changing flight patterns. They can quickly toss a dozen decoys in a pothole and enjoy outstanding action. The next day, they could move to another location to keep ducks guessing.
Military surplus camouflaged netting hides boats well in flooded timber or marshes and lasts for years. Stretch a low screen over a boat with a drab natural background and disappear. When the birds come within range, drop the net and fire.
In addition, less could mean more when it comes to calling. While a master caller can brings ducks or geese to a pothole even without decoys, few hunters truly possess such talents. By late season, ducks have heard their fill of phony quacks from thousands of hunters over thousands of miles. Too much calling or improper calling could make ducks bolt away from a particular pond. No calling becomes much more effective than bad calling.
Clearly, most hunters use mallard hen calls. Instead, use something else and then only call infrequently. Try varying calls. Use feed calls. Call in low tones of a mallard drake instead of high, boisterous hen quacks. Throw in a few wigeon, pintail or teal whistles even when calling mallards. Anything different might bring more birds into shotgun range. While difficult and more challenging, late season can also offer some of the best shooting of the year. Hunters might just need to "think outside the box," change tactics and remember to do less for more ducks in the bag.