It’ll be cold, and the weather will challenge you. So will the fickle, wary birds. Here’s how to end the season on a high note.
Late-season ducks and geese are challenging birds to hunt, but provide the most satisfaction when everything falls together for a perfect adventure. Make no mistake, though, when late season hits the game changes. New strategies are required to decoy birds, stay concealed, and coax the waterfowl to give up their apprehension to join your decoys—whether on ground or water.
The late hunts can test your gear and endurance of the cold, strategies for decoying birds, and even your temperament. And don’t forget that being skunked by a sudden, overnight migration is always a possibility. No matter what the birds do, make sure you always head afield with an open mind—and are ready to have fun exercising your passion for chasing fowl. Here are some proven late-season success strategies.
TWEAK YOUR DECOY SETS. Late-season birds pay attention to every detail. Dead birds lying belly up in the spread, decoys that don’t offer a comfortable landing zone, and too-obvious blinds can all spell disaster. Pay close attention to the birds when spotting, and duplicate what the birds do with specific winds and weather. It isn’t uncommon for ducks and geese to stay in a field all day when the weather is miserable. Some birds will be actively feeding, while others bunch together and rest. Grouping decoys with sentries and feeders, and sleepers farther upwind, or off to the side, is often the “confidence card” that hungry honkers and other fowl are looking for to commit to landing.
Setting decoys to side-shoot the incoming birds, means you and your blinds are never in a straight line of sight for birds working the decoys.
Wise (and liberal) use of the HuntStand app can be critical to your success; using it to accurately forecast weather events is just one way to stay a step ahead of the birds. If you notice specific movement patterns on a sunny versus cloudy day, for example, be sure to log the info in your app so on future hunts you can be sure to target those fowl when the birds are likely to be most active, and provide the best hunting.
PREPARE TO HUNT ALL DAY. Whether you’re hunting fields or coastal marshes, several factors dictate when the birds will fly, feed, water, and roost. With tidal waters, birds often move on an ebb or flow. Windy, cold, or snowy days force birds to feed hard to keep up with increasing calorie demands. The action can start at any time, and it isn’t uncommon for birds to fly from sunup to sundown.
Mallards could work a field at first light, mid-morning, or even mid-afternoon. Use HuntStand to monitor the moon phase, and observe what a full moon does to the feeding patterns of local birds. The HuntStand app has a complete lineup of solunar information to show what the moon is doing, and provide handy sunrise and sunset information for legal shooting hours. When the birds are unpredictable, hunting all day will increase your odds of being in the right place when the birds decide to feed.
DON’T SHOOT THE BIG FLOCK. While hunting a stretch of river in Oklahoma, we found the late-season mallards were using the flowing water as a day roost and a place to get fresh water. We had just set up for the day when ducks filled the sky. Over a thousand ducks worked our decoys, many stopping in for a drink before heading to the fields where they were feeding. “Don’t shoot” were the only words muttered from our blinds.
Less than a half-hour later, the ducks began trickling back to our stretch of river in small groups. If we had shot the big flight of birds early in the morning, the entire group would’ve been educated. Talk about a win-win. Our show of restraint not only allowed us to enjoy the late-season spectacle of thousands of wings churning the sky, it also meant the opportunity to shoot a limit of birds without educating the masses.
LET THEM BUILD. Fresh birds joining the migration trail often need a day or more to relax and figure out a new schedule, and generally build confidence in their new digs. When you’re watching a favorite stretch of marsh, or a field where birds are feeding in good concentrations, let the numbers build for a day or two before hunting. If unmolested, ducks and geese will quickly grow confidence to use the same areas, without spinning circles in the sky for half an hour before committing.
The more birds feeding in a single field, the quicker they will work to the edges, where it is easier to hide blinds and hunters. Log information on the birds and where they are landing and feeding in the HuntStand app, to see patterns that will help you drop an “X” on a hot blind spot, to man when hunt day rolls around.
USE THE RIGHT SHOT. Late-season birds often appear armor-plated, with dense heavy feathers and thick layers of down. Big, heavy pellets have more energy, which translates into increased penetration through feathers. The latter stages of the season are a good time to upgrade to a non-toxic alternative, like Kent Tungsten Matrix, or the new Federal TSS loads. With pellet densities that rival lead shot, you are rewarded with quick, clean kills without having to chase down cripples.
Alternative shot options can be expensive, but in actuality, don’t even come close to the overall costs of locating, setting up, and executing a successful hunt. In the long run, your premium ammunition is a small fraction of the costs that can add up to greater success.
A STRONG FINISH. Heavy feathers are one thing, but a duck or goose that has already witnessed the sly tricks of hunters encountered along the flyway can turn and burn out of a decoy spread quicker than a car crossing the finish line at the Indy 500. To maximize your success and kill rate, finish the birds when they’re close enough to make a quick escape next to impossible.
Here are some guidelines: When a flock commits, and their feet are splayed for a landing, with wings pushing them towards the ground, shoot the back birds first. Then take the birds that are closest to you. A strategic approach to shooting lanes, and a solid game plan for working through a flock, can reap huge rewards for a seasoned crew of waterfowlers.
BLEND WITH YOUR ENVIRONMENT. The late-season looks very different in various parts of North America, but one thing stays constant—the ducks and geese are the wariest they’ll be all year. In the north, snow covers are the only way to blend into the environment. Hunting the Gulf of Mexico last January, our guides used phragmites to blend our boats and blinds into the coastal marsh environment.
Paying attention to the details makes all the difference on late hunts. If you’re hunting fields, don’t drive to where you want to set up, as the tire tracks in the snow or frost are often enough to make birds question their safety. If the camo or grass cover on your blinds breaks down, be sure to bring an extra supply to fill the holes. Be prepared for the worst, so you can make the best of every hunt.
SHARE WITH FRIENDS OR FAMILY. The best late-season hunt I recall was with my wife, Stefanie. Finding a field of big honkers in the middle of the whitetail rut meant putting everything on hold to target the birds. And it was so worth it. Most of the ducks and geese had already migrated south, and we knew this stronghold of honkers was likely going to be the very last of the season.
We set up early the next morning with the thermometer reading a balmy -10°F, and the snow blowing horizontally across the field. We set blinds up against a straw bale still in the field and hunkered down to try and stay warm.
The first flock of birds came from behind us—and were just as anxious to land downwind of the large bale as we were to set up there. Shotguns roared, and we had over 35 pounds of geese on the ground with just three birds. Over the next hour, we finished over a dozen flocks less than 20 yards off our guns. We shot a full limit of birds—and were packing up the decoys while more flocks tried to land on top of us.
The geese were there one more magical day, before migrating south for the winter. The memories made on that fortunate late-season foray will be etched in our minds forever, and we relive and recall that amazing adventure often, as a truly special event. Are you ready to find a few of your own?