Photo Credit: Matt McCormick
It comes as no surprise to the dedicated waterfowler when I say late-season mallards are some of the wariest, if not the wariest game specie out there. They always have the advantage of altitude and they usually circle, almost hovering above your spread just looking for an excuse to flair, you can see them up there eyeing you! It’s hard enough convincing them to descend from their lofty holding pattern after they have been shot at for the last four months, across how many thousands of miles of flyway – why call to them? Why have excessive decoy motion in your spread? My answer is – don’t!
Some may think since we are in Northern Wyoming that we have the advantage of intercepting the less educated birds as they cross over from Canada, and in large part we do and certainly we do as compared to our fellow fowlers in the southern tier of the Unites States, without a doubt they see the Ph.D. birds.
That earlier part of the season aside, when late December and early January rolls around, I assure you our birds are just as educated as anyone else’s. So how does one go about limiting out on such smart birds in the worst hunting conditions in the lower 48? I’ll give you my strategy…
It’s -20° on an early January morning, beardcicles forming and eyelashes threatening to freeze shut. You can hear the anchor ice grinding along the bottom of vast ice shelves that line the riverbank. The morning is as dark as it has been all season and you’re tucked back into the Russian Olive and willows along the river’s edge sipping coffee and fighting back the shivers. Dangerous conditions for sure but ideal for the western waterfowler.
As shooting light arrives, the first pair of drakes comes winging in high, you hit the call and the motion decoy is flapping away. They feign a quick bit of interest then lift their heads and continue along their way. If you’re like me, it’s hard to shift gears from successful strategies that worked earlier in the season.
So what happened? Was it my calling? Did they catch me moving? Must have been the blocks – yeah that’s it. The spread looks terrible. I mean I did set them in the dark because I forgot my headlamp at the truck.
After a few seasons of this scenario and my hikes into my hunting spots getting longer, I started whittling down on my gear.
As I shed weight in my pack, the first thing to stay home was my motion decoy. I was nervous at first, as I have come to rely on my motion decoy to finish those ducks that just need that little extra encouragement to cup up.
A curious thing happened though; the ducks seemed to not eyeball my set as much, they weren’t as suspicious of their “brethren” down there. I also noticed as the season wore on that the real ducks were not moving as much, there was less wing stretching and swimming. The only motion in my spread was my floaters (8-12 max but more on that in another article) gently swaying and bobbing in the current. Guess what? I started killing a few more ducks.
Quit Your Yapping
This was a hard one for me too. Leaving the calls dangling, or on some days I left my lanyard in the truck. Yes, I went duck hunting with out a duck call. It’s all too easy, more like tempting, to just grab a call and throw out a hail or feed chuckle to some fast flying drakes on the leading edge of a cold front but in my case that did more harm than good.
You have to realize most of these birds that buzzed a spread on their way south have been hammered with hail calls for the last few months, so it becomes routine for them to associate that with getting shot at. Be quiet, let the floaters do their job and get ready because guess what? I started killing a few more ducks! We’re almost to a limit now!
Knowing where the birds roost and feed is not enough this time of year. You need to know exactly, and I mean exactly where the birds want to be. This one was a slow learning curve for me too. I was usually close on previous hunts but never exactly where the birds wanted to be, for one reason or another.
For several days in a row I walked the high bank along my hunting area during my lunch break from work. I noticed that the birds started to prefer a little outside bend at the head of a small island where a portion of the river flattened out. They had moved from the more traditional areas that I had success at earlier in the season.
To give you an idea of how precise “precise” is, they stacked up in a flat-water spot at the head of that little island in an area not much larger than the size of an average bedroom. That’s mighty tiny considering they have nearly 70 miles of river to choose from. It’s finding spots like this that are crucial to your long-term success. There we go, we got our limit now.
Putting it all Together – Going Stealth
Combining these three tactics is what I call “Going Stealth Mode.” No motion, no sound and knowing exactly where to be. Slip into your precision scouted area well before daylight, set out 8-12 decoys, tuck into some cover, load ol’ Bessie and get ready – eyes to the sky. I put all of this together a little late this season but on the last day of duck season I went in stealth mode.
A slight warm front had loosened the previous weeks icy strangle hold enough that the anchor ice was gone and the shelf ice was retreating. I threw out a few blocks in that small, flat-water spot at the head of the island. I tucked in behind a logjam that was neatly placed during high water that made the perfect natural blind.
As it got light enough for the fiber optic bead on my barrel to be seen, I quickly checked the time – three minutes until legal shooting light. As if the ducks knew what time it was as well, they started dumping into the dekes one minute after legal shooting light. I had no idea they were even there until their feet were almost on the water.
I managed three greenheads in a matter of a few minutes and it was the most satisfying moment of my season – I finally felt like a duck hunter!
Did I get my limit you ask? Well, no because my barrel was bent – I swear.
About the Author:
Dan Turvey, Jr. has been hunting the Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways for over 20 years. He broke his first hail calls along the major rivers of Southcentral Montana and his fowling obsession has since taken him to multiple states in pursuit of green. As a self-professed river rat, Dan loves the unique challenges of do-it-yourself waterfowling along the rivers out West.