Duck Decisions Revisited: What Worked, What Didn’t

By author of The Duck Blog

It’s always worthwhile to look back at how the season went — the good and the bad

Switch setups or stick tight? That's just one of the tough decisions waterfowlers face every season. Photo by Forrest Carpenter

As duck season fades, it becomes easier to reflect on decisions you faced afield and realize how they made or broke a hunt. Sometimes, choices that seemed tough during the fog of battle look much clearer in hindsight. And typically, you’ll smile at your victories but cringe again at the defeats.

Consider these examples from my 2020-'21 season.

A Section Too Far

Even on vast areas of open water, there’s a fine line when choosing where to set up. If you motor too close to a raft of divers, they’ll flush, and many won’t return. But if you’re too far, you won’t pull many to your setup.

That was my dilemma one November afternoon as a friend and I motored toward a rock reef where birds usually massed during late afternoon. We spied ducks already pitching into the area and surmised there were many more on the water. So, not wanting to blow them out of the county, we set up about a mile north of them, figuring we’d still decoy birds traveling to and from the reef.

Wrong. Seemingly every bluebill in North America dive-bombed the reef that afternoon. Meanwhile, my buddy and I engaged in harmless bird-watching and realized we should have set up farther south. Oh, we still got half of our bluebill limit. Of course, that’s only one bird apiece.

We slipped closer the next few days and enjoyed quick, efficient shoots without spooking rafted birds.

About Last Night

I glassed the South Dakota slough at sunset, giddy in my scouting triumph. About 200 gadwalls and wigeon splashed and fed in the shallows, and my friend and I would meet them there the next morning. With a perfect wind and the rising sun behind us, success was just a formality.

Or was it? As daylight broke the next day, we quickly realized that 200 ducks had decreased to about two dozen, and it became apparent that we wouldn’t fill our limit there.

The obvious choice was to pull our decoys and go elsewhere. Still, every time I mentioned leaving, we killed a bird. And by about 9 a.m., we had five. “Let’s give it one more hour,” I said. My buddy hesitated but agreed.

An hour later, we left in defeat with our five ducks. And with rising temperatures and decreasing winds, our chances of finding a decent second option seemed bleak.

“We should’ve left earlier,” I said, stating the obvious. My buddy’s silence confirmed that.

Timing the Ice

It seems silly to say, but freeze-up shooting doesn’t work if stuff doesn’t freeze. That is, if too much open water remains, ducks and geese don’t concentrate in small pockets and just loaf wherever they want. So as the mercury plummeted one November evening, I watched the temperatures on my phone to surmise whether an early-morning freeze-up mission at a spring-fed creek might work.

At 4 a.m., the thermometer read 21 degrees. That was probably cold enough to freeze much of the marsh near my hunting area, but I knew a decent west wind that night might have kept some stretches open. Still, two hours before shooting light, I decided to try it.

Sure enough, much of the shoreline bog and backwaters along the creek were frozen. And as mallards bombed my meager spread before light, I figured I’d guessed right. Ninety minutes later, walking out half-frozen but four mallards heavier, I knew it.

Sunny Geese

I often wonder why I don’t follow my own advice. The opening morning of goose season dawned bright and clear, with a stiff west wind. Setting up directly upwind of the spread meant staring into the blinding sun, yet that’s what I did.

Why? My friend and I could have set up to the north or south of the spread and still enjoyed decent crossing shots at decoying birds. Yet we blundered forward. Like clockwork, the first flock of the day set their wings and pitched directly at us, offering an easy double or even triple. Our first two shots connected, but follow-up efforts were futile because — drumroll — we were blinded by the sun.

Did I mention that was the only flock to come close that day? Hey, one goose is better than nothing, but it wasn’t enough to ease that sun-induced headache.

Patience (for Once)

Late-season mallards in close-quarters settings typically offer one chance. If you miss or spook them, you’re usually out of luck that day.

Still, doubt crept into my mind that December morning. Several greenheads had landed about 75 yards from me in a stretch of open creek. Knowing they’d likely stay put, I attempted to creep close and jump them, but noise from my clumsy stalk through frozen cattails alerted the birds. Turning the bend, I realized the ducks had drifted downstream. Then a few flushed.

“Well, I’m probably done here,” I thought. But wait. Only a few mallards had flown. The rest, I figured, had simply heard my steps and swam away. If I waited near the bend — a spot they obviously liked — one or two might drift back after a while.

Astonishingly, it worked. After an hour, two fat drakes and a hen sailed from downstream and set their wings 25 steps away. At the first shot, more ducks flushed downstream, and more shooting ensued.

“OK, now I’m done,” I thought. True. But with three green beans on the strap, I was cool with that.

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