Duck season is usually a roller-coaster of ups and downs. Most hunters know about the ups: local ducks or early migrants to start the year, the first good push of birds from the North, peak migration and then freeze-up shooting. However, few like to discuss the downs; those periods between flights, when action is slow and your commitment to waterfowling is sorely tested. In the North and Midwest, the No. 1 down time typically occurs after opening day and before the true migratory push occurs. Farther south, it might happen when warm weather or other factors stall the flight.
During these periods, your hunts seem to blend into one. Some ducks move here and there early in the morning, and one or two might check out your decoys. However, because they’ve been in the area for a while and have been pressured, most birds fly on to parts unknown. By 8 a.m. or so, the marsh is dead quiet.
These slow stretches might seem like the longest week or two in a duck hunter’s life, but there is hope. By hunting intelligently and perhaps even unconventionally, you can beat the slow stretches.
This article is really about hunting pressured ducks. During the doldrums, duck numbers will be relatively low, and remaining birds are survivors; ducks that have learned how to avoid hunters. These birds can pick out a shiny face at 150 yards, and often fly straight up out of refuges in the morning and straight down into them at night.
If you highball at them, they might flare as if they’ve been shot at. Their evolution-honed survival instincts are working at full speed, and they won’t make many mistakes. However, they’re still ducks. They still roost, fly and feed. They just do so where most folks don’t bother them.
Pressured ducks are masters of finding safe spots, including protected or inaccessible areas. Mallards and wood ducks are especially good at using the smallest, most unlikely-looking water imaginable. Often, they roost on lakes or large marshes, fly off in the morning and seemingly disappear until after shooting hours. Mallards might hit a nearby grain field for a quick breakfast and then disappear to a nearby creek or pothole. Wood ducks often zip low out of roosting water and infiltrate small backwaters or tiny creeks.
I mentioned this to a conservation warden years ago, and his reply blew me away. “I know five or six places around here where hundreds of ducks just loaf all day, and no one ever sees them,” he said. “And you couldn't get to them in a boat if you tried.”
Years later, I stumbled onto one of those spots. While driving home one mid-October evening, I saw a mallard fly low over my truck, headed toward a large marsh. Hunting had been extremely slow, so the sighting piqued my interest. Glancing to my right, I suddenly saw 100 or more mallards flush from a brush-choked creek no wider than my skiff. They flew high over the road and then suddenly dropped straight down into a large public marsh to the northwest. I figured later that they’d probably fed in fields that morning and evening, and just spent the rest of the day in the tiny, inconspicuous creek. I never got permission to hunt that area, but the lesson hit home.
Since then, I’ve tried to think small for doldrums ducks. That usually begins with scouting. Instead of pounding the same marsh morning after morning, take a day off from hunting, and glass area marshes or lakes early in the morning. Note the direction in which ducks fly, and try to follow them if possible. If you lose the ducks after they leave the marsh, look at a map, and try to determine likely destinations. Are there small, remote creeks, lakes or marshes in the area? Consider every possible location. You probably won't pin down their hiding spot in one trip, but you’ll at least get a head start. The next morning, wait between the roosting area and the suspected destination. If you intercept the ducks, follow them as long as possible. If the birds don't show, go back to the drawing board, and begin scouting near the roost water the next day. This probably doesn’t sound like much fun, but smart waterfowlers scout more than they hunt during slow times, trying to determine where birds roost, feed and loaf. Yeah, you won’t get as many days in the marsh, but your hunting time will likely be much more productive.
After you find a honey hole, hunting it is simple. Arrive early, find a spot with good cover, throw out a small spread of decoys and wait. Call sparingly. Ducks are using the spot because it offers security. You only need to add a bit of reassurance. Sometimes, small-water hunts during the doldrums are some of the best of the season. Ducks might drop their guard a bit in small sanctuaries, and you can really clean up when they do. The action will likely only last a morning, though.
Some small creeks or potholes are difficult to hunt with decoys. Perhaps a creek bank is choked with thick, flooded brush, making it impossible to approach. In such situations, jump-shooting offers a good alternative. Several years ago, during one of the slowest doldrums periods in memory, I experienced one of my most memorable jump-shoots. A co-worker had spied some wood ducks settling into a small, willow-choked irrigation pond near our office, so he rounded up three friends — including me — to jump it at noon. He and one guy would sneak around the southern end, and I'd join another friend at the northern end. As we approached the pond, the water under the overhanging willow brush began to boil. Suddenly, more than 100 woodies started exploding from concealment. My co-worker must have known something I didn’t, because 90 percent of the ducks flushed past the southern end. He and his friend fired more than a dozen rounds but only scratched down one straggler blue-winged teal. My friend and I only got shots at five ducks, but we killed them all. And in 30 seconds, it was finished. Hunts like that might be the exception, but it proved that small-water hideouts can liven up the doldrums.
Or Think Big
Of course, not every duck will hide in small creeks or potholes. Some take the opposite approach and hide in plain sight: on vast areas of open water, whether in refuges or safely away from hunters on huge lakes, marshes or rivers, where even a shark would have difficulty killing them.
How do you hunt these birds? Open-water hunting is a decent option but not a sure thing. Remember, it’s a slow period, not peak migration. Bird numbers won’t be high during this time. You can also change your decoy-spread approach. Sometimes, a big mixed spread of puddlers and divers — we’re talking 100-plus — can attract birds. But often, pressured ducks will ignore large spreads just as easily as small ones. It might be better to change your entire decoy philosophy by switching to coots. Yes, coots, or mudhens typically congregate in large flocks on medium to large marshes, lakes and river backwaters. Basically, they mill and feed around shorelines and open-water areas. Ducks often associate coots with safety. After all, a flock of coots might have 200 eyes searching for danger. Further, coots are often feeding on vegetation ducks also like. So, it’s natural for a wary, pressured duck to see a large, writhing mass of mudhens and think, “Food and safety!” That’s why many old-timers in the upper Midwest used coot decoys when times got tough. They'd place a large, loose spread in areas frequented by coots, and mix in a few duck decoys. This seems crazy, but it can work. And remember, it’s the doldrums; what do you have to lose? I can’t say coot decoys have saved every doldrums hunt I’ve taken, but they’ve brightened enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Years ago, I hunted a rocky point on a large lake one Friday evening. It was warm, and the flight wouldn’t occur for another week. Figuring I might as well experiment, I ditched my usual mallard and bluebill blocks in favor of four dozen mudhens. My black spread attracted nothing at first. At about 4:30 p.m., a huge flock of coots swam out of a nearby bay and made a bee-line straight toward their fake brethren.
“Great,” I thought.
However, two or three of the coots looked odd at a distance. As the flock approached, I realized there were three mallards feeding among the mudhens. I let the flock approach to within 20 yards, and then stood up and collected two of the mallards. And from where I sat, two greenheads on a calm, warm mid-October evening was pretty decent. Several mornings later, I used a similar spread on a nearby island. My mudhen decoys attracted another large group of coots, which, in turn, attracted a drake bufflehead and two mallards, all of which I took home.
Don’t think too hard when using coot decoys. Throw them out in a large, relaxed blob, but leave a large hole or enough space between stools for ducks to land. Toss in a few mallard or diver decoys — six to 12 are often enough — to make it seem like ducks are feeding amongst the coots. Again, it isn’t going to work every time, but it will work often enough to save a few days before the migration kicks in.
If nothing else, consider the doldrums the calm before the storm. Migrant ducks will eventually arrive, and hunting will become more productive. Use the warm, seemingly fruitless days of Indian Summer or warm Decembers to experiment at new spots or with different tactics. You’ll kill more ducks that way than by falling back on tired conventional tactics, and you’ll be a sharper hunter when the flight arrives.
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