Throw a few change-ups at pesky late-season ducks, and youíll have them dropping into your decoys deep into January.
Making a quiet approach on potholes can offer you some nice shots on finicky late-season flyers.
Ducks are no different than you; in order to live, they very simply have to eat, and as the winter approaches and colder weather forces them down the flyway, their instinct of eating to survive suddenly gets challenged.
As November arrives and hunters head for the marshes, fields and flooded timbers, something starts to change for the ducks.
As you begin to set up for your hunts, it is almost as if youíre placing your blind in the ducksí kitchen. Or better yet, youíre not only in their kitchens, youíre right there at the foot of their refrigerators, waiting, tempting, luring them in to feast on their favorite snacks. Then, out of nowhere, BLAM!
So, the question then becomes, if you were in a duckís position, would you continue to go back to your pantry knowing the odds were against you surviving, let alone finding something to eat?
If you truly wanted to live, you would be forced to come up with another way to eat, and you would probably find yourself ditching the kitchen and flying toward a safer alternative for your food.
A duckís quest to find an alternate spot for feeding is catalyzed by learned behaviors developed over the course of a season. Eventually, as the hunting progresses and the steel begins to fly from every pond that is passed, the ducks figure out that you are lurking before their dinner table, causing them to reprogram every instinct they have to drop on down and grab a bite to eat.
"In the opening of the season, itís easier because we sneak in on ducks that arrived before hunting starts and we surprise them when we show up," says Charlie Behan, a longtime duck hunter who enjoys the challenge that a hunt in January brings.
The opening-day surprise has its effect, and the ducks eventually put two-and-two together. The same voice inside their heads that once told them to descend with reckless abandon into a low water pond for food begins to tell them itís no coincidence that they are now being shot at repeatedly every time they try to land in those same ponds.
"From the top of the flyway, all the way to here, as we shoot at them we are causing them to change their habits," says Ashton Locascio.
Like Behan, Locascio is a lifelong hunter who not only has an appreciation for the hard work it takes to cash in on his daily reservation for a six-duck limit, but he also has a responsibility to bring enjoyment to the customers who use his guide service.
Locascio owns and operates Scattered Feathers Guide Service (504-416-7548), a business he has been running for the past three years on the hundred acres of leased marsh he has hunted in Delacroix since he was six years old. Having spent most of his life studying the behaviors of ducks, and now with the added obligation to run a business that depends on high duck hunting productivity, Locascio understands the importance of making adjustments as the season carries on.
"If I want to keep customers coming back on hunts, then I have to come up with ways to bring the ducks in," says Locascio, who acknowledges that at times the ducks arenít the only ones feeling the pressure during the season. "We get into that second split and begin to really experience what it means to hunt. The ducks that have survived are smarter, so you have to really come up with some good tactics."
From the ensemble of faded, never replaced decoys that are thrown out and scattered across each pond, to the repeated, overblown hail call that comes from every blind that is falling apart with dying grass, ducks that are fortunate enough to survive late into the season have seen it all, heard it all and, in some cases, even felt it all. And in the process you, as a hunter, have inadvertently helped develop for them a very keen intuition for figuring out new ways to survive.
Locascio explains that itís up to us as hunters to stay two steps ahead of the ducks and finish the season strong. When considering what to do to help attract the pesky, more clever ducks that are creating headaches for hunters in January, the first thing he adamantly stresses that can damage a late-season hunt is too much calling.
"That highball hail call is way overdone," Locascio said of the ever-so-popular sound that a female mallard creates to attract other ducks from far away. "I guess people just canít help themselves, but you hear it all morning long, so you know the ducks hear it too and theyíre relating it to hunters."
Both Behan and Locascio agree that calling in general tends to be used more than it is needed throughout the duck season, and more than a duck is accustomed to naturally hearing in the wild. This is why they feel it is especially important to use it sparingly in the late season.
"Theyíre hearing that hail call every day for almost three months, so when you think about it, they are going to relate that to being pelted with BBs," says Behan.
Locascio says if you feel compelled to call, then change things up and do something that the ducks havenít been hearing each day since they started their flight down the flyway.
"A pintail or widgeon whistle sounds natural to any species of duck, and they will react to it," he says as he explains that all ducks understand the many different calling languages. "You can use a whistle to work a duck just like any other call, and itís subtle and not so abrupt."
Subtlety seems to be a reoccurring theme when it comes to this duck guideís late-season advice.
"Less is definitely more in a lot of ways," Locascio says as he begins to discuss decoy placement, which ultimately goes back to the duckís behavior as we edge closer to the end of the season.
A duck is biologically inclined to find a partner with which to fly back north for the mating season. Therefore, as they begin to pair up and prepare for the haul back up the flyway, they understand that a pond full of aimlessly scattered decoys just doesnít jibe with their late-season characteristics.
"If you want to tip them off, then donít pay attention to the way youíre placing your decoys," says Behan. "I pair them up and space them out so that a duck flying over will recognize them in pairs, and I donít go overboard with the number of decoys I use."
Locascio explains that as the bonding starts to happen, there are naturally fewer ducks flying and landing in large groups.
Another late-season decoy tactic that falls in line with the natural development of a duck has to do with color. As the winter progresses, ducks begin to develop full plumage, and their colors are more beautiful than they will ever be in the year. Taking notice of this and adapting to it can only enhance your odds of bagging a late-season limit.
"Before the season even starts, I take about a dozen new decoys and put them on the side," says Locascio. "As the latter part of the second split comes around, I take these out and they are all I use."
"A duck will flare off if they are seeing something down there that just doesnít look like them, so I keep my late-season decoys clean and touch them up if I have to," adds Behan.
Sticking with the topic of decoys, Locascio frowns upon the ever so popular ĎMojo Duck.í He explains that the magic of this motion decoy when it first went on the market was that it was a unique way to get the ducksí attention. These days, he says itís right up there with the hail call.
"Everyone uses it, so the ducks pretty much know what these things are all about," he says. "To get a little motion going on the water, I might be more inclined to hook a few decoys to a jerk chain or even use a flapping-wing motion decoy."
Another very critical adjustment that sometimes doesnít happen as often as it should has to do with the actual location of the hunt. The fact that a lot of hunters get very comfortable in their ponds and fail to move is something that surprises Locascio.
"Eventually youíre going to have to work a little bit and get out of that typical box blind on the edge of your favorite pond," he says.
It doesnít take long for the ducks to figure out what the average pond looks like, and that is why we start to see them breaking off their usual fly zones and dropping into smaller pockets of water. Itís another indication that the late-season ducks have gone to school, studied, learned their lessons and graduated. Locascio points out that there is one species that can tip you off very early in the game to the eventual late-season behaviors of all the other ducks.
"The mottled duck is a resident to our area, so even when you come out here on opening day, youíll see that they are doing exactly what all of the others will eventually learn," Locascio explains as he discusses the habits of the valedictorian of all the ducks in our area. "The mottled duck is ahead of the class, and I pay attention to him."
Eventually the mottled duckís underclassmen follow suit and also begin to do things like finding refuge in smaller ponds later in the season. Searching for pockets of low water on your lease or on the maps of WMAs and hunting them late in the season can contribute to a strong finish and help you find where theyíre hiding.
"Throwing a half-dozen decoys into a 30-by-30 pothole can do the trick," says Locascio. "Bring as little as you can and cover up with the natural grass around you, but donít hesitate to get away from the blind altogether and hunker down in the marsh."
For hunters who simply insist upon using a blind, it is very important to know how finicky a January duck can be in reaction to it. Using tactics like ensuring that the sun is your ally can go a long way in the late season. Regardless of how much youíre covered, the sun places a spotlight on your blind and it makes it very easy for the birds to identify things; conversely, the sun can also help shadow you from being discovered. Also, taking time to refresh the blindís cover and ensuring that it blends in really well with the grasses around it can be beneficial late into the second split.
"I see a lot of blinds that just turn brown after a while," says Behan. "Hunters cut the canes and dress the blind up, but fail to retouch them."
Locascio explains that the break between the first and second splits is the perfect time to do this.
"The wear and tear of a few weeks of hunting will eventually show, so to keep my business thriving, I wonít hesitate to freshen things up," explains Locascio, who says most of his customers pay for the convenience of the mud boat; therefore, it behooves him to come up with ways to disguise his 18-foot Gator Trax. "The blinds they put on these things leave a lot to be desired, and from the sky they look like flat sheets of plywood, so Iíll cut some roseau canes and fit them in around the boat to give it a three-dimensional look."
The ultimate objective he tries to achieve is to cover the outline of the boat and blend it in.
But when Locascio heads out by himself late in the season, he doesnít always take the mud boat all the way to the pond.
"Mud boats are getting more and more popular, so those late-season birds know about them too," Locascio explains as he emphasizes again that the less you stand out the better your January hunt will be.
And the deeper we get into the season the more important a good hunt becomes. There is nothing like the bad taste in a hunterís mouth that lingers through the entire offseason as a result of that final hunt that just didnít go so well.
"You want that last hunt to be a memorable one. Itís what takes you through the spring and into the summer, and keeps you chomping at the bit to get back out here again next year for more action," said Locascio.
As duck hunters, we are predisposed to favoring the quick action of opening day; the fast-paced excitement is why we choose ducks to hunt over anything else. But itís hard to argue the point that there is a deeper connection to everything involved in a productive late-season hunt that took time and patience.
The sense of accomplishment that comes along with keeping on top of everything and staying a step ahead of the ducks is what makes it feel so good when youíre able to get a late-season wary gray duck to bring his feet to the water just 20 feet in front of you.
When itís all said and done at the end of the season, the only thing that can truly smack a hunter over his head to stop him from venturing into his own kitchen and opening the refrigerator for his favorite snack ó a deliciously marinated duck breast waiting to be thrown on the grill ó is the hunter himself.
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