Many Louisiana duck hunters know the strains of setting up on public land to hunt waterfowl. It can be frustrating as boats rip by at legal shooting time, poor callers honking all morning long, and the ducks shutting down completely from the stress.
There are some basic secrets to succeeding when hunting high-pressure areas, and they include getting away from everyone else, limiting the calling, and motion in the decoy spread. Those three elements might make you a better hunter in the field — whether it is on public or private lands — with high concentrations of hunters.
Getting away from the pack is critical here at the end of the flyway. The ducks have already made the journey, heard the calls, and seen it all along the way. What the Louisiana hunter does in the field has already been done, and the birds we are aiming at are the ones that didn't get tricked in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
Going deeper and farther is what the ducks will do to get away from the high-pressure areas. Step out of the box and reap the rewards as you do what the ducks are doing, taking more birds along the way.
Aerial maps and photographs of your favorite hunting lands are a great starting point. Look at the major entry points and roadways where people can access the region. Then look for places far away from them that ducks might be attracted to. This will definitely require longer runs in the boat or off-road vehicle, but the rewards are sure to be great.
Standard Mapping Services (888-286-0920) offers great maps, and they can be found at most outdoor sporting goods stores. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will also give you maps of all the state's wildlife management areas.
Once you identify an attractive spot, scout it out in the preseason and again after the season. That way you will be more familiar, and you might discover something you missed from dated maps.
The next important factor in taking high-pressure ducks is the calling aspect.
Rod Haydel with Haydel's Game Calls (318-746-3586) says that the secret to calling any duck is to let the duck tell you what it wants.
"When calling isn't doing any good, change something. Get more aggressive and see how it works. If it doesn't, back off and see how that works," he recommended.
Haydel will usually hunt pressured ducks with aggressive, fast calling but sporadic enough that it will not push away wary birds.
His Cocacrylic Cajun Squeal Mallard, the Smokin' Suzie or Timber Cutter are just a few of the calls he uses to bring in stressed ducks.
His aggressive approach includes a loud and fast comeback call (five-quack series holding the first longer than the other four) to get the ducks "on-line" straight to him.
Once "on-line," Haydel will use simple quacks as a confidence call to keep them coming. He believes that the quacks alone work great to keep birds on track, and if he needs he can jump right into the comeback call. His philosophy is to keep the birds from turning away because they are harder to bring in if they break completely.
Jim Ronquest of Rich-N-Tone Calls also runs the Rich-N-Tone Guide Service in Stuttgart, Ark, an area of the country that is experiencing the same pressure in duck hunting that most Louisiana hunters face. Ronquest banks on salty calling and cupping mallards, and has developed some ways of winning when he is out hunting every day of Arkansas's 60-day season.
"There's a couple of different ways to do it. There's a few places to get away," he said. "I'll let the ducks show me what to do. I'll experiment every day and try some things, and if they don't work, I'll go a different direction.
"Back when we could hunt the public lands and you would have people close by, I'd work (the ducks) fast. In the woods, I'll work them pretty fast and try to get them in fast before they get over some other hunters. On other days, I would take it easy on them and let them work more. Out in the open, I would work them a little slower."
The Rich-N-Tone line includes the Quackhead, Signature Series and Daisy Cutter.
Another company that prides itself in being able to speak the language is Primos (800-523-2395). Spokesman Bubba McPhearson shared his own thoughts on calling pressured ducks, and much like Ronquest, believes that less is sometimes more.
"Normally when ducks are down this far south, you've got to remember that they've been called at all the way down," said McPhearson. "Decoy placement and learning how to call for call-shy ducks is important. Blow soft at those ducks."
Primos makes the Wench series of duck calls and now Ducks Unlimited's Wench, the Hag, Yo' Sista, and P.H.A.T. Lady calls.
Calling is in the repertoire of most duck hunters because ducks are social creatures. They voice their intentions much like humans do. They make a chuckle when they are feeding, chatter when they are flying, and say "hey" to strangers they would like to meet. They also voice stress, and a mallard hen repeatedly quacking in a rapid series is saying she is scared. Ducks will also get quiet when they are stressed.
"But sometimes you've got to put the call away and use the jerk cord," Ronquest said. "I depend heavily on the jerk cord, but you've got to just feel your way every day."
For a man who makes his living selling duck calls, telling the hunting public to put the call away is a risky move. But, he admits, sometimes it's critically important.
"Sometimes the best thing to do is to tie up a piece of kite string, or a cord, and attach it to a duck decoy and jerk on it," he said.
The jerk-cord is an age-old practice, but one that has faded some from the sport. In days gone by, a live duck was used to lure in other ducks. It was tethered and anchored, and the bird would just swim around luring in its kind. Now the practice is illegal, but the live birds have been replaced by hi-tech battery-powered equipment that serves the same purpose.
A jerk-cord is just what the name implies — a string attached to a decoy that you jerk to create lifelike movement in the spread. It can be as advanced as cables, pulleys and winches rigged so that many ducks in the spread move about. It can also be as simple as a heavy-duty string that dips under water through the eye of a mushroom anchor and up to a decoy. When ducks are working your area, jerks and tugs create the visual effect of live ducks swimming and feeding.
Along the same line is the Mallard Machine. This incredible piece of equipment runs off a 12-volt battery that powers an underwater propeller. The prop thrusts down, pulling four decoys just enough to make them dance and bob in the water.
Not only does it move decoys, but it also stirs up the water to make it look like a feeding area and creates ripples that make the rest of the decoys move.
"On a calm day, it really brings the decoys to life with all the motion and turbulence," said Mallard Machine's Randall Harp. "Eighteen inches of water is an ideal depth. It churns that mud up.
"We have a three-duck and four-duck system and both run off of a 12-volt battery we supply. Some guys just use their trolling motor batteries to run it."
This year, the company will produce its first remote-controlled system, removing the need for the 150-foot cord that operates the current package.
And lest we forget the ever-popular spinning-wing rigs. Storage rooms throughout Louisiana are full of them, and their owners have become makeshift electricians from splicing wires, recharging batteries, or ripping apart Junior's remote-controlled car to make one more for the decoy spread.
The popularity of spinning-wing decoys spans the flyways. You can bet then that by mid-January most ducks in the Bayou State have already seen that white flashy object surrounded by other "ducks," and they equate that to a death trap.
Again, watch the birds and go off of what they show you. Many times in the late season it is best to go out and pull the spinner if ducks start to flare.
So if your favorite waterfowl hole is getting more and more cramped, follow the steps mentioned to increase your odds for better waterfowling.
Get away from the rest of the pack because that is what the ducks are going to do. Limit your calling and let the ducks show you how much and how often. Buy a quality, realistic call to improve your sound and control. And finally, add some motion to the spread. Employ jerk cords or get hardcore with a Mallard Machine.
Chances are you will bag more birds and have fewer hassles in the wild.