Late Can Be Great

The tail end of the duck season is often the best time of the year to head afield.

In a flooded pasture in northern Catahoula Parish, Dan Chason watched from the blind as a flight of six birds breezed in from the north. The ducks flapped in over the tops of the pine trees, banked into a light wind and seemed to lock in on the spread of decoys that Chason had conspicuously placed several days earlier.To this avid hunter and outdoor journalist, there was nothing better, not a prettier sight on earth.

“Ducks, ducks, DUCKS!” Chason said in an excited but hushed tenor. “They’re coming in low. Get ready.”

Gripping the stock and barrel of his 10-gauge Browning, you could see the intensity building in Chason’s eyes. The group of gadwall was getting closer, and experience told Chason that it was almost time to
open fire. There was little doubt that these ducks were within the range of the Monroe native’s big gun. But out of courtesy to the other, less-experienced hunter with him, Chason waited for the birds to move in a tad closer.

But in a classic example of opportunity, it only knocked once — and was gone as quickly as it had come. In fewer than two seconds, the ducks abruptly changed their course and flew upwards, just out of range of the two shooters. Chason and Atlanta labor attorney David Hagaman watched as the birds banked again, and flew straight for a second group of decoys set out about 40 yards behind their blind in a slough.

Refusing to give up, Chason went for the call that hung from his neck and started to mimic the short, staccato cackle/quack of the gadwall, or grey duck. Unable to sway the birds, the men watched as the flock moved on to other, apparently greener, pastures.

As expected, the blasts of shotguns from another nearby blind echoed across the water.

Chason and Hagaman watched helplessly as two ducks fell from the cold, overcast sky, and splashed in the shallow water.

“There’s no substitution for being where the ducks want to go,” Chason said. “You could be a world-champion caller and have 15 mechanical ducks set out, but if they’re not going to fly into an area, it’s probably going to be a long day.”

The second split of a duck season generally brings colder temperatures and more successful hunts, but it can also bring on a new set of challenges for hunters, as ducks get wise to some of the traditional tricks of the hunting trade.

Chason has filmed some incredible North Louisiana duck hunts during recent seasons. One of the best came on New Year’s Day, when Chason and state Rep. Francis Thompson of Delhi hammered vast flights of mallards in shin-deep snow near Monroe.

But on other duck hunts, particularly later in the season, consistent flocks were difficult to find.

It was crucial for Chason to find ducks. So to ensure his chances for success, he scheduled a hunt on Bend of the River, a private compound based in Enterprise. This 2,000-acre tract about 25 miles northeast of Catahoula Lake has been described as one of the most perfect habitats for migratory waterfowl in Louisiana.

The property owner, Wes Newman, had converted pastures, agriculture fields, sloughs and even catfish ponds into waterfowl sanctuaries.

With help from the federally-funded Waterfowl Restoration Program (WRP), Newman had levees built around several hundred acres of pastures, allowing the water to naturally overflow onto the fields. He has utilized dams and natural sloughs, while planting some of the more desirable foods for ducks, such as duck weed.

The rural hamlet of Enterprise, nestled between the Boeuf and Ouachita rivers in Catahoula Parish, is part of the legendary Seven Rivers area. The abundance of rivers, which include the Black, Red, Mississippi, Saline, Tensas and Little, and a number of bayous and creeks, is a big reason the area is so desirable to ducks.

It is a stopping ground along the Mississippi Flyway, as upwards of 100 million ducks make their migratory journey to the South every winter. Chason believes that as millions of ducks follow the systems of rivers in Northeast Louisiana, many stop here as they make their way to Catahoula Lake.

Meanwhile, Chason and Hagaman had yet to drop the first duck of the day. But they saw another small flock of ducks coming in from the north end of the pond. Chason crouched down and began calling, hoping to lure the birds down into his decoys.

“Big ducks,” Chason said. “Mallards.”

He began the first in a series of “chuckle calls.” When the birds failed to respond, Chason went into a more frantic “hail call” in a last desperate attempt to turn this respectable flock of birds.

“Come on, baby. Come on down,” Chason said. “Just a little closer. A little …”

Disappointment consumed his face. As others did moments before, the ducks turned away, and moved into the same spread of decoys that were set out in the open water. The blasts of shotguns subsequently rang out across the pond.

“I’ve got to move this blind,” Chason said.

Less than 100 miles to the west near Shreveport, under almost identical circumstances, Capt. John L. Taylor was having the same kind of a day. He had seen several flocks of greys and blackjacks, but few were passing inside of the range of his 12-gauge.

While Chason was in a blind on the backwaters of the Ouachita River, Taylor was hunting the backwaters of the Red River in a flooded slough in southern Caddo Parish. Ducks would fly in over the trees, then break for an area just behind him. As the number of ducks on the water multiplied, it became harder to lure the ducks to his pond.

“We’ve had some good days and we’ve had some horrible days this year,” he said. “There have been some flight days the day before a big cold front pushes through. They’ll fly along the river and rest in these flooded sloughs along the way.”

Finally, three gadwalls came in from the north. Taylor raised his gun and fired once, dropping the lead duck.

“Well, that’s one,” he said. “Usually, you can’t beat these flooded areas this time of year. But slow days like this present new challenges.”

Taylor, who operates an inshore fishing guide service out of Cocodrie, was enjoying a day off hunting near his home in Shreveport. Chason, however, was filming a segment of his outdoors show, and had yet to produce any ducks for the camera.

With his son Andy filming, Chason looked up and saw what he had been waiting for — a flock of birds coming in from across the pond. As soon as he’d begun to call the birds, he looked back as the flock banked into the wind and started to make another pass.

“Here they come,” he said. “Headed straight for us.”

Chason and Hagaman raised their guns and killed two ducks. Chason’s 4-year-old chocolate Lab, Choctaw, immediately went into the water and retrieved the birds.

Reports on recent duck seasons have been spotty, and weather seems to be the culprit.

“In some places it’s been pretty good, and hunters are limiting out,” said Newman. “But in other areas, it’s been scarce.”

While the second split is historically more productive than the first, some in North Louisiana said abrupt changes in the weather actually hurt the hunting. Hunters pray for cold weather, but sometimes they get more than they bargained for.

Less-than-perfect conditions will mandate hunters to work harder. Chason said he will often move his decoys to fit the circumstances.

“A duck will always want to bank into the wind,” he said. “So it may be necessary to re-adjust your decoys. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a hunt where I haven’t had to make some kind of re-adjustment.”

Ideally, Chason said you want your decoys to be in a horseshoe shape, with the opening downwind and away from the blind. This pattern, he said will invite the ducks down into the spread.

It is also important to remember that ducks don’t like to bank into the sun.

“They can’t see,” Chason said. “So you may have to adjust the decoys as the direction of the sunlight changes.”

He also believes that clean, shiny decoys attract ducks better than dull, dirty ones. Chason said he sometimes shines his up with a car interior care product, like Armor All.

He also believes that the number of decoys in your spread has an effect on how many ducks you’ll bring down. Chason gradually adds ducks to his spread as the season moves on and the weather gets colder.

“Generally, later in the season, I’ll increase the number of decoys,” he said. “But the number of decoys should be in direct relation to the size of the body of water you’re hunting.”

For instance, if you’re hunting a 100-acre pond early in the season, you should set out one decoy per acre of water. This formula should work well through the end of the first split. But by the start of the second split, Chason generally increases his number of decoys by 25 percent.

“By the first week in January, I’ll add 75 more,” he said. “And I’ll continue to move them every day. The worst thing you can do is to never move your decoys.”

Taylor said re-adjusting the decoy spread becomes more important as the season progresses.

“You’ve got to remember, a lot of these ducks have seen your decoys before,” he said. “They’ve already been shot at. They’re smarter. You’ve got to stay one step ahead of them.”

Hunters who use mechanical decoys can make important adjustments with these as well. Chason and Taylor believe that flying ducks become more aware of Robo Ducks, Wonder Ducks and Mojo Mallards as the season progresses.

“Mechanical ducks do a marvelous job in bringing down the very high-flying birds,” Chason said. “But after a while, I think they start to realize that ‘Hey, this ain’t real.’”

Chason installs a remote control so he can turn off the mechanical decoy after the second pass. This gives the ducks a little something extra and new to consider before making that final, and hopefully fatal, pass.

Windless days can often be a duck hunter’s worst enemy. But some hunters increase their productivity with the use of a pull cord. This method simply employs a string tied to a series of stationary decoys.

“This time of year, we’ll get those post-cold front days with no wind,” Chason said. “This is a perfect time to set this up. I’ll put six to eight decoys on a string. It just stirs the water up a little.”

Chason has had great results by simply using the pull-cord method and a duck call.

The bottom line is that hunters should rely more on their decoy spread than their calling abilities later in the season. More-subtle calling seems to be best during the waning days of the second split.

“You’ve got to realize that most of these ducks have seen it all, heard it all before,” Chason said. “You’re better off relying on your decoy placement, subtle calls and a well-placed and concealed blind.”

Chason said he prefers to use more portable blinds later in the season. Staying mobile will ensure the element of surprise and increase a hunter’s chances for success.