Better Late Than Never

Tactics need to change for hunters to be successful with wary late-season ducks.

The rhythmic whistle of mallard wings slicing bits of air from the sky could be heard as they nervously circled high above. Too high. They weren’t completely sold on what they were seeing below, but they were willing to make another pass to take a closer look. “Keep your head down,” I whispered to my son. “Don’t look up. Don’t move; they’re swinging around. Don’t show your face. If you have to look, peek from under the bill of your cap.”

Don’t-don’t-don’t — is it any wonder kids want to grow up fast, I thought to myself. My “don’t list” seemed to be three times as long as my “do list.”

“Shhh, don’t make any noise,” I continued.

I could see my son was as uncomfortable as I was from getting really small in our boat blind. I limited my calling to quiet chuckles, trying to coax them closer. There was no need to hail them. One, possibly two more passes, and these guys would be ours.

Suddenly, my son erupted from his seat. The mallards flared wildly, gaining air with panic and push from their primary feathers. There was no rhythmic whistle now — just the chaotic wing adjustment causing the birds to fly nearly inverted, as they put distance between themselves and the danger below.

Three shots rang out so fast from my son’s 12-gauge pump gun they sounded like those coming from a semi-auto. This was one area he needed no coaching in, as young reflexes took aim and blasted away.

Hell, John Wayne would have been proud. Darn, I was impressed with the boy, er, young man. The problem was in his exuberance, we blew an opportunity at some late-season mallards. What’s worse, we probably added another lesson to their education with all of the sky blasting; in fact, so much so, the chance of them making it home in the spring was a real distinct possibility.

“Doggone it, David,” I scolded. “I didn’t say, ‘Take em!’”

Just then a boyish smile came over his face, sheepishly breaking my consternation. I had to admit, it is an adrenaline rush, and sometimes you just can’t take it anymore.

There is no doubt that late-season duck hunting can be tough. Louisianans get their first crack typically the first or second weekend in November. By that time, the migrants have been shot at since September, not to mention duped and called by some of the best waterfowl hunters the Mississippi Flyway has to offer.

As the migration continues southward, many of the young hatch-year birds that made it through the initial gauntlets and survived are smarter because they’ve “been there and done that” by the time they arrive in Louisiana.

That is not to say Louisiana hunters don’t take their share of limits, but a late-season bag check will more than likely reveal a mixture of teal, shovelers, gray ducks, the occasional red head and a diver or two. The elusive prized mallard will be somewhat limited, along with the majestic pintail and widgeon in their full winter plumage colors.

Deep into the second split, ducks look for sanctuary areas void of hunters, spook off the water from the slightest outboard noise two bayous over and when looking over your blind, flare at the sound of a shotgun going off a mile away.

It’s true the latest technology, camouflage and machines have helped average duck hunters both to fool and get to where the waterfowl are. However, ask any January waterfowl hunter, and he’ll tell you the manmade advances don’t match the speed of a quality duck’s learning curve. Its ability to adapt is a matter of survival, developed in the months following his birth next to some pothole in the Dakotas. This is the time of year when the casual waterfowl hunter is nowhere to be found.

Contrast that with the diehards, whom are vexed with a sort of waterfowl psychosis. They hunt until the bitter end of the season and are successful. Moreover, they will tell you they revert to tactics learned from hard knocks of years in the field and being innovative doing things others wouldn’t.

Their efforts may be physically challenging, or mean spending a day in the shed handcrafting something, but rest assured there will be a payoff for the madness.

Late-season ducks for my three sons and me meant spending a weeknight, well into the late-evening hours, modifying a beat-up 16-foot riveted aluminum-hull Duracraft boat I picked up for $100. We mounted a vintage push-button-start 18-horsepower long-tail Go-Devil a friend gave me to the back, and welded brackets for holding an electrical EMT conduit frame.

The idea was to bend the conduit where it would give us an extremely low profile and force us to get small in the boat. Covered with “FastGrass” camo panels and a few palmetto leaves we cut, the hide would conceal us, and educated mallards would have to knock on our door to see if we were home.

Each time we set up the rig, we followed my standard practice of positioning the boat blind perpendicular to the duck’s travel route on the ponds we hunt. By avoiding parallel positioning, you avoid making it easy for ducks to look down into the full length of your blind.

We’d also make sure the wind was always to our backs and try, whenever possible, to utilize patches of flag grass to give the blind an even more natural look.

Another positioning tactic is to provide enough room between the boat and the bank to deploy several dozen decoys in a crescent spread behind the blind. Second-split ducks may like what they see but all too often light well beyond the decoys and swim toward your spread. The problem comes when they discover your plastic bird-mannequins aren’t real and they fly off.

Placing decoys behind the blind allows the birds to circle closer with each pass. The shots you fire, if the ruse is successful, will be much closer — often right over the top of your blind.

The nice part about waterfowl hunting is the “do list” is really much longer than the “don’t list,” though it may not seem like it to youngsters.

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