Don’t duck the details

Blake Eppinette of West Monroe and his son Jyles Eppinette with limits of mallards and other ducks from a group hunt in a north Louisiana cypress brake.

Blinds, calls, decoy spreads need special attention late in the season

Ducks must fly through a 2,500-mile gauntlet of gunfire that lasts for months before getting to Louisiana, so surviving birds quickly learn to spot any danger. Therefore, Louisiana sportsmen must dig deeper into their bag of tricks, especially later in the season.

“Ducks are pretty smart by the time they get to Louisiana,” said Bill Daniels, owner of Riceland Custom Calls (337-884-6890, www.ricelandcustomcalls.com) who hunts between Hayes and Lake Arthur. “The dumb ones are already in the freezer or the pot.”

For starters, find out where ducks already want to go and get there first. Ducks need three vital resources — food, open water and security. That requires regular scouting throughout the season, but more critically as the season progresses. People hunting public lands need to find several places in case someone beats them to their primary and secondary spots. That includes knowing secondary spots for ducks in case they get scared away from their preferred spot.

“Scouting is critical, especially when hunting public land,” Daniels said. “In late season, birds are very particular about where they want to go. By January, ducks have been around the area for a while and know every place they can be safe and where they shouldn’t go.”

Concealment counts

In Louisiana, many people lease hunting property, which locks them into one or a few blinds. Large permanent blinds surrounded by decoys let sportsmen hunt in comfort, but by late season, birds might shy away from such spots. If birds flare from a permanent blind, find out why and fix it. What might appear to be impenetrable concealment at the water level could look like a beacon to flying birds. Some people fly drones over their setups to see what birds can see.

Hunter Ferguson knocks down a mallard drake during a hunt in a small pothole. In late season, ducks sometimes seek smaller potholes to escape hunting pressure. (Picture by John N. Felsher)

“Camouflage is essential,” stressed Curt Parker with Delta Ridge Duck Guides (318-366-9584, www.deltaridgeduckguides.com) who hunts flooded timber and rice fields northeast of Monroe. “We put dirt and rice stubble on the roofs of our pit blinds so they just look like part of the levee. Most people brush their blinds before the season begins and don’t put a stick on it again. I’ll rebrush my blinds at least once a week.”

Placing huge decoy spreads takes work, so many people who hunt permanent blinds leave their blocks out all season. That saves time and effort, but ducks become wary after seeing the same pattern every day. Periodically change things. Remove or move some decoys and add different species elsewhere to give the spread a fresh look. As the season progresses, use fewer decoys. By late season, huge migratory flocks break into smaller ones and ducks pair up prior to mating.

“I move my decoy spreads around quite often to give them a different look,” Parker said. “The later it gets, the more I downsized the spread. I put out 400 to 500 decoys at the start of the season and use 80 to 100 at the end. I use mallard, gadwall, pintail and teal decoys because those are the species we normally shoot here.”

Low and still

A big mallard brought to the blind by your retriever is a double treat for late season waterfowlers. (Photo courtesy Curt Parker)

Even in the best blind, stay low and still. Ducks instantly alert to movement. Everyone wants to watch birds locking up to land, but nothing flashes a warning like a human face peering out from vegetation. To avoid this, many hunters wear camo face masks or paint. Assign one person to call the shots. Others keep their faces down and only look out over their hat bills.

Many Louisiana sportsmen drive all-terrain vehicles to blinds in flooded fields. ATVs make ruts and tracks that ducks can easily see from the air. Ruts in a heavily hunted field could point directly to a blind like a superhighway. Periodically, drive the ATV around in irregular patterns to confuse the birds.

In late season, wary ducks regularly seek tiny potholes or wide spots in flooded timber to avoid hunting pressure, particularly on public lands. In these hidden havens, place a few decoys and hide in any available natural cover or bring in materials ducks would expect to see in that place. Even if people hunt a public honey hole every day of the season, no two groups ever place decoys exactly alike. Setting up in a different place each morning with a new look keeps birds guessing.

“We try to set up on small potholes adjacent to bigger waterbodies,” said Jeff Dauzat of Fin & Feather Guide Service (504-818-2176, finandfeatherguides.com), who hunts tidal marshes near Buras. “Late in the season, ducks raft up in the middle of big lagoons. They only leave if a boat or something comes by to disturb them. Then, they swoop around and drop into small potholes. Later in the season, mottled ducks and teal especially like to get in smaller ponds and potholes.”

In a state so dominated by water, many Louisiana sportsmen use boats equipped with folding blinds for both scouting and hunting. Navigable waterways belong to the public so waterfowlers can set up practically any safe place they can reach by boat unless otherwise prohibited. After finding a good spot, toss out a few decoys, raise the blind and begin hunting in minutes. If that place doesn’t pan out, crank up and move elsewhere. Some people might hunt several spots in one morning.

Fake mallards

By far, most people across the nation use mallard decoys. Birds might relate bright green heads to gunfire and avoid them. Try to match the decoys with the dominant species in that area. For instance, sportsmen who mostly see gadwalls and teal should use those decoys.

When using multiple species, separate the different ones. For instance, place several green-winged teal in a tight wad off to one side in the shallows close to the grass. Put gadwalls or pintails in deeper water. Leave enough open space in the best shooting zone to give newcomers a place to land at optimum range!

“We cluster decoys in smaller groups to mimic competition for hens,” Dauzat said. “I like to use decoys with the brightest colors, clean and in full plumage. I change them every day so ducks get a different look and we rarely hunt the same blind multiple days.”

Doing it right made this happen — a young hunter holds up limits for a group of late season hunters. Photo courtesy Curt Parker

White pintail and wigeon decoys stand out. Many Louisiana sportsmen hold spoonbills or shovelers in disdain so few people use those decoys. From long distances, ducks can easily spot the distinctive spoon-shaped bills and bright colors. Since so few people use shoveler decoys, ducks can learn to associate big bills with safety.

Mottled ducks typically prefer smaller marshy potholes. They also like to stay close to weedy shorelines and usually travel in pairs. Mallard hens look similar to mottled ducks. In coastal marshes, arrange several paired mallard hen decoys around the pond edges to simulate mottled ducks. Don’t add any greenheads to the mix.

Give coot a chance

Scatter a few “confidence” decoys around the pond. Place a couple heron or egret decoys right in front of the blind and more on a far shoreline. Ducks see herons and egrets all the time. In fresh to brackish marshes, float coot or poule d’eau decoys at extreme range to serve as confidence builders and shooting marks.

Making memories on a duck hunt are treasures for young hunters and their teachers. (Photo courtesy Bill Daniels)

“In the marshes, coot decoys work very well because coots dig up the food ducks want to eat and it floats on the surface,” Daniels said. “Ducks will come behind the coots and eat the floating vegetation. When ducks see coots, they know that’s a good place to go.”

In places with good goose concentrations, like northeastern and southwestern Louisiana, adding a few specklebelly decoys could help complete the illusion of safety. Ducks readily come to goose decoys, but geese like to be by themselves. Place a couple floating speck decoys in the pond well away from the ducks and add several more on a shoreline. In rice fields, position speck decoys on the levee since geese commonly land on dry ground.

Good calling can complete the deal, but too much, ill-timed or bad calling might chase ducks. As the season progresses, call less and hide more. If birds seem to be heading in for a landing, stop calling.

“I do minimal calling later in the year and mix up the calls,” Daniels said. “I’ll use a teal whistle quite a bit instead of a mallard quack. Sometimes, just doing a little quack on a blue-winged teal call does a great job. In this area, we kill about all the species that come to Louisiana, so the birds hear many different duck calls.”

Most people make mallard hen quacks. Try something different. Where mallards concentrate, use low drake tones rather than boisterous quacks. In salty marshes, sportsmen don’t bag that many mallards so use calls birds expect to hear. Match the calls to the decoys.

“We try to identify the birds from as far away as possible,” Dauzat said. “For instance, if we see pintails, we use pintail whistles to call to those specific birds. Also, we use soft calling with little clucks and whistling like a green-winged teal instead of blasting out mallard hail calls.”

No single technique guarantees daily limits, but with a little extra effort, ingenuity and a willingness to experiment, hunters should bag more birds throughout the entire season.

About John N. Felsher 8 Articles
Born in New Orleans, John N. Felsher grew up in Slidell, La. He worked as the outdoors editor for several Louisiana newspapers including the Lafayette Daily Advertiser and Lake Charles American Press. An avid sportsman, he’s a full-time professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 3,300 bylines in more than 160 different magazines. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at j.felsher@hotmail.com or through Facebook.

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