Change your tactics to make the late season the most wonderful duck time of the year.
In the latter part of the Louisiana duck season, times can be awesome and they can be frustrating. Just when you think you figured out a late-season pattern, it changes and then it does again the following season. A few mornings in the duck blinds with the guides of the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club shined light on what Bayou State hunters have to learn in Louisiana late-season basics: Be where the ducks are moving, diversify your calling sounds, and set an inviting decoy spread.
I developed this theory after I hunted two mornings with the HR&G outfit, the first day with Capt. Dane Viator and the second with Capt. Mike Dennis.
On the first morning, Viator untied his boat and moved out into a darkness that reminded me of a region-wide, post-hurricane power outage. Fifteen minutes after weaving through the shallow marsh, we entered a big lake with an island in the middle. Viator then drove into the “island,” and my education into top-notch hunting began. He pulled back some brush and said, “Here you go, watch your step.”
The seating area was fiberglass, and rubber-coated pig wire was laid over it and bolted down. Thousands and thousands of hand-rolled and taped wads of marsh grass were sewn throughout the wire, making it look like the topography all around us.
“All right,” he said, interrupting my moment of admiration and blind study. “Let’s load up, and I’ll explain this to you.
“OK, we’ve got an impoundment just over here,” he said, pointing west. “You can see that levee. That’s where it ends. If the birds come to us, but go down in there, we probably won’t get them.
“What happens in this blind is we’ll catch birds coming off of that impoundment and from areas over here (pointing southwest) and right behind us (pointing east to an alley in the marsh).
“We get them passing near the blind from those places, and then we’ll call them in and just see what we get. I’ll let you know when to shoot.”
I didn’t know what to expect from the birds that morning. This was mid-week, and the ducks took an awful toll the weekend before. The wind was down that morning, and a front would push through later that night. The decoys were lifeless in the water before us.
Once again Viator interrupted my contemplation when he spotted a group of teal zipping across the shoreline.
“OK, here are some. Get down,” he said.
Viator piped in with his teal whistle, offering a mix of fluttering whistles and various-toned single peeps. Like the victims of the mythical Sirens, the teal broke toward us.
“Get ready,” whispered Viator. “Shoot!”
We jumped up and fired at the tiny silhouettes that were startled to see us and were gaining altitude. We peppered three before the group moved too far out.
Viator sent his pride and joy, a Labrador named Little Bit, out to retrieve the ducks.
A few minutes passed and a few stories were told before a pair of teal zipped out of one of the exact places Viator said they would. He let out another stream of whistles and peeps, but the birds would not come in. So he went with a mallard hen call, a Haydel’s VTM-90 Variable Tone Mallard call. He let out a five-note series with a drawn-out first note and the four following in quicker succession.
Now I won’t begin to say that what came out of that duck call was music to my ears, but the ducks loved it, and they broke toward our position. When he first started blowing it, I started watching him then went back the ducks, then back at him.
I was already impressed by his use of the whistle call in the early morning hours, but his mastery of that duck call was unbelievable.
First of all, Viator brings the air for the call from the deepest recesses of his gut. I thought I knew what “guttural” meant until I heard him blast that call. It literally sounded like someone was punching him in the stomach when he breathed life into the call. What I heard the most was five loud “ughhs,” each note of which descended more slowly and quietly. What the ducks heard was a deep, raspy hen mallard that wanted them to come over.
Then he was back on the whistle, and the birds broke toward us again. We killed the teal pair, then I asked about his unique calling.
“That’s just the way we were all taught growing up,” he said. “We were taught to bring our air from there. It helps, though, to have this hole at the end of this call (the variable tone comes from controlling air flow through an alternate hole at the end of the barrel). I can really control the sound with this.
“Then again, we’re out here a lot, so we know what they want to hear and we can bring them in.
“Those champion callers come out here sometimes, and they just can’t get them. That’s not as natural as what a real duck sounds like. We like to mix it up down here. You’ve got to do it. Then in the second split, we mostly use whistles.”
A few more times that morning, Viator had to mix up his sounds, and easily pulled in our limit of ducks. Over and over, he mixed up the mallard call with pintail frills, widgeon three-notes and teal peeps.
The next day was just the same with Mike Dennis, who took Gunstuff.com Editor Harold Gunn and me to his blind for a morning shoot.
Dennis would warn us of coming birds, then pipe in with a series of teal-whistle peeps. Then he would aggressively blow his Haydel’s blue-winged teal call, a sort of screechy, high-pitched mallard call. Finally, like Viator, he would draw the duck’s attention with a raspy mallard hen call that would make the ducks break their flight pattern every time.
There were some strong similarities between the hunting styles of Viator and Dennis. First of all, the blinds were put where birds moved. It was by no means a coincidence that both hunters had placed their blinds in natural, sub-flyways.
Secondly, their calling styles were almost identical, Dennis’s being a little less guttural.
Thirdly, the decoys were as diverse as the sounds from their instruments. All around us were mallards (drakes and hens), teal (blue- and green-winged), widgeon and pintail. We had 360 degrees of shooting angle in the path of ducks with waterfowl impersonators all about helping to lure them in.
It was the perfect setup for duck hunting, and their tactics work well late into the season.
Putting yourself where the ducks will be is so important. Scouting, especially in the late season is crucial to hunter success. A notepad and a GPS are as important as a shotgun, calls and decoys. At my home base in Pecan Island, the magnitude of holes on our lease has forced us to move on occasion where the ducks are. As the season progresses, wise ducks avoid the pressured areas and force hunters to work a little harder.
From your original hunting site, note to where the ducks make their transition in the late season or when fronts pass through. After the hunt or on a separate scouting trip, go to the site and mark the point on a GPS. Be sure to describe what is there, like cover, number of potholes and edible natural vegetation that lures the ducks and what the conditions were when the ducks poured in there. Not only will this help you at season’s end, but it will serves as bonus sites to focus on at the beginning of next season.
As far as calling in the late season, most of us will never reach the point where we call like a 60-day-a-year guide. At best, we might take what we know of duck calling and hopefully find a niche that works more often than not. Viator and Dennis make it work because they hear ducks and then carry a mix of calls to sound like the species that work Louisiana flyways.
Technology might help the rest of us here. Expert call makers have blended their years of experience in hunting and design with audio and computer technology. They merge that with intricacies of each model of call they make, and the consumer can better their odds in sounding like a duck.
Rod Haydel of Haydel’s Game Calls believes that instructional tapes and compact discs have benefits to the average hunter.
“Calling with any call is like singing a melody,” he said. If you don’t know the melody then it’s not going to sound right.
“Tapes definitely lend themselves to helping beginners and guys needing to know how to blow new calls. I always suggest that you listen to the manufacturers because they know your call the best.”
When in the field, it’s important to mix up the calls, even on one group of birds that you might be working. Viator and Dennis rely more heavily on whistle calls than mallard calls. Mallard calls, being so popular along the entire flyway, have been heard by those ducks that survived and made it here to Louisiana. The whistle calls, especially late in the season, are more alluring and will draw in shy ducks. Versatility is the key. Mix it up every day you are out, and find out what they want.
Finally, put out decoys that match the birds in your area. You can do no wrong with a good mix of mallard, widgeon, pintail and teal decoys. Some regions of the state can also blend in wood duck, scaup, redhead and canvasback blocks as well.
The blocks first and foremost catch the eye of passing birds. The sound of a duck call lures them in for close inspection. Whatever call you blow that works duck close late in the season should match a group sitting in your decoys because that is what the ducks will be looking for.
Late-season duck hunting will always be a challenge in Louisiana. It makes the game that much more fun. The hunter with the best odds will use the secrets of the guides of Hackberry Rod and Gun: They will go where the ducks are, offer a variety of sounds with quality calls and then have a spread of decoys that match the diversity of those sounds.
These three fundamental secrets will better your chances when this season nears its close.
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