Hunting > Upland & Waterfowl

The Late-Season Reset

There comes a point in every waterfowl season when previously successful tactics become stale and counterproductive. Here’s how to experiment and adapt so you’ll find late-season success.

When the first flock of greenheads flew by the little island Luke and I were using for cover, I waited until they were slightly past us before making a greeting call. The ducks stayed in perfect formation, not altering a wingbeat or turning a head, so I hit them again, this time harder and sharper, hoping the added inflection might sway one or two to break our way. Still no takers. Even though this tactic had worked all year, it was the last day of the season, and these birds had felt a lot of pressure. I gave up and watched them continue upriver, then turned to Luke and shrugged. Whaddaya expect from call-shy birds?

More flights came and went. As each group went past I called with all the optimism of the insane, doing the same thing over and over while thinking that perhaps, just maybe, one bunch might break and come in. Then I called out of a sense of duty to Luke, who was huddled nearby expectantly gripping his gun. It wasn’t long before I felt stupid even thinking of reaching for my lanyard. These ducks weren’t going to work. Why bother calling?

Then again, it was the last day of the season. What did I have to lose aside from Luke’s respect? When a pair flying tight over the opposite bank got level with us, I let out a sharp greeting call, then another. Seeing no reaction, I started hammering away with comeback calls: loud insistent notes that were—as I would certainly tell Luke after the ducks went out of sight—strictly a Hail-Mary effort. To my surprise, though, wings faltered and a neck craned. One more series of calls and the ducks, now hundreds of yards upstream, took an abrupt U-turn toward us.

Given how much convincing it took to turn them, I figured they’d need constant reassurance to stay on course and might find a suddenly silent spread a bit suspicious. So I alternated quacks and feeding calls. Luke even joined me. The ducks didn’t come in, but they didn’t flare either. They just circled in a wide arc a few times, then headed back upriver.

The same thing happened with small groups of Canadas trading up the river. It could have been an epic final day of the season. Instead, we wasted multiple opportunities because we failed to read the birds quickly enough and adjust tactics. Worse, we got stuck reacting to what we thought they might be thinking vs. taking cues from how they were actually reacting.

If It’s Broke, Fix It; If the Answer’s Not Obvious, Experiment
The afternoon wasn’t a total wash. Normally one to change a decoy spread the moment ducks or geese show any hesitancy, I figured they were seeing something suspicious—enough to keep them at arm’s length but not enough to make them flare. In January, cover can get pretty thin in Montana. We quickly gathered more branches and vegetation around us then moved our small duck spread away from shore and slightly upstream, with two decoys 20 yards downstream to simulate a pair of ducks off by themselves. That got the birds’ attention away from us, and they started to work in closer.

But they still weren’t committing. So we decided not to call once birds turned our way; only if they started to veer off would we make a peep. And soon we were dropping one or two birds out of each flock. Unfortunately, as it always seems to happen, legal shooting hours ended just as things were getting good.

That hunt was a good example of waterfowling’s cardinal rule: If what you’re offering the birds isn’t getting the desired results with the first few flocks, there’s a reason why. Don’t waste more opportunities by doing the same thing over and over, and don’t be shy about experimenting to discover what will work. One thing’s for certain: If you don’t change what you’re doing, it’s not going to improve. And with late-season waterfowl, that logic applies doubly.

A good rule of thumb for calling is to do as little as it takes to get the job done. On some days you might not even need to call. Other days you might have to call so much your lungs hurt. I’ve had days when turning ducks required frequent comeback calls.  Then we’d hit them with more the instant they looked as if they wanted to turn off. For the most part, though, once they’re heading your way, either lay off the call or tone down the intensity so if they do start drifting off course, you’ll have something in reserve to bring them back on line.

Like all expert callers, Kelley Powers, owner of Final Flight Outfitters and a champion goose and duck caller, takes his cues from the birds. “If a flock is coming in and I’m still calling, I’ll stay with it unless I see even the slightest change in wingbeats or head position. That’s the birds saying they don’t like a certain note or call, in which case I’ll stop using it. (Conversely, when you’re trying to get a flock’s attention, those same reactions tell you you’re making the right sounds.) Typically, the less you call, the less opportunity for the birds to pick out something wrong.”

If the birds are landing off to one side or outside your spread, or even a few hundred yards away, there’s a reason, so don’t stay put and try to will them in with louder and more frequent calling. Sometimes simply opening up a landing zone is enough; other times you might have to move your entire setup to where they want to land.

Birds that flare tell you in no uncertain terms that they see you or see something horribly out of place. Positioning yourself cross-wind from the decoys is a great way to ensure birds aren’t facing you when they’re coming in, and when you can, get the sun at your back and use the glare to help blind incoming birds. Whatever it takes to make your profile shorter, or to draw attention away from yourself, do it. Spend more time concealing yourself, and your success will instantly climb.

Be Different from the Competition
Don’t compete with yourself. It’s human nature to want to use every decoy you own, or to take whatever fits handily into a decoy bag or goose trailer. Trouble is, everyone else is doing the same thing, and late-season waterfowl—especially after being in an area for weeks or months—have pretty much seen every look that spells trouble. They’ve seen gigantic goose spreads in the middle of fields and tightly clustered Canada shells along irrigation ditches and fence lines. They’ve seen those two groups of tightly bunched mallard decoys with a big landing zone in between, tight to shore and next to a rectangular-shaped blind. They’ve flown over countless decoys sitting motionless on still water. And they’re tired of getting shot at.

Running the same spreads as everyone else is the surest way to guarantee a mediocre hunt, so scout what other hunters are doing. If they’re setting large spreads, go small. If they’re hunting primarily in the middle of fields or along fencerows, set up somewhere else. Avoid dense and well-defined geometric spreads.

And  pay attention to your own setups and habits. Are you hunting the same four-dozen full-body goose decoys or the same two-dozen mallards, day in and day out with the textbook U-shaped or J-shaped spread? The best way to avoid stale setups is to constantly change your decoy placement. If you always hunt with spinning-wing decoys, try decoys rigged to jerk cords instead. Varying your presentation of decoys, locations and calling is good policy throughout the season, but especially later on when birds have developed well-trained eyes.

Adding motion to your spread also becomes more critical as the season progresses, since nothing says “fake” like a stock-still spread. Set duck decoys just out from the edges of slack water where wind or river currents can move them; it may not look completely natural for ducks to sit there, but movement is more important. Use jerk cords, or even throw sticks and stones to ripple the water around the decoys as birds approach. For full-body decoys, make sure they’re on motion stakes, and if you can hide well in your goose decoys, never go without a flag. They’re critical to turning distant flocks and, used sparingly and low over a decoy’s back, they’re a great confidence builder for Canadas inside 150 yards.

If you’re not sure what to try, Powers recommends keeping it simple. “Earlier in the season large spreads and lots of calling give you great drawing power, but as the season drags on, those same attractants can backfire. With a large spread there’s more opportunity for the birds to see or hear something wrong in your presentation. Go with smaller spreads and scaled-back calling and generally you’ll be better off. If the birds need more calling, you can always step it up.”

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