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How To Get The Best Out of Late Season Waterfowl

Winter is here, and with it, the best of waterfowl season!

How To Get The Best Out of Late Season Waterfowl

We worked fast to get the decoys set and our A-frame blind brushed-in. No sooner had we finished when geese began calling in the distance. “Load up, they’re off the roost,” said Richard Kropf, my go-to waterfowl sidekick. Soon a flock of more than 15,000 cackling Canada geese funneled into the decoys. A smaller flock of 5,000 followed. In less than 15 minutes four of us had our limits of cacklers.

Though the hunt ended fast, the pre-hunt work was anything but that. Our decoy spread and blind placement was precise, thanks to scouting efforts. On this morning, the wind was perfect and so was the hunt.

THE ACCESS

I’ve been hunting with Richard Kropf and his brother Brent for four years. As third generation grass-seed farmers, they own a lot of land. They also lease thousands of acres. We hunt all of it. In addition, I hunt public land near my home and lease a duck property. I travel to hunt waterfowl, too. Last season I embarked on more than 100 hunts for ducks and geese, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my more than 45 years of waterfowl hunting, it’s that location and timing are everything.

When it comes to late-season duck and goose hunting, there are public-land options. But with winter’s onset, birds often congregate on agricultural land, typically on private property. Knocking on doors is one way to find a place to hunt. I’ve been doing it for decades. Some landowners welcome me, but many don’t. The number one reason I get rejected is because family or friends have exclusive rights. Another is because an outfitter leased the land.

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Scouting, proper blind placement and concealment, a realistic decoy spread and top-notch calling are factors impacting the success of late-season waterfowl hunting.

Where I mostly hunt, warm winters and rain result in grass-seed crops thriving in late December and booming in January. Geese can devastate a crop in a matter of days. Add in a few thousand ducks and the level of destruction swiftly elevates. Find these scenarios and you have a good chance of being granted permission to hunt. For every day I hunt, two to three are spent scouting. I’m usually hunting four days a week, which means scouting is done following a morning hunt or in the evening. This is where having hunting partners helps, as you can each cover ground, pattern birds and knock on doors.

For many waterfowl hunters, our sport has become a pay-to-play game, be it with a guide, a lease or access fees. Then again, find the right landowner and you could hit the jackpot with prime places to hunt for years to come, and it won’t cost a cent.

DECOY SETS

By December and January, birds are wise because they’ve been hunted hard during the migration. Some of us will be hunting birds that winter in our area, making it even more challenging. We may see an influx of birds as they start heading north in preparation for breeding season, too. When hunting late-season birds, I like to pull my decoys out of the field after every hunt. I’m usually ditching spinning-wing decoys and downsizing my spread because both are overused by hunters in the area. At the very least, consider reconfiguring your spread. The goal is to give birds a different look than they’ve seen for weeks on end.

Early in the season when hunting fields, you may have relied on a large spread of goose decoys to pull in both ducks and geese. Maybe there was a smattering of duck silhouettes in there, too. But as the season progresses, I’ll go to more full-body decoys with silhouettes mixed amongst them. Luke Bledsoe of Speck Ops, who I hunted with in Texas last January, ran 12 dozen full-body decoys, along with 15 dozen Big Al’s silhouette decoys. He also had one electric flier. On an evening hunt more than 20,000 specks piled into his decoys.

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Ag fields are the place to be for hot late-season duck and goose hunting.

Last December, I hunted east-central Washington with Austin Sandmann of Honkerstomper Guide Service. It was 13 degrees when we set the decoys in a snow-covered field. His spread consisted of four dozen stuffers and a dozen shell sleepers. Sandmann went for a realistic spread, resulting in some incredible action. Every single flock locked up on the life-like spread, and it didn’t take long to shoot eight limits of greaters, lessers and cacklers. The birds loved the real look, and that’s saying something in this heavily pressured area.

As for late-season duck hunts in fields, try more full-body decoys. In flooded fields, where ducks are grazing on newly sprouting grass, I’ve had great success downsizing my floater spread to a dozen, then placing up to five dozen silhouette decoys on the edges to simulate grazing flocks. One day last season I landed more than 700 ducks in the decoys before firing a shot—I was looking for a Eurasian wigeon that didn’t show. If birds flare from a late-season spread, change something. Don’t wait. Open up landing lanes, break up big bunches, pull odd-colored decoys or reposition the spread if the wind changes. Any decoys that frost-up or glare, pull them. Adjust based on what scouting has revealed.

PROPER CALLING

There are many schools of thought when it comes to calling during the later parts of the year. One good buddy never calls. His reasoning is to let the decoys work, especially when it comes to geese because those big chattering flocks won’t hear you anyway. When hunting tar bellies with Speck Ops last season, they had four great-sounding callers in the blind. Loud, sharp and hard, was their calling approach, and it worked. By comparison, while hunting with Sandmann, he was the only caller, and every sound he made was perfect.

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With ducks, I’ll call to get their attention and once they turn, I shut up. I never call when birds are overhead, looking down on a decoy spread or the blind. With Canada geese I’ll call, get their attention and, if it appears they could be distracted on the approach, I’ll keep calling. No matter how good your calling is, if the decoy spread and blind aren’t perfect, birds won’t come in. For instance, using silhouettes to attract cacklers is difficult where I hunt. So, we go with a spread of 10-15 dozen life-size decoys, call loud when it’s quiet and go silent when birds loudly start to funnel in. If they flare from the spread—usually due to a change in wind direction or a black hole in the blind—we make adjustments.

Recommended


THE GEAR

As for the best late-season gear, that comes down to your personal needs and the conditions in which you’re hunting. When hunting Alaska in December your clothing needs will be much different than when hunting in south Texas the same time of year. Last year I wore four brands of waders, from Alaska to Mexico, and the LaCrosse Agility Waders were my favorite, making it into marshes, rivers, creeks and saltwater on more than 60 hunts in temperatures ranging from 8 to 75 degrees. The boots in the Agility Waders are very comfortable and easy to get in and out of. I love the zip-out liner which offered plenty of warmth in the cold and was easy to remove on warm days. The breathable nylon upper was comfortable on long hikes and I loved the pockets.

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Scott Haugen has been waterfowl hunting for 47 years and credits his late-season success to paying attention to details.

As for blinds, I often make my own one-man blind so I can be mobile, but also hunt from A-frames and layouts with buddies. For A-frames, check out the ALPS Alpha Waterfowl blind. This blind is designed for optimal concealment and holds four hunters. It’s built on a rugged, square-tube aluminum frame that’s powder coated for durability and longevity. The hinged and shock-corded joints make setup quick and simple. Full-entry side doors facilitate moving gear, and the inside panels feature mesh pockets for extra gear storage and interior webbing to hang calls and game straps.

My layout blind of choice is Final Approach’s Knockout Blind. It’s the most comfortable layout blind I’ve used and is quick to set up and take down. It’s roomy for a shell bag and a dog, and is easy to move around in. The headrest bar adds even more durability, and it features a waterproof floor and water-resistant outer fabric.

If looking to try out one of the many new calls on the market, Slayer calls has both a single and double-reed duck call, along with a nice honker and excellent-sounding speck call. I’ve used each of their calls on numerous hunts in many places, with great results.

Once you have the gear in order and a place to hunt, get out and enjoy what late-season waterfowl hunting is all about. But be warned: Once you’re hooked, there’s no turning back.

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