Late-season ducks and geese are spooky, cunning creatures. Fool them once, good for you. Fool them twice, and you’d better enjoy it because they won’t fall for the same set of tricks again. To successfully hunt call-shy, spread-wary birds that have seen every play in the waterfowler’s book, you need to talk with the men who stalk them day in and day out, from the opening day of the early season in September to the last ice-encrusted day in January.
Late-season ducks have seen it all. They get shot at all the way from the Canadian prairies to Mexico, and to survive their juvenile season they quickly learn that caution pays. To bring pressured mallards to your spread, you need to know where they feel safe. “The most important thing you can do during the late season is scout,” says Nebraska guide Jake Latendresse. “Knowing where the ducks feel comfortable and getting access to, and then not overshooting, that area is vital.”
Once he’s found a spot, Latendresse changes his spread up. “I’ll start to decrease my spread size and be more careful about placing my decoys, as opposed to in the early season, when I might just scatter them in a hole,” says Latendresse, who regularly hunts the North Platte River. “In the late season, what the ducks have on their mind is eating, sleeping and creating a bond with a mate. I use pairs of decoys a lot to mimic that behavior, along with lone hens to attract drake mallards.”
Interestingly, Latendresse forgoes controversial spinning-wing decoys that some say give hunters an unfair advantage. His reasoning? The motion decoys have become too popular and migrating waterfowl see them in every spread. Distinguishing your spread from all the others out there is key when hunting skittish ducks.
“We see those call-shy, spread-wary birds every year–whether they’re late-season birds or we just go through a period with no cold fronts and no new pushes of birds and we’re stuck hunting the same birds for weeks,” says southeast Missouri guide Hunter Johnson. “When that happens, it’s time to get creative. Drive around and watch how everyone else is hunting, and then do something different.”
Johnson is a big fan of taking cues from Mother Nature. He scouts refuges or private land holding greenheads and mimics their behavior. And like Latendresse in Nebraska, Johnson spreads his decoys out, placing them into small groups and pairs. “Pay attention to how live birds are laying out and duplicate that. A lot of times you’ll see them sitting far apart–a drake and hen in one spot and then a couple more here and there,” says Johnson, who often limits his spread to one or two dozen decoys. “Naturally, if you spread them out like that, they can get out of range pretty quick, so you have to watch that and set up right in the middle of them, with the wind at your back.”
In the prairie-pothole region, South Dakota waterfowler Ben Fujan mixes Canada goose decoys in with his mallard spread. “When we’re hunting ducks in the field, we use big spreads of full-body mallards, maybe seventy to a hundred, and six, eight or maybe twelve honker decoys,” says Fujan. “The earlier in the season it is, the more honkers I’ll use. In the late season, I use more mallards.”
Fujan clusters his duck dekes together to mimic feeding-frenzied mallards. “I generally keep them pretty concentrated, with only two to three feet between each decoy,” he says. “If you watch them in fields, they’re greedy as hell and right on top of each other.”
While his mallard fakes are tightly grouped and form the kill hole for incoming waterfowl, Fujan keeps about 5 feet between his goose decoys and places them around the layout blinds. The larger-bodied decoys help hide the blinds while also pulling the birds toward the hunters.
Canada geese, with their propensity to identify the smallest anomaly in an otherwise perfect spread, can drive the best hunters crazy. And late-season geese can leave hunters seeking respite in an asylum. But if you match your surroundings perfectly and tweak your spread, you can pull the dark birds into range and avoid the loony bin.
“The late season is the roughest time of the year because the geese have seen everything,” says David Rearick, a guide from Butler, Pennsylvania. “You have to pay close attention to the little details.”
Rearick’s in-field routine consists of mudding and brushing out his blind every morning. “A lot of guys will mud their blind once at the beginning of the year, and it dries out and gets lighter. Re-mud with the darker, wet mud from the field,” says Rearick, who also uses fresh vegetation so his blind matches the hues of its surroundings perfectly. “Match your field for the day you’re hunting–that very morning.”
The Keystone State guide also keeps an eye on the weather when deciding where to hunt and what kind of decoys to use. With an impending front, he puts out more feeder decoys to mimic a real bird’s tendency to fill its belly when there’s a change in temperature and pressure. During more stable weather, he’ll hunt winter wheat and round out a spread with more resting decoys and fewer actives to imitate a bird’s inclination to loaf and lie low while the sun is shining.
Weather isn’t the only factor that will dictate your approach to spreads. You need to know which species of goose you’re hunting. “In West Texas, we hunt a lot of lesser Canadas,” says Derek Rambo of Grand Prairie, Texas. “The biggest problem I see is people who come down here and set up a big-goose spread and don’t have a lot of success.”
The difference between the two species is their aggressiveness when landing. “Big geese tend to land short of the decoys and walk in, while lessers tend to want to land right in the decoys or upwind of them. When people set up for big geese and lessers come in, the birds overshoot the landing zone,” says Rambo, who often uses large spreads to offset the dark background of the milo and peanut fields he hunts and to catch the attention of passing geese in the vastness of the Lone Star State’s panhandle. “The lessers are very aggressive. They’re just like ducks; they come in quick, in big flocks and tornado–and you’d better be camo’d up because you’re going to have a lot of eyes watching you.”
Big spreads can grab passing birds’ attention, as well as reassure them of the spot’s safety. Perhaps more important than how many fakes you have on the ground is the spacing between them. “When it comes to pressured birds, the best thing you can do is spread your decoys out,” says New Jersey guide Dave Weidner, who will spread several dozen dekes over an extremely large area. “You might have birds that short you or that land way out in the decoys, and you’re not going to be able to shoot them, but at least you know your spread looks natural to the birds.”
Those stragglers landing out of range can work to your advantage at times by adding realism and drawing other pressured birds to your spot. “You have to be careful about letting live birds land, though,” says Weidner. “If you have a lot of birds working in the area, then you can let one or two flocks land. But if you’re seeing only one or two flocks, you don’t want live birds in your spread because they’ll attract everything to them, and if they’re out of range, you’re out of luck.”
A late-season waterfowl dog has to fulfill several requirements when he’s retrieving downed birds and while he’s waiting in the blind. According to the pros, the least of your worries is being able to line and handle your dog at several hundred yards. More important, they say, are the little things that take place long before the day of the hunt.
Sit and Stay
Words of a pro: “Lack of obedience is a big issue. A dog that is wandering around can unknowingly create safety issues with loaded guns by knocking them over or stepping on them,” says Jake Latendresse.
Train for it: Sitting for an extended period of time is simply a matter of basic obedience. You can work on place training any time. Sit your dog on a specific spot, and when he decides that he’s had enough and begins to move, pick him up and return him to the spot. Your dog doesn’t get to decide when he can come and go; you dictate to him when it’s acceptable to move. Start with short durations and calmly reward patience while slowly increasing the time the dog spends sitting in a designated spot.
Rehearse the Little Stuff
Words of a pro: “Even if a dog has been trained by the best trainer in the world and might run perfect marks and blinds, a lot of times he has never hunted out of a pit, sat on a tree stand, crossed a ramp or experienced swimming in current,” says Hunter Johnson.
Train for it: Don’t wait until the morning of a hunt to introduce your dog to a boat, pit blind, ramp or other situation he’s expected to negotiate while carrying out his duties. Look at the components of various hunts and use your imagination to replicate those conditions in a controlled manner.
Train for ramps in your yard by leaning a plank against a picnic table. Walk your dog up and down the ramp, sit him beside you on the table, throw marks and make him wait patiently to retrieve. You’re not only introducing him to ramps but you’re also reinforcing steadiness, patience and place training. Run the same scenario from a stand hung low on a backyard tree, and you can train for a flooded timber hunt.
Ingrain the Recall Command
Words of a pro: “During a hunt, the action happens fast, and the last thing you need is a dog shopping for birds or showing off with one. He needs to come back quickly and lie down or line up for another send,” says David Rearick.
Train for it: Like sitting, recall is a matter of basic obedience. The recall command, whether a whistle or verbal, should be so thoroughly ingrained in your dog that no amount of temptation can dissuade him from returning. In the course of your day-to-day life, call your dog only when you know he’ll come or when you’re in a position to make him come if he disregards your command. A thorough delivery-to-hand program will help to eliminate any parading around with a bird. The best thing you can do to stop shopping is not let it start. During training, keep plenty of space between bumpers. When you start throwing multiple marks, keep them 180 degrees apart and slowly bring them closer together. When you get to the point of throwing diversion birds, don’t let him retrieve that mark; instead, walk out and pick it up yourself.
Acclimate Your Dog
Words of a pro: “Clients always ask if they can bring their dog, and I encourage them to, but they need to acclimate them to the cold. I’ve seen dogs get depressed, get cold-water tail and get cut by ice,” says Jake Latendresse.
Train for it: To help your dog get used to the cold, get him outside as the temperature drops; doing so will trigger his body to develop a thick winter coat. Swimming is great exercise, and the cold water will help accelerate the acclimation process. Additionally, training in cold water, or even ice, will help him negotiate similar scenarios during a hunt. If you have any doubts about your dog’s adjustment to the cold, or whether he’ll hunt around ice, buy him a neoprene vest.