Most duck hunts are set to kick off at the crack of dawn. I’ll agree that the marsh at dawn is an amazing place to be. Watching the wildlife stirring as the sun turns the horizon orange is a spectacle more than worth the price of admission.
Early morning is without question the most popular time to schedule a duck hunt, but not always the most productive. Depending on what the birds are doing and why, a hunt that targets a different hour of the day can be the fast track to web foot success.
Daylight Loafing Sites
Not all ducks go directly from the overnight roost to their feeding grounds and back again. A significant number of birds will leave the roost and feed in a favorite field in the morning, then leave the feeding field and spend varying amounts of time on loafing or resting waters before returning to the roost. Often these resting waters hold birds all day long and the birds frequently pop in and out going to food and returning for a quick drink several times during the day.
The best loafing waters are often located in or very near the actual feeding fields making them overwhelming attractive to ducks that want a quick drink, but that don’t want to fly all the way back to the roost!
Setting up in one of these loafing waters means you’ll be targeting transient birds and not the main flock of birds working the field and eventually returning to the roost. Weather plays a role here. The more mild the weather, the more likely the birds will feed out and return to the roost. When high winds or other harsh weather move in, the birds love to loaf in waters nearby a food source rather than burning up energy flying all the way back to the roost.
Loafing waters are a great target, but like hunting a roost site they can be a one shot deal. Once you displace birds using a loafing water, you’re likely going to displace the birds also using the adjacent food sources. One trick helps to keep loafing waters alive and productive longer. Set up so the wind pushes the sound of your shooting away from the birds feeding in the main field. A stiff wind pushing the reports away from the mass of feeding birds will insure the shooting doesn’t blow birds right out of the neighborhood.
If the wind is pushing the sound of the reports towards birds feeding nearby, chances are you’ll bust the whole setup and enjoy only marginal shooting. Remember, the target birds are those coming from the field to water to get a quick drink. Many of these birds will skip back to the primary feeding field several times during the day.
Catching these birds in the cross fire can amount to an amazing hunt that gets started later in the morning and lasts all afternoon long.
If cover is sparse, try using laydown style blinds or fabricate a simple and low profile blind using die cut camo materials. A dozen mallard decoys are plenty.
When the birds start to show up it will be in late morning and will amount to a trickle at first. Gradually small groups of birds will pop in out of nowhere and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Call just enough to entice the birds close and then kill them. There is no need for heavy handed calling because the birds are naturally coming your direction. Stealth is more important than luring the birds in close.
My standard is to pass on the singles and doubles, hoping to get a larger group of birds into the hole for maximum impact. When four or more birds hit the hole, it’s like my buddy Charles Snapp always says…”hammer time!”
If you have a dog do the pick ups, be ready because more birds are likely to try and land before the dog even completes a retrieve. If you don’t have a dog, it’s best to simply mark down the birds and sit tight for a few minutes.
When mallards and other puddle ducks use these day loafing waters it’s fast and furious action once the birds get a full crop and start thinking water. Now is not the time to be wading around in the decoys or making adjustments to the blind!
Late Morning Roost Hunts
I don’t typically hunt on duck or goose roosts because the gunning pressure can chase the birds right out of the neighborhood. However, sometimes a roost hunt is the only available option.
Most hunters target a roost by busting in before dawn, shagging the birds off the water and setting up a decoy spread as quickly as possible in anticipation of the birds returning. Sometimes this strategy works and sometimes it doesn’t. If the birds have another safe haven to escape to, only a tiny percentage of the birds shagged off a particular puddle are likely to return. This is particularly true with mallards and black ducks. Pond loving ducks like gadwall or widgeon are much more likely to return to the same puddle day after day.
Instead, watch the roost and wait until the birds naturally leave to feed. Once the majority of the birds have left, slip in and set up a decoy rig in the area where the birds were using.
It might take an hour or several hours for the birds to return, but when they do, they will have no clue what awaits them. If you shoot your birds and get out quickly, other birds may still continue using the roost. If the hunt drags on, chances are the majority of the birds will become wise to this tactic and relocate to other roosting waters.
Frozen Field Hunts
Have you ever spent a frigid morning waiting for birds that didn’t arrive on schedule? You bet. Every waterfowl hunter faces the dilemma of feeling it’s necessary to be in the blind at first light, when often the birds don’t fly for several hours after sun up.
The colder it is, the more that mallards, geese and other waterfowl are going to be reluctant to leave their watery roost and set out to feed in the mornings. The classic situation where birds head out to feed in the morning and again in the afternoons morphs into a feeding behavior that starts in late morning and stretches out all afternoon long. The evening flight is just about zero in these conditions as birds return to the roost to keep the water from freezing.
Targeting birds in these freezing conditions is in part about dealing with the elements and also about predicting when the birds will arrive in significant numbers. In this case there is little need to be in the blind at daylight. Instead conserve your energy and shoot for an arrival time of late morning.
Another option is to set the decoys at first light and then wait in the warm truck until you start to see birds flying. This method requires copious amounts of coffee and donuts!
Personally I favor setting the decoys after the sun is well up. This helps to keep frosting down on the blocks and insures when birds arrive the decoy spread will look as good as possible. Because the conditions are frigid, chances are these birds have been hunted time and time again. Put extra attention into hiding the blinds so that incoming birds will have no clue hunters are waiting.
I insist that all my hunting buddies put their gunning bags, thermos bottles and other personal gear inside the layout blind. Every blind is covered in mud before the grassing process and not a speck of camo material can be seen when I’m done grassing up each blind.
Sometimes the best duck hunting spots are places the birds seek out after they have already had a tail feather or two shot off. My all time favorite wood duck spot is an opening day tradition in our family. We arrive early to lock up our spot, but we don’t pop the first primer until well after other hunters in the area are limited out and returning home!
Once the shooting begins nearby on popular public marshes, birds like wood ducks are forced into the air and immediately seeking sanctuary anyplace they can. Finding a spot were woodies literally drop out of the sky to get to is not an easy task.
It took me two years to refine the best hunting location for my current wood duck mecca. Watching birds drop to the water out of gun range is frustrating, but I studied the birds and learned from the experience. Over a couple of years I figured out exactly where I needed to be to intercept the birds as they slipped towards what they thought would be sanctuary.
Wood ducks have one habit that’s easy to capitalize on. These birds love to fly along obvious borders. A winding stream is a perfect example. Wood ducks will fly at tree top height following every twist and turn of the river. A second example is waters that have a dense wooded shoreline. Wood ducks love to fly along these natural edges, putting themselves right in the line of fire for anyone who understands this tendency!
If you can tie up a spot where two or more natural flight paths intersect, chances are a limit of wood ducks will be like child’s play.
Summing It Up
Not every duck hunt is set in the glow of dawn. Sometimes the late morning and even early afternoons are far more productive times to be afield.