A bitter cold north wind howled through the trees as we set out decoys in the predawn darkness using head lamps to locate open water. Come dawn there was the sudden swoosh of wings as mallards set their wings and ascended from the heavens into our decoy spread. I got the perfect lead with my new Benelli Super Black Eagle II and when I touched the trigger the double curled back feathered drake splashed down along with two other drakes from the flock. One thing about hunting late season is flight birds respond to calling and decoys like a duck tornado. I love to watch them cup wings and take the escalator ride straight down into the blocks.
Mallards are the primary target of late season duck hunters and the key to success hinges on weather and scouting. If Old Man Winter arrives early the late November/December hunts go sour on area marshes and ponds and birds flock to open water found on Michigan’s many rivers. Perhaps the best hunting is found in southern Michigan and season dates are: October 11-December 7 and December 27-28. Hunters can take four mallards per day of which no more than two may be hens. Consult the 2014 Waterfowl Digest for bag limits, hunting dates, shooting hours and more.
Floating for ducks on Michigan’s major tributaries has a strong tradition. I’ve had excellent outings on the Tittabawassee, Chippewa, Shiawassee, Grand, and Kalamazoo. The trick is to find rivers flowing through public land like the Manistee, Pere Marquette, AuSable and more where duck hunting is legal. By Michigan law if you are floating a river flowing through private land you need permission from landowners.
I have hunting permission on the Grand River that is bordered by a large swamp and river bayou. Cold weather mallards flock here and the shooting is red hot. My strategy is to set out decoys before dawn and wait for flight mallards. I love decoying ducks and use motion MOJO decoys to bring them into easy range. My hunting friends are excellent callers and few thrills in life are more enjoyable than pulling flight mallards from long distances into kissin’ close range.
In the old days I’d set out a large decoy spread using magnum decoys to get the attention of wild birds. But after years of hunting I rely on MOJO motion decoys to suck birds from the sky like a huge Hoover vacuum. With MOJO decoys I create what I affectionately have nicknamed the “No Fly Zone” because I decoy birds so close that when the shooting stops no birds fly away. My recommendation is to use one or two Super MOJO Mallard with Mojo Thrasher to give surface ripples. To sweeten the pie I include a MOJO Flyway feeder which is an electronic duck butt that pumps water and imitates feeding ducks. Don’t forget the MOJO Mama Jama which provides natural duck movements and produces V pattern on the water. Between the spinning wings, splashing water, ripples and V shaped moving water the mallards cannot resist and they cup wings and dive for the decoy spread. Today I hunt with at least four motion decoys and use a spread of seven-nine decoys. With this setup I decoy 9 out of 10 ducks into easy gun range. In most cases it is almost impossible to stop ducks from landing in my decoy setup.
In fact, I have sold my stationary decoys and reinvested the money into motion decoys. With them there is no need to call, although good calling brings wild birds into range even faster. Through years of trial and error I’m convinced motion decoys are the secret to unbelievable duck shooting adventures. Learn how to use them and I guarantee you will never buy stationary decoys again; you will harvest more ducks, decoy birds when other hunters with fancy calls and large decoy spreads don’t get a shot. But how to use this deadly decoying strategy beyond compare is another story.
Next, we pack gear and float the river to the boat launch downstream. One hunter sits in the bow of the boat with camouflage netting used to hide his outline. The hunter in the back uses a paddle to slip downstream with minimum motion. A sculling technique is necessary to avoid paddling motion that will spook wary mallards. Stealth tactics are required for success. Some hunters keep the canoe or boat close to the bank or hug inside bends so resting ducks do not see you until you are in range. Sometimes a fast paddle is used to get the boat moving fast and the paddle is used as a rudder to guide the craft into loafing birds. Often the paddle is dragged along bottom to navigate the boat or canoe into ideal shooting range. The trick is to get very close and slowly turn the boat sideways so both hunters have an opportunity to take birds. Sometimes limits come easy, other times wary flight birds blast from the water at the first glance of a moving craft.
Late season mallards often feed in local corn fields and return to the water for a mid-day snooze. They have winter plumage, bright orange legs and feet, drakes have super beautiful coloring with shiny metallic green heads and double curl black feathers on their flanks.
Floating for ducks is uncomplicated because you don’t need a lot of expensive gear and large expensive decoy spreads. For this type of hunting you can have fantastic success during mid-day and you don’t have to get up at ungodly early hours. Success trips often coincide with warm weather.
Slower moving sections of river featuring sand flats, sand bars, cattail swamps or side bayou are magnets for ducks. Some locations are identified by sharp turns in the river, fallen trees, brush or bull rushes.
Hunting pressure and cold weather often push ducks to Michigan’s waterways and late season trips can be far more productive than hunting local marshes. As weather gets cold and snow falls, geese take to open rivers. Those who identify ice flows and sand bars can set out decoys and have great shooting. Most late season goose hunters prefer shell, resting or sleeper goose decoys to give decoy spreads a natural appeal.
One of my favorite late season strategies is to stalk likely mallard hangouts and photograph birds in their natural environment. Such outings have helped me to get fantastic photos and provided valuable scouting intelligence. One of my favorite mallard magnets is on the Grand River, not far from Grand Rapids where mallards and geese congregate on a sand bar. It is not uncommon for several hundred birds to gather here and they remain throughout the winter. This is where I’ve photographed mallards and geese with balls of ice on their bills and legs and had some fantastic late season gunning.
Late season hunts are usually short because cold hands and feet make outdoor adventures a difficult task. The cold weather and snow last year made hunting a challenge but the results can be some of the hottest waterfowl gunning of the entire year.