The holiday season was in full swing, and New Year’s Eve parties had me struggling to set decoys on the snow-covered ground in the pre-dawn darkness. I scanned the eastern sky and suddenly, they appeared like a dream come true; the sight of several flocks of geese heading straight at my decoy set-up got my heart pounding. Like ribbons of thread blowing in the wind, there were formations of giant Canada geese escorted by fast-moving squadrons of mallards. They crisscrossed the brilliant pink morning horizon, circled the decoys, then set wings and swooped the spread like jets landing on an aircraft carrier.
The 3-inch Winchester rose to my shoulder on its own volition and the morning silence was broken by the sound of the 12 gauge and the thump of a bird crashing to solid ground. We had our five bird per hunter limit of giant geese in less than an hour. But rather than packing, we stayed flat on our backs, amid the decoys, clutching our guns, eyes glued to the horizon, waiting for circling mallards to commit. What a hunt! Soon they cupped wings, and we popped a pair of drakes dressed in brightly colored plumage for winter.
Isn’t it about time you sampled Michigan’s superb late-season waterfowling?
Try it and I guarantee you will be hooked for life. It seems the fast-paced shooting fun is addictive. Many outings are highlighted by early morning gunning action that is top rate. The special New Year’s hunt takes place in southern Michigan South Zone only, where birds are somewhat concentrated and often make daily flights to local agricultural fields. This year, late season is January 1-9, 2022 and February 5-14, 2022. However, mallards can only be taken January 1-2, 2022. Check the 2021 Michigan Waterfowl Digest for season dates, bag limit, shooting hours and more.
Late season hunting is not always easy. In fact, it rarely is; unless you follow some guidelines that lead to success.
We all know the negatives of late season hunting: bitter cold, freezing rain, mud-filled fields, ice-covered water, fewer birds, no hunters to move birds, birds that are skittish from hunting pressure and waterfowl that hole up on sanctuaries where you cannot hunt them.
But don’t overlook the positive aspects of this hunt as well: rain and snow concentrate birds, fewer hunters are out, so birds revert to normal feeding patterns, throughout southern Michigan birds are available, the birds you harvest will be the largest of the entire year offering an opportunity to take huge geese and drake mallards highlighted by double curl tail feathers and beautifully colored green heads.
Late-season duck and goose hunting are different than any other waterfowl adventure. Special tactics are required to outwit wary birds. Here are some strategies that have worked for me on hunts in Michigan from east to west.
Concentrate efforts on areas where you have seen birds. Never make the common mistake of going hunting without doing your homework first. To get an ‘A’ in late-season waterfowling, you must follow the golden rule: scout and continue to scout. This requires you to spend time afield or in your vehicle following local flocks to determine a daily flying pattern. Most January hunters prefer to locate a stubble cornfield where birds are landing to feed. Now, it is a matter of setting up decoys before daylight and waiting for incoming birds at their dinner table.
Other hunters like to ambush birds along open water flyways. Michigan hosts a variety of streams, rivers, lakes and ponds offering open water for late-season birds. These areas offer excellent gunning when birds flee the pressure of opening day and head for roosting hotspots. The most important element in this endeavor is to scout thoroughly and set an ambush for birds that you have located and identify their movement patterns. Again, scouting is the key to success.
I’m amazed at the number of sanctuaries available to ducks and geese. Savvy hunters locate sanctuaries and scout waterfowl migration routes to local grain fields. Just take a look at ponds along the expressways, inter-city parks and private property found in Battle Creek, Bay City, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Lansing and more, which offer protection from hunters, open water for roosting and availability of green grass to feed.
The other important element that can dictate the number of birds in your area is the availability of open water. Michigan’s south zone is highlighted by metropolitan cities with major rivers or streams running through city parks like Lansing, Flint, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and many more. Moving water that does not freeze is necessary for ducks and geese to survive winter.
So far, we have had an unseasonably warm early winter, and thousands of birds are holding over in Michigan. A cold winter blast highlighted by deep snow and sub-zero temperatures can send birds scurrying south. On the other hand, warming trends highlighted by balmy south winds can bring migrating birds back in a hurry.
I’m happy the DNR allows duck hunting the first few days of the season. Sure, it would be nice to take ducks the entire late hunt. I’m certain the harvest would have little or no impact on the total duck population. Most ducks are long gone south by the late hunt, but enough mallards stick it out to make them a welcome sight for winter goose hunters. And believe me, nothing is more frustrating than working off your tail to set up decoys in the pre-dawn darkness, only to pass on a large flock of flight mallards that buzz your set-up at dawn.
If we do not have snow for the late hunt, or existing snow melts, you can count on great waterfowl hunting this year. Ducks and geese love to feed in stubble cornfields. Find the area they are using, set out goose decoys with some duck decoys sprinkled in, and you can expect some fun shooting. At times winter ducks travel in large flocks, and it is very difficult to get them into close shooting range. I’m not a sky blaster, but I recommend goose loads for this situation.
I’ve incorporated MOJO moving wing decoys in the past few years to my spread. I use three to seven MOJOs hooked up to remote control, and the moving wings resemble the action of a flock of ducks landing. This trick will bring in wary flocks and provide in-your-face shooting action. The motion spinning wings’ realism is unsurpassed, and the results are impressive. Like any other tactic, there are some tricks you need to learn to make MOJO the ultimate duck slayer.
Fact is, any rotating wing decoy will help draw ducks, some will dive into easy range, but others will ignore the spinning decoy. The trick with motion decoys is to use several to mimic a large flock landing and use fully charged batteries that will keep the wings violently turning the entire hunt on a cold day. To sweeten the pie, place the motion decoys over some Dive Bomb moving sock field mallards and full body decoys on motion stakes.
Set your duck decoys slightly to the side of your goose decoys. If you spot incoming geese just turn off the MOJO spinning wings and geese will come into easy range.
You probably know I recommend Big Foot full body decoys for early and regular season. But once winter arrives, I turn to shell decoys, moving Dive Bomb wind socks and silhouettes. The idea is to mimic winter birds that seldom stand erect but spend more time hunkered down in the snow to keep legs and feet warm. Dive Bomb wind socks have fully flocked heads and realistic body paint schemes and body profile that makes them look like live walking geese. Don’t overlook the long-range drawing power of Dive Bomb black silhouette goose decoys that wild geese can see at super long distances. I like to use at least 50 decoys for the New Year seasons.
Like all hunting endeavors, it pays to spend time outdoors when the conditions work to your advantage. Any wise waterfowler will tell you that the best time to be in the field is during a storm. This is certainly true for winter duck and goose hunting. And if I were to pick a day for hot gunning, it would be the morning after fresh snow. Birds are not crazy about flying in an all-out blizzard, but they seem to like to use snow squalls to cover their raids on local fields. Days that are highlighted by slate gray, dark skies that hang low to the horizon, that spit flurries are perfect for success. I’ve learned to sleep in if the sky is clear, temperatures have plummeted during the night, and there is a light north wind following a high- pressure weather front. These conditions cause birds to huddle tightly to keep watery roosting sites from freezing solid.
Pinpointing food sources is the key to hunting success. The rest can be relatively easy. Use white camo in snow. Set out as many decoys as possible and place a string of decoys downwind from the bulk of your spread. Incoming birds will swing upwind and follow the decoys to the main spread. Wary geese that have seen a lot of hunting pressure can be difficult to decoy into shotgun range. Some savvy hunters lay 40 yards downwind from the blocks to intercept geese that swing out of gun range from the spread. Use calls, but not too loudly or aggressively. Some winter hunters stop calling when birds are 400 yards from the decoys. More often than not, morning hunts are the most productive and when you overshoot or “burn up” a field, refocus your energies on scouting a new hunting hot spot.
Positioning decoys to attract smart birds is an art. Some layouts draw birds like a magnet, while other spreads cause birds to be alarmed and flare when they get a good look at the decoys. Try to place stand-up heads on the outside of the spread facing toward the center, as if they are walking to the center to join the feeding spree. Don’t make the common mistake of setting decoys too close together. Try placing several close together, giving a few yards spacing, and then stringing a couple of decoys between each flock to imitate family groups. Full body goose decoys are expensive to buy, but they will often cure your problems with birds that are decoy shy. I love Big Foot full body when hunting somewhat high stubble corn.
Nothing is more disheartening than birds that flare out of range and fly out of sight at lightning speed. Remember that 95 percent of spooked waterfowl is directly related to the hide. I’m talking about birds detecting hunters because they are not fully camouflaged or concealed from the sharp eyesight of adult birds. That’s why I match my camouflage to the environment: snow camo during winter and tan in stubble corn. I take it one step further and spray paint my black shiny gun and boots. One solution is to use a layout blind. However, keep in mind that you still need to brush them in to match the environment, toss snow against the steep sides during winter, lean stubble corn against the square profile, match the blind to grasses and stubble corn. Oh, I recommend using a face mask to hide your human form. During cold weather, some hunters get a beet red face that wary, gun-shy adult birds pick up at long distances.
Last winter, I joined a group of hunters on the Grand River near Lansing. We bagged plenty of ducks and some geese to boot. The secret to our success was simple. Our guide found birds resting where the river forms a side channel swamp, highlighted by a shallow sand bar. Birds would hide in the thick cover of the cattail swamp during early season, but come winter, they preferred to rest along the sand bar. We placed several floating decoys in the side current and put Big Foot full bodies along the sand bar. Ducks swarmed the spread at dawn, cupping wings and landing in our floaters. Come noon, geese returning from nearby fields circled overhead, swung downwind, lowered landing gear and dropped into decoys set near shore. We had an exciting hunt, perhaps the best of the year, the kind of action that you would not want to miss, especially if you want to celebrate the coming of a New Year.