Gerald Almy: Hunting for late season ducks
For duck hunters, there’s no season like the late season. The later in the year it gets, the more birds migrate from northern states and Canada. If you’re still in the frame of mind for hunting, ducks remain open through Jan. 29.
There aren’t many big waters in the Shenandoah Valley for hunters to try, but ponds and potholes can produce exceptional sport if you find the right ones that are being used by birds. Of course some of these may be frozen over, but if you can find ones without ice they can be magnets for traveling waterfowl this time of year.
After being exposed to months of hunting pressure on larger lakes, bays and sounds, there’s nothing a late-season duck wants more than a small, secluded spot to hide out on. While rivers and streams can certainly be productive, neglected potholes and ponds can also be great spots to hunt for the sportsman who takes the time to research and locate these gems.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there’s a pond within 10 miles of 80 percent of the U.S. population. You can locate these mini-duck habitats in several ways. Drive back-country roads and stop to talk with farmers and mail carriers or place a call to the local game warden or wildlife biologist. Using topographic maps and Google Earth is also a great way to locate small neglected duck waters.
Try to focus on ponds isolated from human traffic. Also remember, the more you locate, the better the chances one will hold ducks on any given day.
In addition to all-weather ponds, check out low spots near rivers that overflow during heavy rains and hold water for a while. I’ve had superb hunting on areas where the Shenandoah River spilled over into farm fields during heavy rains or snow-melt. Also check out place where beavers have dammed up small creeks. Those can be great spots for an action-packed late season duck hunt.
I’ve found two major strategies work well for these waters – jump shooting or waiting for the birds to come to you.
Jump shooting is definitely one of the most exciting tactics you can use for pond ducks, since it entails stalking and fast-paced shooting. If possible, scout from a distance with binoculars and try to see if birds are present, how many, and where they’re located. Check out the topography to see where ditches, hills or brushy vegetation will allow the closest stalk.
The goal should be to get within 35 yards or less of the birds for good jump shooting. As you stalk, keep a low profile and move silently. Coming up behind the dam is often the best approach.
A pair of hunters can stalk together if you know the location of the birds. If the pond is larger and you don’t know exactly where the ducks are, it’s best to move in from two different locations. Always be aware of where your partner is, though, for safety reasons.
When a flock of ducks suddenly rises up, it can seem chaotic. Force yourself to select one target. Once you shoot and connect with that bird then pick out another duck if they are still within range.
A good retriever definitely helps to collect the birds. If you don’t have one, bring waders or a rod-and-reel with a treble-hook lure to retrieve the ducks you shoot.
The second major strategy that works for ponds involves waiting for the birds to come to you. Either get in before daylight and await the ducks’ return, or flush them off without shooting and wait for them to come back. With either approach, the technique is basically the same. What you’re relying on is the appeal of that resting area to bring in the birds.
If ducks are already on the water, try to flush them subtly, in small groups. You don’t want to totally scare them, just make them a bit nervous. That way they’ll return in small flocks that offer extended shooting.
Sure, you can set out a few decoys. It makes the hunt more exciting in some ways. But I have often simply waited by the water in some brush or a makeshift blind and had birds pour back in by the dozens.
When you set up on a pond before dawn, ducks will usually come pitching in at first light. If you flush birds off during the day, expect to wait 15-60 minutes before they return. Of course there is no guarantee they will come back. That’s the gamble you take with this tactic.
When the ducks do come back to these small bodies of water, they’ll circle warily at first. But soon enough, you’ll hear that magnificent sound of wings beating the cold winter air, then watch mesmerized as the birds drop down confidently into shooting range. It’s one of the most rewarding of all waterfowling experiences.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.