Hunting Waterfowl Beyond Opener
By Nick Johnson
Take a distant glance at waterfowl hunting in Iowa throughout the season and you will see a predictable shift in hunting pressure that occurs after the first couple weeks of the season. A chunk of hunters that ventured out early have hung their waders up to focus on other game species such as deer and upland game. Some of this is by choice, some due to lack of success or too much hunting pressure in their given areas. Others just don’t like dealing with the cold, icy conditions that late season can bring which nobody will argue with safety in that regard.
Whatever the reason, mid-late season waterfowl hunting in Iowa can be challenging but also extremely rewarding. Some say, me included, that our duck season ends too early, but that’s a topic for another debate. Certain areas of the state will see very little pressure where other places might remain clogged with hunters from October through early December as the migration waves hit parts of the state and not others, and not necessarily at the same time. A different mindset needs to be held when hunting waterfowl later into the season and hunters need to put in extra effort in terms of scouting and concealment. For those that grind it out and stay patient this can be some of the best hunting of the entire year.
Nowhere in the “Waterfowl Hunting for Dummies” handbook does it state that you need to set a spread and sit on it all day to be successful. In some cases, this is a recipe for going home empty handed. The one flipside however is staying out later than other hunters and catching ducks and geese that are bouncing around from one loafing area to another or coming back from feeding elsewhere. More on that in a few. What I mean here is setting a spread and hunting that one spot when it becomes apparent that the birds are either shy or completely uninterested in that location.
Sometimes physically hunting an area can be your best means of scouting, especially if where you are hunting is out of sight from any roads, which happens a lot. You are now in their zone and can make strategic decisions based on what you are observing. Leave yourself an easy means of picking up and moving beyond first light and respond to the ducks and geese accordingly. This might mean setting only a portion of your decoys unless you are confident the area you are in is the “X” or at least intercepting a path of steady flight. Being nimble isn’t a must but it does offer the ability to move on the fly which can be very helpful when hunting a new area.
To slightly contradict what I just mentioned, the topic of hunting later is something that can also bring success yet unrelated enough to warrant discussing. Maybe this is your second set of the day and you feel confident you found the right spot to be? It is common in areas that get a lot of hunting pressure to see groups pack up and head out between 9-11am. Some folks have jobs, family duties, a full limit early or complete lack thereof. I fall into the family duty realm a lot here. In any case this relaxes the pressure on waterfowl and gives a chance to snag a few birds mid-day trading about from one place to another.
Where this strategy works incredibly well is with the onset of a weather front. If you see a chance for snow or a good push of cold be advised to tough it out so long as you aren’t putting you or anyone in your hunting party in danger. I’ve had some amazing hunts on public ground doing this in the past, especially towards the end of the season.
Weather not only holds the possibility of bringing fresh birds in but also forces some to move around a bit more in efforts to locate a safe sanctuary for loafing. Mid-day is also when a lot of ducks and geese come back to relax from feeding in fields if your target species are Mallards, geese and other field-prone puddle ducks. A good wind and some cold weather also keep the diving duck species on the wing more frequently throughout they day as they trade back and forth. A few of my best Goldeneye hunts late season have been on big reservoirs in the state between noon and four with some bonus Mallards and other species mixed in.
Take this with a grain of salt but for those that keep a record of migration movements through our state you will notice a trend in bird movement south that holds a fair bit of validity. The notion of calendar birds references the southward migration of species regardless of weather meaning they migrate south around a specific point of time in the year. The three primary stages that Iowa experiences are around the third week in Oct, the second week in November and again the second week of December. Each year depending on what portion of the state you live in you may see an uptick in the number of waterfowl present which may last for a couple days or even a week during these time periods. Catch these birds early enough through good scouting before they move on or get stale from pressure.
The first wave around the third week of October I have noticed is largely smaller to mid-sized duck species along with some geese that push out of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, possibly even Canada. You are likely to encounter lots of Gadwall, Green Winged Teal, Wood Ducks, Ring Necked Ducks and Shovelers during this time with some Mallards and Pintails mixed in.
The next wave around the second week of November often brings a lot of northern ducks out of Canada and the far upper-Midwest. Expect to see a lot of the larger puddle duck species along with many divers such as Bluebills, Canvasbacks, Red Heads, Bufflehead and even some Goldeneyes. Green Winged Teal, Wigeon, Shovelers, Pintails and Mallards are all very relevant species to encounter. Many geese begin to move south during this time and Lesser Canadas, Snows and even White Fronts are not out of the question.
The last calendar wave around the second week of December is largely comprised of the hardy northern species. Many of these will already be present in Iowa from natural weather or cyclic migration. Expected species to see move around this time are Goldeneyes, Mallards, Common Mergansers and geese. Unfortunately for Iowa duck hunters this push comes a bit too late as much of the state is either closed or rapidly nearing the close of duck season.
Fields A Plenty
One thing we have no shortage of in Iowa is agricultural land. Its no secret that many species of ducks and geese feed in fields during the fall and winter months and this can sometimes be your best bet for success when hunting water isn’t panning out. Ducks, especially, seem to decoy incredibly well in fields when the same birds won’t give so much as a look on a water set.
I typically don’t write too much about field hunting because not all of us are blessed with access to private ground to do so but if you own or have access to a field spread, even just honker decoys, find some birds and knock on a few doors to see what you can acquire for hunting opportunities. Even running traffic so to speak where you aren’t in the field they are going to but at the very least underneath their flight path can work out. Mid to late season is when fields can be a gold mine. Be courteous and respectful of the landowner and always ask if it is okay for you to drive into their fields. Nothing is worse than getting a truck buried and then dealing with an angry farmer, ruining any hunting for the future.
Decoys and Calling
Its worth a mention to discuss decoys and calling because these both play, sometimes critically, into the success of hunts as the season ages. It is in your best interest here to let the birds tell you what they want. By this I’m circling back to being nimble, adaptive and conscious of how waterfowl are responding. Maybe instead of picking up and moving you simply need to adjust the shape of the spread to allow birds to land in a better location for an ethical shot. Do the decoys need to be spread out to appear like a larger group of birds? Is the wind right? Are they down winding you, landing short meaning you need to move the blind closer to where they are landing and further from the spread? Keep these questions in mind and don’t be afraid to try something out of the ordinary.
You can ask the same questions when calling. Did ducks or geese flare when you called? Are they responding better to light or no calling? Sometimes later in the year you really need to get aggressive on the calling to hold their interest. This is a great time to get new callers involved to hone their skills and confidence. Calling on the corners is a common practice in this case where you call when the birds are swinging and at the edge of their turn but holding off when they are coming straight on. See what works and if all else fails, get aggressive if ducks or geese are just circling and seem like they are looking for an excuse to move on.
The last piece of the puzzle I always try to ensure adequacy on is concealment. Many of these ducks and geese have already run the gauntlet on their way south, especially if they have been in the area for more than a few days and weary. Try your best to blend in and keep hunter and dog visibility to a minimum. Aside from scouting and being in the right area, I hold concealment to a high standard. Faces and bare hands can stick out like sore thumbs whether its cloudy or sunny and shadows are your friend.
Hunting mid to late season in Iowa comes with unique sets of challenges but this the time of year can be some of the best hunting for a diverse range of species. Naturally be courteous to other hunters and keep an open mind in terms of change and adapting to what the birds are telling you. Nothing says you are a fool for moving spots, changing the decoy spread five times or trying something outside the box. This is what helps us learn and evolve as waterfowlers. Stay safe and have a great season!