Late season duck hunting is officially under way here in Utah. Early December is when we usually see our first hard freeze of the year . All of the major marshes in the state are frozen to the point where they are impassable with a boat and many of the ducks and geese head either south or west for warmer temps. So is it time to give it up chasing ducks? Hardly! Now is the time to use different tactics and approaches for late season waterfowl. Food sources and open water become even more important than ever, but it”s also more difficult to get to the birds because of the ice. Setting yourself up to travel to the birds with lightweight decoys and gear is essential for success.
We are lucky enough to have a 100-day season to hunt waterfowl in Utah,which is great because we get to hunt in so many different weather conditions. The last 40 days of the season involve freezing and thawing periods, which present a ton of opportunities for us. I enjoy this time period for many reasons. First, there is a lot less competition in the marsh from other duck hunters. I would guess that at least 95% of the duck hunters in the state have quit chasing ducks and geese by by the time the ice sets in. Second, even though duck numbers are down, the birds that remain are mature, colorfully plumed birds. Picking out your drakes during late season hunts is as easy. Greenheads and pintails glow this time of year! Third, it takes years of hunting and chasing these late season birds to really figure them out, it is physically demanding and hard hunting but it’s extremely rewarding. And finally, the best flight of the day usually occurs between noon and 5:00 PM, which is really hard to beat.
The tactics we use are straight forward enough, which includes a lot of scouting, glassing for birds, and looking for the water that remains open in the area you are hunting. This sounds obvious, but it can come in the form of culverts, warm springs, melting mud edges, creeks, and rivers. We also focus on the areas birds are coming to feed in, not roosting water. You need to keep the birds in the area so don’t bust the roost!
As far as food sources, there are some key food types the birds feed on in the marshes, some of which may be new to you if you’ve never hunted the state before. These include midge larvae, alkali bull rush seeds, salicornia plants (pickle weed), and the remaining pond algae.
The hunt we really take advantage of involves two food sources that come together for the birds when the sun starts to melt the ice at midday- midge larvae and alkali bullrush seeds. The midges are bright red in color, and they become active when the sun warms the mud and melts the ice, and the ducks really take advantage of them. In addition to the midges, the melting ice makes it easier for the ducks to access and feed on the alkali bullrush seeds as the edges of small open water areas open up even more . We hunt these areas in coffins or with lay-out blinds in combination with our SoftShell Decoys:, the cover is typically very low and the water very shallow. Decoys on a stake work perfectly in this set up. Experience has shown 2 to 3 dozen decoys is enough, being on the “x” is the key. I’ve also stopped bringing spinning wing decoys on these hunts because they don’t seem to work as well in the late season- they’re not worth the weight to haul out with us. It’s not uncommon for us to walk over a mile to get to our hunting spot, which is why having lightweight gear is so important.
So have you given up for the year? Too cold or too far to walk? For selfish reasons I hope so, but I think you miss out on some of the most rewarding hunts of the year.