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Winter Duck Hunting Strategies


Wind, snow, fog, and ice; no matter what the late season throws your way, here's how to make the most of it


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By Wade Bourne


Deep winter offers duck hunters both challenge and opportunity. The late season cuts hunters little slack, but the last few weeks can also provide some of the best shooting of the year.

Here is how to adjust your hunting to the toughest weather elements: strong winds, ice, fog, heavy snow, and rain. Hunters who understand how these conditions affect ducks and who employ strategies designed around them can enjoy hot shooting in the waning days of the season.

Strong Winds

"Strong winds will definitely make ducks come in easier-but you have to be in the right spot," says Duane Kovarik of Ord, Nebraska. Kovarik hunts from a boat-blind on large reservoirs in the north-central part of the state. He says it's not uncommon for winds to blow up to 40 miles per hour and for the lake's open water to resemble the North Atlantic.

"Usually ducks will sit on the main lake at night," Kovarik says. "They'll fly out at dawn to feed and start trickling back around midmorning. If the wind is kicking up, they'll look for sheltered areas to loaf for the rest of the day."

So Kovarik sets up in small sheltered coves on the upwind side of the lake. He hunts either from his boat-blind or from the bank. "Look for where trees or a hill shelters the upwind side of a cove," he says. "When a hard wind is blowing, a calm shoreline is like a magnet. Passing ducks will see your decoys and often come in without circling."

In this situation, Kovarik uses fewer decoys than normal. "I'll scale down to three dozen ducks and a dozen geese," he explains. "You don't need to do a lot of convincing. You just need enough decoys for passing birds to see."

Correspondingly, he also calls less than normal when it's windy. "I'll give passing birds one good hail series to make them look at the decoys," he says. "If they turn my way, there's usually no more need to call."

Kovarik stresses that hunters must exercise caution in strong winds. "Don't go out on rough water in a low-sided boat," he advises, "and don't put in where you have to cross open water. Always wear your life jacket when you're running, and don't go out until there's enough light to see where you're going. Just use common sense and remember that rough water and subfreezing temperatures can be a deadly combination for duck hunters."

Ice

When ice starts forming on Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota/Ontario/Manitoba boundary, Lance Sage says duck hunting can be extraordinary. "Find the right spot, and you'll be in for the shoot of your life," he says.

Sage helps run his family's Sage's Angle West Resort in Minnesota's Northwest Angle. He's a part-time guide and an avid waterfowler who specializes in diving ducks. When the lake starts freezing in late fall, bluebills, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks, and others concentrate in areas that remain open. Sage looks for open water on wind-exposed points and banks, spring-fed areas, and rivers flowing into or out of the lake. Sage says finding these spots is simply a matter of watching where birds are flying and following them to where they are rafting.

"The bays freeze first, and when they do, the ducks move out to big water," he says. "The main lake holds its temperature longer, and strong winds also help keep it open. I'll use binoculars to find where ducks are landing, and then I'll figure out how to get there and set up." Sometimes he can access a wind-washed point or shoreline from the bank. Other times he breaks ice (up to an inch-and-a-half thick-no more) to reach open water. "This type of hunting isn't for the faint of heart," he advises.

Sage uses the same decoy spread and calling techniques that he employs before ice starts forming. "I don't change anything," he says, "except if it's snowing, I might change my camouflage. This is strictly a matter of locating the birds."

Fog

"Fog can be a really good thing, but you have to be quiet and extra careful not to let ducks see you," says Jackie Van Cleave of Samburg, Tennessee. Van Cleave is a full-time guide on fabled Reelfoot Lake. "Ducks can see better in fog than most people think they can," he says. "They can see decoys from overhead, and they'll just pop into your spread if they don't see or hear something that spooks them."

Van Cleave calls sparingly in fog. "A lot of hunters hear ducks chattering up in the fog and then start calling to them. That will usually flare them," he explains. "Instead, I use a Mallard Machine (water-disturbance device), and I'll bump it once every 30 seconds to make a little splash. It's the splashing noise and decoy movement that bring ducks in. The only calling I might do is a little soft feed chatter every now and then."

Another important factor in hunting in fog is staying still and being completely covered in the blind. "Pull plenty of brush up around your shooting hole and be absolutely still," Van Cleave says. "Don't do any talking or moving around in the blind. On a foggy morning, any little noise will scare ducks. Just keep your eyes over the decoys and be ready. Ducks will get in on you in a hurry in the fog, and if you're not ready, they'll flare and disappear before you can shoot."

Heavy Snow

"A heavy snowstorm makes ducks go crazy," says Al Aufforth of North Dakota, a professor of wildlife biology at Minot State University-Bottineau and a lifelong duck hunter. "They come off the refuge en masse and feed all day. They work in big swirls, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, and when they come in, it looks like a wall of mallards driving through the snow.

"By the late season, most shallow potholes are frozen," Aufforth continues, "but the ducks will still be here if the reservoir on the national wildlife refuge is open. Typically, these birds fly out to feed in stubble fields [wheat or peas] in the morning and afternoon, but a sudden snowstorm will change this pattern. When the snow hits, ducks are frantic to gorge on grain, so they feed all day. Then, typically, they leave for parts south. So from a hunter's perspective, this opportunity is short, but also very sweet."

Aufforth decides where to hunt by watching ducks fly out of the refuge. "You have to be there when that first flight comes off," he says. "All ducks that follow will usually fly the same route, and the trick is to get beneath them. You don't have to be in the exact field where they're going, just under the flyway."

Instead of digging pits or setting out layout blinds, Aufforth and his hunting partners simply lie in the snow. "We wear white coveralls, gloves, ski masks, and watch caps," he says. "And we wear all the clothes we can get on underneath our coveralls. This style of hunting is cold. I've had my shotgun safety freeze up many times."

Aufforth uses a small spread-two dozen full-body field mallards and seven full-body Canada goose decoys. He sets these in a J formation with the mallards in the shank of the J, pointed upwind. He places the Canada geese in the turn of the J. He says the ducks usually want to land inside the cup of this design, so this is where he lays out. He simply reclines in the snow, feet pointed downwind, and he builds a small snow fort approximately two feet high around him. "This low wall of snow hides me from incoming birds," he explains.

Then he watches and listens for ducks flying close. He calls very little, since sound doesn't travel well in the snow and wind.

"If the snow is really coming down," Aufforth stresses, "you need to continuously sweep your decoys clean. You want them to be dark and to stand out against the white snow. And if the ducks change their flight lane, you have to be willing to change locations in a hurry. Ducks can't see very far in the snow, so you have to go to them instead of hoping they'll find you."

Heavy Rain

In more temperate regions, heavy winter rains can cause a sudden shift in ducks' feeding locations. For instance, Avery Outdoors pro staffer Stuart McCullough of Los Banos, California, says a sudden deluge can flood extensive new areas in the grasslands of the Central Valley. When this happens, ducks move immediately to this fresh water and new food source. Hunters who follow them can enjoy excellent shooting.

"When a hard rain comes, the rivers will rise quickly and flood new sloughs and pastureland," McCullough says. "If this happens late in the season, it invigorates our hunting. Ducks that have become patterned to sit on refuges and private clubs will scatter out into these newly flooded areas. They do this as soon as the rain stops or even when it's slowing down. Hunters who understand this and have the know-how and equipment to take advantage of the situation can have a great hunt."

McCullough says good scouting is necessary to locate areas where the birds are moving, and in many cases layout blinds are the key to success. "In this area, much of the flooding occurs in wide-open fields where hiding is difficult. But with the Finisher blinds, you can set up just about anywhere on dry ground. Just set them out at water's edge, add some natural cover, toss out your decoys, and you're ready to hunt.

"So this is a simple matter of scouting after a heavy rain, finding where the ducks are working, and then setting up quickly to take advantage of this new opportunity," McCullough says. "It's a run-and-gun style of hunting that's totally dependent on being in the right place at the right time."



Cold Weather Duck Hunting Tips

5 ways to bag birds when the mercury dips


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By John Pollman

Wintry conditions can offer spectacular waterfowling. The weather conditions, sometimes extreme, play a much greater role in waterfowl activity this time of year, and hunters who understand these behavioral impacts have greater chances for success. 

Here are five facts about late-season waterfowl that can help keep your hunting hot when the weather gets cold.


Watch the Weather

Large-bodied waterfowl like mallards and Canada geese are built to withstand colder temperatures and snow, allowing them to stay north longer than smaller ducks and geese.

But eventually, says past DU Chief Scientist Dale Humburg, even the hardiest of waterfowl are going to respond to the lack of available food and water. Humburg says a hunter's best bet is to just keep track of weather conditions.

"There's no substitute for a little homework and scouting, and in this day and age with Internet weather reports, there's no reason to be caught by surprise by changing weather," Humburg says.

He explains that hunters should be watching for sharp dips in temperature, periods of high wind and patterns of high and low pressure in portions of the flyway that feed birds into your hunting area.

Once they've arrived, Humburg says that migrating waterfowl will immediately seek out food sources to replenish fat supplies burnt up while moving south, meaning that feeding areas should become a prime focus for hunters.

Have Open Water, Ducks Will Follow

It is no secret that cold temperature will cause waterfowl to congregate in the last remaining stretches of open water, often in staggering numbers. The problem, says Avery Pro-Staff Member Troy Bailey, is that hunters tend to congregate there too.

In order to get away from the crowd, Bailey suggests scouting areas that may have been off everyone's radar for some time.
 
"Super-cold temps can make for great hunting in some areas that haven't seen a duck or goose on it in months," says Bailey, who splits his time between hunting the waters of the North Platte River and the grain fields of Nebraska. "Check out those warm-water sloughs and sections of rivers that normally won't freeze unless things get really cold for a number of days."

No open water around? No problem, Bailey says, who suggests creating open water yourself.

"A small pond with good surrounding cover and an anti-ice machine to keep the water open can instantly become a hot spot when everything else is frozen," he says.

Call An Audible

Freezing temperatures, snow and ice aren't the only challenges a duck hunter will face when the weather turns cold. Late-season greenheads can be a challenge to call, which is why veteran guide and world-champion duck caller Jim Ronquest suggests mixing things up.

"Step up your feed call and be aggressive with it on the corners to try and turn birds," says Ronquest. "In the late season, I've seen that work better at turning back birds than if I'd hit them with a snappy five-note lick."

There's one thing that Ronquest says a hunter can never change though: watching to see what the ducks want to hear.

"Ducks will tell you with their body language if they want a little or a lot of calling," says Ronquest. "Most days it will be a mixture of everything, but some days you will find that the best call of all is to put the call away in your pocket and rely on motion created by the jerk string."

Patience Pays Off

Late-season waterfowl hunting for ducks and Canada geese in central New York can be downright fantastic, says Mike Bard, a member of the Avery Pro-Staff.

The challenge for many hunters, Bard says, is that the birds using the last stretches of open water found among the Finger Lakes along Lake Ontario or St. Lawrence River are in no rush to leave.
 
"Once the temps get cold, the birds are smart enough to wait until the sun gets up and loosens up the frozen ground," says Bard. "This makes it easier for them to find and get at the waste grains left behind. We just expect to have to wait, possibly into the afternoon, before the birds show up to feed."

Corn, in particular, is the food of choice for late-season mallards and honkers in his area, says Bard, and scouting trips usually take him to those fields that have little or no snow cover to impede a hungry duck or goose.

Late-season birds are also prone to spending longer periods of time in the field, he says, and he'll often see them packed tightly together and even on the ground sleeping or resting.

"At this point, I like to mix shell decoys into the spread to mimic what I'm seeing the real birds do on the ground," says Bard. 

Manage Your Roost

When cold and snow have pushed birds out of the northern plains, the number of ducks and geese congregating in central Missouri can be staggering.

When the conditions are right, tens of thousands of those birds wind up at Habitat Flats, and guide and co-owner Tony Vandemore says that taking care of the birds that roost on the property is a top priority.

"Managing the roost during the last weeks of a season will make or break our hunting," says Vandemore. "If we mess up the roost at that point, we know we'll likely lose those birds for the rest of the season. But if we play our cards right, we know we'll have hunts that are truly world class."

Vandemore says that when the temperature is cold ducks will stay on the roost longer in the morning and return earlier in the afternoon from feeding in order to keep the water open. Allowing this pattern to stay free from hunting pressure is key, he says.

The wind can also be both friend and foe when trying to manage birds roosting on the property.

If you hunt too close on the upwind side of a roost, you might as well kiss those birds goodbye, he says.

But if you're able to hunt downwind from the roost, Vandemore says, you can have a banner hunt without the bulk of the birds knowing you were even there.

Antler restrictions appear to result in

 

bigger bucks, decreased harvest counts



Antler restrictions appear to result in bigger bucks, decreased harvest counts


TRAVERSE CITY — Waiting through a long, wet morning paid off for Richard VanBlooys when a trophy buck stepped into his sights.

He left for his blind about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and sat for several hours waiting for a deer. An 8-point buck finally — later in the afternoon — entered VanBlooys' line of sight about 100 yards away. He quickly shouldered his .30-06 rifle, aimed and fired.

"This is the biggest one I've ever shot," said VanBlooys, 66, of Mancelona. "I'm really happy."

VanBlooys brought the buck — with a roughly 151/2 inch spread — to the Mancelona Buck Pole on Thursday and credited antler point restrictions for the large size of his kill. He believes the restrictions allow young bucks to grow, like his and others that hung next to it.

Department of Natural Resources officials introduced in 2013 rules that prohibit hunters from harvesting bucks with less than three points on one side in the region. The mandate was proposed by Northwest Michigan Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association officials. A majority of hunters supported the changes in regional surveying efforts completed prior to the changes and again at the beginning of 2017, said DNR Wildlife Communications Coordinator Katie Keen.

The rules typically protect 11/2-year-old bucks or younger, she said.

"Because the younger bucks are no longer legal, they can't be harvested, so they're allowed to continue to live, go into the winter and potentially live another season," she said. "So what we're seeing come in are older, and/or bigger bucks."

The response from most hunters has been positive, Keen said, acknowledging her lack of surprise, since most hunters she spoke to bagged a large buck. She expects there are still hunters and others who oppose the new rules.

Not all hunters have followed the new rules. About 20 prosecutions occur each year involving hunters who violate the antler point restrictions, according to DNR Lt. John Jurcich.

Andrew Milliron, president for the Northwest Michigan Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, said talking to hunters and looking at deer on trail camera footage shows the restrictions continue to improve deer herds.

"Overall, whether you would like to shoot an older age class of buck or if you're out for meat, there's ample opportunity for either or," he said. "I feel the program allows hunters to do both."

Milliron said some hunters fear the restrictions could lead to large increases in the deer population. But DNR officials upped the number of available doe tags in those counties with the restrictions, which could help contain the population, he said.

Mancelona Buck Pole volunteers noticed that while the sizes of the deer have increased since the rules were implemented, the number of deer being hung mostly fell.

"It's definitely quality over quantity at this point," said Kayla Moore, 21, a nearly lifelong volunteer at the buck pole.

But she's seen a slight increase in deer harvests since the rule change.

Deer counts were low at the buck pole in the first season after the changes, but those numbers slowly climbed, Moore said. This year's 35-buck count surpassed last year's count of 29, according to statistics on the buck pole's web page.

The size of the deer being brought to the pole this year have certainly increased, she said.

"It definitely makes hunters happier to see such huge bucks being harvested," Moore said.

VanBlooys celebrates firearm deer season's opening day every year, a tradition observed since he was 18. He hopes the antler restrictions will mean more opening days ending with trophy bucks in seasons to come.

"It's done wonders for our deer herd," VanBlooys said. "We have an awesome herd of deer now."

Calling All Geese

Five experts share their secrets for calling Canadas, cacklers, whitefronts, light geese and brant

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By Wade Bourne

Ornithologists know that the "language" of wild geese includes calls that convey different meanings, such as recognition, excitement, and contentment. To be successful in the field, hunters imitate this language as naturally as possible. Many experts blow combinations of different calls to attract birds into close shooting range, but in most cases a few basic calls are all you need. Professional callers understand that performing on the contest stage is one thing; luring geese into a decoy spread is another. The pros also know that calling wild geese is species specific. Canada geese, for example, have a language that is different from that of snow geese, and vice versa. It is essential for hunters to focus their calling on a target species.
Following are tips from some of North America's best goose callers on how to draw these big birds in close. Hunters who apply the advice of these experts on a species-by-species basis will soon be more proficient at calling all geese when these birds head down the flyways.

Big Canada Geese

Kelley Powers of Union City, Tennessee, is a competition goose caller with many national titles to his credit, including World Goose Calling Champion and Champion of Champions. He is also a veteran hunter who knows how to apply his calling talent on wild geese over fields and marshes. Powers's favorite targets are "big" Canada geese, including giant Canadas (mostly nonmigratory) and interior Canadas (mostly migratory). When hunting these birds, he uses a Tim Grounds Triple Crown Canada goose call.

CallingExperts

Powers says goose hunters can call these birds effectively by mastering two calls, the honk and the moan. Hunters can then build variations of sounds and sequences from these basic calls. "The cluck is just a short version of the honk, and the murmur is a variation of the moan. So if you learn these two simple Canada goose calls, you can add more complexity to your routine as your calling skills improve," he says.

According to Powers, many hunters make a common mistake when calling big Canadas. "They call too much, too soon," he says. "They throw the kitchen sink at them right up front. Sometimes this will scare geese. And even if it doesn't scare them, what do you have left if they still don't come? You've already used your trump card."

When a flight of big Canadas is approaching, Powers will keep his calling to a minimum, maybe a couple of long-range honks and a few clucks. "Sometimes this is all I need," he says.

"They'll see my decoys and come. But if I need to use more persuasion, then I have more to give. I can start blowing louder and faster. I haven't risked anything by starting out with minimal calling, and I've avoided the possibility of overcalling from the start."

Powers tailors his calling style to the time of day and the type of setup he's hunting. "In the morning, when geese fly into a grainfield to feed, they're usually excited and vocal," he explains. "They make a lot of short, choppy notes, especially when they see other geese coming. But when they go back to their loafing spots at midday, they're in a lazy mood, and they don't do a lot of calling.

"So if I'm set up in a feeding situation, I'll call more. But if I'm set up on a mudflat, sandbar, or some other resting location, I'll typically call less to sound more natural in that environment."

Each day is different, and many factors-wind, temperature, hunting pressure, and so on-come into play when considering the best approach for calling big Canadas. Weigh all of these factors but don't overcomplicate things. Use common sense and begin with the basics.

"Start out sounding like one goose, then add in more erratic little side notes to sound like other birds," Powers says. "And try to avoid getting into a rhythm. Real Canada geese on the ground call unevenly and erratically, and that's how I try to call, to sound as natural as possible."

Small Canada and Cackling Geese

Many waterfowlers mistake lesser Canada geese and cackling geese (once considered Canada geese but reclassified in 2004 as a separate species) for diminutive versions of larger honkers.

Not Sean Mann. This world champion goose caller and call maker from Trappe, Maryland, knows the difference. He also knows that these smaller, tundra-breeding geese must be called differently than their larger cousins.

"A lot of times, it's better to work bigger Canada geese with minimal calling," Mann explains. "It's like a back-and-forth conversation, similar to the kids' game Marco Polo. They call, you answer. And hopefully they come."

The technique is different with these smaller geese. "You use a higher-pitched call, and call a lot more-almost constantly," Mann says. "You make a lot of noise and call the whole flock instead of just the flock leader. They're more drawn by the rhythm than to any single call within the rhythm."

In 14 years of guiding hunters in eastern Alberta, Mann has lured tens of thousands of these smaller geese into his decoys. When a flock is approaching and "loving it," he "bounces" continuous clucks, double-clucks, and feeder moans their way using a Wing Mann short-reed call from his own Wing Nutz call collection.

"Because lesser Canadas and cacklers typically fly and work in larger flocks, they like to hear a flock on the ground," Mann says. "Just keep giving it to them, and call them all the way to the finish line. Don't back off! If you stop calling, these birds can get real spooky in a hurry."

Mann also advises hunters to experiment with different cadences and sequences to discover which ones the birds respond to best. "They're just like other geese in one respect: on different days, they respond better to different sounds and combinations of sounds. So experiment with different routines and cadences to try to learn what the geese are responding to."

What's Mann's biggest secret for calling geese-or ducks, for that matter? Confidence. "You've got to believe you can call those birds in," he says. "Then you just muster up the determination to do it. True, this is a very indefinable part of calling, but in my opinion it's also the most crucial part. The caller with the most confidence is always the one who gets the most birds to come in."

White-Fronted Geese

Jason Campbell of Iowa, Louisiana, is a two-time "specklebelly" calling champion. Campbell is also an avid hunter of specks and a member of the RNT and Avery Outdoors pro staffs.

Whether hunting in local rice fields or competing in contests, he uses an RNT acrylic narrow-bore call with a Mylar reed.

"All my calling is based on the distinctive two-note yodel that specks make," Campbell says. "I don't call at every goose I see. Instead, I focus on birds that I think are callable-birds that are flying out of normal flight patterns, lower birds, and singles."

When he sees workable specklebellies, Campbell issues the two-note call and waits for an answer. If he gets one, he follows up immediately, mimicking the bird's response. "You can tell right away if they're interested," he says. "If they are, then I try to engage them in a dialogue and draw them toward my decoys."

"Less is more" is Campbell's philosophy for calling specklebellies. "The less I call, the less likely they are to pinpoint me," he explains. "If they're working, I don't call much. I want them focused on my decoys instead of on my calling location. My goal is to shoot them, not entertain them."

Campbell will, however, add more persuasion if passing specks ignore him, or if working birds start veering away. "In either case I will call louder, faster, and with a different inflection. If the geese continue to ignore me or start going away, I'll give up on them. But if they respond, I'll repeat whatever vocalization I made that triggered their favorable response."

When specklebellies get close, Campbell calls at "wingtips and tail feathers"-when the geese are banking or going away. "When they're right on top of me, I refrain from calling so I don't draw unwanted attention. I try to keep them guessing so they won't locate my position. Also, when geese are coming straight on, I call very, very sparingly. The closer they get, the more I tone it down. Over that last hundred or so yards, I may call once for every two or three calls they make."

Campbell adds that this passive style of calling specklebellies is necessary in the South because of heavy gunning pressure. "The geese around here are ‘educated,' and it's easy to overcall them," he says. "But I've hunted in areas farther up the flyway where the geese weren't as hunter-savvy and I could call more aggressively, with good results."

No single calling style fits all hunting scenarios. If what you're doing isn't working, try something different, Campbell advises. "Avoid getting in a calling rut. Keep trying different stuff until you find the routine that the geese are responding to best, then stick with it," he says.

Light Geese

Chris Swift of Tyler, Texas, is one of the best callers of "light geese"-greater and lesser snows and Ross's geese-in North America. A two-time world snow goose calling champion, he has 18 years' experience guiding for these birds in Texas, Alaska, and Saskatchewan. His chosen instrument for calling snow geese is a Sean Mann White-Out polycarbonate call.

"When I'm hunting snow geese, I'll pick one bird and try to have a conversation with him," Swift says. "When he calls, I'll immediately call back. I try to gain his attention and steer him toward my spread. If I can get that one goose committed to coming, others will usually come with him. I try to mimic what that bird does, using exactly the same pitch and volume. I think this is crucial. I believe the biggest mistake most snow goose callers make is they don't hit just the right note."

When the target goose locks onto his decoys, Swift lets the bird come without additional calling. "I don't call him all the way to the ground," he says. "Once he's made up his mind, I let him come. When snow geese start sailing toward a spread, they're usually coming in."

If the geese don't commit, however, Swift shifts to another gear. "In this case I'll start blowing high-lows [two-note calls] and mix in a lot of murmurs. Sometimes you can convince a reluctant snow goose to come in by giving him a little more coaxing."

Another way to add persuasion is to have multiple callers calling simultaneously. "Two callers are better than one, and three are better than two," Swift says.

Weather conditions can also play a big role in how to call snow geese. If it's foggy or the wind is calm, Swift backs off on his calling. "I may call toward the ground or inside my jacket to muffle the sound," he explains. "I'll also add a lot more murmurs in these conditions. But if the wind is howling, I'll point the call straight at the bird and blow loud, strong notes."

A different calling style comes into play when calling Ross's geese. "These birds make a distinctive high note, called a chirp or peep," Swift says. "You can imitate this sound by using a specklebelly call and squeezing the end of the call to restrict air flow. This makes a high note that sounds like a Ross's goose. Just listen to the live birds and imitate the sounds they make, just like you do with snows."

Brant

Captain Jeff Coats operates Pitboss Waterfowl guide service near Ocean City, Maryland. A full-time Maryland master guide, his main targets are sea ducks and Atlantic brant, which winter in large numbers in Sinepuxent and Chincoteague bays.

When it comes to calling "sea geese," Coats recommends starting with a good brant call. He prefers a Bill Saunders call. He says this call has a special shaved reed that produces the lifelike purr or chirp that brant make when winging low over coastal waters.

"Brant are very vocal, noisy birds," Coats says. "When you're calling them, you just imitate their sounds. A controlled rolling of your tongue will make a bleat while steadily pushing air through the call. Then, at the end of the note, the tongue should hit the roof of your mouth to sharply cut the roll off. Don't blow too hard or too fast. Most hunters need to slow down and allow the call to ‘break.' That's how you make the chirping sound made by real brant."

Coats, who has a brant calling instructional DVD in the works for a spring 2013 release, says that hunters new to brant calling should "just listen to the brant and do what the birds are doing." He calls longer and louder when the birds are far away. Then he shortens his calls and decreases the volume as the birds approach. "Two hunters calling together sometimes works better than one calling alone," he adds.

One last word of advice: try flagging brant before calling them. Flagging and calling serve the same purpose-getting the birds to notice the decoys. "They see the flag. They hear the call. They see the decoys. And they come," Coats says.

Mastering the Basics

Given the complexities of goose speak, there is no single formula for calling all geese. But even the most sophisticated goose music begins one note at a time. First, master the basic calls of the species you're targeting. Then learn to adapt different calling styles to different weather conditions. And finally, experiment with different calls, volumes, and cadences to discover what works best on a given day-and then stick with it. Follow this advice when the big birds are on the wing, and you too will lure more geese into close shooting range.


Useful Tools for Waterfowl Hunters

Waterfowlers can never have enough gear at their disposal

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By Wade Bourne

Several years back, a friend and I were running his boat up a west Tennessee stream, trying to get to where we'd seen ducks working. We made good progress until we were stopped by a fallen tree that stretched from bank to bank. Guess that's the end of this exploration, I thought to myself.

But I had underestimated my partner. He killed the outboard, opened a dry box—and pulled out a chainsaw. It took him only a few minutes to saw the tree out of our path. 

Several hundred yards farther we flushed a swarm of ducks from a slough adjacent to the creek. We tossed out our decoys, hid in nearby bushes, and enjoyed a steady shoot as the birds trickled back to their resting spot.

Of course that's an extreme example. But my point is that it never hurts to be prepared. Following is a somewhat random list of gear that I always keep handy while waterfowling. Obviously, different items will be applicable in different hunting situations. But any of them could help save the day on your next duck hunting trip. 

 

 

  • Camo netting. I keep a large section rolled up and stuffed in a tote bag for hiding hunters, dogs, boats, ATVs, etc. I prefer military-issue camo strips stapled onto heavy string netting. This type of camouflage can be purchased at most military surplus stores.
     
  • Cable ties. I carry several of these plastic fasteners in my blind bag. They work great for building, brushing, and repairing blinds, as well as for binding and fixing various gear.
     
  • Brush cutters. Whether you choose a small ax, machete, or limb pruners, having some kind of tool for cutting brush or trimming limbs is essential for boat-in or walk-in hunters.
     
  • GPS. This device can lead a freelance hunter to the "X" and get him back to the truck when the hunt is over. I prefer the Bushnell BackTrack, a simple three-waypoint device that's the size of a hockey puck.
     
  • Facemask. It's surprising how many duck hunters don't carry a facemask. The eyesight of ducks and geese is better than most hunters realize, and waterfowl can pick up the shine off a hunter's face on both sunny and cloudy days.
     
  • Multi-tool. Knife, screwdriver, punch, file, and pliers all in one—these practical gadgets allow you to carry the equivalent of a small
    toolbox on your hip or in your blind bag. 
     
  • Life jackets. Each hunter in a boat is required to have his or her own Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device, and each hunter should be required to wear it when the boat is under way. Life jackets save lives.
     
  • Jerk string. This rig, which includes a bungee cord, 50 yards of tarred nylon twine, and snaps for attaching decoys to the line, can be deployed quickly when a lack of wind leaves the decoys and the water's surface unnaturally still.
     
  • Headlamp. A headlamp leaves your hands free for handling a boat and decoys or toting gear to the blind in the predawn darkness. 
     
  • Cell phone. Most hunters carry them—for good reason. A cell phone can be a lifeline in medical emergencies, and can help you out of a jam if your boat motor quits or your truck gets stuck. Carry the phone in a resealable plastic bag to keep moisture out.
     
  • Marsh seat. These portable seats are compact, lightweight, and sturdy—great for taking a load off when hunting in marshes and fields. 

In short, when it comes to gear, carry what you think you'll need—and then take along extras. Shells, calls, batteries, hand warmers, snacks, decoy string, toilet paper, first-aid kit, etc. I keep a "possibles bag" stocked with such extras in my pickup. It's amazing how many times I'll dig through this bag for replacements each season.

BEYOND THE BASICS While the following tools are not essential, they are useful in enough situations to be counted among my favorite duck hunting gear.

Wading staff. I've used the same cherry wading staff for 20 years. It has saved me from countless falls in soft-bottom marshes and stump-strewn swamps. I never leave home without it. Layout blind. In my opinion, this is the best piece of waterfowling gear to come along in decades. Its portability, versatility, and capacity for hiding hunters in wide-open areas offer many advantages to those who use them.


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