Duck season for our group of friends started slow, continued slow and then ended with a bang. From what I hear, many others experienced similar experiences here in central Illinois this year. We hunt mostly public ground with some private duck and goose hunting spots in Tazewell and Fulton counties. The following reports were based on our experiences (not a typical duck hunter’s perception of expertise on all things waterfowl
Wood ducks abounded this year, staying later than I ever remember them staying before because of the mild weather. Early teal was mostly a bust with what I understood to be birds coming later than expected—also a result of weather.
Mallards did not arrive until the later part of the season with a huge influx of birds (both divers and mallards at the tail end due to sub-zero temperatures up north and here. The birds concentrated on the warm water lakes and personally we had 4 days of duck limit hunting right at the end. We saw more canvasbacks and redheads this year than on average and had some incredible hunts in which we finished our canvasback limit and watched them work and land on several days. Half of our ducks harvested this year were gadwall and the grey ducks provided a great break from the lull mid-season. Mallards didn’t visit us in the big numbers until late and as can be typical—still managed to mostly allude our spread.
The old dog reminded me just how good he still is at the game of waterfowl hunting. With hundreds if not thousands of birds shot over him in the course of an 11 year life thus far, he knows the game without me having to tell him (other than an occasional shout because of his deafness [or propensity towards not listening to me over the years!]). It’s amazing how he knows where to look for birds both in the air and on the water. The comparison this year was to my young drahthaar (on his second season now). The old dog can spot a duck dead on the water at an amazing distance even as they lay nearly flat at his vantage point. His ability to work the appropriate cover when searching for a downed duck is also a result of his experience—things you simply can’t teach a dog without repetition and good genetics. The young dog held his own especially with his blind manners which I would argue is MORE important much of the time in this sport. The light bulb definitely turned on towards the end of the season as he was able to gain good experience in retrieving ducks at distance and completing searches in cover.
I got my father out this year on his first ever duck hunt at the end (he’s a turkey and deer hunter for the most part). It was a limit day and he had an absolute ball, knocking the second bird of the day down with an amazing (lucky??) swinging shot at a 30+ yard bird. Breakfast that morning was that much better with pops in the blind to share that memory with another of our friends. The last day of the season ended with the freeze up of our deep strip pit lake as we were pulling the boat from the water. Our gloves froze to the boat instantly as we wetted them pulling duck decoys for the year-an annoying (and cool) end to another year I won’t soon forget.
Some reflection on our new duck hunting spot cemented a few tricks of the trade for us:
Duck dogs need appropriate manners above all else, followed by force fetch training, repetitious retrieves at DISTANCE (erring on the side of ALWAYS doing longs retrieves else beware a dog that CONSTANTLY marks short), and then training involving blind searches for live ducks in dense cover at distance (something that can easily be done in the spring and summer). Another huge advantage for our duck dogs is to provide them a good line of sight on decoying birds from the blind in order to make retrieves faster and easier.
Although Common Reed is considered an invasive species (one species here is native and another exotic), it does a great job in acting as duck blind cover because of its height, color, and durability. Here’s my take on Common Reed (Phragmites australis): if it’s not taking over the entire lake, pond, or wetland and you plan on hunting there, use it as hunting cover; otherwise cut it down and use an appropriate water safe herbicide to remove it entirely and allow native wetland species to survive and provide food for waterfowl and other native species. Beware however that it’s extremely aggressive and over time if not controlled will overtake all other species of plants in similar water depth (see Banner Marsh as an example).
Deep strip pit lakes such as those here in central Illinois can take a LONG time to freeze up, especially if they are exposed to the wind. Our ice eater remained unused through the end of duck season on our particular lake because of this fact when most every other pothole, pond, and smaller lake had frozen solid.
To get the most out of an ice eater, set it up so that you are using the wind to your advantage. The ice eater works by pulling warm water from below up to the surface and preferably onto the ice in front of it. Wind can then carry that water and open a hole beyond that in the direction of the wind so placement is critical. An ice fishing auger is extremely useful when opening a hole in solid frozen ice directly in front of or above the ice eater. A half hour of running the ice eater where it is pushing water up out of the hole and onto the ice will open up a hole generally large enough to hunt over. Additional time beyond that is needed depending on ice depth and wind speed/direction.
Respect is due to other duck species beyond the might mallard when it comes to table fare and overall enjoyment of our duck hunting sport: see the “lowly” spoonbill as a perfect example. . . . To this point, a good read on what ducks actually eat here in central Illinois (and by which they should therefore be measured as table fare), see “Waterfowl of Illinois: Status and Management” by legendary waterfowl Biologist Steve Havera. Like many animals in this world, what is available is often what is eaten. It will likely surprise you as to just how omnivorous many species of waterfowl actually are.
In my opinion, “expert” duck hunters are measured by such species harvested as mallards, pintails, and white fronted (specklebelly) geese as these birds are typically some of our most wary here in central Illinois. The ability to “talk” a large group of mallards into your spread late season is an art in and of itself—some old Arkansas boys I met down that way one year proved that to me personally. Let me complete this paragraph by saying that based on the above I am NOT an expert duck hunter. Ha.
All in all, a great season is any season we get outdoors and hunt and considering two growing young boys at home and a typical American’s busy life. . . this was a great season.