Turn 'n' burn late-season quackers

He calls them penguins.

Yep, that's what my good buddy Mike Bardwell, a North Texas duck guide, calls mallards that are locked up and waffling down from the stratosphere into his decoy spread

Whether or not they actually do look like waddling Antarctic fowl, I'm not totally sure.

But what I do know is that I sure like trying to figure it all out by looking down my scattergun barrel at another flock of iridescent greenheads sliding into the dekes.

The problem is that by the calendar's first page, most ducks migrating from Canada have seen and heard, well, every decoy spread and duck call serenade south of Hudson Bay.

So just how do you sing the siren song for late-season quackers? Well, by following this simple hunting recipe.

Find fowl real estate

My pal Jim Lillis, a Texas senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited, has been chasing mallards and their feathered cousins for slightly more than 40 years.

Along the way, he's learned that the No. 1 adage in hunting late-season greenheads is the same one that real estate agents tout: location, location, location.

How do you find a great duck-hunting location? By grabbing your binoculars the day before and getting out for a look-see.

"If they're using willow trees or a certain spot in the marsh, you need to set up as close to that spot as you absolutely can the next morning," Lillis said.

A late-season hunt several years ago on a flooded north Texas lake proved Lillis' point to me once and for all.

We thought we were set up in a good mallard hole at dawn. But each flock of quackers that overshot our spread to some unseen flooded timber-hole to the west proved otherwise.

What to do? Well, with some effort, our group of hunters quickly picked up and relocated.

Our post-hunt photos certainly revealed a group of tired hunters and retrieving canines to be sure. But they also revealed a group of smiling mugs posing with limit-filled duck straps of greenheads and pintail sprigs.

Soft sell to Susie

Take a look at what's hanging from the call lanyard of Rick Wombles, the operator of Hopewell Views Hunting Club along the duck rich Mississippi River in Illinois' Pike County, and you'll notice little difference between him and other serious duck hunters.

You'll spy a healthy supply of duck and goose calls, including a high-powered, custom-made acrylic duck call that can send mallard highballs to the moon.

And that, of course, is the great temptation, according to the waterfowler who has four decades of hunting experience.

As with most enticements that are yielded to, raising the duck blind roof quickly leads to a serious late-season waterfowling sin.

"The biggest mistake that weekend hunters make (at this time of the year) is to overcall," Wombles said. "If you call too much and too loud, it doesn't sound natural."

"Usually, if the ducks have made a swing and it is real still and you don't get those ducks in, you can probably know that you've done something wrong."

"That's especially true if you've got three or four guys in the blind," he said. "Everybody loves to call, but you may need to let just one do the calling."

In other words, don't become a duck-calling loudmouth late in the season.

"Duck calling in the contest (style of calling)," said Wombles, "that's what you don't want to do in a duck blind. They're doing it for competition. They're calling for people, not ducks."

So how do you sing the late-season siren song?

"Give a highball call when you first see them," Wombles said. "Once you get their attention, then get away from the highball and go to greeting calls."

Remember, the guide advised, you're not trying to win a contest in Stuttgart; you're trying to sound like a charming mallard Susie-Q in a flooded slough or backwater.

"Try to imitate a hen on the water," Wombles said. "I like a lot of single quacks that imitate a hen calmly quacking. When the flock makes that last turn over your head, combine those quacks with an excited greeting call"

Once the birds turn, cup their wings and begin to rock toward the spread like waddling "penguins," Wombles will back off the greeting calls and move to single, contented hen quacks.

The other big mistake Wombles notices about novices is that when they go to a single quack, "They'll quack way too loud."

"That's an alarm call," he said. "Instead, go to a quiet, soft quack that you'll hear a hen doing while she's sitting content on the water."

Smoke 'em

Location and soft calling are but two of the ingredients of consistent late-season duck hunting success. A third ingredient is using the right shotgun choke and shot size combination.

As for chokes, I like using an improved cylinder whenever I'm shooting ducks, especially with steel shot loads. But for some of the newer non-toxic shot substances, modified cylinders can also be a good choice.

What about shot size?

"I think No. 2 steel in a three-inch load is a good all-around duck load," Lillis said.

While more costly than steel loads, non-toxic shotshells filled with such shot substances as bismuth or Remington's Hevi Shot aren't bad choices, either.

Since most of these steel-alternative, non-toxic shot pellets have ballistic characteristics similar to the lead shot employed in days gone by, use three-inch loads filled with size Nos. 4, 5 or 6 pellets.

Whichever non-toxic shotshell you choose in this late duck hunting recipe, get it all right and there's really only one thing left to do.

As my pal Bardwell says when those green-headed "penguins" close ranks on our late decoy spread, "Get 'em."