Tailor your duck decoys, calls, as cold weather arrives in the Carolinas

(Photo by Pete Rogers)
(Photo by Pete Rogers)

The arrival of duck season in November means waterfowl hunters will be on the water. If cold weather also arrives, it can mean a great chance at taking plenty of different ducks on the same hunt.

The cold weather arrived early, and with it came the ducks.

Normally, the opening day of the November portions of duck season in the Carolinas is usually spent shooting a few wood ducks, and if you’re lucky, a speedy green-winged teal, but there are exceptions.

However, with cold weather, the arrival of shooting light greeted us with big and small ducks circling overhead and landing in our decoy spread. With the first volley, three of us downed nine ducks of four different species.

Southern duck hunts can often feel like a single-species hunt. When warm weather lingers into December, it can be somewhat defeating to go out early, set decoys and find only a few local ponytails for the bag. But when the cold air arrives, so too do the ducks — in the same variety as dance partners at a country music festival. Puddle ducks and divers are available for those wanting to chase them. Although the techniques are slightly different, the thrill is often equal, and it is not uncommon to see both dabblers and divers in the same areas.

Don’t overload your shotgun. Most 3-inch loads are plenty to bring down puddlers and divers over decoys. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

Mallards, teal, wood ducks, widgeons, gadwalls, pintails, black ducks and shovelers are all puddle ducks, aka dabblers, while common varieties of divers are canvasback, redheads, ring-necks, buffleheads, goldeneye, scaup and mergansers, among others.  

Puddle ducks are mostly vegetarians with a few exceptions.They have feet that are centrally located on the body, allowing them to walk easily, while divers have feet that are further back on the body, helping them to swim better, but making walking difficult and, in some cases, nearly impossible. Divers must also run on the water to take flight, while dabblers can take off easily from a sitting position. 

Whitney Phillips, owner of The Clarendon Club in Summerton, S.C., said their location near the Santee Cooper lakes allows them to attract a good variety of both dabblers and divers. 

“We are fortunate to be located near Lake Marion, and that allows us to get a lot of variety of ducks at different times of the year,” she said. 

With acres of water, flooded agriculture fields and excellent roosting sites, Phillips routinely sees bags of ringnecks, shovelers, mallards, widgeon, wood ducks and teal, along with the occasional gadwalls and pintail. 

A small number of decoys is all that most waterfowl hunters in the Carolinas need for mixed duck bags. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

“As the season progresses, the variety increases,” Phillips said. “While it doesn’t happen often, occasionally, someone will have a daily bag limit of six ducks with six different species. If the weather cooperates, we will have large numbers of ducks the entire season.” 

On one hunt last season when I was a participant, there were ring-necks, mallards, teal, shovelers and a few widgeons. For the variety of species, it was one of the best hunts I’ve been on — bar none.

Philip Hunt of Greenville, S.C., has been chasing ducks across the Carolinas for more than two decades and knows the kind of weather that sends ducks his way — and watches for it.

“Many of the ducks that arrive in the Carolinas come from the Great Lakes area and are moving into our areas,” he said. “When I see a snowstorm in the upper Midwest, I know in a few days we will have a lot of variety of ducks here.”

Being a fan of fast-flying ducks, Hunt enjoys shooting teal.

“When it starts to get colder, the big groups of the green-wing teal and the migratory wood ducks appear in the Upstate late in the season. These birds are faster and bigger than our resident birds and are a bonus to cold-season shooting.”

When you’re expecting a mixed bag of ducks, Hunt advises using a smaller decoy spread of about a dozen blocks of varying sizes — and having a few on a jerk string. 

“I avoid the motion-spinning decoys as the season progresses,” Hunt said. “By the time these ducks get to the Carolinas from the North, they have seen thousands of spinning decoys, and those that make it here are somewhat shy of the spinners.”

His spread typically includes two drakes for every hen decoy, plus a little motion to get the attention of passing ducks.

Hunt believes one mistake many duck hunters make is to overcall. As the season progresses and flocks are mixed, double-reed calls go away and the whistles come out. 

“More than any other call I have, I use a six-in-one whistle that does the mallard, pintail, widgeon, teal and wood duck whistles. That will help keep the ducks calm, and the small decoy spread looks more natural to them,” Hunt said.

When hunting mixed bags of ducks, don’t overlook scouting.

“Being where the ducks want to be is far better than trying to call them to where you are,” Hunt said.

Calling too much and too loudly is a common mistake made as duck season progresses in the Carolinas. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

Choose the correct load for ducks

Shooting big shells for ducks is pretty common, and many hunters like 31/2-inch loads, but don’t count veteran hunter Phillip Hunt of Greenville, S.C., among them.

“It doesn’t take a big shell to kill ducks. The 31/2-inch shells are really for high-flying geese and are not necessary for ducks,” he said. “A lot of ducks were killed with 23/4-inch shells before 3- and 31/2-inch shells were invented,” he said, pointing out that 3-inch loads of No. 4 shot are plenty for ducks over decoys.

“Most shots over decoys are inside of 30 yards, so No. 4 shot in a 3-inch shell is the perfect combination for ducks,” he said. 

It is easy to overload for ducks when you are expecting a mixed bag

 “I’ve seen too often that the 31/2-inch shells cause some gun issues, while the 3-inch never do,” Hunt said. “With flocks of teal and mallards all in the same day, choosing the right load can be tricky. This is where the 3-inch excels. It is big enough for the big ducks and doesn’t overdo it on the small teal and woodies.”

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Pete Rogers
About Pete Rogers 146 Articles
Pete Rogers of Taylors, S.C., is employed with the USDA Wildlife Services and has been a sporting writer and photographer for over a decade. He has a real passion for trapping and enjoys sharing his outdoors experiences with his wife and five children.

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