By T.J. Hauck
October is the special month when hoodies donning your favorite football team replace short-sleeved shirts, when shorts are traded in for a comfy pair of jeans and when pumpkin spice fills the air in every department store.
You might notice all these things, but you’re a waterfowl hunter, and your mind is in a different place.
October means it’s finally time to start shooting ducks. Most of the local ducks may be brown during the early season, but it’s still what you have looked forward to all year.
In my experience, everything typically goes smoothly the first couple weekends until everything comes to a screeching halt about the second week of October. That’s when you notice that your shot opportunities become limited as the birds want nothing to do with you and flare at the sight of spinning-wing decoys.
To put it another way, mid-October is when many waterfowl hunters struggle to see birds or find birds that are willing to let them have a chance.
All that said, October can still be a magical month when most duck seasons have opened, and, in a typical year, there are plenty of ducks around to shoot. As mentioned, most hunters are successful the first couple weeks of the season, but after that point it can become a true struggle.
Duck hunting in October can be a very humbling experience, but by trying different tactics and thinking outside of the box you can become successful throughout the entire month and never have to experience the true lull.
Here is a week-by-week game plan to help you shoot more ducks throughout October, even when the going gets tough.
During the first week of October, most of the ducks you hunt are still fresh and have not been hunted. You could have learned all of your duck hunting skills from the Duck Commander TV show and still be very successful the opening week of duck season.
A basic spread of a dozen or two-dozen decoys will do the trick over water. Throw in a spinning-wing decoy, and you’ll really be in the money.
These ducks are the true definition of easy, but where most hunters get into trouble is failing to scout for new birds. When birds and limits come easy, a number of hunters just go to the same water hole day after day without looking for more and better opportunities. Even during the first week of October when you’re dealing with fresh birds, failing to scout can leave you empty-handed.
To avoid falling into this rut, make sure the ducks are using the water body you plan on hunting. Look for bodies of water that the birds are either flying over or using after their morning feed.
If at all possible, stay away from roost sites. The key to having continued success is to keep birds in your area. By hunting a roost you will force ducks out of their pattern and, consequently, push them out of your area.
Recognizing roost sites is even more important in dry years when wetland numbers are down. Be a smart hunter and learn to recognize where birds in your area like to roost. Not only will you be more successful, but you will also allow fellow hunters in the area to be successful.
Another thing I would suggest during the first week is to leave your call at home. The birds you will be shooting are not very responsive to calling and, in general, are not interested at all in hearing your calls.
Field hunting can be a whole different ballgame in the early season. Look for any harvested small-grain fields, including cornfields cut for silage. Silage fields will hold quite a few birds, especially if the weather is cooler.
Like water sets, decoy spreads for field hunting early in the season can be kept pretty small, with one or two spinning-wing decoys and a dozen duck or goose decoys.
Again, leave your call at home. In a field-hunting scenario, ducks are coming to the food, and calling them will likely do more harm than good by pointing out your exact location.
By the second week of October, some of the birds in your area have been shot at and are growing a little leery. However, success is still easily attainable.
Personally, I stick with the same game plan as the first week. The only difference is that I scout substantially more than I did during the first week.
While scouting, I typically look for birds that may have not been touched during the opening week or two of the season. I try to hone in on ducks that are in little known areas that have probably not experienced the same amount of pressure that ducks in high-traffic areas have felt. If you can find these locations holding uneducated birds, you will be in for a successful shoot.
I suggest keeping your spread the same size as the first week, only throwing out a dozen or so decoys. However, during this timeframe I suggest changing how you use spinning-wing decoys.
In a nutshell, birds become smart to spinners as the month wears on. Now, these birds in October, specifically during the first two weeks, don’t care too much. However, as October creeps toward November, keep in mind that spinning-wing decoys might hurt your chances.
For years hunters thought rain and clouds meant good duck-hunting weather, but I prefer sunshine with about a 15 mph wind and clear skies. With sunshine, you can use it to your advantage, as birds can’t pick you out nearly as well as when it’s cloudy.
Plus, when it’s cloudy your spinning-wing decoys aren’t nearly as effective because of the lack of flash the wings produce. In fact, I turn them off most of the time on cloudy days.
On a day with sunshine, though, if I can get the sun behind my back so the birds have to look into it to finish as they approach my decoys, I know it’s going be a good day.
Obviously, a lot of these recommendations are based upon the weather, and keep in mind I am writing this month-long game plan based on a typical October here in the Dakotas.
That said, the third week of October is when things can really get interesting. This is a time when most hunters are left scratching their heads, wondering why ducks don’t want to decoy or are otherwise paying them no attention.
In most cases this is due to the hunting pressure in a given area. If the area you hunt has received substantial pressure in the opening weeks, you’re going to have to become creative. There are two ways to do this.
First, scout and explore new territories. Fill up your gas tank and put in some windshield time. As mentioned in the Week 2 game plan, look for unpressured birds. Keep an eye out for small stock ponds or cattail-choked sloughs.
Again, if you are scouting birds and they happen to be hitting water in the evening, that’s not the water you want to hunt. Keep track of their flight line. Get underneath them with a field spread, or find a waterhole that intercepts them on their way to feed or roost.
Keep these unpressured birds to yourself, and leave the roost alone. Why settle for one good morning of shooting when you could have two?
Second, if you’re stuck hunting the same birds for more than a day or two, you’re going to have to use different tactics. If you’ve been using a big spread, then this means maybe downsizing your spread to six decoys and no spinners.
Or, on the other end of the spectrum, there is always the shock-and-awe theory. This is a big spread, complete with four or five spinners.
Whichever route you chose, you’re going to have to think outside the box with your approach. These birds have become conditioned by this point, so it’s going to take something they haven’t seen before you get them to commit.
Most guys are scared to try something outside the box. I never understood this mentality, because each hunting trip is a learning experience.
The third week is when you can now use your call a bit. However, don’t be too aggressive. These ducks have been hearing the ever-popular five-note greeting call from every duck hunter in the area for two weeks straight.
Be subtle. A little feeder chuckle with some contented quacks is going to be in your best interest. It’s easy to want to highball ducks that are paying you no attention. However, at this point you are doing more harm than good if you blare away. In other words, keep it subtle and simple.
Here it is, the time when new birds are starting to trickle in from the north and you still have some pressured and smart local birds hanging around the area.
The mantra for the fourth week of October is to scout, scout and scout some more. Search for the first northern push of birds in your area, because new birds equal easy birds.
Think of it like this: When you go on vacation, how easy would it be for you to get lost and choose a subpar restaurant because you have no prior knowledge of the area? The next day while you suffer from a wrenching gut ache and feel miserable, you say to yourself, “I should have Googled it!”
Well, lucky for us ducks don’t have thumbs or Google, and newcomers from the north can be easily swayed. Now is the time you can throw out a little bigger spread. Now is when you can use those new duck calls you’ve been annoying your wife with all summer.
By this time of year, the ducks are starting to gain some color and are becoming more active, and new birds seem to appear by the day. A water spread of three-dozen or more decoys is the norm for late October, and a field spread of equal proportion is pretty much the norm.
The biggest thing about the final week of October is to not get discouraged. Sure, new birds are starting to show up, but most places will still have pockets of local birds to deal with.
This is where all that talk about scouting comes in. By scouting you will know when an area is receiving an influx of new birds and which birds are going to be stale. Thorough scouting will give you a head up on all the other hunters in the area.
In conclusion, October can be both frustrating and rewarding. It’s one of those months that can be an emotional roller coaster as a waterfowler.
However, with a solid game plan and ample windshield time you can be successful throughout the entire month. This entire game plan depends on the weather, of course, but in October you are going to experience these types of birds and situations at one point or another.
About the Author: T.J. Hauck is an experienced waterfowl hunter and champion caller from Madison, S.D.