The remaining days of North Carolina's waterfowl season represent the best time of the year to gather a mixed bag of ducks from the late-season showdown. Duck hunters can expect a flurry of birds to occupy the state's public waterways, with a cloud of new arrivals barging in when weather conditions permit.
From the Roanoke River's flooded bottomlands to the banks of the North River, late-season waterfowlers can find a mixed bag under a variety of conditions.
North Carolina is fully contained along the eastern flyway, and with almost 10 percent of its surface area covered by water, ducks have plenty of places to drop their feet. In fact, the eastern region is home to one of the largest inland estuaries in the United States, the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. These waters harbor a significant portion of the migrating flock along the Atlantic seaboard in winter.
When swamps and shallow impoundments freeze over, the massive sounds and river systems have thousands of acres of open water available for ducks to rest and feed.
January conditions invite Little Washington's Kent Vaughan of Tail Feathers Guide Service to the bigger bodies of water to find a limit of puddle and diving ducks for his clients.
"Birds tend to want to be near the impoundments but will sit on open water in the middle of the day." Vaughan said. "With all of the hunting pressure, birds want to get away from the clutter to sit and rest."
Vaughan (252-339-6694) transports his scissors blind setup to areas of the rivers and creeks that feed the northern end of Pamlico Sound to the flats of the Currituck Sound, covered by Eurasian milfoil.
"There can be lots of pressure in late season, and the birds will move around quite a bit." Vaughn said. "We invest significant time riding around and looking for ducks before we ever set up the first decoy. You don't want to be 200 yards off a trade, and then be forced to move."
In fact, Vaughan rarely leaves the dock more than a few minutes before shooting time. With as much water as they have to choose from, ducks will change flight patterns daily, especially with varied wind conditions. While he knows the general area he intends on anchoring his blind, it may change between several hundred or several thousand yards from his target, based on where the birds are trading back and forth.
"It is important to find these patterns and set up in the middle of these flyways," Vaughan said. "Unless you have a wind switch, the birds will fly the same pattern throughout the day."
Ducks primarily frequent parts of the sounds and rivers that have a rich food source and nearby resting areas in open water. Vaughan searches for ducks trading between the major impoundments of the region and the nearby open-water areas. However, ducks will fly great distances to find one last, limiting resource essential to survival.
"Ducks feeding and resting in saltwater along the Outer Banks will fly across the sound looking for freshwater," he said, explaining that ducks need a reliable source of freshwater in winter - either from an inland lake, farm pond or some of the impoundments scattered across the northeastern and north-central parts of North Carolina.
Late-season hunting is directly impacted from specific weather patterns. While ducks will move in from the north on significant cold fronts, the will also migrate locally under certain weather patterns. Vaughan uses that to his favor.
"Wind is important. We like for it to blow hard enough to shuffle them around some," he said. "(There are) not as many places for them tuck in and evade the wind."
Wind direction is important, too. Vaughan loves to hear the weather man predict a strong northwest wind.
"The shallow places on the back side of Oregon Inlet, Hatteras, and Ocracoke Island flood higher than usual, with the wind tide, and the shoals get so rough and high," he said. "The birds will fly back across the sound to find protected water for feeding, resting and freshwater."
But the wind can cause problems, too, for hunters on the Pamlico, Albemarle and Currituck sounds, which can become high-risk danger zones for hunters. While Vaughan prefers to set up well off the shoreline, he will tuck behind points and in wind-protected bays under rough conditions. Fortunately, ducks are not a fan of rough water, and the waves send ducks into similar areas for protection.
In fact, wind speed and direction will have little effect in some of North Carolina's best mallard hunting habitat. Josh Roberson, a guide for Roanoke River Waterfowl, rarely ever leaves the swamps and flooded bottomland.
"Get in the swamps with oaks; the ducks will feed on the acorns until the end of the season," Roberson said. "After they have migrated into the area, they are tired and seek out acorns to replenish their energy reserves."
In the swamp, Roberson (252-661-0863) encounters mostly mallards, black duck wood ducks and an occasional teal or widgeon. He ranks scouting as very important; he will spend countless hours visiting openings in the swamp between first flight and the afternoons, watching from a distance.
"Mallards and other big ducks like open holes to spread their wings and drop on in," he said. "If you find an opening in a swamp, even if the water is deeper, ducks will land there and then feed in shallow water 50 to 75 yards away."
Roberson warns hunters to keep their distance and avoid spooking the feeding ducks while scouting. By January, ducks have been shot at from their Canadian breeding grounds all the way to their local wintering homes.
"If the birds are landing in one place one day, you best better believe they will land in the same place the next day as long as they are not spooked," he said.
Roberson notes the wind direction while he's scouting and the predicted wind direction for his hunting days, because ducks will land into the wind every time.
In January, the big swamps holding huge flocks of mallards and wood ducks will be the first places subject to freeze. Ducks will quickly leave these areas and look for a new homeplaces with food, protection and open water. Luckily, most swamps will be associated with a stream or river, and some moving water will almost always be found close by. Roberson finds that ducks shift to nearby places that haven't been iced over, even with the freezing mark long passed.
"Look for places where water is open naturally with moving and swirling water, but don't break the ice to make a hole. The ice will quickly refreeze," he said.
With most of the major southern migrations ending in December, the wind, weather and hunter decisions will control the outcome of the final weeks of the late-season showdown. Being stealthy and knowing where to set up the decoys under late season conditions will bring home a few more smiling faces before the end of the season arrives.