If you like to hunt in warm weather, then don't read on because late December and early January in the land of 6-foot snow banks can be challenging. Western New York waterfowlers are offered a late season duck hunting starting Dec. 28 and running until Jan. 12 for ducks and geese. This late season offers hunters different types of shooting opportunities. Unless the water temperature has kept lakes and ponds open, waterfowlers are likely going to be hunting rivers or Lake Ontario.
Lake Erie offers some more traditional waterfowl action. When the Big Lake freezes over, Dunkirk Harbor has some great late-season duck action. With the help of the hot water discharged from the Niagara Mohawk Power Plant located in Dunkirk Harbor, access can be gained via boat to the breakwall that guards the harbor. Hunting off the wall is a tradition for many Chautauqua County waterfowlers, so getting there early in the morning is important. Once in position small-decoy spreads work best during the late season. Most of the birds that will be coming into your spread will be local birds that have been bumped off local streams and ponds. These birds have been called to and shot at for the last two months and are very leery of anything out of the ordinary.
Most hunters will put their spreads close to the wall, but I prefer to put my spreads out around 20 yards. That will help bring the birds between you and the decoys.Years of experience have shown that late-season birds will not land in the spread, but towards the inside if they set their wings at all. Many times birds will not land, but instead fly over to check out the new kids in town. That is why I generally let my clients take passing shots because they are often the only ones available.
Moving in land, waterfowlers need to do their homework before heading into the fields. Finding out which bodies of water are still open and which ones are frozen is important. A sure bet for late-season waterfowlers is floating the many rivers that generally don't freeze over until mid-winter.
Conewango Creek is a favorite late-season hot spot. Don't let the name of the creek fool you. The Conewango is 20 to 30 yards across and there are spots that range in depth from 8 feet to portage. Divers make their winter home along this free-flowing creek. As with most float trips, decoys and calls are best left at home. Fast-paced action calls for a good set of eyes. Checking the shoreline out as far as you can see will help get you ready for the upcoming action. One of the joys of hunting the Conewango is always seeing something different around each bend. Everything from whitetail deer, turkey, beaver and other small game is on display.
Farm ponds are also an important part of any late-season waterfowler's game plan. There are literally hundreds of farms and swamps that offer some excellent pond jumping action.When the ponds are ice free, they are some of the best spots to set up a late-season blind. Accessing any of the ponds that are offered in the Southern Tier can be fairly easy, but be sure to ask permission. Farmers can help point out easy access roads that will help you get in without the help of a tow truck.
Smaller farm ponds are some of my favorites. There are around a dozen that I hunt regularly and check year round. These ponds are custom made for late-season action. You can have this type of arrangement with landowners too, it just takes some time and effort to develop trust.
Once a pond is found ice-free, I check out topographical maps to see if there are any wetland areas around the pond that will hold birds. These ponds are worth spending some time on. Setting up on a farm pond often times takes a little work, but it is well worth the effort. When scouting a pond, I look for areas that have points near coves. That is where I set up my spread. Pond spreads don't have to be large. In fact the most effective pond spreads I set are made up of 10 decoys or less. On a pond set, it's more important to place the decoys in the right spot on the water than to have high numbers. A well-placed spread will do more for your success than just throwing out a couple dozen decoys. Authors note: When dates and bag limits are discussed on these pages or another non-state issued publication, it's important that as responsible sportsmen that we all double check the information with NYS official publications and/or web sites.