Late-season waterfowl
January can be a difficult time for people who love the outdoors. The month is cold and the days are short. For many hunters, the beginning of the year can seem bleak. Most seasons are closed, and hunting options are limited.

Screenshot-2023-01-06-at-9-06-51-AM.pngJack Ballard and his English setter, Percy, hunt for waterfowl in Wyoming. Dressing for cold weather is imperative when hunting late-season waterfowl. (Photo by Lisa Ballard)

Duck hunting in this late season can provide a great experience outside despite the cold. Fewer people are afield in January leaving hunters with areas to themselves. Plus, ducks are fully plumed out making the birds beautiful to watch whether or not you choose to hunt them.

Species of waterfowl can be limited in January. Most waterfowl have already moved on from the state, and more birds aren’t likely to migrate in.  

“Depending on how the migration is, usually by that time of the year we aren’t likely to get more birds,” said Brian Jensen, state biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid waterfowl hunter. “The birds we have are what’s here and they’ve likely been hunted throughout the season. They’re pretty smart.”

Hunting smart, late-season ducks can create a special challenge for waterfowl hunters and often requires more effort. With proper planning and scouting, the waterfowl found in January can provide varied and memorable hunts.

Mallards are the most commonly-found duck in the U.S. and are still in Wyoming in January. They are fairly large ducks with rounded heads and wide, flat bills. Males and females can be easily told apart. Males have an iridescent-green head and yellow bill. The breast is brown, the body is gray and the rear is black. They also have a blue patch on the wings. Females and juveniles aren’t as colorful as males. They are mottled-brown throughout the body. Their bills are orange and brown. Like males, females have a blue patch on the wings.

Mallards are dabbling ducks, meaning they feed in shallow water by dipping their heads into the water and tipping forward. They can be seen with their rear ends sticking out of the water surface when feeding on open water. In January mallards are still behaving this way as they dip into shallow water for tasty invertebrates, but they’ll also visit grain fields to meet their carbohydrate needs. This means you can hunt mallards over open water or in fields near water.

Screenshot-2023-01-06-at-9-09-26-AM.pngMallard drakes are colorful and fully plumed in January. (Photo by Vic Schendel)

“Scouting and staying on top of water conditions are important this time of year,” Jensen said. “Ice can become an issue, which can be positive or negative. It limits the places the ducks can be but you may be limited in access to those areas.”
Jensen recommends taking time to pattern the ducks — take note of when they are leaving the water or field and when they’re coming back. They will stick to their pattern unless something happens to throw them off.

“They’re a species of habit,” Jensen said. “If they have what they need, they likely won’t leave. Sometimes the water hole freezes up, they lose a food source or hunting pressure will move them.”
Jensen recommends late-season mallard hunters have good camo and cover as the birds have likely seen hunting pressure and will be wise to it. For mallards, decoys and duck calls can be used, but being in the right place at the right time is the most important consideration.

Canada geese
These birds are large, considerably larger than a mallard. This goose has a black head and neck with white cheeks. The back is brown and the chest is tan. They can be seen throughout Wyoming, even in towns when a food source is available.

“They are less closely tied to open water than other waterfowl,” Jensen said. “Feed is the most important thing for Canada geese. They are big and require a lot of food.”
The most successful hunts for Canada geese this time of year occur in fields where the geese are feeding. Geese generally require more decoys than ducks, and that can be especially true of late-season geese.
“Geese are usually a little older than the ducks we see, so they get really smart and see a lot of decoy spreads,” Jensen said.

He recommends using a large spread of decoys in the field, especially if it’s a larger group of birds.

Hunting Canada geese over water can bring harvest success, but it can be tricky. It is more difficult to bring them in where you want them with decoys over water. They usually focus on larger bodies of water like bigger rivers, lakes and wetlands.

Screenshot-2023-01-06-at-9-11-35-AM.pngCanada geese are commonly sighted throughout Wyoming. (Photo by Troy Powell)

Finding a pattern in their behavior will increase the likelihood of success, so scouting and planning is important.

“That time of year they’re waiting things out, so they think about food and water and keep to the pattern,” Jensen said. “As long as those two things are met, they will keep doing what they’re doing and will move on if those things aren’t met anymore.”

Canadas are larger birds, so they usually require more firepower. Although some people hunt them with a 20-gauge shotgun and even a 28-gauge, that requires accuracy with the shot to take the goose down. Jensen recommends a 12-gauge shotgun with a 3-inch round as a minimum if you’re heading out specifically looking for Canada geese. If using a smaller shotgun, use one you know you can place a proficient shot with to prevent injuring a bird.

Cover and camo can help to increase the success of hunting Canada geese whether over water or in fields.

Common goldeneyes
The common goldeneye is a medium-sized duck with a large head. They have a narrow bill that gives the head a triangular look. Females have brown heads with a gray back and wings. Their bill is mostly black becoming yellow at the tip, and their legs are yellow. Males are more colorful than females. They are mostly black and white. The male’s head is black-iridescent green with a white spot near the bill. The bill is black and the feet are yellow. As the name suggests, common goldeneyes have a striking yellow eye.

Screenshot-2023-01-06-at-9-13-25-AM.pngCommon goldeneyes take flight by running across the water's surface, so they need larger areas of open water than some other waterfowl. (Photo by Troy Powell)

Common goldeneyes are diving ducks, so they dive underwater for their food. In Wyoming, they are most associated with larger bodies of water like large rivers that haven’t iced up. They need more room to take off and land than other ducks, so large, open bodies of water are needed. Although they are spotted in lakes and wetlands earlier in the season, they’re more likely to be found on a large river in January.
Most waterfowl hunters don’t hunt specifically for goldeneyes, instead taking them when the opportunity presents itself while looking for other waterfowl. They aren’t known for their taste, and they can be more difficult to clean than a mallard or Canada goose due to tighter skin.

Because their food source is closely tied to water, you won’t find these ducks in fields. Instead, stick to the rivers if you want to see a common goldeneye. They sit toward the middle of the river, so it’s best to set up where they would be in shooting range like on an island. If that’s not possible, bring a little larger firepower to get the ducks at a greater distance. They are tough birds, so be prepared to pursue them if they are injured by your shot.

Common goldeneyes will drop in if they see something that grabs their attention, otherwise they may fly by. Having a few decoys in the water can help grab their attention, and weights may be needed to keep them in place.

“Calling isn’t very effective with common goldeneyes,” Jensen noted. “They don’t respond to very much. They have to see something to grab their attention for them to stop.”

Common mergansers
These ducks are nice to look at with males and females having distinct appearances. January is a great time to see them as they are fully plumed out. Most waterfowl hunters don’t hunt these birds. While they make a pretty mount, these ducks aren’t known as good table fare. If someone does harvest a common merganser, it’s typically because the bird came in while they were hunting for other waterfowl.

They are long-bodied ducks with narrow bills. Males have a crisp look with iridescent-green heads and white bodies. They have a black back and a red bill. The female has a gray body with a white chest. Females have a shaggy, crested head of cinnamon.  

Screenshot-2023-01-06-at-9-15-51-AM.pngCommon merganser females have a shaggy, crested head. (Photo by Lisa Ballard)

Like common goldeneyes, these birds need room to take off and land, so they require larger bodies of water. They are diving ducks that go underwater for food, so you won’t see them when hunting fields.

“They would require a similar technique to the common goldeneyes,” Jensen said. “You can put out a handful of decoys toward the middle of the river to get their attention.”

Looking for waterfowl during the late season can be a rewarding experience. It provides the opportunity to get outside during a long winter. Remember to prepare for staying outside in the cold and be ready for changing weather. With proper planning and scouting, you can find success in the field and spot some good-looking waterfowl.

Tracie Binkerd is the editor of Wyoming Wildlife.

Ducks and geese are migratory game birds, and there are several documents hunters need before heading afield. Below are the document requirements for hunting migratory game birds in Wyoming. Always check the most current regulations before going hunting.

Photographer Info
Troy Powell

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