Tactics for Migrating Ducks

Follow this expert advice to bag more flight birds this season

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By Wade Bourne

More than 40 years have passed since DU Chief Scientist Dr. Scott Yaich first heard the stirring sounds of ducks migrating en masse. Even so, he readily remembers the roar of rushing wings overhead. "It was in the mid-'70s, when I was in graduate school at Southern Illinois University. I was hunting with some friends on nearby Crab Orchard Lake. It was a cold, breezy, bright-sky day, and not much was happening," he recalls.

"We were about to leave, when suddenly I heard what sounded like a jet flying low," Yaich continues. "I looked around and saw a big flight of bluebills, all cupped and banking toward our spread. And those ducks were the leading edge of a new wave of birds moving in from up north. I've never forgotten that sound and the great shooting we enjoyed that morning."    

Many of us wait impatiently all season for the arrival of these "new ducks." We obsess over weather reports and yearn for north winds and frigid temperatures to bring these airborne migrants into our small corner of the waterfowling world. These fresh arrivals justify all the planning, hard work, and expense that the sport demands. They also stir our souls and afford us with lasting memories.

With so much riding on the wings of a north wind, it's up to hunters to take full advantage of the golden opportunities that migrating ducks can provide. Here's some seasoned advice from several expert waterfowlers on how to time the fall flights, find the ducks, set an effective decoy spread, and call these new birds into shooting range.

Timing the Migration

To know when new ducks are coming, hunters must understand the factors that influence migration, says Dr. Sidney A. Gauthreaux Jr., an ornithologist with Clemson University. Gauthreaux, who has spent years researching bird migrations, contends that ducks can be divided into two categories—"calendar migrants" and "weather migrants"—based on what prompts them to start their seasonal journeys.

Calendar migrants are those species that are more physiologically "hardwired" to migrate at predictable times of the year. "The blue-winged teal is the poster child of the calendar migrants," Gauthreaux says. "Many bluewings begin migrating south in late August or early September, regardless of the weather. Their migration is prompted more by the shortening of the photoperiod [proportion of daylight to darkness] as summer gives way to fall." Gauthreaux adds that while bluewing migrations are frequently linked to frontal passages because of favorable winds, it's the calendar, not the weather map, that provides the main impetus for their movements.

Weather migrants also respond to the changing photoperiod, but tend to stay put until harsh conditions force them to fly south. "Mallards are good examples of this group, and so are some diver species," Gauthreaux says. "Normally, freezing temperatures are the main factor that forces these birds down the flyways. When their feeding areas start locking up in ice, these birds have to migrate to warmer areas to find new food sources."

Most ducks will migrate just behind a cold front, when the sky is crystal clear, the temperature is plummeting, and the winds are blowing southward. They also tend to migrate around the clock, with more birds moving at night than during the day.

According to Gauthreaux, there are several signs that hunters should look for to accurately predict the arrival of new ducks. "Watch the weather for powerful cold fronts to the north, with freezing temperatures and a sharply rising barometer behind the fronts," he says. "Such conditions typically cause a significant southbound movement of waterfowl, especially in late October and November. Ducks that are in South Dakota one afternoon can be in Arkansas the next morning."

Even after the ducks arrive on their wintering grounds, a hard freeze can cause them to fly farther south to find open water. Conversely, a warm-up and thaw can make the birds reverse course and head back north. These reverse migrations on the wintering grounds are usually shorter and less dramatic than major migrations from the north country, but they can still provide exceptional hunting opportunities for waterfowlers who anticipate and take advantage of them.

Scouting Flight Ducks

Travis Mueller of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a sales manager for Avery and Banded. A veteran freelance hunter, he spends a lot of time scouting puddle ducks as they migrate through the Hawkeye State. He keeps a pair of binoculars in his truck and is always on the alert for new birds. "When a migration comes through, you've often got a 48-hour window to take advantage of it," he says. "The ducks move in, rest, feed, and then move out again. If you miss the birds, it's an opportunity lost, without a doubt." 

Like most duck hunters, Mueller is also a compulsive weather watcher. "I actually start scouting a couple of days before a cold front hits," he says. "Sometimes we pick up new birds ahead of the front as well as behind it. So I don't try to second-guess when they will show up. I'll start watching for ducks ahead of the front so I won't miss those first arrivals." 

According to Mueller, migrating ducks typically visit large bodies of water first. "They'll hunker down there for a little while before heading to the fields to feed," he says. "Based on this behavior, I'll scout the water at dawn. If I see new ducks, I may hunt there in the morning. But if I don't have much action on the water, I'll move to the cornfields in the afternoon."

Mueller has permission to hunt a couple of fields on high hills where ducks like to come to feed. When other hunters beat him to these spots, however, he's quick to change his game plan. "Not all the ducks are going to the same place, so I may find another spot by driving and watching for ducks working different fields," he explains. 

The first signs of these new arrivals never fail to stoke Mueller's passion for the sport. "Several times I've heard mallards chattering as they flew over my house at night," he says. "That always gets me excited. I know those are new ducks moving in, and I'd better be out looking for them early the next morning. That's one opportunity I don't want to miss."

Decoying Recent Arrivals

Charlie Puckett works for Flambeau Outdoors and lives in Middlefield, Ohio, about 45 miles east of Cleveland. When puddle ducks funnel through the region in the fall, he pursues them mainly on large inland lakes just below the south shore of Lake Erie. He notes the behavior of the recent arrivals, and then sets his decoys accordingly.

"When new ducks move in, they like to hit big open water first, where they feel safer in their new surroundings," Puckett says. "One flight will land and bunch together fairly close, then another flight will join them. This often continues until there's a large group on the water. Then it won't take long for these ducks to start dispersing to find something to eat." 

Taking a somewhat minimalist approach, Puckett sets his spread to look like the first flock that has landed on the water. "I put out two dozen decoys in a fairly tight grouping. Then, when ducks show up, they'll work to the edge of the spread," he says. 

Puckett hunts over Flambeau Stormfront 2 decoys, which he says are highly visible to passing ducks. To make his spread even more noticeable, he sets out four or five spinning-wing decoys on poles along the downwind edge of his floaters. "I don't group these wing-spinners close together. Instead, I space them out so they look like ducks coming in from different directions," he explains. 

When Puckett deploys his decoys, he usually leaves a 20-yard gap between the shore and the inside edge of his spread. "Since new ducks seem more comfortable working offshore, I'll leave this space open to increase their confidence and convince them to land near the decoys. The birds will still be well within shooting range of our blinds, which we usually set right on the lake bank," he says. 

Calling Fresh Birds

New ducks are a duck caller's dream, says call maker David Gaston of Thomasville, Alabama. "Migrating ducks have likely flown a long way," he says, "so they're tired and hungry, and they need to find a place to rest and eat. When you call to them and get their attention, chances are good they're going to sail down and drop in among the decoys."

Callers shouldn't be subtle or timid when trying to get the attention of migrating ducks, says Gaston. When the ducks are within calling range, he starts blowing loud, drawn-out hail calls consisting of nine to 15 notes apiece. 
"Migrating ducks usually fly high in formation, so you need a loud duck call, and you should blow it forcefully to make them hear you," he explains. "Point your call at the ducks, and shoot those notes straight at them. Don't worry about not sounding natural. The main thing is to make the birds notice you. The best way to do this is by making noise. If they don't hear you, the ducks will fly right on by."    

Gaston adds that callers should pay attention to the direction and velocity of the wind when calling to passing ducks. "I don't call when the birds are upwind, because they probably won't hear me. Ducks can hear you better and farther away when they get even with you or downwind," he says.

Two or three callers working together can sometimes be more effective at coaxing a high flock of passing ducks. "The best caller should be the leader, and the other callers should work off what he's doing," Gaston advises. "When he is blowing loud and long, the other hunters should do the same. And if the ducks pitch and the main caller backs off, everyone else should also tone it down, or stop calling altogether, while the lead caller works the birds in close."

When high ducks cup their wings and start descending, Gaston shifts to calling with short, choppy notes. As the birds get close, he changes again to clucking feed calls, lonesome hen calls, and single quacks—natural susie sounds. "I'll call 'em right to the decoys," he says. "If they like what I'm giving them, I'll keep it up until it's time to shoot." 

If the ducks start away, Gaston will give them a comeback call. Then he'll change things up if the birds circle around. "I won't call like I did before. I'll try something different, usually lightening up on the calling and maybe trying some soft greeting calls and single-cut feeding calls."

Gaston offers this final tip: "We're usually working mallards, and if there are any wigeon or pintails in the flock, I'll try using a whistle. If I can get those other ducks to come in, the mallards will usually follow."