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Cold-weather hunting tips

Let waterfowl behavior guide you this winter
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by Chris Jennings

As the mercury drops in the Northern states, the full migration begins, and hunters who are prepared will be the ones who reap the benefits. Knowing what birds are going to do when the ice sets in will allow hunters to plan accordingly.

Waterfowl behavior

Extremely-cold-weather hunting can change everything about the way birds are acting and how they can be hunted. When the daytime temperatures go from 40 degrees to the 20s, bird behavior will change drastically and hunters need to know what to look for so they can be prepared to make adjustments.

"When the temperatures get really cold, birds will spend much more time trying to conserve heat," explains DU Chief Biologist Dale Humburg. "Their postures will change and most definitely their feeding habitats will change with the weather."

Humburg says hunters need to be on the lookout for bird behavior such as delayed feeding times and bird concentrations. Early in the season, birds will be distributed more widely, and once the cold hits, they will tightly compacted.

This time of year, hunters should be looking at any and every available open water hole, including rivers, deeper lakes, cooling ponds and streams. This is also a time when hunters begin moving from water to fields.

"The birds will begin hitting hot foods more regularly," Humburg says. "They will be searching out corn, acorns and other high-energy food sources, and they will be moving out to feed much later in the morning."

Late feeding schedules offer hunters a little more time in the morning to prepare for the cold weather. As birds continue to move later, hunters may not need to be set up until 8 or 9 a.m. Birds will begin waiting for the temperature to rise because they are weighing the amount of energy used when they go out to feed against what they will consume. Evening hunters will notice that birds will stay in feeding areas much longer as well.

Dealing with ice

"Hunting the fields or finding open water may be a little more homework, but it can be worth the effort," Humburg explains. "Breaking ice or setting decoys on the ice can work as well."

Don't fight the ice, work with it. Humburg has a trick to opening more water with less work by breaking the ice into large sheets and pushing the sheets under one another. Instead of breaking the ice into smaller pieces that will freeze around the decoys much faster, he clears large areas of ice at one time. Breaking ice can be back-breaking work and, combined with the frigid temperatures, a hunter who has worked up a sweat in the pre-dawn light will quickly get cold once sitting in a blind. Layering clothing and removing some layers before doing hard labor will provide you with warm, dry clothes to put on once the work is done.

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