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Waterfowling's Perfect Storm

Learn to read a weather map before you head out
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The Perfect Storm

So what are the weather conditions that must fall into place to create waterfowling's "perfect storm"? It depends on the region where you are hunting, the time of year, the species hunted, and even the terrain—in short, too many factors to nail down in one answer. A grand passage of waterfowl is almost always triggered by a major blizzard or some other record-setting weather event—the kind that only occurs every decade or so. In the years in between, waterfowlers are left with predicting duck and goose movements according to more typical forecasts.

Wondering what the weather will bring to the marsh the next morning has likely been pondered by more waterfowlers through the ages than any other question about the sport. "Remember, we're discussing how wild, migratory birds will react to a weather forecast that meteorologists only get right part of the time," Humburg says. "A lot of the ‘perfect' duck weather boils down to your area and personal preference. For me, I like cool temperatures, clear skies, and a decent amount of wind on the back side of a cold front. I think that would be a pretty common answer across the country."

How to Read a Weather Map

Predicting weather is a complex science, but there are a number of resources that make understanding the forecast a simple task. The National Weather Service (noaa.gov) and other sites, such as weather.com and accuweather.com, provide detailed surface maps, Doppler radar imagery, and hourly forecast updates. The NOAA site provides current and forecast river levels, which can be particularly useful for river hunters.

There are many symbols for various weather patterns on a surface map. The most important for waterfowlers to understand are the symbols for cold and warm fronts, isobars, and high and low pressure. Taken in combination, a general understanding of these weather symbols can allow a waterfowl hunter to predict how severe an approaching front will be—and, in turn, how it may influence waterfowl.

"When trying to predict how severe a cold front will be, there are other things to look for on the map besides the cold front symbol," says Zwemer Ingram, data acquisition program manager for the National Weather Service in Memphis. "Isobars that are close to one another indicate a tight pressure gradient, and a tight pressure gradient indicates strong winds. Another thing to study is where the high pressure behind a front is coming from. In the winter, fronts that originate in Canada will usually be drier and colder. But sometimes the front will originate from the Pacific Coast. These may not be as cold, but they're more likely to bring precipitation."

Weather Map Symbols

  • Cold Front: Cold fronts are cold air masses replacing warm air masses at ground level. Depending on the severity of the front, they can have huge impacts on your waterfowl hunting. Major cold fronts can initiate migrations; minor cold fronts may not cause large-scale movements, but may influence local waterfowl behavior and hunting conditions.
  • Warm Front: Warm fronts are warm air masses that are replacing cold air masses. In general, warm fronts slow the hunting pace, particularly early in the season. However, a warming trend may stimulate reverse migration late in the season.
  • High Pressure: An area of high barometric pressure is where the local air pressure is higher than that of the surrounding area. High pressure often means blue skies and fair weather.
  • Low Pressure: An area of low barometric pressure is where the local air pressure is lower than the surrounding area. Low pressure is often associated with precipitation, wind, and approaching fronts.
  • Isobars: These are lines on a map connecting areas of equal barometric pressure. Tightly grouped isobars indicate a large pressure gradient and high winds.
  • Doppler Radar: Hunters can forecast advancing precipitation by watching animated Doppler radar maps. Different types of precipitation, such as rain, sleet, and snow, are indicated by color keys.
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