By John Pollmann
From ice and cold to wind and rain, nothing influences a hunt for ducks and geese like the weather. And while Mother Nature may be in the driver's seat when it comes to the forecast, a waterfowl hunter doesn't have to just be along for the ride. The following tips from waterfowl hunters across the country will help you handle the worst that Mother Nature throws your way.
Snow and Cold
Avery pro-staffer Ben Cade actually begins to smile when the snow starts flying over central Minnesota. The same cold front that moves wind and snow through the area usually brings with it a trickle of fresh Canada geese, Cade says, and those birds that have been giving him problems over decoys in the field in recent weeks finally start to play by the rules.
"Fresh snow seems to change the way the birds view the landscape, to the point where previously stale birds become willing to decoy," Cade says. "The cold and snow usually force geese to feed longer as the days get shorter, too, which works really well for hunting. And the snow really helps improve the visibility of the decoys; it can be our best hunting of the season."
Decoy spreads should reflect this change in behavior, Cade explains, and he will put out more sleeping- or resting-style decoys in order to imitate what he observes birds doing when there is snow on the ground.
Cade says sky conditions seem to affect when Canada geese begin to lift off the roost to feed. When the skies are clear and the temperature low, Cade often will not start hunting until mid-afternoon, while a low ceiling of clouds usually puts him in the field by shooting light.
Regardless of the time of day, he says that hunting in the snow always requires proper concealment.
"Snow covers – or snow spray, depending on how much snow is on the ground – are a must for layout blinds and dog blinds. Everyone needs to be properly camouflaged to be successful," Cade says. "Even wearing a white skull-cap instead of a dark-colored hunting hat can up your odds of success."
Living and hunting in the extreme northwestern corner of Washington means that Seth Askvig has access to some of the finest waterfowl action in the country. But hunting along Washington's coastal bays also means dealing with a lot of rain, which can make for less-than-ideal conditions.
"If there is both rain and wind, you can count on a pretty good hunt in the morning because those birds want to get up and off those bays and back into the freshwater ponds or into the fields to eat," says Askvig, who operates and guides at Mud Creek Hunt Club. "But if it is a steady downpour, which we get pretty often, then the birds tend to sit tight. If you don't have the right gear to handle the rain, it can turn into a miserable experience."
Waiting out the ducks and geese requires dependable, waterproof clothing, Askvig says, perhaps even throwing on a pair of waders when hunting in a field situation to provide a barrier from water and mud.
When hunting out of a layout blind, he recommends using one with a waterproof bottom that keeps moisture out, or if possible, switching to a permanent structure like a pit blind that will help protect a hunter from the elements.
Askvig says that the same adjustments should be made for a hunting retriever, too. "Even in the field, our dogs will all have vests on to insulate them from the wet and mud. A dog blind or a dog stand is also a good thing to use just to give them a chance to get up and out of the mess; a day in the rain can really wear on a dog."
Keeping yourself – and your dog – comfortable is key to finding success when the rain begins to fall, Askvig says.
"Hunting in the rain is just a reality for us. We are probably in it every other time out, and we know that we either deal with it and adapt, or go home early," says Askvig. "But if we can find a way to stay out hunting, more often than not we know that we're going to have a pretty good day."
Whether targeting birds over water or in the field, wind is an essential component of any waterfowl hunt, and arguably the single most important factor in decoying birds directly into the blocks, says Avery pro-staffer Martin Hesby.
But dealing with days of little to no wind is inevitable, he says, even in his blustery home state of South Dakota.
"The kiss of death for a waterfowl hunter is when the weather forecast says ‘light and variable winds,'" Hesby explains. "When I hear this, I move to other options, if I have them, instead of burning a hot field or roost for what is probably going to be a rather frustrating hunt. It's usually best to just hold off until better conditions present themselves."
Hesby isn't sure if there is such a thing as "too much wind," believing that waterfowl hunters would take extreme winds over the opposite end of the spectrum most any day.
But he adds that steady, strong winds present their own challenges. "Heavy winds can wreak havoc on a decoy spread. You can spend more time picking up decoys that have blown over and getting them back upright than you do sitting in your blind," Hesby says. "In situations like this, I always utilize decoys with field stakes, instead of ring-base type stands. If you get your stakes in good ground, your Avery decoys will not topple over whatsoever."
Getting birds to the decoys is often a challenge, too. "You'll have ducks or geese setting up and looking great, but a big wind can cause them to hang up and take forever to finish," he says. "That's when they really get a good, long look at your setup, so concealment becomes even more of a priority. If they do hit the decoys, they have the ability to get out of town quickly. So while your first shot might be at birds up close, your second and third shots are at birds at the far edge of the decoy spread or further out."
To combat this, Hesby will adjust his shot size from #4s to #2s for ducks and #2s to BBs for geese. Staying smart about what shots to take is also important – a theme that Hesby says extends into other areas of the hunt.
"If you're hunting water, high winds can be very dangerous, especially if you're in a boat," he explains. "Even if you know that the birds are going to be moving, it isn't worth the risk. Sometimes the adjustment you make is the decision to stay home and wait until safer boating conditions."
Stale Weather Patterns
Give veteran waterfowl hunter and Avery pro-staffer Joe James a cold-weather migration event on the northern plains followed by crisp, clear skies above the green timber near Stuttgart, Arkansas, and he knows that the woods will be prime for decoying mallards.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn't always dial up the perfect forecast for hunting, or worse yet, as James explains, she sometimes doesn't dial up anything at all."At some point every year, it seems, we find ourselves in a pattern of warm, balmy weather, and the duck hunting really slows down," James says. "Day after day of the same stuff, the hunting can really get tough."
A stagnant weather pattern is especially frustrating, James explains, when it happens toward the front end of the season.
"You might have had a push of birds down here around Thanksgiving, and then the weather just shuts off," he says. "By Christmas, you've been hunting the same birds for several weeks, and they are extremely difficult to decoy."
When the hunting is stuck in a rut, James begins to mix up his approach to a morning in the woods by using a smaller decoy spread (or no decoys at all), creating motion in the decoys by pulling the jerk string or kicking the water, and putting an emphasis on calling.
"Being able to read ducks and really know how and when to operate a duck call will play in your favor at this point," James adds. "But this usually means using soft calling, light feeding calls – sometimes hardly any calling at all."
Scouting also becomes a priority, James says, as ducks will often start using different areas when the weather turns off or heavy hunting pressure turns on.
"Ducks are going to be ducks, and they are going to move around, even to areas where you've never seen a bird before," he explains. "So you can't be afraid to move to a different part of the woods or get in the boat or the truck and look around. The more time you spend scouting, the better off you'll be."
It would be nice if Mother Nature tempered the elements in favor of the hunter each day of the waterfowl season, James says, but the reality is often quite the opposite.
"You have to work with what you get," he says. "There are those days when things don't come together, but when they do, the success tastes that much sweeter."