by Wade Bourne
It happens virtually every duck season. Hunting has been going well. New birds are showing up with each cold front. Ducks and geese are moving and feeding in predictable patterns, and the shooting is steady.
And then a warm spell sets in. The wind shifts to the south or southwest and diminishes to a gentle breeze. Windbreakers are more appropriate than heavy parkas. Hand warmers are long forgotten. And for many hunters, the shooting simply disappears.
Skies that were buzzing with waterfowl a few days earlier now have far less traffic as ducks and geese respond to the balmy conditions. Hunters curse the warm weather and hope for a return to conditions that are more appropriate to the season.
So what's a duck hunter to do? Stop hunting until the north wind returns? Absolutely not, say Tyson Keller and Hunter Johnson. Waterfowl still fly and feed when it's warm, and hunting can be worthwhile for those who know how to adjust to the temperate conditions. While these two veteran waterfowlers agree that hunting is better when the chill is on, they don't sit on the sidelines when it's not. The season is too short for that.
Both Keller and Johnson are members of the Avery Outdoors pro-staff. Keller, a South Dakotan, routinely targets Canada geese that concentrate on Lake Oahe and feed in surrounding grainfields. Johnson runs Locked Wings and Labs, a guide service in Missouri, where he mainly pursues puddle ducks in flooded fields and moist-soil areas. "Because we're a guide service, we have to hunt regardless of the weather conditions," Johnson says. "When it's warm, the hunting may not be as good, but we still take a fair number of birds."
During warm spells, both Johnson and Keller adjust their hunting tactics to match changes in the birds' feeding habits. When the next warm stretch hits, adopting some of their warm-weather strategies might help you stay in the action.
Ducks When the Heat is On
"There are two types of warm spells," Hunter Johnson says. "The first is two or three warm days in the midseason. This is just a temporary warm stretch when ducks don't feed as much and are in a loafing mood. When a spell like this comes along, ducks don't burn a lot of energy, so they don't move around as much looking for food."
Johnson finds that when ducks do feed during a warm period, they gravitate to soybeans, moist-soil plants, and invertebrates. And when feeding during a warm spell, ducks are usually in a relaxed mode, scattered broadly instead of bunched up tightly. Typically, there will be several feet between each bird.
To match these feeding patterns, Johnson often changes locations to hunt over the right type of food. He also uses fewer decoys than normal and scatters them. "I'll put 10, 20, or even 30 feet between each decoy," he says. "This presents a contented look that is more natural to ducks in warm weather."
The second type of warm spell is an extended period when there's no change in weather patterns—hence no new birds—for several days running. "The main problem here is that you're hunting the same old educated ducks," Johnson continues. "They've been called to and shot at until they are extremely spooky. So you have to change things up and give these ducks something they haven't seen in a while. If most other hunters are using five or six dozen decoys and a wing-spinner, I may try setting out only a half-dozen decoys and a jerk string. Or, I may add one full-body snow goose decoy for increased visibility instead of using a wing-spinner. I don't think ducks respond to a wing-spinner as well in warm weather as they do when it's cold."
If it's warm and windy, Johnson may take an opposite approach. "When there's enough wind to keep the decoys moving, sometimes we'll put out a massive spread," he explains. "We'll scatter decoys all over the pond. The point is, we experiment with different setups to see what the ducks like best."
During a warm spell, a more likely scenario is for the wind to tail off to a light breeze or nothing at all. "This is a duck hunter's worst nightmare," Johnson says. "If I'm hunting from a permanent blind or pit, I'll figure out some way to add motion to the decoys. I'll set a couple of Ice Eaters or Mallard Machines in my spread to make ripples on the surface. Or, if I'm freelancing and hunting over a portable setup, I'll rig a simple two-decoy jerk string. There has to be movement. If the surface of the water looks like a sheet of glass, you're done."
When it comes to calling, Johnson thinks less is better during a warm spell. "When I have spread out my decoys, I mainly use contentment calls—single quacks, light chatter, and short three- to five-note greeting or comeback calls," he says. "Sometimes you still have to get the birds' attention, but once they start working, I call very little—just enough to give them confidence that everything is okay."
Ducks don't move around as much in warm weather as they do in the cold, so hunters must figure out when they are moving and be ready to hunt during those times. "Although ducks will typically fly early and late in the day, I have seen them fly in the middle of the day in heavily pressured areas," Johnson says. "My best advice is to spend time scouting. Drive by refuges and check to see what the ducks are doing. Hunt during times of peak activity, and set your decoys to match how ducks are sitting on the refuges. And remember, you won't get any shooting lying on the couch at home or in the clubhouse. Hunting isn't usually as good during a warm spell, but it can still be a lot better than many hunters realize."
Hunting Warm-Weather Honkers
"During a warm spell, Canada geese change their feeding habits," Tyson Keller says. "When it's cold, geese key on corn, beans, and other high-protein crops. But during a warm period, they shift to vegetation such as winter wheat or green shoots in fallow fields or plowed grainfields with low stubble."
In cold weather or warm, Keller scouts extensively to find where geese are feeding. He says it takes only a day or two of warm weather for the birds to shift from "hot" food to green forage. He moves his hunting setup as soon as he notices the birds making this change.
Geese also like to feed and loaf in different locations within a field based on weather conditions. "When it's cold, geese tend to concentrate in low areas where they have some protection from the wind," Keller says. "But during a warm spell, they will feed and loaf on the higher rolls or flats in a field." Keller typically sets his decoys where the geese were feeding the afternoon before.
When it's warm, Canada geese spread out more when feeding and are less competitive in their feeding habits. "They don't pack together in a large concentration," he explains. "Instead, they'll fan out across a field in many small family groups. Also, geese will usually be standing and walking around rather than sitting on the ground, as they do during cold weather. And when new geese are coming in, they will usually land short or outside of the birds already on the ground."
Keller incorporates these feeding behaviors into how he arranges his decoys. "I use mostly full-body decoys in warm weather, and I'll set small family groups with plenty of open space between them," he explains. "I'll put 30 to 40 decoys around the layout blinds, and then I'll set other groups of six to 10 decoys to the side (but not out of shooting range) and upwind of the big group.
"I leave a large open pocket (15 yards across) just downwind from the blinds," he continues. "On the other side of this pocket, I'll set six to 10 decoys with upright heads to make it look as if they are walking in toward the other geese. This provides incoming geese a very natural look. They will usually set in with the ‘walking geese' or fly over them and aim for the hole in front of the blinds."
Keller says that since geese don't feed as aggressively in warm weather, subtle calling works better than aggressive calling. "If geese are coming to my spread, I don't call very much," he says. "I'll finesse the birds with some low murmurs, moans, and subtle clucks, but I stay away from loud competition-style calling, which is unnatural in this situation. I just give them a little dose and watch their reaction. Sometimes silence can be the best calling approach of all."
When the weather is warm, Keller believes that movement is a crucial factor in drawing birds. "Flagging and motion among the decoys can often pull the less aggressive birds into your spread," he says. "Capturing the birds' attention with the wing-flapping motion of a flag will attract many flocks that would not otherwise respond. When flagging, try to emulate birds that are stretching their wings."
Another good strategy for hunting warm-weather geese is to set up on what Keller calls "loafing water." Canada geese will spend the night on their roost site and then fly out to feed in the morning. "After they feed awhile, they'll move on to a loafing spot to get a drink of water and to rest," Keller says. "This might be a little pond, a wetland, or a flooded section of a pasture. The birds will spend most of the midday and afternoon there before returning to the field to feed again late in the afternoon. Then they'll go back to the roost pond just before dark.
"You find these loafing places by following geese after they leave their feeding field in the morning," Keller continues. "I hunt these spots by placing layout blinds right at the edge of the water. I set a couple of dozen full-bodies on the shore around the blinds and a few floaters in the water. And I call very little in this situation. I'm exactly where the geese want to be, so I just let them come to the decoys on their own."