Cold-weather hunting tips

Let waterfowl behavior guide you this winter

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.

Ice can wreak havoc on gear. Ice chunks can easily puncture waders, crack decoys and rip a determined retriever to shreds. Be cautious when sending retrievers into icy waters and keep an eye out for injuries to your retriever's chest and hind legs as he crashes through the frigid waters. A neoprene vest is highly recommended for your retriever when spending time in the field during the coldest days of the season. These vests will guard them from sharp edges created by broken ice.

Safety the #1 Concern

"Hunter behavior needs to change with the birds," Humburg says. "While the hunting can be great this time of year, hunters need to always be conscious of safety when dealing with extremely cold temperatures. It is much more unforgiving if you were to make a mistake."

Hypothermia can set in quickly when the mercury is below freezing. Humburg reminds hunters to be very cautious when hunting in frigid temperatures, paying close attention to every detail affecting safety.

"Never hunt alone and be sure to bring along some dry clothes in case there is an emergency," he says. "Keep an eye on your hunting partners and your retriever throughout the hunt for any sign of frost bite or hyperthermia."

There are so many ways hunters can find themselves in trouble this time of year; the focus needs to remain on safety. When hunting moving water, be cautious of ice drifts that can overturn a boat or break easily under the weight of a hunter or a retriever.

As icy weather continues to take over many parts of North America, birds will be more concentrated and possibly even a little more predictable. Being where the birds want to be is still the ultimate goal, but during these frigid days, just getting there might be the problem.

"I've set decoys out on the ice before and had great success," Humburg says. "But if you can find open water or create an open-water hole in an area that is mostly frozen—it can be a spectacular hunt when you're the only game in town."