by Wade Bourne
Deep winter offers duck hunters both challenge and opportunity. The late season cuts hunters little slack, but the last few weeks can also provide some of the best shooting of the year.
Here is how to adjust your hunting to the toughest weather elements: strong winds, ice, fog, heavy snow, and rain. Hunters who understand how these conditions affect ducks and who employ strategies designed around them can enjoy hot shooting in the waning days of the season.
"Strong winds will definitely make ducks come in easier—but you have to be in the right spot," says Duane Kovarik of Ord, Nebraska. Kovarik hunts from a boat-blind on large reservoirs in the north-central part of the state. He says it's not uncommon for winds to blow up to 40 miles per hour and for the lake's open water to resemble the North Atlantic.
"Usually ducks will sit on the main lake at night," Kovarik says. "They'll fly out at dawn to feed and start trickling back around midmorning. If the wind is kicking up, they'll look for sheltered areas to loaf for the rest of the day."
So Kovarik sets up in small sheltered coves on the upwind side of the lake. He hunts either from his boat-blind or from the bank. "Look for where trees or a hill shelters the upwind side of a cove," he says. "When a hard wind is blowing, a calm shoreline is like a magnet. Passing ducks will see your decoys and often come in without circling."
In this situation, Kovarik uses fewer decoys than normal. "I'll scale down to three dozen ducks and a dozen geese," he explains. "You don't need to do a lot of convincing. You just need enough decoys for passing birds to see."
Correspondingly, he also calls less than normal when it's windy. "I'll give passing birds one good hail series to make them look at the decoys," he says. "If they turn my way, there's usually no more need to call."
Kovarik stresses that hunters must exercise caution in strong winds. "Don't go out on rough water in a low-sided boat," he advises, "and don't put in where you have to cross open water. Always wear your life jacket when you're running, and don't go out until there's enough light to see where you're going. Just use common sense and remember that rough water and subfreezing temperatures can be a deadly combination for duck hunters."
When ice starts forming on Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota/Ontario/Manitoba boundary, Lance Sage says duck hunting can be extraordinary. "Find the right spot, and you'll be in for the shoot of your life," he says.
Sage helps run his family's Sage's Angle West Resort in Minnesota's Northwest Angle. He's a part-time guide and an avid waterfowler who specializes in diving ducks. When the lake starts freezing in late fall, bluebills, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks, and others concentrate in areas that remain open. Sage looks for open water on wind-exposed points and banks, spring-fed areas, and rivers flowing into or out of the lake. Sage says finding these spots is simply a matter of watching where birds are flying and following them to where they are rafting.
"The bays freeze first, and when they do, the ducks move out to big water," he says. "The main lake holds its temperature longer, and strong winds also help keep it open. I'll use binoculars to find where ducks are landing, and then I'll figure out how to get there and set up." Sometimes he can access a wind-washed point or shoreline from the bank. Other times he breaks ice (up to an inch-and-a-half thick—no more) to reach open water. "This type of hunting isn't for the faint of heart," he advises.
Sage uses the same decoy spread and calling techniques that he employs before ice starts forming. "I don't change anything," he says, "except if it's snowing, I might change my camouflage. This is strictly a matter of locating the birds."
"Fog can be a really good thing, but you have to be quiet and extra careful not to let ducks see you," says Jackie Van Cleave of Samburg, Tennessee. Van Cleave is a full-time guide on fabled Reelfoot Lake. "Ducks can see better in fog than most people think they can," he says. "They can see decoys from overhead, and they'll just pop into your spread if they don't see or hear something that spooks them."
Van Cleave calls sparingly in fog. "A lot of hunters hear ducks chattering up in the fog and then start calling to them. That will usually flare them," he explains. "Instead, I use a Mallard Machine (water-disturbance device), and I'll bump it once every 30 seconds to make a little splash. It's the splashing noise and decoy movement that bring ducks in. The only calling I might do is a little soft feed chatter every now and then."
Another important factor in hunting in fog is staying still and being completely covered in the blind. "Pull plenty of brush up around your shooting hole and be absolutely still," Van Cleave says. "Don't do any talking or moving around in the blind. On a foggy morning, any little noise will scare ducks. Just keep your eyes over the decoys and be ready. Ducks will get in on you in a hurry in the fog, and if you're not ready, they'll flare and disappear before you can shoot."
"A heavy snowstorm makes ducks go crazy," says Al Aufforth of North Dakota, a professor of wildlife biology at Minot State University–Bottineau and a lifelong duck hunter. "They come off the refuge en masse and feed all day. They work in big swirls, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, and when they come in, it looks like a wall of mallards driving through the snow.
"By the late season, most shallow potholes are frozen," Aufforth continues, "but the ducks will still be here if the reservoir on the national wildlife refuge is open. Typically, these birds fly out to feed in stubble fields [wheat or peas] in the morning and afternoon, but a sudden snowstorm will change this pattern. When the snow hits, ducks are frantic to gorge on grain, so they feed all day. Then, typically, they leave for parts south. So from a hunter's perspective, this opportunity is short, but also very sweet."
Aufforth decides where to hunt by watching ducks fly out of the refuge. "You have to be there when that first flight comes off," he says. "All ducks that follow will usually fly the same route, and the trick is to get beneath them. You don't have to be in the exact field where they're going, just under the flyway."
Instead of digging pits or setting out layout blinds, Aufforth and his hunting partners simply lie in the snow. "We wear white coveralls, gloves, ski masks, and watch caps," he says. "And we wear all the clothes we can get on underneath our coveralls. This style of hunting is cold. I've had my shotgun safety freeze up many times."
Aufforth uses a small spread—two dozen full-body field mallards and seven full-body Canada goose decoys. He sets these in a J formation with the mallards in the shank of the J, pointed upwind. He places the Canada geese in the turn of the J. He says the ducks usually want to land inside the cup of this design, so this is where he lays out. He simply reclines in the snow, feet pointed downwind, and he builds a small snow fort approximately two feet high around him. "This low wall of snow hides me from incoming birds," he explains.
Then he watches and listens for ducks flying close. He calls very little, since sound doesn't travel well in the snow and wind.
"If the snow is really coming down," Aufforth stresses, "you need to continuously sweep your decoys clean. You want them to be dark and to stand out against the white snow. And if the ducks change their flight lane, you have to be willing to change locations in a hurry. Ducks can't see very far in the snow, so you have to go to them instead of hoping they'll find you."
In more temperate regions, heavy winter rains can cause a sudden shift in ducks' feeding locations. For instance, Avery Outdoors pro staffer Stuart McCullough of Los Banos, California, says a sudden deluge can flood extensive new areas in the grasslands of the Central Valley. When this happens, ducks move immediately to this fresh water and new food source. Hunters who follow them can enjoy excellent shooting.
"When a hard rain comes, the rivers will rise quickly and flood new sloughs and pastureland," McCullough says. "If this happens late in the season, it invigorates our hunting. Ducks that have become patterned to sit on refuges and private clubs will scatter out into these newly flooded areas. They do this as soon as the rain stops or even when it's slowing down. Hunters who understand this and have the know-how and equipment to take advantage of the situation can have a great hunt."
McCullough says good scouting is necessary to locate areas where the birds are moving, and in many cases layout blinds are the key to success. "In this area, much of the flooding occurs in wide-open fields where hiding is difficult. But with the Finisher blinds, you can set up just about anywhere on dry ground. Just set them out at water's edge, add some natural cover, toss out your decoys, and you're ready to hunt.
"So this is a simple matter of scouting after a heavy rain, finding where the ducks are working, and then setting up quickly to take advantage of this new opportunity," McCullough says. "It's a run-and-gun style of hunting that's totally dependent on being in the right place at the right time."