Cold, Hard Facts

Five ways to bag birds when the mercury dips
By John Pollman

The month of December can offer spectacular waterfowling. The weather conditions, sometimes extreme, play a much greater role in waterfowl activity this time of year, and hunters who understand these behavioral impacts have greater chances for success. 

Here are five facts on late-season waterfowl that can help keep the hunting hot when the weather gets cold.


Watch the Weather

Large-bodied waterfowl like mallards and Canada geese are built to withstand colder temperatures and snow, allowing them to stay north longer than smaller ducks and geese.

But eventually, says DU Chief Scientist Dale Humburg, even the hardiest of waterfowl are going to respond to the lack of available food and water. Humburg says a hunter's best bet is to just keep track of weather conditions.

"There's no substitute for a little homework and scouting, and in this day and age with Internet weather reports, there's no reason to be caught by surprise by changing weather," Humburg says.

He explains that hunters should be watching for sharp dips in temperature, periods of high wind and patterns of high and low pressure in portions of the flyway that feed birds into your hunting area.

Once they've arrived, Humburg says that migrating waterfowl will immediately seek out food sources to replenish fat supplies burnt up while moving south, meaning that feeding areas should become a prime focus for hunters.

Have Open Water, Ducks Will Follow

It is no secret that cold temperature will cause waterfowl to congregate in the last remaining stretches of open water, often in staggering numbers. The problem, says Avery Pro-Staff Member Troy Bailey, is that hunters tend to congregate there too.

In order to get away from the crowd, Bailey suggests scouting areas that may have been off everyone's radar for some time.
 
"Super-cold temps can make for great hunting in some areas that haven't seen a duck or goose on it in months," says Bailey, who splits his time between hunting the waters of the North Platte River and the grain fields of Nebraska. "Check out those warm-water sloughs and sections of rivers that normally won't freeze unless things get really cold for a number of days."

No open water around? No problem, Baily says, who suggests creating open water yourself.

"A small pond with good surrounding cover and an anti-ice machine to keep the water open can instantly become a hot bed when everything else is frozen," he says.

Call An Audible

Freezing temperatures, snow and ice aren't the only challenges a duck hunter will face when the weather turns cold. Late-season greenheads can be a challenge to call, which is why veteran guide and world-champion duck caller Jim Ronquest suggests mixing things up.

"Step up your feed- or contentment-type call and be aggressive with it on the corners to try and turn birds," says Ronquest. "In the late season, I've seen that work better at turning back birds than if I'd hit them with a snappy five-note lick."

There's one thing, that Ronquest says a hunter can never change though: watching to see what the ducks want to hear.

"Ducks will tell you with their body language if they want a little or a lot of calling," says Ronquest. "Most days it will be a mixture of everything, but some days you will find that the best call of all is to put the call away in your pocket and pull the jerk-string."

Patience Pays Off

Late-season waterfowl hunting for ducks and Canada geese in central New York can be downright fantastic, says Mike Bard, a member of the Avery Pro-Staff.

The challenge for many hunters, Bard says, is that the birds using the last stretches of open water found among the Finger Lakes along Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River and are in no rush to leave for food.
 
"Once the temps get cold, the birds are smart enough to wait until the sun gets up and loosens up the frozen ground," says Bard. "This makes it easier for them to find and get at the waist grains left behind. We just expect to have to wait, possibly into the afternoon, before the birds show up to feed."

Corn, in particular, is the food of choice for late season mallards and honkers in his area, says Bard, and scouting trips usually take him to those fields that have little or no snow cover to impede a hungry duck or goose.

Late-season birds are also prone to spending longer periods of time in the field, he says, and he'll often see them packed tightly together and even on the ground sleeping or resting.

"At this point, I like to mix shell decoys into the spread to mimic what I'm seeing the real birds do on the ground," says Bard. 

Manage Your Roost

When cold and snow have pushed birds out of the northern plains, the number of ducks and geese congregating in central Missouri can be staggering.

When the conditions are right, tens of thousands of those birds wind up at Habitat Flats, and guide and part-owner Tony Vandemore says that taking care of the birds that roost on the property is a top priority.

"Managing the roost during the last weeks of a season will make or break our hunting," says Vandemore. "If we mess up the roost at that point, we know we'll likely lose those birds for the rest of the season. But if we play our cards right, we know we'll have hunts that are truly world class."

Vandemore says, when the temperature is cold, ducks will stay on the roost longer in the morning and return earlier in the afternoon from feeding in order to keep the water open. Allowing this pattern to stay free from hunting pressure is key, he says.

The wind can also be friend and foe when trying to manage birds roosting on the property.

If you hunt too close on the upwind side of a roost, you may as well kiss those birds goodbye, he says.

But if you're able to hunt downwind from the roost, Vandemore says, you can have a banner hunt without the bulk of the birds knowing you were even there.