Weather conditions have an enormous influence on duck hunting success. To make the most of their days afield, waterfowlers must understand weather patterns and how they affect bird behavior.
Foul weather, for instance, is usually considered a duck hunter's greatest blessing. But to be consistently successful, even under these favorable conditions, a hunter must know how storm fronts influence ducks. On the flip side of the coin, sunny "bluebird" days are considered a duck hunter's bane. Yet the hunter who knows how fair-weather conditions affect duck behavior will often bring home a limit.
Sunny, cloudy, windy, calm, freezing, warm–let's focus on conditions waterfowlers often encounter and some tips for hunting ducks successfully, no matter what the forecast.
A low-pressure system in the weather forecast indicates rain is on the way–bad news for most, but not for the duck hunter. Along with a stiffening wind, storm fronts increase cloud cover. Ducks stop feeding at night and move more early and late in the day. There's no glare off gun barrels and upturned faces, and no distinguishing shadows to reveal the silhouette of a waiting hunter. The hunting picture begins to improve.
As winds intensify, ducks move to protected areas–river backwaters, lake coves, green-timber openings, the lee side of islands. Rain and/or sleet intensifies their scramble for shelter, limiting and defining the places they are likely to be. More and more birds move into fewer and fewer areas. The savvy hunter is a step ahead of them, setting out decoys and preparing to shortstop their weather-driven migration.
Changing winds also work in the hunter's favor. In our part of the world, they usually begin in the south, then blow round the compass–southeast, east, northeast, north, then finally northwest–as the low is replaced by a high-pressure, fair-weather system. Sanctuaries at the onset of the storm lose their protection as it progresses. Ducks settle into one lee then are forced to find another. They fly throughout the day and lose much of their cussed wariness. Most fly low as they work the slower air near ground. In the right place at such a time, a hunter with a few decoys is sure to find a bit of duck-hunting heaven.
As the weather changes, the successful duck hunter remains mobile, adapting to changing winds and changing lees. A well-camouflaged duckboat is a special asset now, providing easy access to every inch of shoreline, transportation for the hunter and his equipment, and a ready-made blind that melts into the landscape. If water isn't too deep, chest waders serve the same purpose. Moving from place to place, you can hunker down in a wet marsh or stand by a cypress without getting wet. A waterproof parka and gloves complete your weather-proofing, keeping you warm and dry.
Clear, warm, windless days can make duck hunting tough. Ducks can now fly and raft, dabble or dive anywhere they please. Direct sunlight makes upturned faces glow with electric intensity. Even a perfectly camouflaged duck hunter is often revealed by the outline of shadows, and the slightest movement stands out like black on white. If the weather pattern holds for several days, birds quickly learn hunter patterns–where they like to hide, when they like to gun, and where the safe zones are.
In this situation, remember that ducks may come and go where they please, but they never do it at random. The flight lanes they establish, the fields and woods they feed in, the places they raft are purposely chosen, usually because they offer respite from hunter disturbance. By patterning the movements of birds in your area, you can overcome the disadvantages of blue-sky hunting.
The best way to do this is to simply go duck hunting. Set out a few decoys in a place you've chosen to the best of your hunting ability, then watch the comings and goings of birds throughout the day. Resolve to stay put, even if shooting isn't good. Note the time the ducks start flying and the routes they follow; the places where they fly high and fly low; the time they return; and the places they raft up. Once you've determined their flight, feeding and resting patterns, you can position yourself to intercept on future hunts.
Extreme cold is both a blessing and bane. When shallows ice over, ducks concentrate in remaining areas of open water. Caloric intake must increase to compensate for lower temperatures, so twice-daily feeding becomes the norm. At temperatures below 20 degrees, you'll start noticing afternoon feeding flights in addition to the usual predawn movements. Unfortunately, freezing weather also makes boat travel more difficult and tests one's ability to withstand winter's cold. Hunters must cope with the frigid temperatures in order to be successful.
Part of that coping is knowing where water will be open in freezing temperatures. This may be in the main body of a creek or river where currents prevent ice-up; in a sheltered backwater area protected by levees or high banks; or in shallow green-timber flats that receive some current from adjacent streams.
One area I often hunt is in the bend of a small bayou. When the water's up, it runs across the inside bend of timber. This creates a three-acre sanctuary of unfrozen water right in the middle of the frozen pin-oak bottoms. During winter's worst weather, it's wall-to-wall ducks.
Most avid hunters work unfrozen river channels during frigid weather. They boat the river until they scare up a flock of ducks, then they move in and set up where the ducks flushed. Often, decoys are set in strings at the edge of willows, high banks and other sheltered spots. The boat is hidden in cover with a camouflage net stretched over it. The hunters stand in waders next to trees. The ducks they flushed will soon return, and when they do, the fun begins.
Snowstorms & Fog
When visibility is limited by fog or heavy snow, callers have a field day. In this situation, it pays to keep your call sounding whether you see ducks or not. Poor visibility may keep most ducks grounded, but those that are caught en route automatically set their flaps and start listening for friendly calls. Few duck hunting moments are as exciting as hearing unseen mallards answering a call in fog.
Cold alone won't drive ducks from an area where food is plentiful, but if snow gets several inches deep or becomes glazed with ice, ducks must move elsewhere to find their groceries.
Here again, it pays to know where ducks are likely to go when conditions get bad. If woods remain open and acorns are plentiful, ducks accustomed to feeding in fields may gather in flooded timber when snow piles up. Cornfields are so attractive, they may continue drawing dense concentrations of birds even when blanketed with snow. Hunting diving ducks like scaup and buffleheads often remains productive even though mallards and other dabblers have been forced to move out.
The smart waterfowler matches hunting tactics to the weather throughout the season. By applying scouting techniques and a little reasoning about duck behavior, he develops an instinct for determining where and how to hunt no matter what's going on outside. Blue skies or gray, the odds are in his favor.