By Wade Bourne
Change is a fact of life for waterfowlers. Weather patterns are continually changing. New agricultural practices are altering the landscape and the food supply for migrating ducks and geese. And increased hunting pressure is providing waterfowl with an accelerated education in hunter avoidance.
At the same time, ducks and geese appear to be adapting to meet these new conditions. This has left many waterfowlers scratching their heads. Old hunting spots and tactics often don't work like they used to. Birds can be tougher to come by. If this is a new norm, how should hunters respond?
When ducks and geese quit playing by the rules, it may be time for waterfowlers to rewrite the playbook. Four expert hunters did just that last season and enjoyed high-quality waterfowling in the face of sometimes difficult odds.
Following is advice from four expert hunters on how to adapt your hunting tactics to bag more birds this fall.
Game Changer #1
Scale Back and Simplify to Increase Your Success
The winter of 2015-2016 was one of the warmest on record on the northern plains. Ben Cade, an assistant pro-staff manager for Avery Outdoors and Banded, experienced the unseasonably warm weather firsthand while hunting near his home in Buffalo, Minnesota. "Normally guys around here are ice-fishing by Thanksgiving, but last year we still had open water at the end of December, when typically there is enough ice to drive a truck on," he says. "It was unusually warm, and this affected the birds' daily flight patterns."
Because of the mild temperatures, ducks had less need for high-energy foods, so they spent far less time feeding in fields. "On a lot of days the birds would stay on their resting areas almost until dark, then they'd fly out to feed after shooting time. Because of this, standard field-hunting methods weren't very productive," Cade says.
He and his partners decided to try something different. "We started targeting small waters such as potholes, bends in creeks and rivers, and other sheltered spots," Cade explains. "We'd drive around and scout, hoping to see ducks dropping into a water hole. Then we'd set up there and wait for the next flock to arrive."
Although the hunters often weren't on the proverbial X, there were usually a few ducks trading back and forth between these secluded resting areas. "We'd set out decoys, build a temporary blind, and settle in to see what would show up. By focusing on the little stuff, we had more success than the guys who were still chasing the big field hunts," Cade says.
Their strategy was straight- forward: scale back and simplify. By doing so, Cade and his hunting buddies were out shooting ducks instead of waiting in a field for that big feeding flight that might never show up.
Cade makes a final point that all duck hunters should take to heart. "You've got to hunt on the birds' schedule, not on your own," he says. "You've got to adapt to what the birds are doing instead of trying to convince them to do something they don't want to do. In our part of the country, a lot of hunters are still focusing on the big fields. They'd be better off trying something different. In our case, this was moving to water and hunting throughout the day, a strategy that paid off in a lot of good shooting."
Game Changer #2
Stay Mobile and Go Where the Birds Are
Ducks were late arriving in the lower Mississippi River valley last season, and when the birds finally did show up, they found habitat conditions that differed from the norm. The big river was flooding thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods and open fields in west Tennessee. Instead of massing on area refuges and managed fields, these birds flocked to this "new water" in mind-boggling numbers. Hunters who stuck to their traditional spots scanned empty skies forlornly, while those who moved to the backwater enjoyed spectacular shooting.
Mike Terry of Obion, Tennessee, was among this latter group. Terry typically hunts over a flooded cornfield north of Reelfoot Lake. But when the Mississippi jumped its banks, the ducks began going elsewhere. To stay in the game, he had to go out and find them.
"My partners and I rigged a boat with a portable blind and a mud motor and went freelancing," Terry explains. "We found a big concentration of ducks on state land and hunted them for over a week. During the first few days we set up in some switch willows, then we moved each day afterward as the floodwaters started dropping and the ducks followed the falling water."
Being able to move with the ducks was the key to the entire operation, says Terry, who hunted with small parties of three to five waterfowlers. The group used two boats for safety's sake and set out four dozen magnum mallard decoys to capture the attention of passing ducks. "We shot limits most mornings," Terry says. "And we worked a lot of big flocks of 50 or more birds, including mallards, green-winged teal, and several other species. Having the boat blind gave us the ability to shift to the backwater when the river got out. Doing so provided us with some of our best hunting of the season."
According to Terry, one key to success was paying special attention to hiding the boat blind. "Ducks are a lot warier than they used to be, and you have to put in extra effort to keep them from seeing you," he explains. "For example, each morning we'd set up in cover that provided overhead shadows. Then we'd check the wind and position the boat so the ducks wouldn't be looking straight at us when they came in. We'd also cut natural brush or grass to add to the boat blind. And finally, we'd move our second boat back away from our spread before we started hunting."
Game Changer #3
Look for Open Water During Freeze-Up
Josh Noble, who is a territory manager for Avery Outdoors, grew up in Layton, Utah, and has hunted the marshes of the Great Salt Lake for many seasons. He says the state-owned wildlife management areas along the eastern shore, where freshwater streams flow into the lake, can be very productive. Large numbers of puddle ducks concentrate on these WMAs in the early season, providing good hunting opportunities for freelancers.
But these marshes typically freeze around mid-November. And when this happens, the ducks move out onto the Great Salt Lake proper, where the water is still open. According to Noble, there's a brackish zone where fresh water close to shore mixes with salt water in the main lake. "Vegetation is able to grow in this brackish zone, and during a freeze, ducks will rest out on the lake and then fly to the brackish water to feed," he says.
When the freshwater marshes lock up, Noble and his buddies hunt the brackish areas. Patches of bulrushes provide cover for the hunters to hide in. And if ducks are feeding in places where there's no cover, the group hauls out coffin blinds to hunt these open-water spots.
"Here's the point," Noble says. "Hunters have to adapt to the conditions they're facing, and they have to scout continually. When the ice thaws out around the banks, the ducks will move right back to the fresh water to feed, and we follow them. So we're moving out-and back in-based on ice conditions and where the ducks are feeding."
Noble says he's also learned not to give up too quickly on really cold days. "Ducks will sit tight until the temperature climbs a few degrees and the birds begin to warm up, then they'll start feeding," he adds. "I've had several good hunts when there was nothing moving early, but then the ducks started flying between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m."
Game Changer #4
Try a Subtle Approach for Warm-Weather Canadas
Along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, the past two Canada goose seasons have been "fairly difficult" for hunters, according to hunting guide and game call maker Trevor Shannahan of Millington, Maryland. "We've had smaller migrations because of the warmer weather. More geese are wintering farther north," he says.
"The geese that do come down are getting harder to hunt," Shannahan adds. "A lot of days they're flying out to feed only once, and they're tougher to work than in years past. We've had to change hunting times and tactics to produce for our clients. We've had to shift to subtler hunting approaches to avoid putting too much pressure on the geese that are here."
Shannahan and his hunting partners pay close attention to how the weather affects the birds' feeding patterns. "When the weather is mild, Canadas typically fly out to feed only in late afternoon," he says. "And when the weather is brutally cold, they fly to feed during the warmest part of midday. After that they return to their rest areas on the bay. The only times the geese come out to feed twice a day are when the temperature is in that midrange between warm and really cold, or when it's raining."
The mild weather has caused Shannahan to shift to hunting honkers in the afternoon. "That's a big change for us. We used to hunt mostly in the mornings, but now the morning flight is so inconsistent. This past season we had a lot better success hunting the last two to three hours of the day," he says.
Shannahan hunts from pits or portable blinds in harvested cornfields and winter wheat. For realism, he sets three to four dozen stuffer decoys, spreading them out loosely in the field. "During the past couple of seasons we've had better success finishing geese when we left plenty of space between our decoys," he explains. "Geese like to hit the ground and spread out, especially when landing in a winter wheat field. This past year we spaced our decoys out a lot more, and the ploy has paid off."
Another area in which Shannahan has had to change things up is calling. These days he calls geese a lot less than in seasons past. "I'd rather use a flag than a call," he says. "A lot of days, especially when it's windy, I'll leave the call in my pocket and let the geese come in on their own."
Overall, Shannahan and his crew have learned to be more flexible in how they hunt. "That includes leaving the field as quickly as we can," he says. "We're at the very end of the flyway, so we try to minimize the pressure on the geese. Our limit is two Canadas per hunter, and when we get the limit, or get close to it, we don't hang around in the field. Instead, we pick up our gear and decoys and leave. We try to educate as few birds as possible."