“Better bring some extra shells,” I told my buddy Don Wright as we packed our blind bags for the morning’s duck hunt. “I think we might need them.”
“You sound pretty confident,” he replied. “You think we’ll have new birds today?”
“I do,” I responded. And I was confident.
I’d seen this scenario too many times. It was mid-December, the heart of the migration. A strong cold front was blowing through western Kentucky from the northwest. A steady rain had begun the afternoon before and continued most of the night. I knew the local creek wouldn’t be able to handle this sudden deluge, and overflow water would be spreading out in bordering fields and bottomland woods. And when the bottoms flood, the ducks come — always have, always will.
They didn’t disappoint us that morning. We hunted from my Go-Devil boat-blind rig. We set up in a willow-choked ditch that drained a harvested cornfield. We tossed three dozen decoys out into the shallow open water, raised our blind and loaded our shotguns. Daylight was forcing its way through the soup, and soon it would be showtime.
The morning flight was spectacular. Wave after wave of mallards flew up the bottoms, excited by the prospects of new water and fresh food. When we’d call, they’d lock up and start working. It didn’t take us long to bag eight fat greenheads and four “odd” ducks. The only mistake of the morning was mine. Turned out, we didn’t need any extra shells after all. The ducks worked close, and our shots were easy.
If there’s one key to great duck hunting, it’s to “be where the birds want to be.” And truly, they want to be in a lot of different places under different circumstances. As weather, water and food conditions vary, ducks change locations frequently. Hunters who keep up with the birds’ movements and adjust tactics accordingly can enjoy consistent gunning right through the season.
Following are five scenarios that will cause ducks to change addresses, frequently overnight. Smart hunters learn how ducks will react in each case. Then they scout to learn their new locations and figure out how best to take advantage of their vulnerabilities.
Heavy, Fresh Rain
This one is easy. When heavy rain falls, new areas flood, and fresh food sources become available. Ducks know this instinctively, and they will fly immediately and sometimes a long way to explore recently inundated areas. They will seek out flooded corn or soybean fields; weed fields or pastures; hardwood bottoms; brushy thickets; etc. Puddle ducks like to hit “edge water” (only a few inches deep) that has spread out over previously dry ground. Also, as a headwater eases downstream in a floodplain drainage, ducks will move with the crest, where the newest, freshest food is available. Hunters who keep moving to follow this crest will stay in the biggest concentration of birds.
An extended freeze locks up shallow water and forces ducks to shift to big lakes and rivers where open water is still available. This is the time to hunt islands, sloughs, sandbars and creek mouths on or adjacent to these big waters. During a prolonged freeze, ducks frequently feed in dry fields in the morning, then return to rest in these still-open areas during midday. Look for places protected from strong winds and where current is slack.
Other options for hunting during an extended freeze are spring-fed creeks or “spring holes.” Often hundreds of ducks will pack into a small opening where warm ground water is bubbling up to the surface and keeping a hole thawed out.
Just as ducks head to open water when a freeze hits, they will move right back to shallow feeding areas when the ice goes away. Sometimes this will happen very quickly after the ice melts. As with a fresh rain, ducks sense when ice is leaving and when former food sources are becoming available again. They respond predictably and usually in short order.
My partners and I hunt in a flooded rice field in southeast Missouri. Ice forms quickly over the 6-inch water in our field when the temperature dips below freezing. However, the ice also melts in a hurry when the temperature rises back above 32 degrees, especially if there’s a good breeze.
We’ve learned that when the ice starts leaving, the ducks begin stirring. We’ve had excellent midday and afternoon shooting in this situation. We watch the weather forecast carefully. If it looks like a thaw is coming, we might delay going hunting the next day until mid-morning. Then we will break ice out of our spread to speed thawing and get ready for the ducks to show up, which they usually do.
Bright Night Sky
A bright moon and a clear night sky can make things tough for duck hunters. Under these conditions, many ducks will feed at night and rest during the day. This is why, especially when planning a trip, hunters should schedule during the dark or quarter-moon periods.
This doesn’t mean a full moon period is hopeless. If the sky is overcast at night, ducks will fly and feed the next day. Or, if the night sky has been bright, be in the blind or pit ready to shoot at the first minute of shooting time. Often the first half-hour of the day will provide the best action on ducks heading from feeding areas to resting areas.
Southern Warm Front
Everybody knows a northern cold front brings new ducks. But many hunters fail to realize that a southern warm front also can spur a migration — from the opposite direction! This is especially true during the latter half of the season, after ducks have been on the wintering grounds for a while. Now their thoughts are geared toward the spring (northbound) migration. When a warm front blows south to north, huge numbers of ducks can hitch a ride on the winds back up the flyway.
Again, hunters in southern climes should watch the weather and the sky. A couple of days of warm southerly winds might be all that’s needed to turn a stale hunting period into one that’s red hot with ducks moving back up the flyway.
Here’s the bottom line: duck hunting is a game of constant adjustments. Ducks change locations frequently, and to be successful, hunters must be willing to move when they do and fine-tune their tactics accordingly.
And the good news is that ducks’ movements are predictable and easy to anticipate. Hunters who know where to be and what to do, when, can enjoy consistent gunning throughout the season. In this game, good luck is welcome, but a good game plan and execution are more important when it comes to adding birds to the strap.