With regular waterfowl hunting seasons well underway in the northern states and poised to kick off in the south, at least two things are clear: There are plenty of ducks, and weird weather is already affecting local and continental waterfowl migrations.
Smile, duck hunters. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, breeding duck numbers reached an all-time high this year on the heels of several consecutive years of exceptionally wet weather in the Prairie Pothole Region. Nearly 50 million birds were estimated in the traditional survey area this past spring, representing a slight increase from last year's record total and the largest since the standardized surveys began in 1955.
An abundance of birds is certainly good news for duck hunters, but as always, weather will play the role of the great equalizer in this year’s ongoing waterfowl equation, which includes the El Niño factor – a variable that always leaves experts scratching their heads.
Fueled by warmer than normal waters in the eastern Pacific, this year's El Niño is forecast to become one of the strongest on record, and is expected to influence weather and climate patterns across North America this winter by impacting the position of the Pacific jet stream.
Overall, weather patterns are expected to be less stable than normal, which has implications for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters alike. Already, would-be-typical fall waterfowl migrations have been short-circuited by a prolonged period of near-record warm temperatures across the Canadian prairies and Midwest throughout much of late October and early November. As the 2015-2016 waterfowl hunting season progresses – presumably with continuing strange weather – hunters need to observe and adapt to changing conditions.
Birds get “stale” when migrations are stalled by warm weather. There may be plenty of ducks and geese around, but they can quickly fall into highly cautious patterns – often by communing with those cursed local birds that have yet to leave and know where they’re safe and where they aren’t. Try two primary tactics when birds grow stale.
Add realism to a conservative decoy spread. While large decoy spreads can be highly effective during periods of peak migration, smaller, more detail-oriented spreads can work better when ducks are held up by mild weather. Try hunting with just six to 12 realistic, high-quality decoys, the bigger the better in size. Throw in a black duck or two. Black ducks are known as one of the most cautious waterfowl species, which can give mallards and other ducks increased confidence to commit to your spread.
Always observe ducks and geese carefully and let their habits and body language tell you what they like or don’t like while calling. My rule of thumb is on calm days, call quietly if at all. On windy days, blow like you are hailing ducks in the next county.
Often overlooked, rivers, streams and agricultural ditches are always great late season options, especially when nearby lakes start to freeze up. Most of these will be a one shot deal. Find them, hunt them and the spot is burned. Don’t bother going back tomorrow.
Pay strict attention to weather patterns that might result in birds being pushed in or out of your region. While most waterfowlers are aware of the conditions that push new migrants down from the north, many overlook the short-term reverse migrations that take place during warm fronts and thaws, which get birds moving in different patterns search of new and changing feeding opportunities.
Every waterfowl hunter dreams about being in the right place during “ the big push,” that special day when a veritable aerial convoy of southbound waterfowl continually dumps into the decoys. But the majority of our hunts simply don’t go that way, especially when extended periods of mild weather cause the migration to stall and ducks to grow stale and cautious. It looks like many areas of the country may experience their share of these less-than-ideal conditions throughout the rest of this waterfowl season.
But it sure beats an early freeze hurrying the ducks and geese down their migratory routes.