If you develop a mind like a duck, you can learn to shift your hunting tactics to match the behavior of the ducks. The ducks need different things as the season progresses. With a little research and understanding, you can learn to think like a duck and transition your tactics as the behavior of the ducks changes.
Ducks and geese are highly complex and fascinating members of the avian world. While other birds are more cautious or live in harsher environments, they are not as unpredictable or as transient as ducks and geese.
Just when you think waterfowl are in a reliable activity pattern, hunting pressure changes everything. At other times, large numbers of ducks and geese unexpectedly disappear overnight because of heavy rains or strong cold fronts. In reality, the ducks and geese have simply changed patterns and moved to another location. Solving the mysteries of waterfowl behavior is a never-ending journey for waterfowl hunters, but that is part of the allure and challenge of this sport.
As hunters, we are interested in the behavioral changes that occur during the fall and winter months of waterfowl season. Behavioral changes, such as diet, social interaction, and preferred locations, influence waterfowl patterns. These changes are among the most important for hunters to understand. Unraveling these biological events help determine your hunting strategy.
Preparing For Southern Migration
Many waterfowl begin leaving their breeding grounds to gather on larger bodies of water by late August and early September. During this transition period, individual species of waterfowl begin congregating with their own species in preparation for the southern migration. Early Fall waterfowl staging areas can offer some of the best hunting of the season.
The birds will stage in an area with the highest concentration of preferred food. Waterfowl need to consume a lot of food before beginning their major migration. Pintails and mallards will focus on cultivated land in search of high-energy crops. Teal, widgeon, and other species will focus on wetlands with high concentrations of invertebrates, seeds, and submerged aquatic plants. The one essential requirement for all migrating waterfowl is security from wetland habitat.
Ducks and geese tend to use certain wetlands for foraging and certain wetlands for roosting. I have watched ducks on a wetland from sunrise until sunset. Then every duck left the wetland and flew about a mile to roost on another wetland. The following morning at sunrise the same ducks were spiraling into the same wetland again.
The ducks were so determined to use the wetland, you could barely retrieve your downed birds before the next group were trying to land. The advantage of hunting this type of area is the ducks will use it throughout the day, and you are not limited to early morning hunting. New waterfowl will use these areas as each migration happens. So keep an eye out for new birds before and after cold fronts.
Migration & Cold Fronts
Every cold front offers new birds and fantastic shooting.
Typically, the first major Arctic blasts and snowstorms of mid-October kick-start the annual migration. Waterfowl that feed on invertebrates, seeds, and aquatic vegetation are the first to migrate. This group can lose its food supply quickly this time of year. This is the prime time for hunters in the northern and middle states.
Every cold front offers new birds and fantastic shooting. Waterfowl that feed on grains, crustaceans, or mollusks are not as easily affected by the cold blasts. These birds generally wait until deep snow consumes the fields or big waters begin to freeze before they migrate.
Be Ready To Take Action
Hunters positioned along the migration routes understand that timing is everything. To maximize your hunting success throughout the middle states, you have to be ready to take off and hunt at any moment when the weather is perfect. While waterfowl will begin filtering in ahead of a cold front, more birds arrive after the front has blown through. The height of the migration may occur with the cold front, the prime hunting usually occurs on the clear, cold days after the front has passed.
Tail winds offer advantages for ducks and geese. Birds can ride them until the winds change. Tail winds allow waterfowl to migrate without using as much energy. North wind days will bring a lot of waterfowl, but the best hunting follows a front. The wind begins to change, and migrating geese and ducks see this change as a time to stop.
You can take advantage of this weather opportunity by using oversized decoys to attract the migrating waterfowl. The new birds are drawn to other flocks. Your decoy spread will signify food and safety, and the arriving birds will join your group. The new waterfowl are very receptive to calling as well. This fact has established the rich duck calling traditions in these duck hunting areas.
By mid-December, most of the waterfowl population have arrived at their wintering grounds throughout the southern U.S. and Mexico. This brings the basic needs of food, safety, and finding a mate. This courtship activity will increase as winter progresses, and the wintering fowl will gravitate to areas with the abundant food needed for competing mates.
This food supply is dictated by the amount of rainfall. In winter, heavy rainfall can flood agricultural fields and produce new waterfowl habitat. Dabbling ducks will hoard into the new habitat and take advantage of the new food sources.
Mate Selection Alters Covering
There are other factors that dictate habitat selection besides food sources. Mate selection sends waterfowl into heavy cover, such as flooded timber, emergent vegetation, and buckbrush, where they can separate into small courtship groups. Wetlands offering heavy cover also provides good thermal protection for waterfowl. This protection also allows the birds to conserve energy.
Few Winter Ground Predators
As far as wintering ground predators, ducks and geese have very few. On these grounds, hunting is the number one cause of waterfowl death. As a result, hunting makes a big impact on waterfowl habitat choice. Birds will change their roosting and feeding habits because of hunting pressure. Watch the birds when the season closes between splits.
Change Your Hunting Pressure
If you continually hunt the same area day after day, you can actually have less success.
Ducks and geese will use every available food resource. As soon as the season reopens, the waterfowl will quickly change back to their previous roosting and feeding habits. To help overcome this behavioral change, hunters have to manage their hunting pressure wisely. If you continually hunt the same area day after day, you can actually have less success.
This is a hard concept for hunters to grasp, but hunting fewer days in the same location can increase your success. In this era, hunting has increased its impact on waterfowl habitat. We see waterfowl using the same locations only one to two times a week. Add to that the desire to seek out seclusion for pair bonding activities, hunting pressure intensifies the tendency for seclusion.
More and more waterfowl are using remote beaver ponds and swamps with almost no access. It pays to put in the time and effort to find these areas. The ducks and geese will find and use them. If you find them, you are almost guaranteed success.
Changing Response To Decoys
As the season progresses, waterfowl will respond to decoys and calling differently. The behavior of the ducks and geese will transition from mate selection to pair-bonding. As a result, the birds will congregate differently. From large rafts of waterfowl, they will shift to small pair groups.
Your decoy spread needs to reflect this change. Instead of dozens of decoys in your spread, try using less than a dozen decoys. Set them in pairs or as single drakes vying for mates. The courtship rituals create a lot of movement and commotion. In this late season, decoy motion is critical, especially in areas of thick cover or are sheltered from the wind.
As many waterfowl become shy to spinning wing decoys, a jerk string and kicking the water is more effective. By late season, hunting pressure makes waterfowl call shy. The birds will respond better to minimal calling, such as feeding chatter and soft quacks. With the remaining single drakes, a lonesome hen call can be the ticket to success. On clear, calm days using decoy motion without calling can put the birds in your blocks.
As hunting pressure changes and waterfowl behavior adapts, every hunter must make the effort to learn everything they can about ducks and geese. This knowledge will make you a better and more successful hunter.
It will also impart a greater appreciation of the way these birds interact with their surroundings. Waterfowl are amazing creatures and can provide a lifetime of challenges and rewards. Think like waterfowl and great things will happen!
Lover of hiking, nature, camping, bird calls, and more. I run ATO and do my best to provide interesting information for my readers to help make their outdoor adventures more fun.