— By John Pollmann
From ice and cold to wind and rain, nothing influences a hunt for ducks and geese in the Dakotas like the weather. And while Mother Nature may be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the weather forecast for the day, a waterfowl hunter doesn’t have to just be along for the ride. The following tips will help you handle the worse that Mother Nature throws your way.
Snow and Cold
Waterfowl hunters like to smile when the snow begins to fly in the skies above North Dakota and South Dakota, as the same cold front that moves wind and snow through the area usually brings with it a trickle of fresh ducks and geese.
In addition to these new birds migrating into the area, this kind of change in the weather is often enough to change the behavior of ducks and geese that have been hanging around for a while. The cold temperatures usually force birds into a more predictable pattern of feeding and roosting, and the addition of snow on the landscape helps improve the visibility of the decoys.
Outside of managing the unique challenges to gear and comfortability brought about by colder temperatures, concealment remains a top priority for hunters in the snow. Snow covers — or snow spray, depending on how much snow is on the ground — are a must for layout blinds and dog blinds. Even wearing a white stocking hat instead of a dark-colored cap can make the difference.
Add it all together, and the period of time after a snowfall can provide some of the best hunts of the season.
Whether it’s coming down as a light drizzle or a heavy downpour, rain can make for less-than-ideal conditions for a day in the decoys, and waterfowl tend to act differently in these conditions, too.
Rain and wind usually are enough to get birds up and off big waters and looking for sheltered bays or fields to eat. If the rain really begins to fall, however, the birds may sit tight and wait for a break in the clouds before moving. In both situations, hunters will want to be prepared to handle the wet conditions.
The waterfowl hunting clothing market is full of dependable, waterproof gear, but sometimes a pair of waders is the best bet for hunters in a field or permanent blind to help ward off mud and moisture. If hunting from a layout blind, it helps to use one with a waterproof bottom, too.
Dogs need the same kind of protection from the elements. A dog blind or dog stand can go a long way to keeping a retriever out of the mud and water, and a neoprene vest is a must.
Whether targeting birds over water or in the field, the wind is an essential component of a waterfowl hunt and is arguably the most important factor in decoying birds directly into the blocks — all of which makes hunts with little or variable winds so difficult.
Hunters have a couple of options when the wind lays low. The first is to position blinds and decoys in a way that puts the sun at your back and to use motion — flags, jerk-string, spinning-wing decoy — in a way to focus the attention and movement of birds as they decoy, rather than allowing them to aimlessly work the decoy spread.
Another option is to simply “press pause” on a hunt, particularly if it is a field or slough holding a lot of birds. Little to now wind will likely cause of a lot of frustration, so sometimes it’s best to leave your honey hole alone and hope the wind picks up the next day.
High winds can present a challenge, too. Birds tend to hang up outside of shotgun range where they can get a really good look at a decoy spread and blinds, making concealment that much more important. When birds do finish, a strong wind helps them move out quickly after the first shot, so a larger shot size becomes a smart option for hunters.
A big wind can also wreak havoc on a decoy spread by blowing decoys all over a field. Instead of chasing full-bodies across the stubble, try using stakes instead of ring bases for your decoys, and don’t forget a cordless drill to help punch holes if the ground is hard or frozen.
Stale Weather Pattern
At some point in every waterfowl season hunters find themselves in a pattern of warm, balmy weather, when the trickle of birds from the north slows down while local ducks and geese change their behavior in response to weeks of hunting pressure.
When waterfowl hunting is stuck in a rut, consider mixing up your approach to a morning on the marsh or in the field by using a smaller decoy spread (anywhere from two to six decoys) and downsizing the amount of calling, as well, just to be different.
Scouting becomes even more important at this point of a season, too, as birds will often start to use different areas when the weather turns off or heavy hunting pressure turns on. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice some time during a morning hunt to hop in the boat or truck and look around to see what the birds are doing. The more time spent scouting, the better your chances are of putting together a winning game plan. And when conditions are tough, there is nothing sweeter than when a good hunt comes together.
About the Author: Waterfowl columnist John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.