November 02, 2023
Duck hunting brings a wide array of weather that we are forced to overcome and use to our advantage. From the early season stale, warm and mosquito-ridden air, to the biting cold and ice-covered late season; the weather that waterfowlers deal with isn’t for the faint of heart. Luckily, weather is the quintessential factor in killing migratory birds. Without dropping temperatures in the lands to the north, hunting can be dismal. The most basic knowledge of ducks and geese is that they migrate south to escape harsh winter conditions and find better nesting grounds. The most elementary knowledge of ducks and geese also is the most important when we step back to look at it; without migrating birds, there are no birds to hunt. (We can chalk up the argument of “resident populations” to semantics)
Weather plays such a crucial role in the success of waterfowl harvest. Hunters have argued for ages over “What is the best weather condition to hunt ducks in?” While the fair-weather hunter would argue exactly that – fair weather – we might not want to look to the “yellow-bellied” for their opinions. Instead, we can look at experiences gone by, and find some good summations to which weather really provides the best duck hunting.
CALM, WARM DAYS
Please don’t misconstrue my use of the word “warm”. I understand that, for most people, duck and goose hunting begins in late September and early October. Warm days usually mean highs in the 60’s and lows in the 40’s. It’s not sunny and 75, but for waterfowlers, anything near 60 degrees is downright balmy. However, this isn’t just limited to the early season. I’ve been on many a hunt in November and December where I sat in a dry field waiting on geese where I had to strip off layers because the temperature was rising above what I had anticipated. These days have proven time and time again that any success is predicated very (and I do mean very) strongly on your location. If you’re not right where the birds want to be on those calm and warm days, you might be spinning your wheels.
I can recall such a hunt on the Snake River in Idaho. The forecast called for above-normal temperatures for our late October hunt, and little to no wind. A very calm and still day. It would have been ideal if we were throwing streamers with a fly rod, but it proved to be a long and frustrating day for hunting. We bagged a few birds who seemed to be lazily passing by the decoys and happened to swing in for a look, but it was clear that the ducks had no intention of leaving their current contented areas. Meanwhile, the geese flew high in the air and didn’t bother coming down at all. There wasn’t any need. The skies were clear and there wasn’t any wind to force them back down.
There is one exception to my lackluster opinion of hunting on those calmer days— a storm front pushing into the north of you. If you have the chance to hunt “the warm before the storm” you can have some fantastic days afield. You can watch as migrating birds enter the valley in the stratosphere, then circle down from the heavens into your decoys. You just need to watch the weather in your hunting area close, and the weather in the northern states even closer. If you’re experiencing some warmer weather, but the states to the north are getting blasted with cold fronts, you would be wise to find yourself in a decoy spread. The birds are coming your way.
COLD, WINDY DAYS
On the flip side of the coin from those warmer and calm days, are the days where the cold air bites at your face and any other exposed skin, while the wind gnaws away at whatever layers you’ve put on to try to keep warm. Those extra cold days tend to keep the “average waterfowler” in bed. Those stretches of the season when the temperatures plummet into the teens, or even lower, and the birds have been moving in and out of certain areas for weeks. While some hunters say that the cold weather just pushes the birds out, many other hunters beg to differ. If you’re hunting in the first few days of a recent cold snap, the hunting always seems to be at its best.
With cold temperatures comes a bird's need to actively seek more and more food to keep the fat reserves stocked up, as well as replenish the energy needed to keep moving south. While ducks and geese are both well equipped for the cold weather with multiple layers of down feathers, that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the need to get up and move when the weather is cold. Those bone-chilling days often provide some of the best gunning. Especially when the ducks are beginning to move into a new area. Don’t let the word “migration” trick you into thinking it’s only some long journey over the span of states at a time. A duck or goose can migrate, or reverse migrate depending on weather, only a few counties away. When the cold weather hits, some ducks will start moving only a few miles south to seek refuge before they truly head for the skies. When this happens, and the birds are moving, it becomes a waterfowler’s delight as the birds fly into the decoys right and left seeking a place to rest or temporarily stage before they begin their next big flight.
With all that said, it isn’t always fantastic shooting when the temperature is frigid. There are plenty of times when you can sit in a freezing cold duck blind only to ask yourself if you’ve gotten frostbite on your toes and why in the world you started duck hunting anyways. For the shooting to be good on those cold days, it seems like there needs to be one major factor — wind. The wind plays a very large role in making those cold days successful. To give you an idea, I’ll give two different examples only 24 hours apart.
I was hunting the Front Range of Colorado in mid-December. The temperature had sunk down to near zero degrees, and the birds were everywhere in the valley. It was me and a few good friends, hunting a corn-stubble field. We sat in our ground blinds that first morning freezing cold and waited for the ducks to arrive. The wind was non-existent, and by noon we were back in the pick-ups trying to warm up as we headed back to the motel. The next day we tried again. The wind had picked up to a stout 14 MPH, and before first light we had mallards and pintails landing in the decoys. By 10:00 AM we had limited out and were extremely thankful for that biting wind.
To enjoy those extremely cold mornings, you must factor in the wind. They go hand in hand to create a successful hunt. Without the wind, you’re likely just out there getting a cold and really frustrated.
During my amateur years as a waterfowler, the only thing I associated the moon with was rut phases for bull elk, and poor mule deer hunting. Not once did I ever consider the moon having an impact on my success, or lack thereof, on ducks and geese. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with Shawn Stahl who told me about the effect the moon can have on hunting waterfowl. While the moon may not totally relate to the weather, it can be an integral part of your success. On those Autumn nights when the moon is full and the sky is bright, the ducks are active and moving. They find the food in the dark, they head back to the loafing ponds, they even migrate out. Stahl told me that when the moon is full, he won’t waste his time trying to kill birds. He said they’re already back on the roost with full bellies by the time you turn off your alarm.
Another experienced guide, Bill Saunders, also said that hunting during a full moon phase makes the going extremely rough. The birds have been more active during the night, so the need to get off the roost during the day is pointless. Unless the birds were unsuccessful in finding feed or getting to the right spot, which doesn’t happen often, hunting the days after a full moon proves to be slow going for most waterfowlers.
However, when the moon is in the New phase, or the Crescent phases, leaving little moonlight, the birds have been forced to stay on the roost for the duration of the night, giving hunters better hunting opportunities come sunrise. During the New Moon and Crescent phases, the ducks will stay active longer throughout the day because they don’t have the luxury of feeding during the hours of the night. Giving hunters more opportunities at birds, as well as longer time windows to hunt. So the next time you plan your hunt, make sure you take a note from the big game hunters and check the moon phase as well.
You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, we’ve all heard it— the best time to hunt is during a storm. I agree with this old-timey wisdom, mostly. I do have a slight adjustment, however. My adjustment is: “One of the best times to hunt is during a storm, when you’re over water.” No, I’m not saying that hunting dry fields during a storm doesn’t lead to success, because it absolutely does. However, dry field hunting can be tough if the storm proves to be too stout, and the birds want to stay close to water. Often with rain and snow, ducks and geese won’t venture too far away from the roost. Now, don’t let that deter you; I can recall many hunts on dry fields where the geese fell to the ground just as hard as the snowflakes. That said, I do maintain that if you’re going to hunt in stormy weather, your best success will be in the marsh. Ducks won’t stay in one area of the marsh for too long while being pelted with rain or being buried by snow. Often, they have no other option but to get up and move because the water is so unsettled due to the wind. Moving ducks means decoying ducks, and decoying ducks means, hopefully, dead ducks. Hunting in storms is unpleasant and almost always a cold proposition, but for those who are willing to brave it, the stormy weather seems to always reward with good gunning.
USING THE WEATHER TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Now that we’ve dissected the major weather patterns that most hunters face during the waterfowl season, it’s of benefit to understand how to use it to kill more birds.
- Avoid the calm, sunny days with little to no wind if you can’t hunt the “X”. The birds won’t be flying near as much, and they likely won’t have a need to fly near you. Especially when the birds have been in your area for a while. What many hunters refer to as “stale birds”.
- If you see that the states or even the counties to your north are receiving colder weather and storm fronts, head to the marsh! The birds will be heading your way to find somewhere without the weather to rest on their journey south.
- Cold weather kills! Don’t let the cold weather keep you in bed. When the weather turns cold, and the winds are howling, the birds will be moving around and eager to find a place to settle down. With some help from the wind, it proves to be a deadly combination.
- Hunting during Full Moon phases just brings frustration instead of birds. Instead, wait for a New Moon or Crescent Moons to set up in your favorite spot.
- When the storm fronts hit, so will the ducks. Just remember, it’s more advantageous to be on the water where the birds will be jumping from slough to slough to keep their wings moving and their feathers thawed.
While there is no written doctrine on hunting in certain weather, there is some method to the madness. These helpful hints are exactly that – helpful hints. Do your own research. Test your own theories. You might learn your own “Fowl Weather” patterns that kill ducks better than anyone else’s. That’s the beauty of waterfowling; you can learn everything for yourself. Certain weather does provide better duck hunting, but if there’s ever been two things that man can never control, it’s the weather; and waterfowl. So take these helpful hints and put them to the test this coming season. You might save yourself some days afield that would have been a bust. Or you might go out on a day you would have otherwise stayed in bed and kill a limit. All that matters is you go, you do, and you learn how to hunt in the Fowl Weather.