November 16, 2021
By David J. Rearick
If you have been paying attention, it isn’t hard to notice that waterfowl hunting has drastically changed in the last decade. Decoys are more realistic, technology has changed the way we hunt/scout, hunters are managing land specifically for ducks, not just deer, and the “tools” of our trade have been improved, making them more effective. While the term short-stopping has been thrown around like bad milk as a potential scapegoat for the where, when, and why greenhead enthusiasts aren’t as successful, regardless of your opinion, it simply, well, isn’t that simple. With that said, let’s stop all the nonsensical arguing to consider what has really happened and focus on reality to try and figure out ways to combat it. Peace, not war, or something to that effect.
To begin, let’s address what each individual in this article pointed to as the key factor; changes in weather patterns. While no one suggested global warming or for anyone to go “green” (yes, that was an intentionally bad pun, you can laugh), a common theme was that a naturally occurring climate change, or better yet, season time-shift seems to be occurring. Without trying to break out my inner nerd, let’s use my specific observations and see if they match yours. As a kid in my home state of PA, I remember it always snowing in December with temps often dipping into the single digits or below. By early March it would start to warm up and by April, spring had sprung. You know, the April showers bring May flowers kinda stuff. Today, only a few decades later, I am now wearing shorts and a T-shirt on Christmas and watching my son play baseball in the spitting snows of April. While not truly scientific, there is something simple to be gleamed from this. While winter is supposed to start December 21st and spring on March 20th, it sure feels like, to me, the seasons have moved back a month.
Correlating these seasonal shifts to duck hunting in my home state, hard freezes now occur in January, not December, and the ducks that we do get show up later, often after the season closes, every year. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. This isn’t short-stopping because of duck farming, this is just an unfortunate weather-change for duck hunters. One obvious answer would be hey, let’s simply move the season dates back one month and make it all better. While that sounds like good logic, keep in mind that in order to have ducks to hunt the next decades, duck hunting seasons generally end in late January to ensure that birds are healthy for the return migration to the breeding grounds. Sacrificing the health of the population for a few better hunts now is a move no one is willing to make.
With all of this in mind, and since we can’t expect, predict, or influence changes to the temperature and seasons, what can we do? To help with that, we reached out to some of our friendly neighborhood duck-gurus to get their thoughts, tactics, and overall, some answers to see how their strategiess have evolved.
Cody Stokes Owner - Founder, Dive Bomb Industries
Located in the core of the Mississippi Flyway, Cody Stokes, founder of Dive Bomb Industries, has witnessed the evolution of mallard hunting first-hand. When asked what has changed, his answer was clear and concise, “The birds are becoming nocturnal feeders,” he stated. While Cody wasn’t the first to point out that mallards are simply feeding at night and not during the day, he definitely felt that the addition of managed duck grounds, where flooded food is common, allows the ducks to feed and roost, safely, in the same spot. This combination of essential resources has eliminated the need for ducks to roost on large bodies of water that lack sufficient resources and then fly out at daybreak to locations where hunters lay in wait. Simply put, ducks now fly into hunting areas after shooting light and fly back to safe loafing areas or refuges, fat and happy, at daybreak leaving hunters holding the bag. Stokes’ simple answer as to why mallards are behaving in this manner was equally concise, “pressure,” he identified.
In order to have more successful hunts, Stokes has changed his approach. His hunts now key on precipitation, and as he stated, “the more rain, the better the hunting gets.” While he doesn’t feel that there are less, or more ducks, per say, he believes they are more spread out and the only motivating factor to get the birds moving, especially in pressured areas, is precipitation. Additionally, while Stokes previously had hunting ground up against other infamous Missouri duck clubs, due to lackluster performance, he pulled up stakes and moved. Instead of hunting with the masses, he bought ground in an area with less overall duck numbers, but also far less hunting pressure. Despite having less birds, he minimizes the pressure he puts on the birds he has, stays mobile and no longer uses permanent blinds, and in some cases hunts over a small spread of decoys and doesn’t call. He stated that “mallards today will circle live ducks ten times before committing, so you have to stay patient.”
Jim Ronquest - Producer, RNT TV, RNT Calls
Located in the mallard capital of the world, Ronquest suggested he has made only minor changes to how he hunts. As before, he feels that some years are simply better than others, and that hasn’t changed. That said, through producing RNT TV, he is on the road more, and feels that going to the ducks is an important aspect of remaining successful. “I key on precipitation and move around a lot to find the edge of rising water,” stated Ronquest. By staying mobile, and not just hunting the same places each year, Ronquest feels that he can stay on the birds by hunting them in “new” areas that pop up after rain, where they haven’t seen significant pressure yet. Sometimes, as he put it, “even if that means hunting today, to find a better hunt for tomorrow.”
Ronquest also feels that we need to have a few good hatches, as the age class of mallards is getting on the grey side. In order to combat hunting older, warier birds, Ronquest, in his words, attributes his success to “tightening up.” By hiding better, carefully placing out his decoy spread, and calling effectively, Ronquest feels that increasing your odds requires hunting smarter. “Ducks are getting smarter, get smarter with them,” laughed Ronquest.
Tony Vandemore - Co-Owner, Habitat Flats
Guiding duck hunters every day requires Vandemore to keep things fresh to make sure his clients are having a great experience in the blind. Located in Missouri, like Stokes, Tony Vandemore, co-owner of Habitat Flats, hasn’t seen much snow as of late. “Growing up, everyone had a snowmobile, now you can’t even find one in town,” stated Vandemore. He believes that the weather has shifted, and while the early November push of prairie ducks is date-consistent, the late push of birds out of Canada is heavily driven by the weather, and they are getting later each season.
In order to keep his clients on birds, Vandemore minimizes pressure and, like others, tries to key on precipitation. “The ducks turn nocturnal when it gets warm on a full moon pattern,” said Vandemore. In order to break this pattern, Vandemore relies on precipitation to change things up and hunts strategically around weather days to remain successful. Sometimes, instead of hunting at first light, he starts hunting later in the morning, but says getting off the water and allowing the birds to come back, without pressure before dark is key. “They need to get back into the water to keep it open at night, and they also need a safe place to roost to keep them here,” Vandemore emphatically stated.
Ashur Tolliver - VP/Head of Marketing, Dive Bomb Industries
Like Ronquest, Tolliver’s home state is Arkansas. Tolliver has definitely seen a drastic change in mallard habits, but doesn’t attribute it to any singular source. Modern technology, pressure, weather, and mallards simply getting smarter, Tolliver suggests, are changing the way we hunt them. “Places that hunters couldn’t get to ten years ago now have ten groups of hunters,” said Tolliver. Through increases in technology and boats/motors/atvs, hunters can now get into harder to access areas, putting increased pressure on birds in previous safe havens, thus pushing them out. Tolliver feels that while the birds are still there, they are constantly spreading out to find new areas to feed/loaf to get away from pressure making it appear like numbers have decreased.
In order to be more successful, Tolliver feels it all comes down to management and expanding your hunting area. Rest days, limiting shooting distances, and other sound management practices are what he feels hunters need to do if they want to have more successful hunts all season long. “Things like choke tubes and loads have improved so much that hunters are routinely shooting at birds at farther distances,” Toliver emphasized and stated, “the birds don’t get any rest.” His number one suggestion for keeping up with the evolution of mallard hunting is to employ better management and suggested that even if you don’t have your own ground, you can be part of the solution. “Waterfowl hunting isn’t just Saturday/Sunday anymore, and while the number of hunters is down, hunter days are up,” suggests Tolliver.
Eric Strand - S2 Outfitters/Born and Raised Outdoors
An owner at S2 Outfitters in Oregon, while not in the Mississippi or Central flyways, Strand has very similar experiences to hunters in those regions. “While there is an increased number of flooded grain and corn impoundments, those places are only good with weather,” stated Strand. Like Missouri, flooding crops is becoming increasingly popular in the Pacific Northwest, but Strand states that it requires optimal management to keep the hunting good. He also feels like the ducks are night-feeding more in these regions, and that the area still holds great duck numbers, but that hunting is difficult without weather.
In order to be successful and not over-pressure the ducks he has on flooded impoundments, Strand employs a tried-and-true tactic. “On non-weather days, we hunt the traffic between the flooded food sources and their daytime roosts,” stated Strand. By hunting them between the two places they want/have to be, Strand minimizes the pressure on those spots while keeping his hunters on birds. He also suggests that to keep ducks around, hunters should try not to shoot into large flocks, have a set time cut-off, and limit the number of days hunting any specific location. “Hunting less makes every hunt better, even the bad days,” said Strand.
Michael Brasher - Waterfowl Scientist, Ducks Unlimited
The ground-breaking work of Brasher, who has one awesome job title, does at Ducks Unlimited to understand the evolution of duck habits and migrations reinforced that we can’t draw any conclusions just yet. “There has never been complete consistency on how many, where, or when, when it comes to ducks,” stated Brasher. While hunters have become comfortable with employing the same tactics at the same places, Brasher’s research has shown that ducks are not always consistent, and that process has not changed. “Ducks are doing the same things, but they are showing up at different times and in different places,” said Brasher. While many factors like pressure and weather matter, Brasher stated that changes in resource availability is one of the main determining factors for most duck’s migration habits.
Brasher also admits that the research into mallards and all waterfowl species is constantly evolving. To combat this evolution, Ducks Unlimited is constantly conducting new research to understand the impacts of temperature and weather changes, resource availability, and specifics like nocturnal activity. “Some ducks, like mallards, migrate to survive due to reduction in resources,” stated Brasher. On the other hand, Brasher stated that teal specifically migrate south based on their historical strategy for survival, so each species is different and requires different research. As things continue to change, Brasher and DU’s main goal remains the same, to ensure the survival of all waterfowl species and continued improvement/retention of waterfowl habitat. While hunting effectiveness may change in different regions, we can all agree that keeping ducks around for future generations remains our number one priority.
At the end of the day, the good news is we don’t know what the future holds or if the weather will shift back and things will go back to what we consider “normal.” That said, in the meantime, using a little ingenuity and adapting will go a long to keep your straps full and the ducks a tolling