Waterfowling's Late-Season Challenge

Sure it's cold, windy and stormy, but the ducks and geese are flying and need a place to rest and feed. Gear up, get ready and enjoy some of the best shooting of the season.

Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg

By Tom Migdalski

Have you ever had a really bad day while waterfowling? I don't mean a day when you went home empty-handed. I mean a day when the north wind lifted you by the armpits and shook you; when the whitecaps shot icy spray against your face, wrapped it around your ears and trickled it down your neck; when the frigid temperature paralyzed your fingers and solidified the leftover coffee in your thermos cup.

"Good weather for ducks" always means bad weather for hunters. This month's sudden turn toward wintry conditions also freezes small inland waters and drives ducks and geese to the big lakes, rivers and coastal marshes. December's frequent northwest cold fronts or northeastern coastal storms will also put a chill in your bones and bring safety to the forefront.

Harsh conditions await hunters determined to get in on the hot shooting opportunities, but with severe weather and good gunning come conditions that early-season hunters rarely have to deal with. Ice on decoys and gear, different rig setups, rough water conditions, substantial clothing, warmer blinds and modifying hunting times may all figure into your game plan.

With the rough December weather also come educated birds. Resident waterfowl in your area have survived opening day and first-season barrages. Many migrants have successfully dodged blinds and decoys as they winged their way southward from the Canadian provinces, which means you also need to fool wary waterfowl in addition to battling climatic conditions.

Here are some tips and tactics for foul-weather hunting when "fowl" weather is at its best:

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Waterfowl are creatures of habit. Once freezing conditions have pushed them out of their normal feeding, watering and resting areas, they soon find new loafing sites and, if not disturbed, return to those spots day after day. But sitting and waiting in miserable conditions to see if you're in the right spot isn't a pleasant or efficient hunting method. In most states, there aren't enough days in the season to waste!

To find these new spots and flyways, you need to do your homework. Scout with binoculars to see how the birds are behaving. Look for puddlers sitting on the water, standing on ice, commuting over points or alighting on marshes to rest and feed. A concentration of bird droppings on ice, riverbanks or coastal rocks is a giveaway to recent activity.

"I seldom take a December trip without first making a scouting run," said Rich Haigh, a seasoned Northeast waterfowler. "I'll grab a cup of coffee and head down to the bay early in the morning before work. I'll sit in my warm truck and scan the sky and water with binoculars for at least 30 minutes to see how many birds are around and where they're commuting. If the activity looks good, I'll plan a trip for the next wintry day."

By scouting spots and finding ducks, you'll be able to set a smaller rig and fill your bag more quickly because birds with an established pattern don't need much convincing - you're already where they want to be. You can even chase them out when you arrive and wait for their predictable return, thereby minimizing the time and effort spent in inclement weather.

SET SMALLER

DECOY SPREADS

December's birds have been accustomed to seeing large, unconvincing decoy spreads and hearing too much hard, enthusiastic calling since opening day. In situations where small groups of waterfowl have been returning to a new location for weeks, a huge decoy rig will spook suspicious ducks and drive them to more natural looking water holes. An excellent rule of thumb is to use fewer dekes to draw late-season dabblers to open water.

"My advice for December birds," said Capt. Ned Kittredge, a Northeast guide and lifelong waterfowler, "is don't use too many decoys. As an old-timer in Maine once told me, 'If you've got the right place, all you need is one.' I can attest to that. Too many times I've used dozens of decoys in a frozen corn field after one of those ugly December storms, only to have the ducks fly right on by. Going back to their feeding spot a day or two later with just one decoy, my best 'smoothie' black duck, the birds were almost suicidal.

"And don't try to call too much. In these instances, I just make a little noise with the call to get them to look, and that's it. Birds tend to bunch up on the water during bad weather, so set your decoys in tighter groups than you normally would."

CHANGE YOUR

HUNTING TIMES

Waterfowlers are generally a hearty breed of sportsmen who endure wet, cold conditions and don't mind rising long before daybreak to do so. But birds that have been worked hard in public marshes soon adjust to the early-morning routine and will either clear out before sunrise or won't fly at all during the morning.

Most wildlife management areas and launches are crowded in the morning, especially on weekends. Additional frustration comes when a rival party beats you to your planned blind or encroaches on "your area" because they are being squeezed from the other side.

"Everybody likes to be out there at first light," Haigh said, "because you get that early-morning flurry of birds. Shortly after 9 a.m., the flight slows to a trickle or stops, and many hunters pack up and head home. They actually leave too soon, often just before the next wave of action starts. I've found that, especially with geese, there is often a burst of activity sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. And then you get the second major flight of the day, which happens from about 3 p.m. until sunset."

Most marshes are hunted only lightly in the afternoon. This is a prime time to target December waterfowl that have been feeding inland and return to open water late in the day for drink and sleep. Leaving the launch as late as 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. will provide plenty of time to choose a spot, rig the decoys, set a blind and hide your boat before the afternoon flight.

The most obvious advantage of late-day hunting is that it's usually warmer, and it's easier to stay warm. Overnight low temperatures always bottom out just before sunrise - when most hunters are just heading out - but by midafternoon, temperatures reach their daytime high, which can be anywhere from 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the pre-dawn low.

Warmer afternoon hunts have other advantages, too. If you are older or bringing an elderly hunter or youngster with you, this will certainly m

ake for a safer and more pleasant hunt for them. Also, midday sun thaws many riverbanks, backwaters and pond areas that may have iced-over during the night. This gives you and the birds more open-water options.

For example, flooded corn fields that froze at night will be vacant in the morning, but may be filled with waterfowl when the ice turns to puddles during the afternoon.

It's also a lot easier to scout and select a blind area during the daylight when you can see better and have more options available. And if the birds are working a different spot, you have a quicker and easier time picking up and moving. Remember those pre-dawn rigging frustrations, such as trying to untangle decoy lines with numb fingers and a flashlight held in your teeth? Those kinds of problems are virtually eliminated when setting your dekes for an afternoon hunt. Not having to get up at 4 a.m. is better, too. Having a full night's sleep keeps you fresher, let's you enjoy the hunt more and helps you ward off the cold.

TRY NATURAL BLINDS

Gun-shy December birds are usually cautious about everything. This isn't the time to erect a synthetic blind purchased through a mail-order catalog that flaps in the winter wind atop the tundra-like marsh. Although camo netting, matting and roll-up materials have their place and are very handy, you may need to bypass their convenience and work a bit harder on your hideaway at this time of year.

After scouting a location where the birds are active, construct a blind by scrounging local materials, which given the extra time you'll have on a late-day hunt, should be simple to do. This may mean stacking a few rocks or logs on a riverbank, cutting natural grasses from a marsh, piling branches or driftwood on a bay shore or gathering cornstalks from a snowy field.

During late-season hunts, you also need to consider warmth. Places like gravel bars or tops of coastal marshes make hiding difficult and you'll be fully exposed to the elements. But snuggling into a shoreline cut, drainage ditch or field trench will shelter you from most of the icy wind.

Instead of sitting out on a point, for instance, retreat to the shore and tuck in against a bank with your back to the wind. In this case, you may only need a sparse blind in front of you, or possibly none at all, because your profile will be hidden lower than the surrounding land. In effect, your blind is in back rather than in front of you. However, you may be sacrificing some distance and might need to set your rig closer than normal.

"One of the secrets to successful December shooting is finding better and warmer cover," said longtime New England waterfowler Capt. Hal Herrick. "Wary waterfowl are wary about everything. You have to try harder to hide yourself, your dog and your boat. Be sure your blind is perfect in all aspects and don't neglect any details of your preparation. And when the birds are working, don't move a muscle until the very last moment, regardless of how excited you are. This is especially true when sitting with your back against a shoreline with little or no cover in front of you."

WINTER SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

When a deep freeze settles over the Northeast, spectacular numbers of black ducks, mallards and geese flock to the coast and larger lakes when smaller inland waters become locked in ice. In very cold weather, waterfowl must also eat large amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods to stay warm. Add snow cover to inland forage sources, and the salt marshes and bays provide the only local food and water sources. This makes big lakes and coastal zones a hotbed for hardy waterfowlers. But when the weather turns extreme, normal waterfowling safety and clothing aren't enough, and it can become dangerous for hunters who don't take the necessary precautions.

One of the best safety measures for December and January duck hunting is to make a "float plan," a short written outline of your expected routine for a given day. It should include when and where you are launching, where you plan to hunt, whom you're hunting with and when you expect to return. Leave it at home or with someone dependable. This way, if you get in trouble and are overdue, at least they'll know when and where to start looking.

Another good tip for late-season gunning is to carry a multi-purpose pocket tool. A pocket tool has many uses during frigid-weather hunts when things are apt to go wrong. This handy device can help fix a motor, tighten a leaking fuel line, repair a blind, fix a jammed shotgun, remove a broken shear pin and repair trailer lights. Quickly slid from a belt holder, a pocket tool also cuts a decoy anchor line ensnarled around a dog or propeller and opens or closes broken zippers.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS

Nowadays, with the high-tech hunting garments we have on the market, there's no need to suffer, risk hypothermia or get frostbite during the late season. Gone are the oiled and waxed canvas coats of yesteryear called "oilskins." Goose down, once the best insulator known to outdoorsmen, is no longer an only choice. Keeping us snug now is a wide array of new fabrics and insulators that are lightweight, extremely warm, breathable, windproof, fast drying and waterproof.

Most hunters know that most of their body heat is lost through the head. Therefore, December headwear should cover the head down to the ears, wick perspiration and be waterproof. It also needs to be warm and camouflaged. A hat with visor will protect your face and glasses from precipitation and hide them from birds working above. A hood will keep your ears and neck warm; however, many hunters prefer separate headgear for greater mobility and visibility.

Probably the single most important piece of late-season gunning gear is a good parka to preserve your core temperature. Most major outdoor clothing manufacturers carry fine waterfowling coats. The best all-season waterfowling coat has a warm, zip-in, reversible liner and a rugged, waterproof outer shell. You'll pay top dollar for such a parka, but it will last for many years. Besides, it's hard to put a price on staying safe and warm after you've been in the blind for hours on end.

The last major piece of waterfowling outerwear is insulated boots. But remember, even great boots are almost valueless without good socks. Choose socks that are thick, warm and wick away perspiration. Look for materials like wool or blends of wool-nylon-spandex. Avoid cotton, which offers no insulation when damp and may cause frostbitten toes if water leaks into a boot.

The type of footwear you purchase is, of course, determined by the amount of water you'll be walking in. There's a wide range of rubber boots available from ankle high to chest high, and features include breathability; reinforced toe, knee, seat and strap-attachment areas; rugged shells; heavy-duty straps or ties; easy on-off; snug-fit and insulated. Be sure your boots are large enough for layering socks and dry them thoroughly after each use.

The last tip for personal preparation is to shave the night before, not the morning of, your hunt. Shaving peels off the outermost layer of skin and makes your face more prone to windburn, frostbite and disc

omfort. Letting your skin recuperate overnight also allows for the return of a thin amount of natural, protective oils that were scraped off while shaving.

Following these winter hunting tactics and guidelines will help you have a more pleasant and productive late season.

"It comes down to the old cliche," Haigh said, "you're better to be safe than sorry."



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