Weather-Wise Waterfowling

Weather-Wise Waterfowling

During an Oklahoma December, "Keep your eye on the sky" is sage advice for duck hunters. (December 2007)

Photo by Brian Strickland.

The Sooner State's favorite son Will Rogers may or may not have said it -- the true originator actually appears to be lost in the mists of folk history -- but he easily could have: "If you don't like the weather in Oklahoma, just wait a minute."

It's true that our weather is varied and unpredictable, but it may not be quite that changeable. Not only are we in Tornado Alley, but we're also in that portion of the continent where all sorts of weather extremes are possible, if not probable.

We never know from year to year or even season to season whether it'll be hotter or colder than usual, wetter or drier than usual, or sunny or cloudy. You may see flash floods in August, normally a very dry month. And you may see folks cruising in convertibles with the tops down on Valentine's Day, normally one of the coldest times of the year.

If you're a duck hunter in Oklahoma, you learn to adapt. Your tactics and locations, not to mention your clothing, may have to change radically from season to season, depending on the weather.

Rainfall totals can vary widely from month to month and year to year in the Sooner State. Take October, for example, since that's the month when duck hunting seasons often begin to get serious in Oklahoma. In October 2006, the National Weather Service office in Tulsa reported the total rainfall for the month was 1.31 inches; just a couple of years earlier, in 2004, the October total was 8.51 inches. And other October extremes run from an almost unmeasurable trace of moisture for the entire month to the record of 16.51 inches back in 1941.

Rainfall totals are important to duck hunters because precipitation affects the water levels in ponds, lakes, streams and, especially important, those areas that are marshy and wet during rainy periods but bone-dry during dry periods. It's those intermittent wetlands that provide some of the most attractive waterfowl habitat in the state.

If the marshes are wet and the major reservoirs full enough to spread out into the surrounding lowlands, thousands and thousands of ducks on their southerly autumn migration stop to spend extra time in Oklahoma. But if the marshes are dry and the lakes shrunk down to normal pool or below when the ducks pass through, the birds are more likely to keep on flying or, maybe, to spend just a quick night on an Oklahoma lake before catching the morning express to south Texas the next day.

If you hunt the big reservoirs -- and many Oklahoma duck hunters do -- you may have to change tactics and locations between dry and wet years. For example, ducks are likely to flock to flooded vegetation in the upper reaches of Lake Eufaula if its water level's high and a lot of flow is coming down the Deep Fork and North and South Canadian rivers.

Most of the duck hunters I know prefer this situation. Not only does it result in infinitely more choice in places for spreading out decoys, but it also attracts and holds a lot more ducks than do low-water conditions. In order to hide from the ducks, waterfowlers may not have to build any kind of blind but can instead just back up into the cover of a clump of bushes or saplings. Such "natural hides" are usually more effective than constructed blinds, as long as the hunters are dressed appropriately and keep still when ducks are near.

But if the lake is a foot or two below normal -- a pretty typical level in a dry year -- you may have to hunt the open water of the main lake, because there is no flooded vegetation at the upper end of the lake to attract the ducks.

Most of my duck-hunting acquaintances dread having to hunt under those conditions, but some have learned to cope. They may use bigger, deeper boats, which can navigate the open water more safely, or spread out two or three times more decoys than they would if they were hunting back up in the bushes in high-water conditions. And they may have either to hunt from their boats or to spend more time constructing shoreline or shallow-water blinds, because usable cover is scarcer in most of the spots they may hunt.

Certain things apply in both situations:

'¢ Keep the sun to your back. It's harder for ducks to see you if they're looking toward the sun. Even a poorly camouflaged hunter is harder to spot when sun and shade provide high contrast.

'¢ Keep the wind behind you, too. Since ducks usually land into the wind, the birds will probably set their wings and come closer to you as they land. If they're moving toward you, it takes them longer to recover and change directions to flee, even if they spot you.

'¢ Sit still and keep your head down. Unless you're an upland bird or game hunter, movement typically is your biggest enemy. No matter whether you're ambushing deer, turkeys, doves, or ducks and geese, sitting as still as possible when your prey is in the area helps prevent detection. And the shining skin of your face peering upward out of a blind or bush can be like a warning light to circling waterfowl. Wear a facemask or use the brim of your hat to keep your face hidden.

But beyond some of those basic rules, your tactics and equipment may have to change radically between wet years and dry years on major Oklahoma reservoirs. You may have a favorite spot that has for three years in a row brought you great success throughout the season; then a dry year comes along and strands your favorite spot a quarter-mile from the nearest water.

As I said earlier, I believe that most duck hunters prefer high-water situations. When the lake rises and spreads out into the surrounding lowlands, it creates many more places in which to hunt ducks. It can accommodate more parties of hunters on any given day without overcrowding.

When lakes are low, crowding can occur. Hunters may wind up working closer and closer together when the choice of places for setting up is restricted, which creates those maddening situations in which neighboring parties shoot at and try to call the same groups of birds simultaneously -- not much fun for anyone, usually.

But on the bright side, low-water conditions may quickly discourage some hunters from even trying, so when lakes are low, the competition usually thins out more quickly after the first week or so of the season.

Depending on whether you're hunting the flooded brushy areas or the open-water areas, a noticeable difference in the species of ducks you'll draw in to your decoys is often evident. In the first you're most likely to see mostly the puddle ducks preferred by most Oklahoma hunters; in the second you may attract more div

ers.

Diver species are fewer in the Central Flyway, which encompasses all of Oklahoma but the Panhandle area, but we still get an assortment of mergansers, ringnecks and scaup. You'll see buffleheads and goldeneyes now and then also, especially if you're hunting smaller bodies of water. When I was a youngster, redheads and canvasbacks were sought-after species, but I rarely see either these days.

Several of the more serious duck hunters I know in Oklahoma are mallard snobs: They rarely pull the trigger on anything other than mallard drakes. Fortunately, mallards continue to be one of the more abundant species in the flyway, so hunters can afford to be picky, especially in a wet year.

Wildlife managers sometimes sow millet along shorelines of major Oklahoma reservoirs, typically in summer, when lake levels are a bit below normal. The seed is scattered by airplanes flying low over the exposed shorelines.

The millet that sprouts and grows -- assuming that water levels allow it -- not only provides food for ducks migrating through in the fall, but also can "train" the ducks to spend more time in the lower lake areas, thus making open-water hunting better.

So duck hunters accustomed to hunting the brushy marshes at the upper ends of lakes might do well to cruise the shorelines of the lower lake basins early in the season to look for stands of shoreline millet. Finding those areas in which the millet grew successfully can help you choose a likely area to hunt if your favorite marshy areas have no water in them.

Rainfall and water levels on the big lakes are not the only factors that affect where and how we hunt ducks -- temperature can be important as well. Most of the time in Oklahoma, our big lakes don't have a lot of ice cover. Oh, maybe a bit of ice in the smaller coves, or within a foot or two of the shoreline -- but seeing acres and acres of ice cover on our big lakes is a rare thing.

But sometimes, especially later in the season, or when we get an unusually cold winter, ice locks up the best hunting spots. The shallower areas are usually the best duck-hunting spots, and shallower areas usually are the first to freeze.

That can be good or bad.

If the ice isn't too thick, you can break it up in pieces and slide the pieces either under or over the surrounding unbroken ice to create an opening for your decoys. If you have hundreds of acres of marshes covered in ice, then clearing a small area and spreading your decoys can be a magnet for ducks. Such work can be cold and miserable, but it can pay big dividends when you have ducks searching for open water.

Of course, if it remains cold enough for long enough, ice grows too thick to be broken and moved. Under those conditions, waterfowlers are forced to head for open water in the lower lakes, or to hunt around moving water that remains unfrozen.

An area featuring moving water is probably the kind of place least used by Oklahoma waterfowlers. I'm not talking about the main channels of rivers and creeks, but about those little pockets and coves and creek mouths kept open by moving water where currents are slowed or blocked significantly.

Several Oklahoma rivers are dammed repeatedly. The Neosho River (also known as the Grand River) is a good example. Up in the northeastern corner of the state is Grand Lake O' The Cherokees. Just below Grand Lake's Pensacola Dam is Lake Hudson, below which is Lake Fort Gibson. And a short distance below that, the Neosho meets the larger Arkansas River in the upper end of Webbers Falls Lake.

On the Arkansas River lie Kaw Lake, and then Keystone; then comes a long undammed stretch of river (a small dam in Tulsa that's only a few feet high excepted) until you reach Webbers Falls. From Webbers Falls Lake downstream, a succession of navigation lakes stretches to the Arkansas border.

These "chains" of lakes along major rivers can create stretches of open water even during very cold winters.

Most major dams are hydroelectric installations. As such, water is usually released from the dams for a certain amount of time daily. Those releases keep the downstream areas free of ice, or at least minimally frozen, throughout the winter. Sometimes those areas within a few miles below the dams are about the only open-water spots available to waterfowl and hunters.

Such areas don't have the room for thousands of hunters -- but, anyway, it's usually only the most determined shotgunners who go afield when the conditions are so tough.

Of course, if it remains cold enough for long enough, ice grows too thick to be broken and moved. Under those conditions, waterfowlers are forced to head for open water in the lower lakes, or to hunt around moving water that remains unfrozen.

I've seen ducks crowded into those open-water areas within a few miles below dams during really cold Oklahoma winters. I used to do a lot of midwinter striper fishing on the Lower Illinois River near its confluence with the Arkansas River. During really cold weather, when ice covers many areas, ducks descended on the little sloughs and eddies on the Lower Illinois because the flowing water released from Lake Tenkiller upstream kept those areas free of ice. You can find similar situations downstream from most major Oklahoma dams, or at least from those that generate hydroelectric power.

In milder winters, hunters have many more choices. If water remains largely unfrozen, lots of smaller bodies of water will attract ducks regularly. Farm ponds can be very productive. You can either put out decoys and call, or "jump" ducks by sneaking up on ponds to target ducks already there.

And in the past couple of decades, Oklahoma duck hunters have had their good friend the beaver dam up countless small creeks and intermittent streams that in turn flood fields or bottomland hardwood areas with just enough water to make the area very attractive for ducks.

If you can find such a spot having pecan or oak trees are standing in shallow water, you may be in for a treat. Mallards love such flooded-timber areas, and a little beaver pond with an acre or less of water can sometimes attract large numbers of ducks.

Of course, some winters see such mild weather on the Great Plains that some ducks never make it as far south as Oklahoma. One of the main reasons that ducks migrate is the freezing-over of their habitat up north, so they fly south to find food and open water. But when the rivers and lakes and marshes remain unfrozen up in Nebraska and northern Kansas throughout the winter, we may see far fewer ducks actually make it to Oklahoma.

Some ducks will always pass through Oklahoma, even when winters are mild up north. But at times, hundreds of thousands of ducks spend their winters up on the Platte and other big prairie rivers without ever crossing the Kansas/Oklahoma border. That can make for slim pickings down here in Oklahoma.

But don't let your guard down during mild winters: A single cold snap in Nebraska or Kansas can quickly push big numbers of birds southward. It can pay to watch the weather forecast every day.

To be a consistently successful duck hunter in Oklahoma, you have to be versatile. The ability to change tactics and locations and to work with the weather and water conditions is usually what separates the men from the boys, because Oklahoma's varying weather can rewrite the script for duck-hunting success.

Make no mistake about it: The weatherman can be your ally in planning your hunt.

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