November 16, 2018
Last season waterfowl hunting in Illinois was spotty at best in many areas of the state, but the big rivers — the Illinois and Mississippi — held far more than their usual share of migratory ducks.
A November 15 aerial survey showed the Illinois River holding 32 percent more ducks than the 10-year average, while the Mississippi River held a mind-boggling 92 percent more ducks than normal.
Geese were numerous throughout the northern and mid-central zones, and hunting remained good throughout the entire season. Seventy-two percent of geese killed in Illinois were giant Canada geese.
We can expect similar hunting patterns this season.
But where — and when — will the ducks and geese of the 2018-19 migration show up on the flyway routes this fall? Without doubt the dominant determining factor is weather, and the climatic considerations are not limited to fall, when the migration is under way. From early spring right through the end of the hunting season, Mother Nature manipulates waterfowl movements in unpredictable ways that keep us guessing from start to finish.
Weather influences ducks more than geese in migration patterns. In fact, there is little similarity between the two web-footed species, other than they can both swim. The primary difference is that ducks rely mainly on wetlands for feed, while geese are grazers of waste grains in agricultural fields. Spring flooding can, and does rearrange pattern of rivers, washing out sand and gravel bars in some areas, while creating new habitat in others.
Backwaters will have a distinctively different appearance each fall as the currents determine the abundance of moist-soil plants available to migrating ducks. In exceptionally wet summers, the backwaters of rivers may not dry out at all, and the plants the birds depend on will never grow. A late-summer or early fall flood can wash out an entire crop of nourishing vegetation, and drought will dry up shallow water ponds and sloughs.
Excessive rain often creates waterfowl habitat where none existed the previous year, providing resting and feeding habitat where no hunters have become established. Especially wet summers pile up “sheet water,” often flooding agricultural fields that temporarily create ideal waterfowl habitat the birds seem to find almost instantaneously. These sites become extremely productive hunting hotspots. They may only last for a few weeks, but when times get tough, temporary “ponds” like these can save your entire season.
Of course, the vagaries of early and late cold fronts can delay or hasten the migration along the flyway. Early storms may only move the ducks a few hundred miles down the migratory corridor, but, in extremely intense cases, storm systems can cause a major fly-over that empties birds from one or more states overnight.
Another phenomenon that waterfowl hunters face is stagnant weather — periods of mild, stable temperatures during which there is little migratory movement. When this occurs the waterfowl in an area soon become aware of the danger and safety zones and become virtually bullet proof. Ducks under these conditions are referred to as “stale birds,” and a cold front that brings in “new birds” is the only cure for such a condition.
All these weather-related influences upon waterfowl movements demands relentless scouting, which should be an integral part of every duck hunter’s strategies. Whether you hunt your own blind or public ground — perhaps, you’re a “freelancer” — there will come a time when your favorite spot comes up dry. At times like that, the only alternative to staying home is to put in significant “windshield time.” Matter of fact, no matter how good hunting may be at your blind, you should always be on the alert to discover where other flocks of waterfowl are working, in case you need a fallback plan.
Thanks to today’s amazing technology, you can now do extensive scouting right from your favorite easy chair. The Ducks Unlimited Migration application, Google Earth, the website of your state wildlife agency, and many other geographic-oriented “apps” can be downloaded so you can digitally explore the local terrain. These apps are especially helpful in finding small ponds and wetlands not visible from the road. Scout the TV weather channels to get an idea of what is going on father up the flyway. Heavy local storms well north of your vicinity can push birds down to you in a matter of hours.
These are the “new birds” you have been waiting for!
When you find the birds, pinpoint their landing area and identify suitable cover to hide in. Having a good game plan in mind will make things much easier when you sneak in the next morning.
A GOOSE IS NOT A DUCK
A goose, any goose, is a whole different critter than a duck, and a white-fronted goose displays habits different than those shown by a Canada goose; and a Canada goose could be confused with an Aleutian goose or a cackling goose.
Over the past 30 years or so, the giant Canada goose has been successfully re-introduced into just about every wet spot in the flyway. In many states, hunters bag more giant Canadas than their migratory interior relatives.
While the giant Canada makes short, molt migrations in summer, they usually return to their home territory by mid-September, delivering large flocks on hand when the hunting season opens. These homegrown birds provide plenty of early season action and act as live decoys when the northern flocks begin to appear.
Canada geese use lake and ponds as roosting and resting sites, but they are grazers that feed on grasses in warm weather and carbohydrate-rich corn and soybean waste when the wintery winds blow. They will normally return to a feeding field day after day until they clean it out, making their local routes quite predictable. A most successful hunting tactic is to simply follow a flight of birds from their roost to their current feeding spot and plan to be there before they return the next day. Make note exactly where in the field the geese were feeding and set up your decoy spread in the same place the next day. The initial flocks taking flight at daylight will be inclined to return to their previous feeding spot. If you can’t secure access to the feeding field, try to set up along the bird’s flight path. You will have a good chance to short-stop some geese coming to or leaving the feeding field.
Giant Canada geese usually won’t migrate south until forced out by heavy snow that covers their food supply for five or more days, and any flocks of migratory birds likely will stay (or go) with them. Even if the geese do flee south in search of open ground and water, they will always return home as soon as the weather moderates, so don’t be too quick to stow your decoys.
In the warm weather of the early season, set your decoys in small family groups spaced well apart. When winter sets in, the geese become stressed by short, cold days, and they restrict their movements to conserve energy. They may only fly out to feed once a day, doing so sometimes in mid-morning before grouping again, tightly bunched together, sometimes huddling on the ground. To simulate this, remove the legs from your full-body decoys or place shell models right on the ground. Cluster the decoys compactly, with only a few upright sentries. Call sparingly, and only flag when the birds are at a distance.
The most frustrating of all waterfowl to hunt have got to be snow geese. Nothing the snow goose does is predictable. They migrate when the feel like it. They may or may not use the same field to feed in twice. They ignore spreads of less than 700 or 800 decoys (and often prefer more). There can be thousands of them everywhere when the sun goes down, and none in sight anywhere when it comes back up the next morning. It can cost a small fortune to gear up for snow goose hunting, and, still, you might often be lucky, rather than good.
All I can suggest when looking to hunt snow geese is, scout for a feeding field, set up there early the next morning, and hope for the best.
WATERFOWL HUNTING IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
Locating a place to hunt waterfowl is your first step to be taken toward success. With your own blind or pit, you will always have a place to hunt, but it doesn’t mean you always will have a good place to hunt. Even the best areas fall on hard times now and then, and your only choice when things are going “south,” so to speak, is tough it out or go to the birds. That means scouting other private lands and getting access to it; otherwise, you’re looking at hunting options on public hunting areas. Fortunately, hunting public land has been made much easier and more productive by improved and expanded websites maintained by state conservation departments. These websites provide locations, descriptions, maps and site-specific regulations for many public hunting tracts.
Even with all the above information at your fingertips, thorough scouting of the public grounds is important. Conditions can vary widely, not only from season to season, but from week to week. You need to know exactly where the birds are in the area and have a good idea how you plan to go about hunting them. Showing up without a plan in the early morning darkness just isn’t going to get ’er done.
Among the best resources for locating public hunting lands (and obtaining local rules/regulations) in Illinois is the website of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources: www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/Pages/WaterfowlHunting.aspx.
The internet also offers many other sites where waterfowl hunters can obtain a wealth of information. Use these reports to get an idea of how hunting is going in your area, as well as to check on weather conditions farther up the flyway that could be sending a push of birds toward you:
• Ducks.org — see the Ducks Unlimited Migration Map
• Lake-link.com— search “waterfowl hunting”
• Grandviewoutdoors.com — search “waterfowl migration reports”
The bottom line is, keep your eyes and ears open. Good hunting!