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It Finally Feels Like Duck Season

by George Visger, "The Wild Guy"

As I sit and write this piece, for the first time all season, it finally feels like duck season. In my neck of the woods (Grass Valley), we have only seen one day of frost to date, and the majority of hardwoods have yet to lose their leaves. (I know, as I raked for the first time yesterday and after last night’s storm, will need to swing the rake even harder today).

Colder temperatures bring an increase in waterfowl activity, but why? We all know that the best way to keep warm is to move around, but do waterfowl move just to get comfortable? Many in-the-know waterfowl enthusiasts may not realize that colder weather cause the bird’s metabolism to work overtime to maintain their body temperatures. Avian species run at much higher engine temps than do most mammals such as our selves. Average body temperatures for mallards run in the 104° - 106° range. With increased metabolism and higher temperatures comes a greater demand for fuel to run the furnace. As it gets colder, waterfowl are forced to move more between feeding and roosting areas in order to maintain body temperatures and survive. Knowing how weather conditions and temperature will influence the birds may dictate how successful you are.

Waterfowl are crepuscular critters, meaning they are most active during low light periods (early mornings and afternoon/evenings), which is one reason why the best shooting times are extended on overcast dark days. This holds true well into the night, and can be a detriment when the birds have been feeding in the rice all night and head back to their loafing areas at first light. Knowing how weather will influence the birds should also influence your choice of properties and fields to hunt.

Bright, crisp, clear bluebird days are often good days to hunt natural ponds. Birds that have been feeding all night, especially during a bright moon, will head to these sanctuaries to hole up for the day. If conditions are calm, many times it is best to go light on the calling. Call just enough to get their attention and headed your way, then switch to low feeding chuckles, contented hen clucks and drawn out greenhead wicks. The taller cover around the natural ponds also makes it easier to avoid detection on bright days. These areas are also very good during high winds, as birds will seek these calmer waters sheltered by the vegetation.

Rice fields are also good shooters in high winds, but many times birds are cutting through heading to their honey holes to hole up. When birds start dumping into the rice during heavy winds and rain, it’s usually a new movement of northern birds who have run their tanks dry and need to refuel or birds coming off the refuges.

Some of the refuges in the area do not hold much feed by the second half of the season, with birds primarily using those areas to loaf. If they have been loafing all night on the refuge, their first stop in the morning will be feeding areas. In the Sacramento valley, this means rice fields.

Another misconception many waterfowlers have is that it’s great to hunt in the rain. We’ve all heard the term, “Like water off a duck’s back.” Rain has very little effect on waterfowl. When birds are active during rain, it’s usually due to the wind not the precipitation. Think about all those dark days with rain dumping in buckets straight down on your head, (and down the neck of your coat), and birds are still cruising well beyond range. Now try to picture a day with a ripping north wind. I’m seeing waves of birds undulating across the deck. This is due to the fact that the wind is less severe closer to the ground where there is more structure to break it up. Waterfowl don’t think, but nature has conditioned them to conserve energy whenever possible. It makes no sense to burn all that extra fuel flying high during strong winds, when the individuals with the greatest energy stores are the ones to survive and breed.

Probably one of my favorite weather conditions to hunt in is a good tule fog. Now, I’m not talking the early ground fog we get in November that burns off at 9:30. I’m talking that beautiful, thick, Sacramento Valley tule fog, that usually first appears around a week or two before Christmas. Temperatures will be in the low 40’s to upper 30’s, which causes the birds to burn more fuel. As their need to refuel increases, so do their movements. This is no time to be timid on the call. Many times the birds will be disoriented in the fog and are looking for the security of companionship. Make it sound like a party and invite them in.

One of the beauties of Wilderness Unlimited is the opportunity we have to pick and choose the property we want to hunt. Keep the time of the year and weather conditions in mind when selecting a property (this is where your hunting/fishing diary is invaluable), and good luck.

Ask the Wild Guy

George Visger aka “The Wild Guy” is an original Wilderness Unlimited member and now also serves as Principal Wildlife and Habitat Coordinator for the Wilderness Unlimited Foundation. The “Ask The Wild Guy” column is based on George’s outdoors experiences, presented in a light manner intending on illustrating the use of strategies to help members with their outdoor success. He has been a Wildlife Biologist for 20 years including several years owning his own environmental consulting firms, Visger & Associates and The Ranchers Group, where he specializes in wildlife management plans, habitat management plans, grazing plans, threatened and endangered species, habitat restoration, water quality and quantity improvements and storm water management.

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