Summer is the season of duck neglect. Fishing, food plots, and cold beer all take priority over preparing for duck season, and maybe rightfully so. The ducks are brown, the marshes are filled with clouds of mosquitos, and a migratory bird is quite likely move spots between now and opening day.
But that doesn’t mean summer scouting for ducks is a waste of time. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Keeping track of window-rattling thunderstorms, or lack thereof, is a regular part of my day because a single thunderstorm can and often will influence the path and staging areas of the coming migration. Hail, tornadoes, straight-line winds, and most importantly torrential rain, all influence what habitat is best for a duck. Keeping tabs on these severe events through the summer is a good start for your fall hunting plans.
Hail, Wind, and Tornadoes In areas where waterfowl use grain fields, dry or flooded, the impact of hail and wind events can’t be understated. Ducks and geese are masters of finding food, and you’ll be amazed how quickly they find these knocked-down crops. If you’re not a field hunter, this still applies to you. Ducks will find the surplus food. This causes a snowball effect where new ducks moving in will follow the local birds and use lakes and ponds closer to the food source.
Yes, hail and wind make target-rich environments, but you have to be careful when you hunt these areas because they can easily be considered "baited." The federal law on this is vague, intimidating, and requires knowledge of farming practices.
During the August 2020 derecho wind storm that leveled more than 800,000 acres of Iowa crops, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided guidance on how to comply with baiting laws when hunting these fields. While I encourage you to read the news release yourself, the essence was that you were allowed to hunt these fields so long as there wasn’t any disking, shredding, burning, or manipulation of the unharvested crops. If the farmer disked under the field without harvesting it first, you’re out of luck.
My hunting partner Jace Klein lives smack dab in the center of the derecho’s path.
“The two things I was focusing on the most were what fields were being combined and which ones weren’t. It was pretty obvious early on when farmers started disking fields that it was going to be hard,” Klein said. “The geese would be on those disked fields for a month and you couldn’t hunt it. It sucked. You had to specify exactly what field and make sure the farmer knew exactly what he did in that field, and make sure he understood why you had to know if it was harvested or disked. Then it got exponentially harder when the snow came, because everything looks the same.”
If you’re going to hunt these damaged crops, it’s important to understand exactly what the farmer has or hasn’t done to the field. When you’re in these storm-impacted areas, the best bet is to play it safe and not hunt the field if you don’t know what the farmer has done in it. If you can confidently say there’s been no manipulation, go enjoy one of the best hunts of your life.
Torrential Rain Heavy precipitation can help or hurt an area’s potential for waterfowl activity depending on the existing water levels, the style of hunting, and the time of year. Generally, more water is good for ducks, and you should look for places with excess rainfall.
Torrential rains early in the summer before crops have matured aren’t usually as beneficial as late summer rains. While a good early storm can help sprout plants like smartweed and barnyard grass, the water has to stay high enough for those plants to emerge. The negative to early summer storms is that they can flood out potential food sources, resulting in little to no benefit other than filling water holes. Water does you no good if there’s no food to go with it.
Heavy rains late in the summer are almost always a plus. Adding water to vegetation and crops that have matured and gone to seed makes for a duck paradise. Wherever that rainfall was is the place you want to be.
Some hunters don’t like the excess water, commonly saying things like “it spreads the birds too thin” or “they aren’t in the usual holes.” These are valid arguments and I understand the reasoning here, especially if you’re confined to one or two spots or too busy to scout.
But, in my experience, I believe more water is better. More birds spread out over more water means there’s less competition and the birds are less pressured. It just takes the willingness to try new spots and spend more time scouting to find them.
As the birds spread out and look for these new hide outs, the walk-in marsh hunters that hunt very small and shallow wetlands will benefit the most.
Shallow Wetlands Shallow wetlands are the center of a yearly discussion about nesting habitat and success, but they are also valuable sources of nutrition during the fall migration if they don’t go dry.
Taylor Linder, a Ph.D. student studying grassland nesting birds in the prairie pothole region, encourages us think about duck biology and what they need to prepare for fall migrations. “Shallow wetlands often provide higher quantities and more easily accessible invertebrates than deeper wetlands,” Linder said.
This is easy to observe when the mid-season migration is on and the ducks are loaded into these wetlands. Some of the densest concentrations of mid-season migrants I have ever seen weren’t on big marshes, but instead on shallow wetlands full of freshwater shrimp and various grasses. For ducks like pintails and wigeon, the ideal wetland is about knee deep. You’ll see as many duck butts as duck heads when these are at their best.
Heavy rain events will usually fill vegetation and food sources with water, and the ducks follow. By paying attention to these summer storms, you give yourself the pre-season awareness it takes to navigate the hunt legally while also adding a base of knowledge that will help you predict the annual, local shifts of the migration.