This Article appeared in the leelanau enterprise

A warm and mild fall left duck hunters scrambling to fill the freezer, or even catch a glimpse of ducks landing in their spead. For duck hunters in Leelanau County, unfavorable conditions, scattered birds and low numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise.


“Lots of running and gunning this year,” says duck hunter Joe Wilson who hunts Benzie and Leelanau County. “We haven’t had the weather to concentrate birds, so it’s up to us to go find them, instead of waiting for them to land in our decoys.” The mild weather keeps waterfowl spread out and hard to pattern. Last year was a perfect example, and we saw a similar trend this season, with a small but productive storm coming in the last few days of the regular season. Fortunately, it’s not over yet.


“Waterfowl migration is usually triggered by the change in the length of daylight,” says local biologist Steve Griffith. “But with these mild winters we’re seeing a trend in birds hanging around longer since food sources aren’t being shut off. Normally cold weather shuts off their food supply forcing ducks south, if it’s warm, they have no reason to leave.”


Hunters reported mixed results from the regular season, but the overall consensus among them all was similar—too much blue sky, not enough waterfowl. Those that had success said it was a mixture of luck, and time spent behind the wheel scouting. Other hunters found success in areas they know frequently produce ducks, regardless of the weather, and can only come with time and knowledge gleaned from time spent outside.


Mild winters have also contributed to larger local populations, which can sometimes be a nuisance. The early goose hunt was specifically created to target nuisance and local populations, and now hunters are using the two day hunt in December to target local ducks that haven’t headed south.


Different tactics can be very effective when warm weather plagues the regular season or even during the short two-day hunt in December. In December the ducks haven’t been shot at since the end of the regular season, and they usually will loaf and feed in similar areas with less caution. This gives the hunter who does his homework an advantage. The “running and gunning” technique, or moving to the birds, can also be very effective during the two-day hunt. Leave the calls and the decoys at home, think fast and light. It’s also one last opportunity to pull on your waders before they retire to the closet next fall.


Jump shooting, or navigating rivers and lakes to flush ducks in gun range is extremely effective. It can be exhausting, often covering a few miles in waders, but it can fill a limit. This is also a great way to get introduced to duck hunting, without all the overhead costs that many people associate with the sport. It can be done without a boat, calls, decoys, or even camouflage, just some grit and a good shot. Remember to respect private property and know where the boundaries are. Unless a hunter has permission from the landowner, they cannot float hunt through private property.


Above all, the work done before hunters enter the blind pays off the most. Scouting this time of year, especially for the two-day hunt in December, will give the hunter a distinct advantage, especially if the quarry is constantly on the move. The wise hunter knows where ducks like relocate after they’ve been spooked. Or perhaps if he doesn’t get a shot off, throws out a few decoys and waits for the flock to return. Don’t over look small water or beaver ponds that offer the food and security ducks love.


There has been increasing pressure from duck hunters in Michigan to push back the season, so it coincides with the nasty weather that brings the birds. “The Mississippi flyway council meets twice a year to discuses bag limits, seasons, and populations, although I can’t say for sure there has been talk about changing the season,” says Steve Griffith. He comments how hard it is to forecast the past few years weather trends into the future, we need more time. 


The good news is, Leelanau County isn’t a bad place to watch the sun peek over a foggy marsh, even if there isn’t a quack for a few miles. With so many inland lakes on public land, lower hunting pressure, and less competition; the right attitude can make Leelanau County a waterfowlers paradise. “At least I haven’t had to clean my gun that much,” says one optimistic duck hunter at a boat launch.  When the first flock of ducks slips under a rosy eastern sky, it’s a good reminder why we love this sport, even if the quarry can be hard to find.