Do cold fronts help duck action or hurt it? A couple of guides give their thoughts.
Forty-four-degree temperature drops are normally reserved for places like Canada’s Northwest Territory.But the digital thermometer built into Jeff Poe’s Ford pickup gave clear evidence that nature loves to break trends.
Upon leaving his favorite rice field near the town of Welsh on the previous day, Poe towed eight specklebellies and 24 ducks. He and his clients donned long-sleeved camo shirts, but the sleeves were rolled up past their elbows. Beads of sweat seeped from pores on their foreheads, collected into bigger drops and ran in near-steady streams around their eyebrows.
The temperature gauge on Poe’s truck read 81 degrees. Not exactly what you’d call duck-hunting weather.
But Poe didn’t care; nor did his clients. They had in their bags what they had dreamed about for weeks — limits of ducks and geese.
But on this day, as Poe, Louisiana Sportsman sales guru Mark Hilzim and I loaded into the same green Ford pickup for the drive to the same rice field, the external temperature gauge read 37 degrees. The mercury had fallen 44 degrees in less than 24 hours.
“I don’t know what we’re going to find when we get out there,” Poe said. “We did real well yesterday, but I don’t like these kinds of fronts.”
During the hour-long drive to the field in Welsh, nary a cloud blocked the view of any of the thousands of stars twinkling overhead. The day, it was evident, would dawn clear, blue and bitterly cold.
And that’s just what happened as the three of us stood in a pit blind buried deep in a levee between two flooded fields. Pintail, mallard and gadwall decoys, painstakingly placed in isolated groups days earlier, bobbed and shimmied over the rolling waves on the surface. The sky was bluer than the open Gulf on a slick-calm day.
“I’m not seeing near the number of birds that I saw yesterday,” Poe said. “This is going to be tough.”
Indeed it was. At 10 a.m., we exited the blind with two mallards and one, uh, smiling mallard, the only fruit of a morning spent watching near-empty skies. Better shooting by Hilzim and me would have doubled the haul, but still, just as Poe feared, the action was a far cry from the previous day.
Cold fronts are loved by most duck hunters across the southern United States. These winter blows carry frosty air from the Arctic across the Midwest and Ozarks, freezing lakes and ponds and covering waste seeds in agricultural fields under thick blankets of snow.
Ducks have no place to alight and no food to eat, so they’re forced into the southern states, especially Louisiana, where there’s water, water everywhere, and it remains in its liquid form throughout the year. In a nutshell, cold fronts are good for Louisiana hunters because they bring in the ducks.
Or at least, that’s how the theory goes. Reality can deviate substantially.
Every front does bring down some new ducks, but it’s a very rare event for hunters to go to bed with temperatures in the 70s and their duck ponds empty and wake up with ice on their windshields and their ponds packed with feathers.
That’s because so-called “grand passages” occur only, on average, about once a decade, when the jet stream sets up just right and delivers a powerful blow of frigid air across the continent. We had one in 1982, one in 1989 and another in 1997.
These grand passages are so all-encompassing that the ducks and geese can actually block out air-traffic-control radars. With the grand passage of 1997, some Midwest airports even had to be closed for several hours.
But short of a grand passage, cold fronts can have a very negative short-term effect on duck hunting.
“I would much rather hunt the day before a front passes than the day after,” Poe said. “I like a wind out of the east or the south much more than a wind out of the north or northwest.”
Lloyd Landry, who guides in the Venice area, agrees.
“I find the day before a front to be the best hunting,” he said. “You have windy weather; it’s sometimes nasty. I prefer duck hunting in nasty weather.”
Like fish, ducks can read atmospheric conditions and sense when a front is getting ready to come through. They know their ability to find food may be limited by high winds, turbulent water and even snow or ice. They may be forced to migrate and abandon a certain area.
So during the day or two leading up to a front, ducks move frequently to fill their gullets with prime grass and seeds. Hunters notice the increase in duck activity, and their bags fill quickly.
But after the front passes, clear skies and strong winds serve to limit duck movement.
“Ducks can’t see as well when it’s clear,” Poe said. “Not only are they often looking into the sun, but there are shadows everywhere and they can’t see movement as well.”
This intimidates ducks and causes them to want to stay put after they locate a safe area. While they’re flying, they also are searching desperately for a safe place to alight that has some feed, where they can stay hunkered down. This actually can be good news for hunters.
“Ducks work much better when it’s sunny,” Poe said. “They just want to get out of the sky, and they can’t really see you in your blind if the sun’s at your back. You can actually get away with a good bit of movement.”
Strong winds, also, make it tougher for ducks to locate movement on shorelines and levees.
Ducks know that the clear skies and winds combine to stack the odds against them, so they move as little as possible following a front.
That inactivity can last for a couple of days, according to Landry.
“Two or three days after a front, you’ll get just dead-calm conditions. The ducks don’t move. They’ll raft up in open water, and they don’t get up,” he said. “When it’s calm like that, you’ll have all your action in the first half-hour. Then it just dies.”
Whenever Landry has to hunt on a calm, bluebird day following a frontal passage, he spends his time wishing he were someplace else.
“When it’s calm like that, the whole time I’m in the blind I’m thinking, ‘I ought to be speck fishing,’” he said.
But, of course, not every front is followed by clear skies. In the 23 years that Poe has been hunting Southwest Louisiana, he’s noticed bluebird fronts bring the worst duck action, but overrunning fronts bring the best.
“When we get those overrunning fronts that push through, but it’s still cloudy, maybe drizzly, and the wind’s out of the northeast, we’ll just absolutely smoke them,” he said. “The ducks will fly all day, and we’ll be looking at ducks in the air the whole time.”
Landry has found the same thing to be true in the southeastern corner of the state.
“When it’s overcast and nasty after a front, the ducks move continuously,” he said. “They try to sit down in the open water, but it’s too rough, so they have to get up and come into the ponds. You could literally have action all day.”
But whether conditions are clear or cloudy, too much wind never works in the hunter’s favor, according to Poe.
“A perfect wind would be about 10-15 m.p.h.,” he said. “The ducks can’t hear you calling as well when it’s too windy, and since it takes them longer to get to the decoys, they have a much longer time to look you over and see if something just isn’t quite right.”
On very windy days, Landry actually likes to set up with the wind blowing across his blind rather than from behind.
“The ducks fly across, and when they slow down and put up that parachute, they’re right in front of your blind,” he said.
And if that wind happens to coincide with an overrunning front, there’ll be more parachutes going up than over Normandy six decades ago. n
Capt. Jeff Poe can be reached at 337-598-3268; Capt. Lloyd Landry can be reached at 985-785-9235.
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