I remember duck hunting on the first flight day I was a part of. The sheer number of birds moving into the area seemed like enough for a lifetime and I was overwhelmed by the thought of this many ducks trying to work our spread. The weather was miserable and the birds were on the move. Since that day, I have wondered what sparked those birds and made them move into area we were in. This article is about the weather, setups, and other patterns I have observed while hunting flight day ducks and geese. If you get the chance to hunt on a day when new birds arrive, you do not want to miss it. It is certainly spectacular.
How weather influences a flight day for waterfowl
There are many factors that influence when the birds from up north decide to make the big trip south for the winter. Perhaps the most thought of, and quite possibly the factor that makes the most sense, is the weather. Hunters from all across the nation are on their favorite weather app each morning, hoping for a cold front to move across Canada and the upper United States and push new birds into their area. With that, there are several elements of the weather that can trigger a major waterfowl migration including temperature, moon phase, and wind.
Just because the temperature does not drop below freezing does not mean there cannot be a flight day for waterfowl. In many instances, birds will push out of an area not because the weather is too cold for them to bare, but because there is a major change in the current temperature pattern. For instance, say the weather has been 60 degrees in South Dakota for a week straight. Then the temperature drops to 36 degrees for several days across the state. When this happens, hunters should be in the blind and anticipate seeing new birds. The weather change will trigger the birds’ instincts, and in turn hunters will have success in the coming days. I have seen this many times in Missouri, especially early in the season.
The direction and how strong the wind is blowing is also critical to when birds move. Depending on where you are located, certain winds are more likely to bring fresh ducks and geese into the area. Typically, waterfowl hunters are hopeful that a stiff north wind, at lease 15-20 miles per hour, will bring new birds in. In many cases, this is true and north winds will get ducks and geese to move south. However, waterfowlers should not overlook a strong west wind. Being located in North Central Missouri, I have witnessed several flight days when the wind has been straight out of the west. I, like many hunters, have my guesses as to why this happens. Regardless, if you see strong north and westerly winds in the forecast, be sure to block off work and find yourself in a decoy spread somewhere.
A common misconception among hunters is that when the wind is blowing out of the north, every person in a duck blind across the United States should see new birds. This is rarely true. It is important to look at a weather map closely and examine where the wind pattern starts and stops.
In the picture above, you can see where the wind (blowing out of the west) starts and stops. In areas where the wind begins to pick up, hunters should expect to see a decline in duck numbers. However, as for where the wind stops, hunters should expect to have new birds in the area. Understanding where the wind starts and stops will help you when trying to determine if a certain day will bring new ducks to your location.
This is a screen shot taken from the Windy.app. See their website here.
When you see snow in the forecast for your flyway, be sure to be sick and out of work that day. I have found that when snow covers the birds’ food source, it is very likely they will be on the move south. This makes sense to many hunters because the birds go to where there is a food source and when that no longer exists, they will move out of the area. Oftentimes, the ducks and geese will move south just beyond the snow line. If you find yourself at the edge of where the snow stops, grab the decoys and your hunting buddies. It may be the best hunting of the year.
Although not thought of as often, moon phase has a major impact on when birds migrate south. Many times during a full moon phase in the fall, I can step out at night and hear geese flying overhead. The full moon allows waterfowl to move comfortably throughout the night because they can see much better and they feel safer. When planning a hunt, take moon phase into consideration. If you are hunting the morning after one, do not be surprised to have new birds around.
How to set up for waterfowl on a flight day
On days when birds are pushing south, the location where you decide to set up does not matter much. There are several reasons behind this. First off, these are new birds coming in. They do not know where the main food sources are, nor do they know where they are safe. Second, on flight days, waterfowl are coming down the flyway by the thousands. Therefore, there is a better chance you will see ducks and geese at a location where you usually do not. From what I have seen, setting up in a place where the birds can see your decoys works best on the flight day. Let them know you are there, and they will oftentimes be curious enough to come check out your spread.
If you are anticipating a flight day, throwing out 5-6 more dozen decoys than you usually do works best. By doing this, you are much more likely to get the flight ducks’ attention since they tend to fly higher on these days. Also, they tend to be in bigger bunches. Therefore, when you set a larger spread you are in fact imitating flight birds that have found a safe place to rest.
It is best to call early and often at flight ducks. Again, these birds are fresh. They are not used to this area and do not recognize areas where hunters are. If you have a cut-down call or another type of loud and raspy call, this is the day to let it rip. Once you get the birds attention you can back off and work them like normal. However, until you get them headed toward your decoy spread, call loud and aggressive.
Which time of day is best for hunting on a flight day
Based off personal experience, the morning of a flight day is oftentimes slow. Hunters have ideas for why this is, but I think it is due to factors such as weather and visibility. In the morning, hunters cannot see as well and ducks cannot either. Therefore, the ducks are probably flying over head, but they are too high to see in low light conditions. If you are anticipating a flight day, do not be discouraged if the morning is slow.
By the middle of the day, you can usually tell if your area has picked up new ducks. If it is indeed a flight day, this can be the best time of day to hunt. The birds can see your spread well and you can see them flying high over the marsh. If you see ducks by the thousands flying over during the middle of the day, it is time to get your stuff and head out.
Hunting the afternoon on a flight day can be great as well. When birds continue to move all day, there is rarely a lull in the afternoon. For hunters that are not morning folks, flight days are your favorite to hunt because the hunting usually gets better as the day wares on.
Hunting the days after a flight day
The day after a flight day can be hit and miss. Many hunters believe the ducks and geese rest after they have flown through the night and ended up at a nearby marsh or refuge. I believe this to be true, as I have had average luck the day after a big push of birds.
All that being said, the week following a flight day for ducks and geese is phenomenal. The birds are rested up and ready to explore the new location. Remember, the birds are new to the area and do not know where it is safe and where the food is. Therefore, they tend to respond well to calls and show interest in decoys. These birds have not become stale yet and hunter success will increase during these days.
Waterfowl hunting during a reverse migration
When waterfowl hunters think of a flight day, they think of strong north winds and a major drop in temperatures. Indeed, this is often true, especially during the first half of the season when birds are pushing down the flyways for the winter.
However, there is another type of flight day weather that will trigger a migration for ducks and geese. A south wind and a major warm up in a particular part of the flyway will spark a reverse migration. Believe it or not, I have seen this many times while out hunting. Birds will catch the wind from the south and move back north during the winter. It seems odd that this would happen, but do not be surprised if you have new ducks move into the area on a warm day with a stiff south breeze.
Find the Ducks!