Fowl Weather Duck Hunt
Although I’ve been an avid upland and big-game hunter for most of my life, over the years I’ve only dabbled in waterfowl (duck and goose) hunting. And after moving to Colorado from Minnesota seventeen years ago, waterfowl hunting fell completely by the wayside, until a friend and dedicated waterfowler, Tim Brass (State Policy Director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers), invited me on a January 2015 goose hunt.
Watching V-shaped flocks of honking Canada geese flying overhead, not to mention those enticed to within shotgun range, rekindled my desire to hunt waterfowl. For those with the same latent duck and goose hunting itch, first you’ll want to purchase the appropriate licenses and stamps. Waterfowl hunters need a small-game license, for starters.
Hunters age 16 or older are also required to purchase a $25 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (Duck Stamp) and a $5 Colorado State Waterfowl Stamp. In addition, pick up a $10 Colorado Habitat Stamp (for anyone aged 18 to 64), but only one is required per hunter each year, in the event you bought one with your turkey, big-game or upland-game license.
Even for those not interested in waterfowl hunting, buying a Duck Stamp is a good investment because it funds conservation. Since 1934, sales of Federal Duck Stamps have generated more than $800 million. This money has been used to purchase or lease more than 6 million acres of wetlands habitat—places that help waterfowl and benefit many other species, including endangered and threatened wildlife.
Colorado is divided into two major waterfowl hunting regions: east of the Continental Divide (in the Central Flyway) and west of it (the Pacific Flyway). The Central Flyway is subdivided into three sub-zones: northeast, southeast, and mountain/foothills. In the Northeast Zone (east of I-25 and north of I-70), where we were hunting, the 2015-16 duck season runs from Oct. 10 – Nov. 30 and Dec. 12 – Jan. 24.
Saturday (Jan. 9) evening I drove north from Colorado Springs to my friend Troy Winter’s residence near Windsor. The drive would have been uneventful if not for the pea soup fog, which slowed traffic on I-25 down to a plodding 30 mph in places. The fog was forecast to stay put through mid-morning, along with below zero temperatures. However, icy temps and clearing fog would likely be a duck hunting positive.
According to Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) Colorado Outdoors Online editor, Jerry Neal (in “Tips For Hunting Ducks on Colorado’s Public Lands”): “Weather, more than any other variable, impacts hunting success. In general, the colder and nastier the conditions the better the duck hunting. Ducks are more active in cold weather, and the low visibility during storms makes them more receptive to decoys and calling.”
Up at 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning, we donned layers of polypro, fleece, wool and protective outer shells, not to mention face masks and gloves with break-away fingers. After stepping outside into fog-shrouded darkness, the biting cold (-9 Fahrenheit!) immediately snapped our groggy senses to attention. Not long after we were in a blind along the Cache la Poudre River.
Neither Troy nor I have amassed any useful (i.e., recognizable to ducks) calling skills, but Troy’s 18-year-old son, Cory, is a duck linguist. Toting a half-dozen calls around his neck, he’s a duck hunting equivalent of the gold chain-wearing Mr. T in “Rocky III” (1982). To borrow Mr. T’s catch-phrase, we pitied the ducks that came within earshot of Cory’s convincing calls. And Cory didn’t have to wait long to demonstrate his mastery of duck linguistics.
Soon after the first hints of dawn fringed the eastern horizon, a solo drake (male) mallard was drawn to Cory’s combined calling and decoy spread. A 12-gauge roared and the first duck of the day fell. Not long after we added a pintail to the game bag, and so on. Because Cory was also the only one with waders, he hurried out to collect the ducks before they floated too far downstream. Throughout the morning singles and occasional groups of two, three or four ducks flew by, some of them succumbing to Cory’s calling and our subsequent volleys.
Although staying warm was a challenge (numb fingers and toes plagued each of us) in the frigid weather, a mid-day break to warm up and eat lunch provided a short respite to prepare for the modestly warmer (around +10 Fahrenheit) afternoon hunt. At the end of the day, when the sun dropped behind the Front Range, quickly pushing temps back down below zero, we had a half-dozen-plus ducks in the bag, including (in part) a mallard, pintail, northern shoveler, wigeon and merganser.
Cory says the Front Range is unique due to being on the edge of the Central Flyway (vs. in its direct midst), resulting in a mishmash of ducks using the diverse waterfowl habitat found here. CPW Waterfowl Biologist Jim Gammonley adds: “Colorado offers shallow wetlands and playas, large marshes and reservoirs, rivers and sloughs and agricultural fields—all of which can support ducks.”
And some outfitters say Colorado’s Front Range waterfowl hunting (with an emphasis on geese) is as good as it gets. Based on my (extremely limited) experiences so far, I can’t disagree. As Troy said in a Facebook post about our hunt: “One of my most memorable days with my son and good friend. Thank god Cory can call the ducks and I can still shoot. All with the temp at -9 F. Cory would go walk the river to warm his feet!”
For additional information on Colorado waterfowl hunting see CPW’s waterfowl hunting webpage.
Story written by David Lien. Lien is a former Air Force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience II: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”