How to Fix a Bad Waterfowl Season Opener

Mallard Hunting Blues
Mallard Blues: A hopeful waterfowler scans the skies.Brian Grossenbacher

It’s opening day of duck season. You’ve scouted. You’ve planned. You’ve plotted and schemed. Your gear is ready. Rover is ready. And you’re in the best shape, physically, since high school. Well, almost. Everything’s as it should be, and all you have to do now is count down the immeasurable hours until legal shooting time.

Unfortunately, there are circumstances beyond your control. Variables you haven’t taken into account, ones you couldn’t have anticipated. Human elements. Weather. Governmental actions. A wrench in the gears. Time for Plan B.

You have a Plan B, right?

Follow along here as we improvise, adapt, and adjust to five unforeseeable, less-than-perfect situations we waterfowlers, especially those gunning on public land, often see on opening day or just prior to it.

1. Your traditional opening-day hole is dry—bone dry—with not enough rain forecast before the starting bell to fill it. What now?

While you may not be starting entirely from square one, you have your work cut out for you. Talk to area wildlife personnel to find out what else might be available on the property. Has there been any wetland construction you should know about? Is there recent beaver activity that might have created a new opportunity?

Paper maps and aerial imagery of the vicinity are invaluable and deserve a second or third look. In a worst-case scenario, you may have to turn your back on your favorite haunt, start from scratch, and begin scouting anew nearby.

2. A group of hunters to the north jumps the gun on legal shooting time by almost 10 minutes, according to your watch. Chaos ensues.

Legally, you have no choice but to bite the bullet, observe the mayhem, and wait until your wristwatch says that it’s time to load up. Be ready to go hot as that last second ticks off; chances are good the birds are up and moving, thanks to the early guns. With any luck, you’ll get a good ID on the shooters (you have your binoculars in your blind bag, of course) and get checked by the local wildlife officer, to whom you can provide a statement and description.

Duck Hunting Weather
Duck Weather: You can’t bank on cold and snow in the earliest days of duck season.Dusan Smetana

3. Opening day is predicted sunny with temperatures hovering around 80, with high humidity and more than likely lots of mosquitoes.

Hunt early. Hunt late. That's when you're going to see the highest hunter pressure and resulting bird movement. Under these conditions, it's vital to stay hydrated, set up in the shade (if possible and if it's not already occupied), and keep a very close eye on your retriever. Heat-related injuries can happen within seconds, even to strong, well-conditioned dogs. Keep them cool. As far as the mosquitoes are concerned, crank up that Therma­cell unit.

4. A solo hunter sets up 75 yards away just before legal shooting time.

With the utmost diplomacy, approach the other hunter, explain that he appears a bit close for comfort, and impress upon him the safety concerns of his proximity to your position. There are ethical issues at play here, too, which you can address—first come, first served is the rule on public lands. Given this information, he may choose to relocate; he may not. If the latter, would he want to combine forces and share a blind, thus commanding a greater and friendlier field of fire, while keeping safety issues at bay?

Unfortunately, there are times when no amount of talking hat in hand will appease such an interloper. And if you’re worried for your health and well-being, it’s time for a move.

5. Due to heavy rains upstream, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the gates overnight, increasing the flow on your riverine spot to potentially unhuntable conditions.

Safety is paramount here; no mallard is worth drowning for. And besides, the rising water will likely have displaced any ducks you’ve previously scouted. That said, it’s cruising time, but preferably after sunup when you can see obstacles. Gas up the boat and start looking. Quiet backwaters, ­secluded eddies, inundated standing timber, and newly flooded acres all hold potential; however, you need time spent at the tiller to find such spots. Face it—­opening day just became scouting day, but it may be worth it when you discover 200 ­mallards paddling through a knee-deep field of foxtail.