The Deep Freeze (aka, Where are the Ducks?)

We’re taught when things freeze, ducks head south. The problem was a whole lot of ducks just didn’t.

By Bill Cooksey
Sportsmen Outreach Coordinator, National Wildlife Federation

Photo by Bill Cooksey

“Well, where are they? We see the weather up there, and there’s no way you still have ducks.” That question came from a friend in the Mississippi River Delta in south Louisiana, and similar questions where echoing on the phone lines and social media pages of duck hunters in the southern end of the Mississippi flyway.

I live in Memphis. If you draw a circle 60 miles around Memphis, you’ll have a good idea where I do most of my hunting. I got the call because the first of two major cold fronts hit just before New Year’s Day. There was a thaw between the fronts, but it was short-lived. Both cold stretches saw nighttime temperatures hovering near zero and daytime highs in the upper teens. There was ice and snow, and it looked more like Minneapolis than Memphis. The only happy people here were plumbers.

Photo by Bill Cooksey

If you are a duck hunter, you now understand the question. We’re taught when things freeze, ducks head south. The problem was a whole lot of ducks just didn’t. My response to the question was to forward pics of mallard and pintail limits from the last several days with the caption, “They’re still here, and they ain’t leavin’.” 

The reasonable thing to ask is, why? I had my own theory, but it was a mix of anecdotal evidence combined with snippets I’d heard from biologists and other hunters. I believed it was primarily due to when the fronts arrived. When we get numerous cold, even relatively minor, fronts in December each seems to move new ducks into our area and push the old ones farther south, but December 2017 was very stable with few fronts. For the most part, we were hunting the same ducks just before Christmas as we had on Thanksgiving. 

Once you pass the winter solstice on December 21, most ducks are geared to begin pairing, and they want to push north as soon as possible. They’ll only move as far as forced by ice and snow covering their food – and it takes a lot more ice and snow than most think to move them. How’s this for anecdotal: on January 14 it was three degrees with a 20 mph north wind when I got in the boat. We fought ice, and we shot mallards and pintails. On January 21, and in the same area, it was over 60 degrees with a hard south wind, and green-winged teal rained from the skies. Other than temps and species, the biggest difference is the time of day we hunted. In the cold, we hunted afternoons, but once things warmed up it was back to traditional morning hunts.

Photo by Bill Cooksey

There’s anecdotal for you, but I wanted an expert to evaluate my hypothesis, so I called Mike Checkett. Mike works for Ducks Unlimited and is an old hunting buddy. He’s a waterfowl biologist by both education and experience. In other words, he’s a real expert.

After comparing notes on the season, I posed my theory and asked what he thought. “That’s pretty much what most of us think. Look, ducks migrate both ways for a variety of reasons. There’s timing; some ducks are going to migrate based primarily on daylight hours. There are even populations of mallards which you can almost look at a calendar and tell when they’ll arrive. Breeding and molt influences migrations. Body condition also plays a big part. And, finally, there’s weather. Some ducks just need serious weather to push them, and the later in the season the weather arrives, the harder they usually are to push. Conversely, as soon as it begins to warm they’ll head north.

Photo by Bill Cooksey

“A lot of southern hunters would be shocked what a late season mallard will put up with,” he continued. They can sit on a roost for days waiting for things to warm up or just for a sunny afternoon to expose food. Then they’ll fly out, feed and head back to the roost to await the next opportunity. Even when it does push them south, they’ll ride the first warm front back to the freeze/thaw line.”

In a nutshell, this season the cold arrived too late to trigger a major migration to south Louisiana. Stable weather through December allowed them to move and feed at will. When the cold arrived, they were in fine condition to ride it out, and that’s just what they did.