In sharp contrast with the miserable outlook conveyed in my last column, the daisy chain of weather fronts that passed through the Great Lakes region over the past two weeks have drastically changed hunting and fishing conditions for the better.
Saturday, October 21, was opening day of duck season in northern Indiana. If you had read my last column, you’d have thought that it was hardly worth the effort to go hunting. As it turned out, the opener was pretty good. And, last weekend was even better.
How does that happen? It’s quite simple really - the weather changed. When it comes to fish and game, a day or two can make all the difference in the world. In this case, a whirlwind of wind, cooler temperatures and rain blew ducks in from the north and prompted chrome steelhead to migrate up area streams from Lake Michigan.
Besides waterfowl hunters and steelhead fishermen, area deer hunters have also cashed-in on the fall-like weather and some great bucks are being tagged. I usually don’t get too fired up about deer hunting until I see a decent buck, but this year it’s hard to ignore such great deer movement. I’m all in now folks.
Though many outdoorsmen are in tune with the impact weather has on the fish and game we pursue, a surprising number of them are not. I mention weather in this column a lot because a huge part of my life – even the success of my guide business – is largely dictated by the weather. Much of the time, the weather represents a make-or-break situation. This is especially true when it comes to waterfowl hunting.
Ducks and geese move when the weather requires them to. This means when it’s cold they seek high-energy food sources, such as waste grain, acorns or moist soil plant seeds. When it’s windy, they often look for places that afford them security from waves or blowing vegetation. Duck and geese love water, so when it’s raining, they will venture into places that are typically dry, including fields that hold “sheet water” in low spots.
These things have a huge impact on hunter success, and if you find a combination of good things, you’re on the right track. As with all hunting, scouting is key. And, by all means, good scouting should include knowing a lot about the weather, and in particular, what the forecast holds.
If it’s warm and calm (otherwise known as “nice weather”), ducks and geese will congregate in safe places that offer a little bit of everything. Sort of like a lounge in an office building that has a decent sofa, some magazines and a vending machine - it may not be the best spot for lunch or a nap, but it has sufficient creature comforts to make due.
Waterfowl hunters often call these places “loafs” and when unseasonably-warm weather hits in October and November, ducks and geese hang out in such locations. Golf courses, hidden marshes or lakes in town – places where hunters generally don’t go. The birds may not even move enough to reveal themselves and a small-town outdoor columnist may conclude that “there are hardly any birds around.” See how that works?
Deer are much the same and will restrict movement to nighttime hours to avoid warm weather and the hot sun. Keep in mind that deer live outside, so they grow their thick summer coat during fall. Imagine walking all over town in a down jacket when it’s 75 degrees. Not cool. It’s very frustrating to hunt day after day and not see any deer, but check the images on a scouting camera and voila, there they are at 1 a.m.
This is why fronts are so important to deer movement. They sense the impending change and move at dusk and dawn. As the rut kicks-in, bucks will start to move randomly 24 hours a day. You may even see one cruise past at high-noon on a sunny day, but I highly doubt it’s a hot, sunny day. Of course, you must be there to witness this sort of thing and most hunters don’t commit to a full day in a tree stand.
Much like waterfowl and deer, steelhead don’t do much during stagnant, warm weather. Generally, the rivers start to run low and clear, and though many streams remain cool due to springs that feed into them, the sun is still shining down on fish and the light penetrates the water better, which makes them uncomfortable. Steelhead evolved in the Pacific Ocean where death comes from above and below from orca, sea lions, sharks, eagles, osprey, and bear. Talk about a paranoid existence.
While the steelhead of the Great Lakes must worry about the aforementioned avian predators, and possibly the occasional bear up north, their No. 1 enemy here is without question, man. And, man is everywhere. Man is trolling on Lake Michigan and drifting flies in pools on small creeks. But, unlike natural predators, man often bumbles his way through the process. He makes a lot of noise with his boat and crashes through the water in his waders. Man is not very good at pursuing steelhead most of the time, and when the sun is high, and the water is low and clear, the odds are even more against him.
I always tell clients that steelhead know we are there the second we arrive. Make no mistake, they don’t know what we are, but instinct tells them we are not natural, and may pose a threat. Steelhead (or any fish for that matter) that feel threatened is not likely to eat. In fact, when it comes to steelhead in streams, they often seek shelter in log jams or deep water to avoid potential issues. Essentially, they become much harder to catch.
This is why a chain of weather events that bring precipitation and cooler temps improves the odds so much. Streams maintain good flows of cool water that holds a lot of oxygen and usually the water has some “turbidity,” giving the fish a sense of security. They don’t see shadows as easily and the additional flows create “white noise” that hides the angler’s lack of stealth. High water also dislodges aquatic insects, mollusks, crustaceans and fish eggs from the bottom, which are natural food sources for not only steelhead, but also the smaller baitfish they occasionally feed on as well.
So, in review, when it comes to some hunting and fishing, warm sunny weather is bad, while cool wet weather is good. Are we clear on that? Excellent.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at email@example.com.