The Waterfowler’s Dilemma: Busting the Roost
If you speak to any avid North Dakotan waterfowler who hunts agricultural fields, sooner or later you will hear them refer to “roost busting” as the bane of their existence. For those who are not aware, the term “roost busting” refers to the hunting of ducks or geese on the water they sit on at night, also known as their “roost.”
Roost water comes in varying sizes and shapes. It may be a small cattle pond, a cattail slough, a river, or a larger body of water such as a lake. What makes a piece of water a roost is not just that birds are using it; more specifically it means the birds are using it after they have finished their evening feed. It therefore becomes their nighttime resting place, or their home, so to speak.
Birds use certain roosts because they offer a safe place to escape both human and animal predation. Ducks and geese tend to continue using a specific roost until the weather pushes them out of an area, there migratory instinct tells them to leave, or until there is no longer an available food supply nearby. That being said, the factor that pushes birds out of an area the quickest is hunting pressure, especially if the birds are hunted on their roost water. This is the reason National Wildlife Refuges are often chalk-full of birds; they aren’t being harassed by any hunting pressure there.
Roost water is tempting to hunt because it contains an abundance of at-ease birds, but the drawbacks of hunting a roost far outweigh its short-lived benefits. For example, last year I hunted the same grain field three times over the course of a month, and I know other people hunted that field during the same timeframe. Ninety percent of the birds feeding in that field were coming from a roost approximately one-half mile away. Over those three hunts, we were fortunate to harvest nearly eighty birds. If we would have chosen to hunt the roost, we would have had only one good hunt on that pocket of birds.
Hunting roosts is a touchy subject because many waterfowlers, especially those from outside North Dakota, traditionally hunt water instead of dry fields. For the record, there is nothing wrong or unethical about water hunting. I definitely enjoy a water hunt or two every year as a change of pace from field hunting. The real issue I want to emphasize in this article is that hunting roosts is detrimental for all waterfowlers, not just field hunters. Whether you are coming in from out-of-state for a two week NoDak grind, or you’re a lifelong North Dakota resident looking to get out on a Saturday morning, we are all better off when birds are not hunted on their roost because it keeps the birds in the area as long as possible. There is not one waterfowler I know of that wants to see the pocket of birds they found disappear after one hunt, and the best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to let the water the birds rest on at night remain undisturbed.
For the avid water hunters reading this, you may be asking, “Well what do I do if I can’t hunt roosts?” The answer, which many of you already know, is to hunt what is known as “transition water.” Transition water is the water the ducks and geese use when they are not on their roost. Granted, there are situations where little to no transition water is available in an area, but more often than not there is more than one piece of water the birds are using. For instance, before ducks go to their feed field in the morning, they will generally “hop” to a different piece of water for at least a few minutes. These transition waters are often smaller and more shallow than roost waters, which make them much more enjoyable to hunt. Sometimes the transition water is simply standing water in a field, also known as sheetwater. After the ducks are done with their morning feed in agricultural fields, they often fly to a piece of transition water instead of their roost. This makes for prime gunning opportunities. In fact, I strongly believe the best over-water hunting takes place on transition water, not roost water.
Geese are a bit of a different creature than ducks. When they depart the roost in the morning, it is rare for them to first go to a piece of transition water. Instead, geese will use transition water, or loafing water, either after their morning field feed, and/or during the afternoon. The beauty of hunting transition water or loafing ponds for geese is that it typically requires less decoys than a field hunt, and the geese are less skittish when decoying over their mid-day water than they are feed fields.
Another issue that water hunters should consider when choosing a piece of water to hunt is how many birds are using that water at night. In the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, nearly every body of water will hold at least some birds at night, especially during the migration. So does that make every slough unhuntable because you‘re busting a roost? Obviously, the answer is no. If only a couple dozen ducks are using the water you’re looking at, you’re not going scare many birds away. On the other hand, if there are a relatively large number of birds using that water at night, you are probably best off letting it be and finding a nearby transition water. What is considered a “large” number of birds depends on the area, the timing of the migration, and the species of waterfowl you’re targeting. If a roost is large enough, such as a huge slough or small to large sized lake, it is generally not a problem to hunt it, as long as you try to avoid the exact spot where most of the birds are resting at night. That spot is their safe place, and to disturb it may mean the birds will abandon that general area, leaving you scratching your head over where all the birds went.
For all of you field hunters, you can bust roosts as well. This happens when the feed field you’re setting up in is within the visual and/or hearing range of the birds you’re targeting. If your truck’s headlights are shining on the water the birds are on when you’re setting up, you’re too close. Also, if your gunshots are more than a distant “pop” to the birds on the roost, you’re likely too close. There is no specific distance you need to place between yourself and the roost, because it largely depends on the terrain and wind direction. As a general rule, one-quarter mile is the closest you’d want to get to a roost under optimal conditions. To be extra safe, stay one-half mile or more away, and you shouldn’t disturb them.
One more thing to remember is that as the season progresses, the birds become much more wary. Due to this, you’ll be able to get away with being closer to an early season roost than you can a late November, iced-up roost. One last general principle is that you’ll be able to get away with hunting closer to a roost of ducks than you will geese, as geese are spooked more easily than ducks.
It is my hope that this article sheds some light on how critical it is to not disturb waterfowl on their roost water, and how you can have an amazing wing-shooting experience without busting the birds out of your area. Be where the birds want to be (other than the roost), hide yourself as well as possible, and enjoy one of hunting’s greatest sights as ducks and geese cup their wings and backpedal into your decoys.