By David Draper, Field & Stream's Central Flyway Duck Reporter
For the past few weeks, waterfowlers have been lamenting the bipolar nature of pre-peak-migration duck hunting. It's a here-today-gone-tomorrow proposition, as once plentiful local birds get pushed out by hunting pressure, leaving the skies comparatively empty.
That's the complaint I've been hearing from many of my contacts on the Flyway, especially those in the central and southern parts. But waterfowlers are optimistic by nature (what choice do we have?), and those same contacts who have been moaning about the poor season so far are pumped up about the weekend's Arctic clipper, which plunged temperatures up North into the single digits and promised to push birds south.
Last week, I heard several second-hand reports from north of the 49th parallel that conditions there are freezing up and birds are moving out. Hunters in Saskatchewan have been having good success, but say the small geese and many ducks are all but gone, leaving big honkers and some mallards to target.
In Manitoba, Phil Francone confirms he's not seeing many birds at all, though there are some Canada geese still around. "Every morning there's skim ice on the lakes," said Francone. "Though by afternoon most of it is gone. I think this cold front is going to lock up the smaller waters and move most of the birds out."
If refuge counts are any indication, many of those birds have already made their way down the Flyway. In South Dakota, the number of snow geese at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge nearly doubled this past week and since October 23, the duck count there has gone from 58,000 to 200,000, the majority being mallards and, interestingly, green- wing teal.
Canada geese numbers there have been steady, though Chris Hull of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission says that "honkers are starting to show up in the city of Pierre, right on time." Hull also reports that Sandhill crane and swan numbers are increasing as well. He was heading up to Eureka, S.D, for what he calls his annual "exotics" hunt. "Not what you think," said Hull. "Swans, snows, maybe even a merganser, but ducks and honkers aplenty. Swans are the big targets though."
In the Nebraska Sandhills, Brian Hauptman, calling geese with his yellow Lab Chip, relayed a story that illustrates the hot and cold nature of waterfowling this time of year. He hunted Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3, and said it was two totally different days:
"I ended up with mallards, 1 sprig, and a wigeon on Friday," he reported via text. "Sunshine and light SW wind Saturday am. Ended with 7 greenheads, 1 bull sprig, 4 honkers, and a juvey Ross! AWESOME MORNING. Birds constantly roaring in from up high. Divers showing up, couple bunches of high snows and a nice family group of 7 swans."
On the North Platte, hunter Matt Arndt reported mixed success as well, with weather hampering his efforts: "[It's been] slower than last year," said Arndt. "Plus the mornings all seem to be cloudy and calm which doesn't help if and when the birds fly. In my area Saturdays are almost a joke with banging all around me but Sundays are quiet as can be. We need a little push of birds, some sun, and some wind and then the duck harvest will steadily increase."
Arndt and the rest of the central and southern Flyway should get a boost after weekend temps from Glasgow, Montana, to Bismarck, N.D., slid into the teens. This, along with a dusting of snow, should bring flocks banking in from the north. Forever the optimist, I'm predicting this week's action will give grumbling hunters a new outlook on the season.
Find migration and hunting reports in your area on the Ducks Unlimited Migration Map.
Cold Weather Should Equal Hot Hunting