By Kyle Wintersteen, WF360 Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor
Late November's frigid cold seemed a distant memory over the weekend as record-breaking 70-degree temperatures swept the mid Atlantic states. In Delaware, the balmy weather had a significant impact on waterfowl behavior and hunting success.
"Freezing conditions tend to result in a dilemma for us," said Rob Hossler, wildlife program manager for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Around Thanksgiving, a lot of our freshwater ponds and impoundments froze early, which hurt inland hunters. But the cold also benefited a lot of people by concentrating ducks in our tidal areas. With the mild weather, the fresh water is opening back up, and birds are more scattered across the tidal areas."
Despite these changes, Delaware still has plenty of ducks for its third season, which is open through January 25. In fact, Hossler estimates that both mallards and black ducks are at or nearing peak numbers in the state.
"Hunters are also reporting a lot of gadwalls mixed in," Hossler added. "Blacks and mallards are really our bread-and-butter species this time of year, and we've gotten consistent pushes of them. Green-winged teal are often taken during this season too, but prior cold conditions have likely pushed many of them farther south. In years past, many hunters have complained that the birds still aren't here, but more people are probably fairly happy right now. If they aren't shooting ducks, they should at least be seeing them, which is enough for many hunters to have fun."
Assuming Delaware settles back into a typical winter weather pattern (as the extended forecast indicates), there's great potential for a strong finish to the season.
"I think we're in good shape, assuming we can hold onto the birds we have," Hossler said. "As the late-season weather turns colder, our tidal areas stay open, thanks to warmer air coming off Delaware Bay and the ocean. Traditionally, our best late-season waterfowling occurs from Smyrna south to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Northern areas tend to ice up much faster."
This is not to suggest that good duck hunting can't be found on inland waters. Five seasons ago, I hunted a spring-fed pond in northern Delaware and bagged the fastest drake mallard and black duck limit I've ever shot.
So don't let one weekend of unseasonable warmth fool you. Based on bird reports, it's a great time to be a Delaware duck hunter. Once the weather and ducks resume normal flight patterns, the First State is set to prove yet again why it's one of the Atlantic Flyway's premier waterfowling destinations.
Kyle Wintersteen is a freelance writer and passionate waterfowler who has hunted the Atlantic Flyway for two decades. Wintersteen will provide hunting and habitat reports for the Atlantic Flyway throughout the 2013-2014 waterfowl season.