By Bill Nichol
How can you improve a hunting trip filled with swarming ducks, feet-down geese, and lots of shooting? Most waterfowlers would not have a ready answer for this one. But many of North America's top waterfowling venues are also prime habitat for big game, upland birds, or popular sport fish. This means that bagging a trophy buck, shooting a brace of pheasants, or landing a lunker bass is possible for waterfowlers willing to forgo that afternoon nap.
So before you plan your next hunting expedition, consider the following 10 destinations where you can combine world-class duck and goose hunting with other outstanding hunting or fishing pursuits. Taking advantage of these diverse sporting opportunities could make your next waterfowl hunting trip even more memorable and open the door to some exciting new outdoor experiences.
1. South Dakota Ducks with Pheasants
In autumn, few places in the United States have more ducks than eastern South Dakota. Thanks to its pothole-rich prairie landscape, the state's northeast corner often supports one of the highest concentrations of breeding ducks in the country. This region is also a major staging area for millions of ducks migrating south from North Dakota and Canada, giving hunters the opportunity to see spectacular concentrations of waterfowl. From 1999 to 2005, each out-of-state hunter bagged an average of nearly 11 ducks during his or her trip to South Dakota. This high success rate is due in part to relatively low hunting pressure. South Dakota annually issues only 5,000 waterfowl licenses to nonresidents through a lottery held in July.
Of course, nonresidents who draw a waterfowl license should also take advantage of the state's celebrated pheasant hunting. The ringneck season usually opens the third week of October, roughly a month after the start of duck season. Based on state surveys, pheasant populations in 2006 were near a 40-year high. As with ducks, pheasants are more concentrated in the eastern half of the state and occur in numbers as high as 13 birds per square mile.
2. New Brunswick Black Ducks with Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock
Wingshooters in search of a truly classic sporting combination should set their sights on the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The salt marshes of this eastern province are historic environs of the prized black duck and home to a waterfowling tradition dating back 300 years. Despite a decline in continental black duck numbers, New Brunswick's black duck population has remained relatively stable during the past several years. And duck hunters have capitalized on this trend. According to Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) harvest statistics, New Brunswick has one of the highest black duck-per-hunter seasonal averages in Canada.
The first of October marks the traditional start of waterfowl and upland bird seasons in New Brunswick. With the countryside awash in bright fall foliage, hunters can pursue black ducks and other dabbling ducks on tidal marshes in the morning and then stalk woodcock and ruffed grouse in lowland forests and farmland during the afternoon. A good pointing dog or flushing retriever is invaluable for locating these upland birds in thick cover. Both woodcock and grouse often flush in close quarters, offering only fleeting shots before they disappear among the limbs and tree trunks. Upland hunters revere both birds for their elusive nature and their agility in flight.
3. Bighorn River Mallards and Canada Geese with Trout
During the 1990s, south- central Montana's Bighorn River achieved renown among North America's fly-fishermen. At the time, stretches of the river's shallow, swift waters held an amazing 6,000 mature trout per mile. While its fish numbers have declined in recent years, the Bighorn continues to produce plenty of large rainbows and browns. These big fish attract big crowds of anglers in spring and summer. But by late fall, summer crowds are long gone.
All the better for waterfowlers. In December, trout fishing remains productive on the Bighorn just as duck and goose action is peaking. Each winter, migrating mallards and Canada geese stop in the Bighorn and Yellowstone river valleys to feed on waste grain in harvested croplands. As cold weather settles in, shooting can heat up on the river. "Ducks and geese gravitate to the Bighorn because it's a fast-moving river that stays open when local reservoirs and other wetlands have frozen up," says Randy Renner, a DU biologist in the Great Plains region.
4. Saskatchewan Ducks and Geese with Huns and Sharptails
The prairies of southern Saskatchewan have long been considered a top waterfowling destination, and for good reason. Each year, millions of ducks—including more than 2 million mallards on average—return to the province to breed. In addition, large numbers of staging Canada, snow, and white-fronted geese feast in Saskatchewan's harvested croplands before moving to wintering areas in the United States. This abundance of waterfowl ensures that hunters in Saskatchewan enjoy high success rates on a wide variety of ducks and geese. Harvest estimates from the CWS indicate that Saskatchewan has led all Canadian provinces in annual goose harvest during the past several years and ranks second only to Ontario in average annual duck harvest.
On top of this waterfowling bounty, southern Saskatchewan supports large numbers of upland birds. Beginning in mid-September and lasting usually through mid-October, hunters can follow up a morning of duck and goose hunting with an afternoon filled with Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse. These two upland birds inhabit hedgerows and windbreaks adjacent to agricultural fields where they can be hunted with dogs or flushed on foot. Adding these flushing birds to the bag is another memorable wingshooting experience that shouldn't be missed while visiting this wide-open province.
5. Central Florida Ducks with Largemouth Bass
Florida may not be the first place that comes to mind as a waterfowling destination. Yet the Sunshine State averaged more ducks harvested per hunter during the 2004 and 2005 seasons than any other state in the Atlantic Flyway. Two of the hunting venues that helped produce this impressive statistic—Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area—are public wetlands within a 90-minute drive from Orlando. During the duck season, which runs from mid-November to late January, both refuges provide prime habitat for wintering blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks. Hunters after exotic birds may also get a shot at fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks and resident Florida mottled ducks.
But fishing is the main attraction on several of central Florida's freshwater lakes. For more than 10 years, state biologists have included Lakes Tohopekaliga and Kissimmee in their published list of top spots for catching largemouth bass. Both Orlando-area lakes regularly produce plenty of fish that tip the scales at 10 pounds or more, and some of the biggest bass are landed during duck season.
6. Central Kansas Ducks with White-tailed Deer
Located in the middle of the Central Flyway, Kansas is at the heart of the nation's waterfowling action each fall. Starting in mid-October, ducks converge on Kansas wetlands to spend the winter or gather strength for another southward push. During years when heavy rains recharge key wetlands, waterfowl numbers in the state swell into the millions. Scott Manley, DU's director of conservation programs in Kansas, says lots of hunting activity is concentrated on Cheyenne Bottoms and McPherson Valley Wetlands wildlife areas and Quivira NWR—which form a complex stretching 70 miles across the center of the state.
The croplands and grasslands of central Kansas are also prime habitat for white-tailed deer. In this region, a combination of good genes and good habitat helps produce an abundance of bucks fit for the mantel, including several trophies in the state's record book that scored above 180 Boone and Crockett points. Rifle season usually runs from the end of November through the first week of December. While nonresident rifle tags can be difficult to draw in some deer zones, odds are better for those who opt for hunting during the longer archery season.
7. South Louisiana Ducks with Speckled Trout and Redfish
Louisiana's coastal marshes are one of the most well-known and important wintering grounds for North American waterfowl. In southeast Louisiana, two places that perennially attract ducks and hunters are Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area and Delta NWR at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Delta NWR manager Jack Bohannan says pintails are especially numerous on the refuge, with peak numbers topping 80,000 birds during the last few years.
Because these remote coastal wetlands are accessible only by boat, waterfowlers usually embark from the town of Venice at the southern tip of Louisiana. Located 75 miles south of New Orleans and 14 miles north of the Mississippi River's mouth, Venice is where the road literally ends. In November and December, duck hunters can also experience great redfish and speckled trout fishing in this area's sprawling river passes and adjacent freshwater marshes. George Horton, a veteran DU biologist and regional director in Louisiana, explains, "During late fall, speckled trout become concentrated in deep pockets of salt water in the river passes. Once you find one of these holes, the fishing can really get hot."
8. Kodiak Island Ducks with Sitka Black-tailed Deer
Alaska's Kodiak Island has long been a favorite destination for waterfowlers who are seeking adventure. And a Kodiak sea duck hunt provides that and more. In November and December, sea ducks congregate off the island when Arctic waters to the north become locked in ice. State biologist Larry Van Daele notes that common eiders, harlequin ducks, and scoters are the most popular ducks pursued by waterfowlers. In addition, Alaska harvest regulations on sea ducks are more generous than those in the Lower 48.
On the island itself, Kodiak's rugged, pristine wilderness harbors many big game species, including Sitka black-tailed deer. This prized member of the blacktail family was transplanted here in the early 1900s from the coastal rainforest of southeast Alaska. Since then, Sitka populations have grown steadily, Van Daele says, because the deer have adapted well to Kodiak's habitats. Proof can be found in the record books. Each year, Kodiak produces many of the biggest Sitkas taken on the continent. Although the deer season runs from August 1 through the end of the year, the best time to plan a combination hunt for sea ducks and deer would be later in the season.
9. South Texas Teal with Doves
Early teal season is always a thrilling primer for the regular duck and goose seasons. And the Texas Gulf Coast is one of the best places to take part in this early waterfowling opportunity. The statewide teal season runs during the second and third weeks of September, when bluewings stack up along the coast before jumping to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. "The length of the season is determined annually by the number of bluewings on the breeding grounds," says Eric Lindstrom, a DU biologist on the Texas coast. "But when the teal get down here, the action can be fast and furious."
September is also prime time for Texas dove hunting. During the 2005-2006 season, hunters harvested more than 8 million mourning, white-winged, and white-tipped doves in Texas. While most of the action takes place in central and south-central Texas, dove hunters on the coastal plains still bag plenty of birds. Moreover, teal season usually overlaps with the opening day of dove season in the coastal region, allowing hunters to hone their shooting skills on both teal and doves during the same day.
10. Texas Panhandle Canadas with Pheasants
For goose hunters who also like to chase pheasants, the Texas Panhandle has much to offer. By late November, harsh weather on the Great Plains begins to drive thousands of lesser Canada geese into northwest Texas. At the peak of the season, goose numbers can exceed 100,000 birds, according to Bill Johnson, a state waterfowl biologist who conducts midwinter waterfowl surveys in the area. While the Panhandle's wide-open landscape can make scouting difficult, it also makes for relatively low hunting pressure.
The region's irrigated croplands, CRP fields, and playa lakes also provide good habitat for pheasants. In the Panhandle, the pheasant season typically opens the first weekend of December and runs through the end of the month. Hunters seek out roosters by working cover along the edges of playa lakes with dogs or by driving the birds on foot. They have enjoyed excellent success in recent years. "Two years ago was the best season in this area since the mid-1980s," says Jason Brooks, a state wildlife biologist in the Panhandle. While last year's pheasant hatch was reduced by drought, the region received heavy rains this spring, which should help upland bird populations bounce back.