By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor
With a projected flight of waterfowl near historical highs and adequate habitat conditions in many areas, the Central Flyway is primed for fall. Waterfowl managers and scientists throughout the flyway believe the stage is set for a strong waterfowl hunting season. Here's a state-by-state breakdown.
Wetland conditions vary across the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, reports Ducks Unlimited biologist Randy Renner, which could impact where migrating ducks and geese congregate this fall. Dry conditions have persisted in parts of the state since spring, Renner says, while other regions have received timely precipitation, including large amounts of rain in the past few weeks.
This mix of habitat conditions led to a slight decrease in duck production in North Dakota this year, Renner says, and some of the early-migrating species, such as blue-winged teal, have already begun to leave the state. Nevertheless, there should be quality hunting opportunities for locally raised birds when the season begins.
"The northern tier of counties has some of the best wetland conditions, particularly the Devils Lake region, where you can find a lot of water on the landscape," Renner says. "The further south you go, the drier the conditions become, though there are still pockets of water. And where you find water, you'll find birds."
North Dakota Game and Fish migratory game bird manager Mike Szymanski agrees, adding that hunters will need to do their homework in order to find concentrations of ducks and geese.
"We do have good numbers of birds to look forward to, including those coming out of prairie Canada," Szymanski says. "Whether we see those birds is all a function of weather and migration patterns, which is outside of our control. We just have to hope the weather cooperates."
Dry conditions created less than ideal nesting habitat across much of South Dakota this spring and early summer, including portions of the Prairie Pothole Region in the north-central part of the state.
There has been some improvement of wetland conditions since May, explains DU biologist Randy Meidinger, and where water has returned, so have the ducks, especially blue-winged teal.
But overall, Meidinger believes that this part of South Dakota will be noticeably drier than what hunters have experienced in recent years.
"After the past two winters with below-average snowfall, we'll need a good snowpack this winter to get many of these dry wetlands back into production for nesting birds and hunters," Meidinger says.
In the east-central and southeastern portions of the state, heavy rainfall has helped begin improving wetland conditions, explains Rocco Murano, senior waterfowl biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.
This improvement started right after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed their annual breeding duck survey in May, Murano says, helping improve brood-rearing cover in areas with quality habitat.
"Those ducks that did settle in South Dakota likely did very well," Murano says. "In terms of local production and hunting opportunities this fall, I'd expect a good to excellent season."
Waterfowl hunters in Nebraska can expect to see strong bird numbers in the early weeks of the season, thanks to good duck production in the state.
John Denton, Ducks Unlimited manager of conservation programs for Nebraska, says that wetland conditions in the Sandhills region supported an above-average number of nesting ducks this year.
While it is not unusual to see some of the larger permanent wetland basins holding water throughout the summer in this part of the state, Denton says that timely precipitation events kept the smaller temporary and seasonal wetlands full as well.
"On every trip to the Sandhills this summer I saw a large number of duck broods, which should translate into great hunting opportunities when the season gets rolling this fall," Denton says.
Denton believes that the production in the Sandhills benefited hunters during the state's early teal season, particularly in the Rainwater Basin, though varying wetland conditions contributed to mixed results for those targeting the first migrants of fall.
Looking ahead, Denton says that the conditions are right to attract and hold ducks and geese once colder temperatures and snow drive the birds out of Canada and the Dakotas.
"Food is not going to be an issue, and water levels along the Platte River and in the reservoirs are looking really good," Denton reports. "Based on what I've seen, this could be a really good year."
Rain events throughout the summer have created "tremendous water conditions" heading into Kansas's main waterfowl seasons, reports Matt Farmer with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
The amount of moisture has impacted management activities on Jamestown and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Areas, however, where crews have not been able to seed moist-soil units. "But in those places where water levels could be managed, the cover and food sources look great, and the teal that have arrived have been hitting it hard," Farmer adds. "Hunters have had a great early teal season."
The timely rain events across Kansas have helped bolster a strong year for corn, wheat, and other crops, Farmer says, and sheet water can be found in areas historically associated with migrating waterfowl, meaning that ducks and geese should have no problem finding reasons to stop and stay awhile in the state.
"The crops look phenomenal, the water is here—the table really is set for a great year," Farmer says.
Unfortunately, Farmer says that the abundant moisture has delayed the completion of a wetland management project on Neosho Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Kansas, as Missouri River flows remained too high to work on the water-control structures. Because of this, pumps will not be operational for the upcoming waterfowl hunting season.
When completed, the project, which was funded through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act in partnership with Ducks Unlimited, will help improve habitat for migrating waterfowl and provide better access for hunters.
The rainfall in Kansas has impacted conditions further south into Oklahoma as well, according to Josh Richardson, a waterfowl biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
River flows from the north have filled some of the state's larger reservoirs to the extent that shoreline vegetation has been impacted, Richardson reports, and there likely will not be enough time for the habitat and food sources to recover before the waterfowl season opens.
"The conditions certainly aren't optimal, but the northern part of Oklahoma has benefited from the rainfall, too, and there should be plenty of water in our wetlands well into fall," Richardson says. "The moisture has really helped the corn and milo as well, so there will be plenty of food available for the birds."
Overall, Richardson describes the hunting and habitat conditions as "above average" heading into fall, but as usual, cold weather to the north will be needed to push waterfowl into Oklahoma. If the migration moves more slowly than desired, Richardson encourages hunters to spend additional time scouting.
"We've experienced it before, where we just don't get the weather to the north to bring in fresh birds, and those ducks and geese that are here are seeing a lot of pressure," Richardson says. "That's when getting out to scout as frequently as possible and staying in step with the birds' movements really starts to make a difference."
Due to the state's size and wide range of habitat and waterfowl hunting opportunities, a comprehensive Texas preview will be provided in the coming weeks.
John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, South Dakota, who is an avid waterfowler and conservationist. Pollmann will provide hunting and habitat reports for the Central and Mississippi Flyways throughout the 2016-2017 waterfowl season.