By Jay Anglin, WF360 Great Lakes Region Migration Editor
Great Lakes waterfowl hunters are rejoicing as unseasonably cold weather, passing fronts, and persistent north winds have pushed birds south early this fall.
Each year, an astonishing number of waterfowl pass through Minnesota during the fall migration on their way to the heart of the Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic Flyways, and the North Star State has been ground zero for ducks and geese this past week.
“Traveling across Lake of the Woods several times over the past week we have certainly seen some large rafts of divers—bluebills and buffleheads,” says Greg Hennum, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge on the Rainy River north of Baudette. “The early winter-like weather has certainly sped up the timing of the duck migration in our area.”
Early snow cover on fields and frozen wetlands in Canada have kick-started the migration for all but the hardiest waterfowl species, and similar weather conditions have prevailed well into Minnesota. The average daytime temperatures have been the coldest the state has experienced for this time period in over 50 years, a trend that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
While water conditions remain below average in the northwest portion of the state, plentiful precipitation in recent weeks in much of the rest of Minnesota has left many wetlands brimming with water. Though the state’s famous crop of wild rice is quickly being depleted by hungry waterfowl, moist-soil plant seeds are readily available to birds in seasonal wetlands that are now holding water.
In areas that received recent heavy rains, some remote access sites are very difficult or impossible to reach due to high water. In addition, saturated soil and standing water are making it difficult for farmers to harvest crops. Where the harvest has already occurred, birds are reported to be keying on sheet water in stubble fields. Hunters that put in scouting time have experienced exceptional hunting when they find these low-lying areas.
“With the harsh early October weather, northwest and north-central Minnesota have seen a large push of birds. I was lucky enough to be hunting near Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area during last week’s snowstorm and witnessed several large feeding concentrations of thousands of mallards. Lots of birds passed through, while many are still staging in the area,” reports guide Matt Breuer. “Closer to Bemidji, places like Leech Lake and Winnibigoshish are loaded up with divers. Ringers, scaup, redheads, buffleheads, and some cans are in the area. The birds are still jumping with every northwest squall, so expect a trickle effect until we start seeing some lakes locking up in November.”
Weekly Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports indicate early-season migrants have largely moved into the southern tier of the state or further down the flyway. As they push on, the vacancy is quickly being filled by large numbers of ring-necked ducks as well as other diver species and good numbers of mallards. Furthermore, migratory Canada geese have arrived at traditional migration stop-overs and wintering areas.
With abundant waste grain available, geese and mallards should provide ample opportunity for field hunting in many parts of the state. Stubble fields adjacent to ice-free lakes and rivers should be prime locations for the remainder of the season.
“Birds are showing up here. We saw some little geese on Sunday mixed in with flocks of big birds, so the migration has definitely arrived in the west-central part of the state,” says Avery/Banded pro-staffer Will Harvey.
“There are a few gadwalls and mallards around, but more are arriving daily now. The woodies are bunched up and won’t be here much longer, especially with colder temperatures in the forecast this week,” Harvey adds.
While the cold weather and precipitation has provided great hunting in Minnesota over the past few weeks, the situation is a bit of a double-edged sword as marshes and lakes may freeze over early this season. Minnesota hunters are advised to get out now and enjoy the good old-fashioned waterfowl migration that is taking place, before it’s too late.
Jay Anglin is an avid hunter, fisherman, and guide from LaPorte, Indiana. A veteran writer, Anglin, holds a biology degree from Northern Michigan University. He will be providing migration updates from the Great Lakes Region throughout the 2018-2019 waterfowl season.