By Bill Monroe, WF360 Pacific Northwest Migration Editor
After a booming December, Oregon duck hunters are wading into a warm, soggy end to the 2017-2018 waterfowl season.
The best advice for late-season hunts comes from Mark Nebeker, manager of the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area near Portland for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
The island's public hunting has had some banner days and some dismal as well, but Nebeker says the area's tens of thousands of ducks (and geese) remain on their roosts in protected Sturgeon Lake as warm rainfall dominates the forecast for the next two weeks.
“Follow the water,” Nebeker advises those on scouting trips. “Flooded pastures are like duck candy.”
That's because most puddle ducks are either already paired up or are in the process and females (especially) are shifting diets to invertebrates – insects and small aquatic organisms chock-full of the proteins necessary for egg production, mating energy, and fat reserves for the trip home.
“They're paired up and ready to go,” Nebeker says of the birds on the island's popular hunting area.
At times during mid-December's cold snap, island hunters scored a whopping four-birds-per-gun, well above the two-birds-per-gun considered a standard “good day” benchmark for public hunting areas. The season's daily per-hunter average has been between two and three birds.
Now, cautions Eric Strand of S2 Outfitters in Warren (along the lower Columbia River), it's most important to get out and look for birds in rain-flooded fields.
Strand says he's had to use all of his hunting properties sparingly and closely watches the patterns ducks use.
“It's been a pretty good season,” he says, “but lack of any weather to speak of has been a challenging part of it.”
Strand's contacts tell him Western Washington still holds large flocks of ducks reluctant to come any further south, but some birds seem to have returned north from a dry northern California and occasional stiff wind storms carry ducks back into the Willamette Valley from the coast.
Strand notes a drop in wigeon numbers in his usual mixed bag of mallards, pintail, teal, and gadwall.
A welcome sight has been an influx of canvasbacks along the lower Columbia.
“It's really cool to see,” he says.
Brandon Reishus, waterfowl biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, agrees, citing increased bags of canvasbacks from Sauvie Island up the Columbia River into the interior.
Reishus says upper Columbia Basin hunters have done very well in Oregon's border counties along the roosting zones of the Columbia from Boardman to Umatilla, including the national wildlife refuge complex, but most birds continue to work north into Washington's wheat fields after lifting from the roosts.
The numbers of snow geese continue to rise around the refuges, he says.
Farther south, where duck hunting closes Jan. 21 on the high desert, “Summer Lake and Klamath froze earlier, but are warming up again,” Reishus says. That might mean “a small push back (from California) toward the end.”
Mostly, though, it will set the stage for a number of late-season goose hunts as whitefronts and snows return north.
(Another bright spot for those with permits is the upcoming Northwest Oregon goose hunt, Feb. 3 through March 10.)
Southwest Oregon duck-hunting has been just so-so, as well as that along the coast, Reishus says.
South Willamette Valley hunters did better than expected on Fern Ridge wildlife area near Eugene, but those birds will spread across rain-flooded fields as well as the season draws to a close Jan. 27, with no severe weather in sight on extended forecasts.
“It's too warm,” Reishus says. “I think the season has been kind of ho-hum; not one a lot of people would write home about, but also not too bad.”
Bill Monroe is an Oregon-based freelance writer who has hunted the Pacific Flyway for three decades. Monroe will provide hunting and habitat reports throughout the Pacific Flyway for the 2017-2018 waterfowl season.