By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor
With continental duck and goose populations at high levels, waterfowlers in the Central Flyway are ready for opening day, but state biologists caution that less-than-ideal wetland conditions could make hunting a challenge in certain areas. Here’s a state-by-state outlook for the upcoming waterfowl season along much of the flyway.
Surveys indicate that duck production was down slightly in North Dakota this year, as severe drought gripped large portions of the state this summer. Heading into fall, dry conditions persist in many areas. The annual fall wetland survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department shows a significant decline in wetlands from last year, but Mike Szymanski, the state’s migratory game bird management supervisor, believes falling water levels could actually help hunters.
“When the prairie is wet, the birds have a lot of different potholes to choose from,” Szymanski says. “With so many of the smaller wetlands now dry, the ducks will be concentrated on the remaining wetlands.”
Grain and field pea harvests are nearing completion, providing early field hunting opportunities for mallards and pintails (the season opened for resident hunters on September 23). Local Canada goose numbers are also strong, and hunters pursuing the big birds have enjoyed consistent success in recent weeks.
“There was also strong production among Arctic-nesting geese this summer, so I expect that hunters in North Dakota will have good opportunities to target snow geese and little Canada geese as the migration gets rolling,” Szymanski says. “Overall, things are not looking too bad. Our local duck numbers and water levels are down, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. What we really need is a favorable weather pattern to settle across Canada beginning in October.”
When Ducks Unlimited Regional Biologist Bruce Toay visits some of his favorite wetlands in north-central South Dakota this fall, he won’t be wearing waders. In fact, he won’t be bringing decoys either.
“I’ll be looking for roosters in some of my traditional duck hunting spots this season,” Toay says. “We are pretty dry.”
Toay’s take on wetland conditions sums up the outlook for much of South Dakota heading into fall. Among the prairie pothole states surveyed this spring by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Dakota was the driest, with breeding duck numbers down by 23 percent.
McPherson County, which is traditionally a hotbed of duck production because of its abundant wetland basins and grasslands, is among the areas most severely impacted by the dry weather.
“You get west of the James River and up into the Missouri Coteau and wetland conditions begin to deteriorate rather significantly,” explains Rocco Murano, senior waterfowl biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “There are localized areas that have received more rain, but overall it is very dry out there.”
Shallow seasonal and temporary wetlands are nonexistent, and even some larger semipermanent wetlands have completely dried up. Moreover, many wetlands that do have water are ringed by mudflats that make hunting difficult.
Murano believes that the dry conditions could impact the distribution of staging waterfowl in the state this fall. “The upside is that any place that has water should hold birds given the high continental duck populations,” Murano says.
In good news for waterfowl hunters, recent heavy rains have bolstered water levels in parts of the state. In addition, Murano says hunting for local Canada geese has been good over the past month.
“All things considered, there are still reasons to be excited about this waterfowl season despite the extremely dry conditions that have impacted the state,” Murano says.
The September teal season got off to a strong start in Nebraska, but warm temperatures eventually brought the action to a standstill in many traditional hunting areas. However, Dr. Mark Vrtiska with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission believes the stage is set for improved hunting when general waterfowl seasons get under way.
“We could use some more rain, particularly in the Rainwater Basin, but water conditions are decent overall and river flows are good,” Vrtiska says. “Now we wait for some weather and the migration.”
Vrtiska believes that local production of blue-winged teal and gadwalls should benefit hunters in the Sandhills when the general duck season opens on October 7. Hunting success for the remainder of the waterfowl season will depend heavily on weather patterns to the north.
“Our mallard and Canada goose hunting is heavily influenced by weather conditions in Canada and the Dakotas,” Vrtiska says. “Overall, though, conditions bode well for waterfowl hunters this season.”
Wetland conditions on state-managed wildlife areas are variable due to dry late- summer weather, says Tom Bidrowski with theKansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT). The heat also impacted the state’s September teal season.
“We had more teal before the season started than we did when it opened because of the hot, dry weather, and the result was some pretty poor hunting conditions,” Bidrowski says. “The hunters who did well scouted extensively and made their shots count.”
The same strategies will likely pay off when general waterfowl seasons open in the Sunflower State.
“Because the availability of water and food varies so much at different wildlife areas and our water levels are down at a number of reservoirs used by migrating waterfowl, hunters should call ahead to check the status of a particular area or stay informed about conditions by visiting the KDWPT website regularly,” Bidrowski says. “Last year the migration just kind of trickled down, and we never really saw a big push of birds. Hopefully that changes this year. We’ll need some weather up north to make that happen.”
The outlook for the Oklahoma waterfowl season is “fair,” according to Josh Richardson, a migratory bird biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, as extreme weather conditions have impacted habitat conditions on many state-managed hunting areas.
Some parts of the state are now dry and in need of rainfall to recharge water levels, while other areas have received too much of a good thing.
“We had some areas that received heavy rainfall in August, which totally wiped out the Japanese millet that we planted in the upper reaches of reservoirs and other moist-soil units,” Richardson says.
Agricultural production has been fair to good this year, which is good news for hunters, since the availability of waste grain is a major factor in attracting and holding migrating and wintering waterfowl in the Sooner State.
“Our season also relies a lot on waterfowl production and weather conditions across the northern parts of the Central Flyway,” Richardson says. “Waterfowl populations remain at high levels, so we’re hoping for snow and cold temperatures up north.”
Note: Texas waterfowl season preview will be published separately.
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 2017-2018 waterfowl season.