By Jay Anglin, WF360 Great Lakes Region Migration Editor
Great Lakes Region waterfowl hunters have had plenty of time to look back on a duck season that often tested the mettle of even the most seasoned waterfowlers. Some areas had a striking absence of waterfowl for much of the season, and while other areas held birds, this did not necessarily assure good hunting.
“The start of the regular duck season was above average, with puddle duck numbers peaking early,” says Barb Avers, waterfowl and wetlands specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). “An early winter storm drove many birds south and the latter part of the duck season was slow in many areas.
“Where there weren’t icy conditions—in southwest Michigan, for example—duck hunting remained good throughout the season. A December thaw drove duck numbers build back up for the last part of the regular season as well as the late-season split in southern Michigan.”
“We had a good, albeit somewhat unusual, season with regard to weather and duck migrations,” said Steve Cordts, staff specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Minnesota had the coldest duck season in at least 50 years. From opening day until December 1, there were only a couple of days when daytime highs were above long-term averages, and much of the state was frozen by early November.”
Many Wisconsin hunters reported consistent hunting with good numbers of birds around much of the state. Though northern-tier counties were beset by the same early ice as Minnesota and northern Michigan, farther south the Mississippi River held fantastic bird numbers for the entire season.
“It was comparable to last year if not better. We had teal present for early teal season and much of the regular season,” reports Brenda Kelly, Mississippi River wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Although we had fewer ducks than normal utilizing the river, opportunity was greater as high water levels provided better access to hunting areas.”
Farther down the flyway, in Illinois, Forbes Biological Station staff flew the last aerial waterfowl inventory for the season along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers on January 10.
“Although we found ice on many refuges and wetlands, there was ample open water for ducks and geese along both rivers,” reports Forbes Waterfowl Ecologist Aaron Yetter.
Yetter says the area is typically frozen by mid-January, but warm weather allowed an impressive number of mallards to remain along the rivers, with an estimated 126,425 ducks (52 percent above average) for the Illinois River inventory area and 339,835 ducks (131 percent above average) for the Mississippi.
Indiana’s north zone held good pockets of birds in some areas throughout much of the season on both public and private areas. Unsurprisingly, weather and moon phases played a huge role in hunting success. Hunters who scouted thoroughly and were capable of hunting during prime conditions enjoyed the greatest success. Early-arriving mallards and black ducks became increasingly difficult to deal with as the season progressed, and given the mild weather, very few pushed farther south in the Hoosier State.
“We experienced a rollercoaster duck season,” says Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area Property Manager Travis Stoelting, who is based in the southwestern region of the state. “Hunters encountered intermittent ice and flooding throughout the fall and winter, which also lead to intermittent waterfowl activity at Goose Pond. Despite those challenges, hunters did report a slightly larger harvest for both ducks and geese than last year and there were many reports of excellent hunts when conditions were favorable.”
Ohio hunters experienced similar conditions and results as their counterparts to the west. Perhaps the most consistent hunting took place on public and private waterfowl areas located along Lake Erie, where an impressive number of ducks often concentrate during the migration. Anecdotal reports suggest that this prime waterfowl habitat offered remarkably good hunting as birds moved in early and stuck around for most of the season.
Goose Hunting in the Region
Goose hunting remains good overall, with Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana offering seasons that last until the end of January or early February. Hunters in some regions have reported outstanding goose hunting this season, while other areas were less productive.
“Goose hunting in Michigan has been tough all year. I believe this is due to poor production last spring and challenging adult birds,” says MDNR Southeast Regional Supervisor Joe Robison. “Hopefully the late goose season in southern Michigan will be a good one, but we’ll have to wait and see what Mother Nature has in store for us weather-wise.”
Although Canadas are often the focus, white-fronted, or specklebelly, geese have become an increasingly popular target in Indiana and Illinois. In addition, unseasonably warm weather in recent weeks prompted hundreds of thousands of snow geese to migrate from the south into these states. While snow geese may be targeted along with Canadas and specklebellies during late goose seasons, several Great Lakes states also participate in the Light Goose Conservation Order, which extends into March and April (check regulations).
While duck seasons have closed throughout the north, zones in the southern tier of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois remain open. Frigid conditions and potentially heavy snow forecasted to slam much of the Midwest in the coming days should shake things up. Don’t throw in the towel just yet; the best hunts of the year may be just around the corner.
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.