By Michael R. Shea, WF360 Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor
After a wet summer and mild fall temperatures, habitat conditions in New York State couldn’t be better for waterfowl. Now, all that’s needed is some cold weather.
Northern Zone hunters have already gotten a little taste of the hot shooting many expect this season. An early October cold snap pushed some puddle ducks into the state early, just in time for opening day on October 7. Youth hunters in the Western Zone the following weekend reported the same—big ducks, and lots of them, unseasonably early.
Capt. Jay Barnes of Frontenac Fowlers Guide Service, had a great opener in the North Zone. Despite what he saw as an absence of wood ducks, his party did well on teal, mallards, and even pintails, on a slough off the St. Lawrence River.
“We’ve never shot pintails up there, but they were there this year in big flocks of 15 to 25 birds,” Barnes says. In the Finger Lakes, where Barnes does most of his hunting, he hasn’t seen a good push of ducks yet, but is noticing more black ducks than usual for late October. “I’m not seeing many ducks, period, but I am seeing more black ducks than I’d normally see.”
Farther west, Jeremy Bedette, Atlantic Flyway manager for Hard Core Decoys, was planning an October 28 opening-day hunt on a private swamp in Wayne County. “It’s still loaded with woodies and teal, and I’m seeing a decent amount of wigeon and gadwalls around, too,” he reports.
Despite the warm weather, there’s been a strong early goose migration as well. “I’m right on the lake and can hear them high flying in steady numbers even at 8 and 9 p.m. A farmer I know just called me and asked me to set up on his place, because the geese are ripping his winter wheat to shreds,” Bedette says.
Geese are spread out across much of the state now, but by most accounts are still hitting green fields despite lots of chopped and open cornfields. By one estimate, 30 to 40 percent of the corn through central New York is already cut.
On the western edge of the state, Wally Blake, of Fowl Waters Outfitters, has high expectations. He guides on Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. “When our water doesn’t freeze solid the previous winter, that following season is usually lights-out,” he says. “The birds winter over here, then return, and it takes especially bad weather or a real hard freeze to blow them out.”
Sea ducks have been on the lake since September, Blake reports, and he heard his first report of divers in the area this week. With the cold weather in central Canada and the upper Midwest right now, a bigger push of divers into the Atlantic Flyway is possible. Blake’s expectation is that the calendar ducks like greater and lesser scaup should move in on the November 4 full moon.
Puddle ducks have been uncharacteristically present for a while now in western New York, arriving with the first cold spell in mid-October.
“We had an unbelievable youth weekend with 300-plus mallards in the decoys,” Blake says. “I’ve never seen a youth weekend like it, and many were green birds, with good color. We normally don’t see migrators that early.”
All eyes will be on the north as birds begin to trickle into New York with each new weather system. Solid habitat conditions and reports of good duck and goose numbers create an ideal situation for waterfowlers anticipating the next flight.
Michael R. Shea is a New York–based freelance writer who hunts waterfowl throughout the Atlantic Flyway. Shea will be providing habitat and hunting reports for the Atlantic Flyway during the 2017–2018 waterfowl season.