Thaw Provides Opportunities for Pacific Northwest Hunters

Migration Alert: Jan. 21, 2017 – Pacific Flyway – Oregon & Washington

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Bill Monroe, WF360 Pacific Northwest Migration Editor

Oregon and Washington are amid shifts from nearly two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall to warm rain and, on Oregon's west side, moderate (but short-lived) flooding, especially from the Coast Mountain crest down both sides and into coastal tributaries and the western Willamette Valley.

Where the ducks drop in this wet and wild realm remains to be seen, but it's been a tough go for many hunters in northwest Oregon, stranded at home by heavy snow. Those who made it out the past weekend (in what Oregonian's fondly term "snowmageddon"), however, found lots of ice and, in some cases, lots of ducks in the few stretches of open water.

"Who else is disappointed to see the snow and ice melt?" writes Cabela's pro-staffer Dominic Aiello of Beaverton. "Some of my best hunts of the year have been in the last 10 days."

That's the common thread echoing across Oregon, Washington and even southwest Idaho, as ducks are drawn to – and in many cases remain – on whatever open water they can find.

The other high draws have been grain crops, especially cornfields, and in some cases even cattle feedlots as birds carb-up to sustain their energy through the cold snap.

"They're looking for food," says Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Food and open water. It's slow for (frozen) club ponds and lakes, but folks with access to boats and rivers have been doing very well."

As for the coming warm weekend and last days of the season, Reishus suggests hunting will pick up again. "I suspect many ducks found open water and waited it out, but we probably lost some teal that headed on down to California."

"If we stay warm and get an insect hatch, it's that time of year birds start thinking about their food sources," he says. "For nesting season, they need to key in on protein (i.e., bugs) instead of carbohydrates (corn, etc.)."

Reishus adds that most of the Willamette Valley's wintering geese moved south of Salem, where pastures melted faster and foraging is better. Whether or not they'll return all the way to Portland and Vancouver, Wash., for the Feb. 4 opening of the popular Northwest zone goose hunt remains to be seen.

Mark Nebeker, who manages the department's ice-bound-but-thawing public hunting area on Sauvie Island, reports that this past week's per-gun average dropped to one duck for every two hunters, "the worst hunting I've ever seen," he says.

However, hunters can take heart in a census flight Nebeker made during a clear, cold day.

"There were thousands and thousands of ducks, swans and geese out on (open water in canals and a large lake), just waiting for the cornfields to thaw," he says.

And as it thawed Wednesday, the birds flew.

"It's a sloppy, mushy, gooey mess," says Chris Middleton of Tigard, who has been hunting on a private tract of land near Portland; with five of his seven-bird limit by noon. "But there are ducks. I don't know where they're coming from, but there are flocks around; especially mallards."

Oregon coastal fishing guide Joe Watkins reports there were excellent numbers when asked about ducks on the north coast.

That also fits the mold, as ducks move to open saltwater bays during an inland freeze. Hunters unable to make it across closed mountain highways can resume concentrating on bays, flooded marshes and the lower Columbia River estuary.

In southeast Oregon's frozen desert, duck season will end Saturday with a whimper, but goose season continues and geese and ducks highlighted hunts the past few days at Miller Island, in the Klamath Falls Wildlife Management Area.

Eric Strand, a duck and goose guide who runs S2 Outfitters, recommends driving either to the coast, or down the Columbia River past Rainier or up the Columbia (Interstate 84 should reopen by Friday afternoon between Troutdale and Hood River) to Boardman, where "anyone with field access will find it really producing."

Strand also believes "A lot of birds just hunkered down in the (Willamette) Valley. Open-water hunting has been lights out."

Lights-out, all right. It will be the order of the day for those who do their homework and make it into the blind for the last of the 2016-17 duck season in Washington, southwest Idaho and Oregon.

Bill Monroe is an Oregon-based freelance writer who has hunted the Pacific Flyway for three decades. Monroe will provide hunt-ing and habitat reports throughout the Pacific Flyway for the 2016-2017 waterfowl sea-son.