By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor
The situation playing out along the Missouri River in central South Dakota is similar to what hunters witnessed in 2012. Massive waterfowl numbers are once again rafting up on this large impounded river system and feeding in adjacent grainfields in droves.
In their latest aerial survey of waterfowl on the Missouri River on November 26, the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks tallied over 1 million ducks and geese, including more than 840,000 mallards. A year ago, roughly 750,000 mallards were surveyed in the same area during the last week of November.
"There probably isn't anything like a ‘typical migration,' but the trend we're seeing emerge is a large number of ducks remaining in South Dakota late into the year," says South Dakota's chief waterfowl biologist, Rocco Murano. "With an almost endless supply of food available and open water remaining on the Missouri River well into winter, what you need is heavy snow to get those birds moving south. We just haven't been getting that brand of weather."
The waterfowl migration through the eastern half of South Dakota peaked around November 19, Murano says, and sizable numbers of mallards, Canada geese and some snow geese remain on larger bodies of water.
Avid South Dakota waterfowl hunter Joel Bich is hopeful that the change in the weather will be enough to cause a shift in what has become a frustratingly difficult pattern of duck behavior along the Missouri River.
"The ducks have basically entered into that ‘river mode,' where they are feeding at night and returning to the water before sunrise," says Bich, who works as a biologist for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe along the Missouri River between Pierre and Chamberlain. "The birds end up rafting out in the middle of the river all day long and become virtually impossible to hunt. You need a little weather to get them up and moving during shooting hours."
Bich, who conducts aerial surveys of waterfowl using those portions of the Missouri River that border tribal grounds, hasn't been able to verify an exact number of ducks on the river. But what he has seen during his time in the sky in recent weeks has been eye opening nonetheless.
"You'll come up on a raft of 10,000 to 20,000 mallards out in the middle of the river, and it's quite a sight, especially when they all get up and move at once," Bich says. "As a hunter, I prefer to see them moving around in smaller bunches, but it is still pretty impressive."
Either in small bunches or big flocks, the odds of those ducks moving south, Murano says, will depend entirely on Mother Nature.
"There is a system moving through the state this week that will bring snow and cold temperatures to the pothole region of eastern South Dakota," Murano says. "With low temperatures expected to dip below [minus 10 degrees] this weekend, I think that will be enough to empty out the eastern half of the state."
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 Flyway throughout the 2013-2014 waterfowl season.