By Kyle Wintersteen
Just as opening day has a certain feel to it, so too does closing day. And as my friends and I pitched the blocks one last time in Pennsylvania, there was a sense of foreboding, knowing the off-season doldrums ahead, that mixed with high hopes of one last good shoot. But how the mallards responded.
It was a constant flurry of gorgeous January greenheads: big groups; little groups; pairs; sometimes all of them working at once. Several times my friends and I simply set our shotguns down and soaked in the spectacle, even as mallards landed in the decoys. It was a special day, one that should sustain us until October's glorious return.
Hopefully you too have enjoyed the season's final days. Winter arrived at last, pushing thousands of ducks from New York to the Carolinas and concentrating them on any available open water. I suspect you feel the same as I; If only we had one more week.
"There were more ducks on the Chesapeake and the Potomac last week than I've seen in years," says Captain Bob Wetherald, owner of the Mid River Guide Service. "It's a broad spectrum of diver and sea duck species, too. Cans, goldeneyes, bluebills, long-tails and surf and white-winged scoters rafting by the thousands. We shot some big, fat greaters, and a surprising number of skinny ones—the migration pushed them that far, that fast. I haven't seen many common scoters, but the guys out on the ocean have reported big numbers. It was just an incredible last few hunts. Everyone I know did really well."
Erinn Otterson, a Ducks Unlimited member who frequents North Carolina's Currituck Sound, reports equally staggering numbers.
"We shot mixed bag limits on Friday and Saturday that included mallards, blacks, wigeon, greenwings, Canada geese, redheads, bluebills and seven incredibly gorgeous drake pintails," Otterson says. "It really made for fun hunting to observe and bag that many different species in their late-season plumage, and the sheer number of ducks on the water was almost ridiculous. We saw one ball of about 2,000 green-winged teal, and you'd call me a liar if I told you how many bluebills we estimate were rafted. Suffice it to say it was in the many thousands."
Late January's grand finale put an exclamation point on an otherwise difficult, up-and-down season. Repeatedly, just as skim ice began to form and birds started to move and concentrate, temperatures climbed back into the 50's as far north as the New York border.
"The waterfowl migration was behind schedule all year," says Sarah Fleming, a Ducks Unlimited regional biologist based in New York. "Reports suggest that redhead and canvasbacks remained on the upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes well into winter. In December, cooler weather froze New York's few shallow wetlands [the state is in a period of drought] and many mallards and blacks moved to large, open bodies of water, such as the Finger Lakes. It wasn't until temperatures plummeted in mid-January that we saw a substantial and sustained migration of ducks to southern latitudes."
If there is a silver lining to be found in this delayed migration peak, it's that a few states offer youth seasons in early February. Who better to experience waterfowl hunting at its finest than the next generation of Ducks Unlimited?
Maryland's popular youth season is slated for February 8.
"I'm really excited about it, namely because there are so many darn birds here now, but also because nobody will have hunted them for nearly two weeks and they'll be settled back in," says Wetherald, who will guide two boys on their first duck hunt free of charge. "The birds aren't going anywhere, either. They have plenty of food and the Potomac is currently 36 degrees, so there should be plenty of open water. As long as you keep your kids warm enough, most youth seasons should be a blast."
Find migration and hunting reports on Ducks Unlimited's Migration Map.