By John Pollmann, Central Flyway WF360 Migration Editor
The opening day of the duck season marks the official arrival of fall for many hunters in South Dakota, and for those who took to the fields and marshes this past weekend, autumn seems to have arrived with a bang.
Limits of ducks were frequently found during routine checks of hunters, says Austin Norton, conservation officer with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks in Day County, in the state's northeastern corner.
"Overall, a very successful weekend, with the hunters I spoke to having shot limits or near limits of ducks," Norton says. "Folks were pretty happy with how the weekend went."
According to Clark County conservation officer Kyle Lenzner, it was a similar scene west of Watertown.
"The weather was tough – lots of rain – but most of the hunters I observed had good success," Lenzner says. "Some mallards and gadwall, but I'd say that fifty to sixty percent of the birds shot were blue-winged teal."
That makes sense, says Avery pro-staffer Martin Hesby, based on what he saw during scouting trips across the state leading up to opening day.
Blue-winged teal numbers have been climbing in recent weeks, Hesby believes, because of a delayed hatch this summer and a stale weather pattern to start the fall.
"I'd say that the breeding season was pushed back here in South Dakota and further north, too, because of the nasty spring we had," Hesby says. "What we saw late this summer, then, were a lot of ducks too young to fly when the first bit of cool weather hit in August. After dipping down for a week or so, the temperatures came back up and stayed there, so even as the birds fledged, they weren't in any hurry to leave. Prairie Canada's little cold snap earlier this month sent a batch of new birds into the Dakotas, but they've basically been staging here for the last two weeks or so. You'll see gadwall, pintails and mallards, but the amount of teal in the state right now is pretty amazing."
That South Dakota is still holding a large number of blue-winged teal (and a scattering of green-wings, too) is likely bitter-sweet news for hunters in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere now that early teal seasons have closed.
"We just haven't had a real cold snap yet this month, but that is supposed to change later this week with a chance of frost in some areas," Hesby says. "So, I'd guess that hunters down south are going to see a real influx of birds in the coming days. But the duck numbers look really good in South Dakota right now."
It all added up to a morning of success for Andrew Johnson, who kicked off the season on a waterfowl production area near DeSmet in Kingsbury County.
"Some mallards, a few wood ducks buzzing around, but the teal stole the show," says Johnson, editor of the Aberdeen-based Outdoor Forum magazine. "There were teal in the decoys the entire morning. They're fun birds to hunt. It was just a riot."
Equally as impressive as the flight of teal, Johnson says, were the number of hunters in the field.
"It was great to see and hear so many people out hunting," Johnson says. "The future of the sport depends on retaining and recruiting hunters, and if opening morning was any indication of things, I'd say that there are still a lot of folks out there who love setting out the decoys and watching the dogs work and being out on the marsh. It doesn't get any better than that."
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.