From the DU Magazine Archives

By Bill Nichol

More than any other factor, where a duck hunter falls on the map influences how, when, and which species he hunts. Every year, waterfowl hunters across the United States hunt a diverse ecological patchwork: prairies and woodlands, mountains and coastlines, marshes and even deserts. Each of these habitats attracts a variety of species and lends itself to a different hunting experience.

For example, a black-duck hunter in coastal New Jersey may focus on what time high tide hits his marsh, while a green-timber mallard hunter in Arkansas hopes for a cold, blue-sky morning. In mid-November, a Minnesotan could be storing his duck decoys for the winter just as a Mississippi hunter is getting ready for the season. And while wood ducks are a staple for Georgia duck hunters, they rarely make it into a Washingtonian's bag.

More than any other factor, where a duck hunter falls on the map influences how, when, and which species he hunts. Every year, waterfowl hunters across the United States hunt a diverse ecological patchwork: prairies and woodlands, mountains and coastlines, marshes and even deserts. Each of these habitats attracts a variety of species and lends itself to a different hunting experience. For example, a black-duck hunter in coastal New Jersey may focus on what time high tide hits his marsh, while a green-timber mallard hunter in Arkansas hopes for a cold, blue-sky morning. In mid-November, a Minnesotan could be storing his duck decoys for the winter just as a Mississippi hunter is getting ready for the season. And while wood ducks are a staple for Georgia duck hunters, they rarely make it into a Washingtonian's bag.

In today's rich and diverse waterfowling culture, the following are places where many of America's most popular waterfowl species gather in the greatest abundance, as determined by harvest estimates compiled annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by wintering ground surveys. Many of these locations will be recognized as traditional American hotspots, but others have emerged more recently as prime hunting venues for particular species.


Atlantic Flyway Based on Harvest Information Program (HIP) data for each of the last two seasons, gunners in New York harvested more than 85,000 mallards, leading all states in the Atlantic Flyway. In the fall, mallards migrating south from Ontario, Quebec, and other Canadian provinces are mainly attracted to emergent wetlands in the St. Lawrence River Valley and along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, where they join large numbers of locally raised birds. Another prime destination is Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Cayuga Lake in the state's Finger Lakes region. Montezuma appeals to migrating mallards because it offers the first significant expanse of wetland habitat7,068 acressouth of Lake Ontario, and in late fall, the refuge has been known to hold more than 100,000 mallards.

South of the Finger Lakes, the upper Chesapeake Bay is a popular wintering ground for Atlantic Flyway greenheads. For the last two years, Maryland hunters averaged an annual bag of 73,597 mallards, second highest in the flyway. Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, believes mallard numbers are most concentrated on the Susquehanna Flats; along the Chester River on the upper Eastern Shore; and on estuarine wetlands farther down the Eastern Shore.

Mississippi Flyway The mallard is king of the Mississippi Flyway. Nearly half the 4.5 million mallards harvested last year in the United States were taken in this flyway. While hunters in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Mississippi enjoy good mallard shooting, those in Arkansas often enjoy the best. According to HIP data for 2001-2004, Arkansas averaged an annual mallard harvest of 598,448 birds, more than twice that of California's second-place harvest. Mallards are primarily drawn to the eastern third of the state, which devotes almost 1.5 million acres to rice production. The town of Stuttgart is located at this region's heart, earning it the nickname The Rice and Duck Capital of the World. Throughout Arkansas, flooded rice fields, green timber, and river bottoms are popular places for hunting these birds.

Since the late 1990s, Missouri has emerged as a mallard hotspot in this flyway. In addition to a series of mild winters, state waterfowl biologist Andrew Raedeke attributes the high quality of hunting in the state to improvements in wetland habitat and smart management of public hunting areas. On Missouri's wildlife management areas, the state establishes a limit on the number of hunters who draw daily for a set number of spots.
Central Flyway North Dakota's prairie potholes are an ideal setting for gunning greenheads. According to HIP, North Dakota's average mallard harvest of 233,164 birds per year for 2001-2004 is highest in the flyway. Much of this success is linked to the abundance of mallards that breed in the potholes dotted across North Dakota's plains and in Prairie Canada just to the north. Spring surveys indicate that the state's mallard breeding population has exceeded 1 million birds in each of the past 11 years. "On opening day, the ducks are widely dispersed in wetlands throughout the state," says DU Regional Director Jeff Essler, "but around mid-October they begin to congregate on the larger lakes and along the Missouri River to seek available open water."

In the last couple of years, Oklahoma has been home to some of the hottest mallard hunting in the Central Flyway. Harvest data from 2003 and 2004 show that last season Oklahoma had an estimated 70 percent increase in the number of mallards taken, but little change in hunter numbers. The large lakes in the eastern part of the stateGrand, Kerr, Eufaula, Oologah, and Texomaare top stopovers for mallards as they migrate between their breeding grounds on the northern prairies and wintering grounds in Texas. In the western half of the state, Fort Cobb Reservoir attracts large numbers of mallards because of its location in the heart of the state's peanut-growing region. Although pressure from out-of-state hunters is growing, the total number of hunters remains low in comparison with neighboring states.

Pacific Flyway In southeast Washington, Moses Lake and neighboring Potholes Reservoir offer migrating ducks an expanse of marsh and open water amid a landscape of mountains and prairie. These two bodies of water are also surrounded by the state's major corn-producing area. This combination draws a winter mallard population estimated at 60,000 birds last year, according to state waterfowl biologist Ron Friesz, who says the mallard flight peaks in mid- to late November. Besides those with boats who hunt the marshes on the big lakes, there are what Friesz admiringly calls "backpack" hunters who sling their guns and decoy sacks over their shoulders and seek ducks on the smaller creeks and potholes west of the lakes.

Farther down the flyway, northern California's Sacramento Valley attracts large numbers of mallards. Stretching 100 miles north and south along the Sacramento River, this region is the country's second-largest rice-producing area behind eastern Arkansas. So it is no surprise that mallards flock here every winter. In early January of this year, biologists counted more than 160,000 mallards on six refuges that make up the Sacramento NWR complex. Yet, senior state waterfowl biologist Dan Yparraguirre says that duck concentrations in the valley have become more spread out in the last decade. He explains, "An increased number of farmers have been flooding their fields after the rice harvest to help decompose rice straw, giving ducks more options of where to go."

Black Duck

Black-duck hunting is largely confined to the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, with Michigan and coastal states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia having the most success. The South Shore of New York's Long Island is recognized as a classic destination for black ducks. Craig Kessler, DU's manager for conservation programs on Long Island and New Jersey, says, "The birds are attracted to the South Shore's tidal marshes, shallow embayments, and mud flats, where they find salt marsh snails and other invertebrates that make up the majority of their diet." Black ducks also winter in the salt marshes blanketing the New Jersey coast. State biologist Don Wilkinson says that approximately 60 percent of the black ducks in the Atlantic Flyway winter along the New Jersey shore and in Delaware Bay. Joe DeMartino, DU regional director for New Jersey, says the largest concentrations are most likely found in Absecon Bay near Atlantic City or Barnegat Bay.


It's pretty unusual for a region to harvest twice as many gadwalls as mallards. But this regularly happens in Louisiana. Unlike mallards, gadwalls are not grain eaters. For this reason, they migrate in great numbers to the freshwater marshes of coastal Louisiana. A significant number of birds begin to arrive in late October with the peak migration occurring from mid-November to mid-December. This past January, the state's midwinter survey counted an estimated 938,000 gadwalls in southern Louisiana. Other traditional locations for gadwalls include eastern Arkansas and coastal Texas. But hunters throughout North Dakota have had increasing success on gadwalls in recent years. Again, this trend is probably tied to a series of mild winters and to the fact that this state's prairies annually host about a fourth of the continent's gadwall breeding population.


Although the pintail is one of the most widely distributed North American ducks, about half the population migrates to California each fall. On December 2, 2004, more than 399,000 pintails were counted in just the 733-acre Butte Sink NWR. In fact, this duck is the second most numerous in the Pacific Flyway behind the mallard. Depending on water levels and habitat conditions, pintails gravitate to the various freshwater and brackish marshes, flooded agricultural fields, and ponds of the Sacramento Valley, Suisun Marsh, San Joaquin Delta, and San Joaquin Valley. Like all hunters in America, those in California and elsewhere in the Pacific Flyway are limited to taking one pintail per day. However, they do currently have the longest (up to 105 days in 2005-06) and most productive (nearly 100,000 sprig taken last year) season in the country. Farther east, the Texas Gulf Coast winters a significant proportion of the continental pintail population, according to DU Director of Conservation Programs Ed Ritter, with the greatest concentration of the birds found in the rice prairie region southwest of Houston.


Like pintails, blue-winged teal love the proximity of freshwater marsh and rice fields found in south Texas and especially in southern Louisiana. HIP estimates for the past four seasons indicate that Louisiana had the nation's highest average harvest of blue-winged teal, with more than 230,000 of the birds taken annually. "In addition to gadwalls, blue-winged teal are the staple for Louisiana duck hunters in the early part of the season," says biologist and DU Regional Director George Horton. While the majority of these birds are bagged in November, Louisiana does have an early teal seasonusually in late Septemberto capitalize on the bluewing's tendency to migrate early.

Green-winged teal differ from their blue-winged relatives in that their migration is generally later in the season and most of the birds winter in the United States. More greenwings are harvested in California than in any other state. Last season, California's total harvest of 348,748 ducks was greater than the totals for the next two states combined. In California's Central Valley, these little birds typically are more widely distributed than mallards and pintails. Biologist Dan Yparraguirre says, "Greenwings are important for hunters in the grasslands of Merced County and even farther down the valley." Back east, the rice fields of eastern Arkansas and south-central Louisiana are also productive regions.


The wigeon is an important duck for hunters in the West Coast states. In fact, midwinter counts suggest that wigeon trail only mallards and pintails for top honors in the Pacific Flyway. The majority of the continent's wigeon breed in the boreal forest of Alaska and western Canada and winter throughout California's Central Valley. Because these birds like to feed on grasses in flooded meadows and pastures, their distribution in the flyway can depend on which areas receive the most rainfall prior to and during their migration. For the last four seasons, California has led the nation in total harvest, averaging 147,745 wigeon per year64 percent more than runner-up Texas. But as large numbers of these birds migrate south, stretches of the Lower Columbia River and the estuaries along the coasts of Oregon and southern Washington can also provide fine wigeon hunting.


Historically, great numbers of canvasbacks came to Chesapeake Bay to feed on wild celery and other aquatic plants, and local hunters reaped the bounty. Today, canvasback numbers are much more modest, but Maryland hunters enjoyed relatively good success last season, bagging around 7,500 canvasbacks, the nation's second-highest harvest. On the West Coast, the brackish estuarine marshes and open water of California's San Pablo Bay and Suisun Marsh attract many of the canvasbacks in the Pacific Flyway. This ideal habitat, combined with the Pacific Flyway's long season and a harvest of more than 11,000 birds in 2004, makes California the most productive canvasback-hunting state in the country. Another legendary spot for cans is Catahoula Lake in Louisiana. Aerial surveys of the lake taken on January 9, 2004, estimated approximately 123,000 canvasbacksnearly a fourth of the continental populationwere wintering there.

Wood Duck

The habitat wood ducks like bestscrub-shrub and forested wetlandsis most abundantly found in Mississippi Flyway states, and Minnesota and Wisconsin have averaged the largest wood duck harvests since 2001. When these northern woodies move down the major riverine systems in the flyway, their numbers often mix with those of less-migratory southern wood duck populations. States such as Arkansas and Alabama benefit from this pattern. Although Arkansas hunters have harvested almost 19,000 more wood ducks in each of the last four years, individual hunters in Alabama may have the edge. Based on state duck stamp sales during the last 10 years, there is only one duck hunter in Alabama for every four in Arkansas.


Simply put, the prime redhead location in North America is the Laguna Madre along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports an estimated 80 percent of the continent's redheads winter in this highly saline, very shallow lagoon. It lies between Padre Island and the south Texas mainland and continues south of the border into Mexico. The ducks arrive there in October to eat rhizomes (roots) of shoalgrass, aquatic vegetation critical to their diet. They are hunted in the lagoon from seasonal palmetto blinds or from the banks of nearby "hurricane ponds" where they congregate to drink fresh water.


The South Shore of Long Island and the deep lakes region of the upper Midwest have fostered strong scaup-hunting traditions. These places continue to be somewhat productive, but prairie wetland loss in the Midwest and an overall decline in abundance in some areas have given rise to new hotspots for shooting scaup. Devils Lake in North Dakota is a vital staging ground for lesser scaup during their fall and spring migrations. In the fall, numbers peak from mid-October until the lake freezes, typically in November. DU Regional Biologist Scott McLeod says, "The main attraction is the lake's abundant supply of amphipods, also known as freshwater shrimp, which make up a significant part of the scaup's diet." Local gunners hunt the main lake with big rigs and layout boats or stake out the backwaters by hiding among the cattails. Other top scaup destinations include the fresh and brackish marshes of coastal Texas and Louisiana. These regions serve as the lesser scaup's primary wintering grounds. In January 2004, biologists counted approximately 15 percent of the continental population between the two states, about 215,000 in coastal Texas and 309,000 in southern Louisiana.

Ring-necked Duck

In the month of October, ring-necked ducks migrate en masse to large lakes in central and northern Minnesota. And HIP data indicate that the state's hunters welcome their arrival. Minnesota annually leads the nation in ringneck harvest numbers with an average of more than 82,000 birds. The marshes and open water of Lake Winnibigoshish and Leech Lake are popular spots for hunters to take these early divers. Rice Lake NWR annually holds over 160,000 ringnecks in mid-October. Biologist Michelle McDowell says, "Ringnecks are drawn to the lakes in this area to feed on wild rice and other aquatic plants."

Looking at the big picture, the geography and ecology of these top destinations runs the gamut. However, each place is similar in its ability to provide ducks with basic requirements: adequate habitat, sufficient food sources, and a tolerable amount of hunting pressure. So as these variables change over time, duck hunters need to adapt to be successful in the field. by Bill Nichol