Good waterfowl production in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota and South Dakota is fueling optimism for upcoming duck and goose seasons across the Central Flyway. What follows is a state-by-state breakdown of reports from the field, highlighting habitat conditions and bird abundance.
The collective eyes of the waterfowl hunting world were on North Dakota this summer as the state’s breeding duck and habitat surveys provided some of the only official indications of what the fall flight might look like from the Prairie Pothole Region. “It wasn’t a record-breaking year for duck production, but certainly a very good year,” explains Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “Blue-winged teal, in particular, enjoyed really good production this summer, but we did lose a lot of those ducks around Labor Day with a cold front and a pretty good drop in temperatures.”
Szymanski adds that other duck species are on the move as opening day approaches on Sept. 26, driven in part by an extended period of dry weather that is hastening the crop harvest and providing new food resources for staging waterfowl.
“The dry conditions are impacting our wetlands, which is also causing ducks to move around a bit,” Szymanski says. “The south-central, southeast and northeast areas of the state generally have the best water conditions. The bigger, semipermanent wetlands are all still doing pretty well, though you may find exposed mudflats in places.”
Given the closure of the Canadian border due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Szymanski expects to see a bump in hunting activity in the state this fall, but he notes this is a good year for it.
“We have the wetland conditions to allow the birds to spread out in response to pressure, and our crop harvests are rolling along, so there is plenty of food available. This also means that the conditions should allow hunters to spread out too,” Szymanski adds. “The number of local Canada geese in the state is pretty impressive, and those birds will provide some good opportunities for hunters as well.”
“Still, hunters need to be realistic about their expectations,” he cautions. “Waterfowl are going to concentrate in areas with the best food and water conditions, and that is true every year.”
The outlook is also bright for waterfowl hunters in South Dakota, which by all indications had strong waterfowl production this year.
“Although we didn’t do an official survey this spring, it sure looks like one of the better hatches that we have seen in a while,” says state waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano. “The amount of water out there this spring attracted a lot of ducks, and then the conditions allowed those birds to have a successful nesting season. There seemed to be duck broods everywhere, including mallards and an absolute truckload of blue-winged teal.”
The migration of ducks from South Dakota has already begun, Murano says, courtesy of a late-summer cold front that was accompanied by clear skies, cooler temperatures, a northwest wind and a full moon. This spurred blue-winged teal to begin moving south, as well as other early migrating species like pintails and shovelers.
But the state will still have plenty of ducks and geese to keep hunters busy when the season opens on Sept. 26, according to South Dakota hunter and guide Ben Fujan. “Many wetlands are starting to dry up, which is forcing birds to move to bigger water bodies, so you’re not likely to find those shallow-water hunting opportunities like we have had in recent years, at least not at this point in the season. But Mother Nature can change things in a hurry,” Fujan says. “There should be good field hunting opportunities as the farmers are really getting a move on the harvest. The small grains are out, there has been a lot of corn chopped for silage, and there are more and more soybeans coming out every day.”
The rains that flooded much of eastern Nebraska last fall and created shallow-water feeding and loafing areas for waterfowl in the Missouri River floodplain are a distant memory heading into the 2020−21 waterfowl season. Border to border, the Cornhusker State is relatively dry, which isn’t necessarily all bad for waterfowl hunters.
“The conditions should help concentrate birds. We won’t complain about getting some rain to help fill our wetlands, but overall we’re hopeful for a good season,” says Jacob Bushaw, a waterfowl biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
There was enough water in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska this spring and summer to support a strong breeding effort among mallards, gadwalls and blue-winged teal, Bushaw says, and wetland conditions in this area remain better than in other parts of the state.
“The Sandhills should provide good early-season opportunities for hunters,” he says. “The key everywhere across the state will be finding water, such as on the Platte and other river systems, which should be very good for both ducks and geese. Find water and you’re probably going to find birds.”
Hunters in Kansas were greeted with big numbers of blue-winged teal at the start of the special September season, and expectations are now high for the start of the regular waterfowl season.
“Overall, we are pretty optimistic about the outlook,” says Tom Bidrowski, migratory game bird program manager with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “When we look at our state wildlife areas and some of the bigger reservoirs, we have residual cover from last year when it was so wet, and we had the kind of weather we needed over the summer to allow us to get some management done, followed by good growing conditions for moist-soil plants.”
Water conditions are somewhat mixed across the state, Bidrowski adds, and those levels will play a large role in just how good the coming waterfowl season will be.
“Two things make or break our hunting season. One, what kind of weather conditions are we experiencing when we get pushes of birds from the north. If we’re too cold or have snow, those birds can keep on pushing through,” Bidrowski explains. “And second, the timing of the water releases on our bigger reservoirs can have an impact on how attractive those areas are for migrating ducks and geese, particularly if those levels are drawn down too quickly. Still, we currently are set up nicely for the season. There is cause to be optimistic.”
Josh Richardson, senior migratory game bird biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, says that his outlook for every waterfowl season boils down to the availability of food and water, and this year those conditions have him hopeful.
“We could use a few good rains to help get our water levels charged for fall, but overall things are looking pretty good,” Richardson says. “In terms of food, there is plenty of it out there, and this includes state-managed areas where we’ve planted moist-soil plants as well as the food resources found on private ground. It’s a waiting game now to see what kind of cooperation we get from the weather.”