Recent rains have improved wetland conditions across portions of the Central Flyway, but the effects of the dry weather that impacted breeding and nesting conditions across much of the Prairie Pothole Region will likely linger into the coming waterfowl season. Read on for a state-by-state breakdown of reports from the field, highlighting current habitat conditions and bird abundance.
The numbers generated by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s (NDGF) mid-July duck production survey should come as no surprise to those who have seen the impact of drought across much of the state this summer. Overall, North Dakota’s fall flight of ducks is expected to be down 36 percent compared to last year’s.
“The number of duck broods we observed dropped almost 50 percent compared to 2020,” says NDGF Migratory Game Bird Management Supervisor Mike Szymanski. “We are not going to send a lot of young ducks out of North Dakota this year.”
Szymanski says that some parts of the state have picked up some much-needed precipitation in recent weeks, but rainfall amounts remain well below normal.
“Hunters are going to encounter mud flats around just about every wetland that has water in it, which is going to make access difficult,” Szymanski says. “The rains we’ve gotten have helped, but fire danger is still a big concern. Hunters should be mindful of off-road travel in any sort of grassy cover or taller crop stubble, and I’d recommend having a fire extinguisher or some other way to snuff out a small fire.”
There are some bright spots for hunters, Szymanksi adds, noting that resident Canada goose numbers remain very high, and birds will likely be more concentrated this year because of the lack of water on the landscape.”
“If you find water, you’re probably going to find birds,” Szymanski says. “Along those lines, I’d encourage hunters to review changes we’ve had to our posting laws, as landowners are now able to post their ground electronically. So just because you don’t see signs posted around the perimeter does not mean that the ground is open for access.”
Late-summer duck banding operations are not a perfect method for gauging annual production, but South Dakota’s head waterfowl biologist says he’s encouraged by what he has seen in recent weeks.
“Of those mallards we captured in eastern South Dakota, roughly 80 to 90 percent were hatch-year birds, which to me indicates that we did in fact have some good duck production in this part of the state,” says Rocco Murano, with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “I wouldn’t say that all of eastern South Dakota had this level of production, but there were areas that had just enough carryover water from 2020 to support breeding and nesting efforts.”
Murano says that the numbers of locally produced mallards, wood ducks, blue-winged teal and other puddle ducks should be enough to provide high-quality hunting opportunities to start the season, and he’s hopeful that a calendar migration of ducks from the Boreal Forest will give a mid-season boost to bird abundance in the state.
“Hunters are going to have to scout and find those areas that do have water, and based on what I’m seeing, I think there will be some good hunting for at least the first few weeks,” Murano says.
Pumping has begun on many of Nebraska’s state and federal waterfowl hunting areas, which is a sign that hunting season is right around the corner.
Many of the state’s managed wetland areas remain too dry for sustainable pumping activities but Nebraska Game and Parks Commission head waterfowl biologist Matthew Garrick says that conditions are improving.
“Compared to where we were just a few weeks ago, the rains that we’ve gotten have improved the outlook for having the habitat conditions needed to attract and hold migrating waterfowl,” Garrick says. “Waterfowl and waterfowl hunters are probably going to be concentrated this season, so the more miles you can cover in search of water, the better off you may be in escaping some of the crowds.”
The drier weather has been good for growing moist-soil plants, and according to veteran Nebraska hunter Doug Steinke, areas like the Rainwater Basin are just one good rain away from having wetland basins full of flooded food.
“The amount of food out there is tremendous. If we are able to catch some rain between now and mid-October, things are going to be looking really, really good,” Steinke says.
Water levels on the Platte River are nearly ideal, Steinke says, with numerous sandbars and areas of shallow water that mallards and Canada geese love.
“We should be setting really good for the fall and winter,” Steinke says. “We just need some torrential thunderstorms to roll through and fill up the basins.”
A hot and dry month of August may have some early season impacts on hunting conditions and duck distribution in Kansas, but Tom Bidrowski, migratory game bird program manager for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, says the outlook for the state remains positive.
“There are some local variations, but overall we have favorable conditions for moist-soil plants and agricultural crops across Kansas,” says Bidrowski. “There was some flooding on the eastern side of state that has impacted wetland management. Most reservoirs have good water levels. Our wetland conditions may be a bit spottier, but in general we should have good habitat conditions this fall.
Bidrowski says that early migrating duck species like blue-winged teal, northern pintails, and northern shovelers have been in the state for several weeks, bolstering a better-than-average number of locally produced birds. However, the state will need to continue to receive rainfall to hold those birds and attract more as the hunting season progresses.
“I am excited for our season this year. It won’t necessarily be easy given varying habitat conditions, but hunters should see a fair number of ducks,” Bidrowski says. “With low duck production across the Prairie Pothole Region, the majority of those birds will be older and wiser, so scouting and attention to detail will make all the difference.”