Dry conditions across much of the Central Flyway are likely to impact upcoming waterfowl seasons, but there is still cause for optimism heading into fall. Following is a state-by-state breakdown on habitat conditions and bird abundance across the flyway.
A year after widespread drought severely hampered duck production in North Dakota, water returned this spring in a dramatic turnaround that will impact the quality of waterfowl hunting opportunities this fall, both in the state and throughout the Central Flyway.
Runoff from a historic spring blizzard and timely rains yielded the second-highest wetland index ever observed during the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s (NDGF) annual May habitat survey. This comes on the heels of the 2021 survey, which reported the fifth-lowest wetland index ever observed. The vastly improved wetland conditions allowed grassland-nesting duck species like blue-winged teal, gadwalls, northern shovelers and pintails and over-water nesters like redheads and canvasbacks to have exceptional brood production. Numbers of these species should be in line with what hunters have encountered during previous years with similar habitat conditions.
Mike Szymanski, waterfowl supervisor with the NDGF, reports that mallard production in North Dakota was likely disrupted by the same blizzard that helped recharge wetland basins in the state, as these early-nesting ducks were just beginning to settle when the storm hit. Still, the overall projected fall flight of ducks from North Dakota was expected to be up over 25 percent compared to 2021.
“Hunters need to know that our habitat conditions have changed dramatically since spring, however, and things are really starting to dry up,” Szymanski says. "Scouting will be necessary to find remaining areas of wetland habitat and concentrations of ducks."
Spring habitat conditions varied greatly in South Dakota, according to the state’s senior waterfowl biologist, Rocco Murano. Large portions of the Prairie Pothole Region were extremely dry during the breeding season, with the exception of the northeast corner of the state. Wetland conditions in this area remain good heading into fall, and duck numbers appear to be strong.
“Based on our duck banding program, which takes place primarily in the northeast part of the state, it appears that the ducks that did settle here in the spring had very good production,” Murano says. “The overwhelming majority of mallards that we’ve banded have been hatch-year birds. I’m certainly encouraged by what we’ve seen in the field.”
With the small grain harvest complete and corn being chopped for silage across the eastern half of the state, there will be plenty of opportunities to decoy locally produced ducks and Canada geese in fields.
Murano says hunters may find tempting water hunting opportunities too.
“The dry conditions have really drawn down water levels, including some of those large permanent or semi-permanent wetlands that have been too deep to hunt and haven’t really been attractive to the birds in recent years,” Murano says. “We’re seeing ducks start to use these waters again. Blue-winged teal, especially, have been staging on these areas of shallow water in recent weeks.”
Hunters in Nebraska are facing extremely difficult conditions, as the state continues to experience an extended period of drought that has left wetlands, canals, creeks and even rivers high and dry.
Water levels are very low throughout Nebraska, according to Ted LaGrange, wetland program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, but the state and its federal partners are doing what they can to put water on the landscape.
“I anticipate that we will ramp up our pumping for the regular duck season. When there isn’t a lot of water spread across the landscape, it is hard to attract and hold ducks and geese for an extended period of time,” LaGrange says.
Among the most important stopping points and staging areas for migrating waterfowl is the Platte River in western Nebraska, portions of which are now completely dry.
“I think in my 30 years of work here in Nebraska I’ve seen the Platte River go dry several times. It’s not normal, but it’s not entirely unheard of either,” LaGrange says. “There are obviously no guarantees, but the portion of the river that is dry near Grand Island typically comes back up as farmers upstream complete their surface water allocations used for irrigating crops, and the temperatures start to cool. We could still use a good shot of rain, however.”
The Sandhills, which is an important area for local duck production, has not escaped the drought either, LaGrange says, although there is still water in many of the larger wetlands and lakes.
“What hunters are going to have to deal with are large, exposed mud flats around the perimeter, which can make hunting kind of difficult,” he says.
Hunters in eastern Kansas will find better water conditions than in most other areas of the state, says Tom Bidrowski, migratory game bird specialist with the Kansas Division of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT).
“The further west you go, things get very dry. The Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is completely dry; a lot of the western playas are dry. Even in the east, a number of our wetland managers are having to decide if they want to put water down now for early season hunting or wait until later in the fall,” Bidrowski says. “There isn’t enough water available to do both.”
The little water KDWPT wildlife area manager Matt Farmer was able to keep on the ground at the Jamestown Wildlife Area was holding teal for the start of the state’s September teal season, but it didn’t take long for hunting pressure to move those birds off public ground.
“Managing pressure is probably going to be a focus this fall, as available water is going to concentrate hunters and birds,” Farmer says. “Hunters in Kansas are probably going to have to focus their scouting on larger reservoirs that are still holding water. There just isn’t much for shallow water hunting this year. A good fall soaker would do us a lot of good.”
Lower water levels throughout late summer actually have things looking up in Oklahoma, according to J.D. Ridge with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Heavy rains in recent years have inundated the summer growth of vegetation around many of the state’s reservoirs, but Ridge says that the lack of precipitation in recent weeks may have opened the door to a better season.
“Where we are right now is better than what we’ve seen the past several summers. The lower water levels have given the food a chance to grow,” Ridge says. “That said, we are getting dry, but it’s still early. The zone of vegetation that we have looks good.”
Ridge, who is based at the Eufaula Wildlife Management Area, says that there has been little in the way of a migration through the region, though small flocks of blue-winged teal did move through earlier in the month. That could change with some help from Mother Nature in the coming weeks.
“We need a normal rain to get our pool levels to normal and put some water on the groceries,” Ridge says. “If that happens, we’ll have something to offer this year.”
Stay tuned for a Texas Waterfowl Season Preview coming soon.