With a significant portion of Nebraska suffering from extreme drought, there are very few parts of the state enjoying the kind of wetland conditions needed to attract and hold flocks of migrating waterfowl. Long story short, it’s a tough year to be a waterfowl hunter in the Cornhusker State.
Hunter success in Nebraska is largely driven by the Rainwater Basin, where, in a good year, an abundance of wetland basins attracts throngs of ducks and provides ample hunter opportunity. So when the Rainwater Basin is dry, overall hunter success dries up too.
“At this point, the only areas in the Rainwater Basin that have any water are those where the state or our federal partners or private landowners have pumped water out on the landscape. Otherwise, it is bone-dry out there,” says Mark Vrtiska at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The available water there has attracted ducks, but when those birds are concentrated like that, the hunting pressure is concentrated too, and the ducks just will not tolerate that kind of pressure for too long before they move on to somewhere else.”
In addition to the Rainwater Basin, other significant stopping points for migrating waterfowl are also extremely dry, including the sandhills region in north-central Nebraska and along the South Platte River, which historically serves as a major staging area for mallards, Canada geese, and other species of waterfowl.
“The South Platte is experiencing extremely low water levels from the Kearney and Grand Island areas all the way to Ashland, where it does pick up a little more water. But overall it is not going to provide much of a refuge for staging waterfowl at this point,” says John McKinney, the new waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Under better conditions, Nebraska hunters would have likely benefitted from the cold weather system that rolled through North Dakota and South Dakota in mid-November. Instead, McKinney says that the blast of arctic air that accompanied the system only took the less-than-ideal conditions in the state and made them worse.
“There are always pockets of open water, but those wetlands in the sandhills that did have some water have largely frozen, and the Platte River, which is naturally fairly shallow, won’t be able to stay open in those areas where there is only a trickle of water to begin with,” McKinney says. “I think it is also safe to say that those birds that did migrate with the winter weather system that hit the Dakotas may have completely overflown parts of Nebraska because it is so dry, or they skirted the state to one side or the other in an attempt to find better wetland conditions.”
Among the few bright spots in the state are the hunting opportunities found along the Missouri River where it follows Nebraska’s border with South Dakota and Iowa. Areas of that river system and its tributaries that traditionally attract migrating waterfowl have provided hunters with some success over the past two weeks.
“Overall, it has been a difficult season for Nebraska hunters,” McKinney says. “At this point, we hope that we get the snowfall and spring moisture needed to recharge wetland basins across the state.”