With its vast expanses of watery habitat, Florida can have some fabulous late-season waterfowl action when the weather to the north follows its usual patterns. This season, as in recent years, the weather has been far from traditional, which has impacted duck distribution and hunting in the Sunshine State.
One big draw for waterfowl hunters is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Titusville, which offers some 36,000 acres of wetland habitat for waterfowl hunting three days per week. However, Stan Howarter, refuge wildlife biologist and impoundment manager, reports that it’s shaping up to be a “weird” waterfowl season for this traditional hot spot.
Howarter says that the large amount of precipitation in the area this year has given birds a lot of options when it comes to finding food and sanctuary. “We had a very wet summer, fall, and early winter,” he explains. “With so much water, it has really spread the ducks around. We had a lot of blue-winged teal early in the season and then we saw a lot of ringnecks, which is unusual because our impoundments are in a coastal system. Ringnecks are usually more common in interior Florida, especially big lakes with a lot of hydrilla.
“Scaup are usually right behind bluewings, in terms of numbers, but they just haven’t shown up in any numbers here. One thing we are seeing is a lot of redheads. Our hunters are taking some real nice redheads.”
Howarter reports that while overall numbers are down at Merritt Island, the diversity of ducks has been strong, with 21 species taken this year. That diversity is helping to attract good numbers of hunters to the refuge, he says.
Andrew Fanning, waterfowl and small-game management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), calls the current waterfowl season “below average overall.”
“Panhandle conditions are dry and birds that stop here don’t stick around for long,” Fanning says. “Redhead numbers are good in the Gulf, but they can be difficult to hunt.”
Fanning also confirms Howarter’s observations when it comes to mild weather and excess water. “The peninsula is wet, causing birds to spread out into pasture ponds and other ephemeral wetlands,” Fanning reports. “Ring-necked ducks are an important species to Florida, and they have yet to show up in significant numbers due to the very mild winter. Fortunately, our resident wood ducks, mottled ducks, and whistling ducks provide opportunities in this otherwise ho-hum season.”
Ringnecks are starting to arrive in better numbers on T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) in Brevard County, a popular public duck hunting destination according to Tammy Sapp, a media relations specialist with the FWC. She reports that the WMA has generally good habitat conditions, with hydrilla in the reservoirs and a good amount of beneficial vegetation in shallow-water impoundments.
“Rainfall at the end of December made a lot of the impoundments too deep, so the puddle ducks have scattered,” Sapp says. “The last few hunts have been on the upswing, with more teal and ring-necked ducks showing up. Regionally, the Upper St. Johns River has a lot of water and flooded pastures where the birds are scattered.”
John Monti of Plantation, Florida, says he has hunted just about every day of the season on the southern end of the state, targeting birds from the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee. He, too, says it’s been a strange year.
“We’re seeing incredible numbers of blue-winged teal and black-bellied whistling ducks, which is unusual,” Monti says. “Ordinarily, by now, we’d have some rafts of bluebills [scaup] in the thousands, but I haven’t seen a single one yet.”
Monti also likes to hunt stormwater treatment areas. He says some locations are doing very well by 2020 standards, with hunters averaging five ducks per hunt. There are many hunters farther north that would love to be experiencing the same success.