Migration Alert: Great Lakes States Brace for Winter Weather

Oct. 23, 2020 – Great Lakes Overview

© Michael Furtman

A series of cold fronts and strong north winds have pushed impressive numbers of waterfowl into the Great Lakes states over the past couple weeks. But those fronts were nothing compared to the winter weather hitting the region right now.

“Earlier this week I witnessed birds migrating, and there are definitely ducks and geese moving out of this area,” reports Paul Johnson, owner of River’s Bend Resort on Lake of the Woods north of Baudette, Minnesota. “Shallow bays are frozen, and really anything shallow with no current is frozen at this point. We’re gearing up for ice fishing season.”

In the coming days, temperatures are expected to plummet further as two Arctic air masses plunge southward into the central United States. Manitoba, North Dakota, and much of Minnesota will experience daytime highs well below freezing and nighttime temperatures in the low teens and even single digits in some areas. In addition, snow has accumulated on harvested fields as far south as central Wisconsin.

Will Harvey, a Banded/Avery pro-staffer in west-central Minnesota, is not optimistic about the rest of his season. “We may be in trouble here. We got about eight inches of snow earlier this week and another six or more inches Thursday. We’re expected to have single digit lows over the weekend, and the high temperatures in the 10-day forecast are all below freezing. Depending on what the wind does, big water will probably be freezing soon. It is winter here—legitimate winter,” Harvey laments.

John Lindstrom, a DU biologist in Minnesota, observed heavy waterfowl movements last weekend. “I hunted both Saturday and Sunday and saw plenty of birds,” he says. “There were good numbers of teal with some mallards and pintails mixed in as well as diving ducks. I assume they were moving ahead of the weather fronts. I think if you can find open water, you can still get into a few birds.”

While the western Great Lakes states will see winter weather settle in, eastern portions of the region are expected to have more seasonal conditions.

“Overall, it’s been slow, but we are seeing redheads, bluebills, and scoters pushing through in small groups,” says guide and DU volunteer Dave Heath, who works the islands and bays along northeast Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline. “We’ve been grinding out some decent hunts.”

A couple hundred miles southeast on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair and the western basin of Lake Erie, Michigan and Ohio waterfowl hunters are seeing increasing numbers of birds.

“Currently, we have an abundance of teal, gadwall, wood ducks and pintails in the marshes of northern Ohio,” says DU TV cohost Fred Zink. “After several solid days of north wind, many of the marshes are picking up mallards as well. It has been a relatively slow start to duck season with the warm weather and the early opening date, but things are shaping up. The forecast should push plenty of ducks in from the north.”

While waterfowl seasons across the northern tier of the Great Lakes have been open for several weeks, farther south hunters are still waiting for opening day.

Aaron P. Yetter, waterfowl ecologist at Forbes Biological Station in Havana, Illinois, posted their most recent waterfowl survey numbers on October 21, and he is impressed by what he is seeing in the Illinois River Valley.

“The Illinois River picked up about 40,000 ducks last week, and it is close to the 10-year average,” he reports. “The Mississippi River numbers haven’t been tallied yet.”

Yetter posted on his blog that total duck numbers (205,140) were up 24 percent in the Illinois River Valley from last week. Read the survey results.

While the unseasonably cold weather may not bode well for waterfowlers across the northern tier of the Great Lakes, hunters farther south and east may be in for some of the best action in recent years. Time will tell, but hunters should make the most of their opportunities as waterfowl migrations are in full swing.