By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor
Earlier this fall, my young yellow Lab, Buddy, retrieved his first greenhead. What made this milestone even more special was that the mallard had been banded in mid-September about 150 miles away in northeastern South Dakota. I bagged the bird on a cool October morning on an expanse of flooded pasture, soybeans, and corn, which had recently been flooded by heavy rainfall.
“It seems that precipitation events are dictating duck movements and defining hunter opportunities more often than not, and that is certainly part of what is going on in South Dakota so far this fall,” says state waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano, who works for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
Both ducks and geese are utilizing areas of sheet water in flooded fields, although Murano notes that some of the most impressive waterfowl numbers have occurred on Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where officials performed a “draw-down” this summer.
“The draw-down allows moist-soil plants to emerge, and over the past several weeks they have been putting new water on areas of smartweed and other food sources,” Murano says.
The most recent waterfowl survey at Sand Lake NWR shows around 80,000 mallards, pintails, green-winged teal, gadwalls, and other duck species, along with smaller numbers of Canada, snow, and white-fronted geese.
“Whitefronts started showing up in the state in small numbers in September, but their numbers have increased recently,” Murano says. “Earlier this week, it was a nearly constant migration of specks over parts of the state, which is not unusual for this time of year.”
The wet weather has delayed the soybean and corn harvest in South Dakota, and the limited number of combined fields is concentrating birds and hunters. In response to the pressure, mallards are beginning to switch to a pattern of nocturnal feeding.
Guide Ben Fujan has been finding success targeting birds on daytime loafing ponds in the morning and field hunting in the afternoon.
“Overall, our mallard numbers are decent. I’d say we’re above average in terms of big and little Canada geese, and the first small bunches of snows are starting to show up,” Fujan says. “There are some nice bunches of divers around. We’ve definitely had a migration of ducks into this part of the state, but we’re nowhere near the peak at this point.”
Murano agrees, adding that hunters in North Dakota and Canada are still enjoying excellent hunting for both ducks and geese.
“In South Dakota, I’d say that Highway 212 is kind of the leading edge of the migration that we’ve seen into the state so far this year. The best hunting is still to come,” Murano says.
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John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, South Dakota, who is an avid waterfowler and conservationist. Pollmann will provide hunting and habitat reports for the Central and Mississippi Flyways throughout the 2018-2019 waterfowl season.