A fortuitous freeze across Prairie Canada brought exponential improvements to slow duck seasons across the Pacific Northwest as birds piled out of Canada in mid-December and swarmed across Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
After a frustrating here-today-gone-tomorrow show through November and early December, the cold snap was more than welcome in all three states. Overall, despite the sluggish start, hunting wasn't all that bad or unusually slow, and the prediction of largely adult birds in several populations, especially mallards, rang true.
“It wasn't one of the worst seasons,” concludes Chris Bonsignore, DU manager of conservation programs in Washington. “The second half of the season was good, unlike last year, when birds went right over the top of us.”
Bonsignore also notes the better success of seasoned hunters, many of them retirees who used their time to scout as birds moved from one location to the next.
Waterfowlers will need their wits about them to cope with a sunny, balmy forecast until most of the seasons end Jan. 28 in Idaho and Jan. 30 in Washington and Oregon. “There are still birds around,” Bonsignore observes, “but very few dumb ones.”
Matt Wilson, statewide waterfowl specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, agreed that the early days were far from red hot, with fewer local birds produced and the bulk of the flyway lingering in warm Prairie Canada. “It was tough everywhere,” he says.
However, the December freeze brought birds flooding into the state, conveniently coinciding with the arrival of heavy rains that provided plenty of roosting and feeding.
The Skagit Valley in the north Puget Sound has “mallards and teal everywhere,” Wilson reports. South to Nisqually isn't quite as enticing, although hunters around the sound enjoyed a moderate season. There are mixed reports from the lower Columbia River, with relatively slow hunting reported close to Astoria.
A high note was the state's first coastal brant hunt, with good opening day success on an expanding population of brant in Pacific County (Willapa Bay) that will extend for several days through January 30.
Hunters at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near Vancouver are having an typical year with an average of nearly two birds per hunter. In the upper Columbia Basin, many ducks have either moved south or remain in the Tri-Cities area, resulting in slower going from Yakima to Moses Lake. Wilson reports that Canada geese and some snow geese are thick across the Yakima Valley south to Prosser.
Mark Nebeker, manager of the popular Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, near Portland, says he’s “smiling from ear to ear.” That’s because he's sitting on what may be Oregon's hottest hunting of the season.
Nebeker and his staff are looking at a season average of 2.4 birds per hunter and probably the first 20,000-plus duck harvest the area has recorded in more than a decade. And he's puzzled because neither he, his staff, nor biologists have any idea why it happened.
“There's something weird going on this year,” Nebeker says. “A lot of it has to do with the quality of our hunters. On some days, the crowd consisted of old hunters who knew the area and how to work the system. But even on jam-packed days, the averages were up. “I'll take it. We deserved a good season.”
Mike Edwards, a regular at both Sauvie and the lower Columbia, says hunting in the Astoria area up to Knappa has been much slower.
Across the Willamette Valley, Kelly Warren, DU's western Oregon biologist, reports slower hunting in the south valley, with hunting success “hit or miss; they're here one day, gone the next. It's been an odd year across the board. We had cold, then snow, then a flood. Ducks never seemed to get their bearings.”
He describes the lingering adult mallards as, “awful! They circle around at 60 yards and then take off. It's interesting to see.”
Brandon Reishus, waterfowl coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, believes there's enough water to entice birds to stay. “The cold snap moved some birds around in late December, but if you're willing to work for it, there are birds to be had,” he advises.
Like everywhere else, Idaho hunters experienced ups and downs from the beginning of the season. Local production was a bit better than elsewhere across the region, so it held hunters’ attentions until the freeze hit up north.
“It depends on who you ask,” notes Jeff Knetter, upland game and migratory bird coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “We had a pretty mild stretch, then a cold snap, and things picked up in late December and early January. Prior to that it was pretty spotty.”
Early hunting was slow in the panhandle, but as usual was OK along the Snake River Valley. Knetter notes that there are still birds around and suggests sticking to the river. “There are fair numbers of geese,” he says.
Chris Colson, DU's biologist in Boise, reports southwest Idaho hunting was average, but that “we have been under a pretty steady inversion since the Christmas storms came through, so everything has been regularly frozen. I suspect that has pushed all of the birds south. Our neighborhood mallards and geese are few and far between.”