An unusually warm and dry October had Pacific Northwest waterfowlers on edge, but plummeting temperatures across Prairie Canada in early November drove ducks and geese south, lighting up seasons in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
As fortune would have it, heavy rains simultaneously filled wetlands and flooded fields, and November ushered in some of the best hunting of the season, followed by a return to nearly normal in most areas.
“Once November hit and the prairies froze, coupled with storms on the lower Columbia that pushed some birds inland, the hunting was much better than last year,” notes Kelly Warren, Ducks Unlimited biologist for western Oregon. “If I had a word to describe the season, it would be consistent',” he contends.
Much the same is reported from all three states, although the words “average” and “a little below average” also enter into some of the assessments. While hunters and biologists knew the season might not include many young-of-the-year birds, thanks to poor nesting conditions last spring on the prairie breeding grounds, a pleasant surprise was the appearance of more mallards than expected. Also, hunting for Canada geese has reportedly been above average across the region.
While many dark-goose season close over the next few days, snow geese continue to be present in high numbers. This glut of light geese, many of which are probably from Russia's Wrangel Island, is causing some flocks to be found in unusual locations. Spring hunts for light geese will continue through February and into early March in all three states.
Washington’s duck season “wasn't red hot, but it was consistent,” says Matt Wilson, statewide waterfowl specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Wilson spent the season visiting waterfowl areas across the state and notes the fortuitous arrival of November rains in western Washington, which finally provided standing water in farm fields and floated feed for waiting and arriving ducks. “We had some weird weather,” Wilson notes, “then it got really slow in late December and January but picked up again with more storms.”
Puget Sound hunters working tidelands and flooded fields “did pretty well from Skagit to the south sound,” he reports. “It had been super dry.”
King tides – seasonal large surges of high tides from the Pacific Ocean – also flooded marshes, attracting and scattering ducks but holding them in the state.
Eastern Washington froze earlier than normal, driving many ducks out and concentrating others along open waters of the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities area, which continues to produce good hunting.
Washington coastal hunters were battered by a sustained series of storms, which also scattered ducks far and wide. Even the usually dependable concentration of bluebills at the mouth of the Columbia River was down. “Big windstorms kept a lot of people out of there,” Wilson observed. “The smart ones stayed home.”
Farther upriver, the best hunting barometer remains Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, near Vancouver, where hunters, as usual, mirrored success rates at Oregon's Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. The seasonal average is a bit above two birds per gun at Sauvie (see below) and runs close to that at Ridgefield.
Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is happy to start his assessment with Sauvie Island, where he reports above-average hunting success triggered by a remarkable series of hunts in November. “For three weeks in November, the cumulative birds-per-hunter went up every hunt day,” he observes. “For 10 or 11 hunt days in a row, it was pretty amazing to watch.” Then it slowed down, as did most hunting west of the Cascade Mountains. The lower Columbia River had fewer hunters out than usual, Reishus notes, confirming the effects of storm systems.
Age ratios of ducks weren't as heavily weighted to older adults as was feared, he says, and the ratios “weren't as bad as last year.”
In northeast Oregon, there's been more ice than typical, Reishus reports, sending birds hunting for open water. Summer Lake in Southeast Oregon had an average year, with northern birds heading south during the November freeze and not lingering in the area's spring-fed marshes.
Hunters in northern Klamath Lake had a good season, although much of the marshland south to Tulelake, California, remains dry from the drought. DU's Warren believes the cold weather pushed many birds out of the state, and with recent torrential downpours flooding California's Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the ducks didn't need to return.
Warren reports hunting along the Oregon Coast was “hit and miss.”
Jeff Knetter, migratory bird coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, assesses that state's duck season as “pretty average. There weren't as many birds,” he reports, “but it was good hunting when it got cold, depending on where you were on a given day.”
Knetter notes that a Christmas cold snap drove ducks to the rivers for open water. He also says snow geese staged an unusual arrival in November and stayed. That has the attention of Hunter Crownover, a Mossy Oak pro-staffer in Nampa, who reports “a ton of snows from New Plymouth south to Parma.”
Crownover recalls good duck hunting along the Snake River from the end of December into January, but he says some ducks have been pushed out by storms.
Pro-staffer Scott McGann of Emmet agrees, also noting both the freeze and then the storms. “It thawed out and they were gone,” he says.
Chris Colson, DU biologist in Boise, rates the season as “typical to sub-typical” and echoes the observations of birds bypassing a frozen Idaho to get to flooded areas in California. Colson says he is eagerly awaiting the spring migration and wondering whether it will delay the movement of ducks away from their flooded fields and marshes. He's also upbeat about an apparent increase in water tables in northern continental nesting grounds. “It could be a nice boom year coming,” he says.