An abundance of water across the Central Flyway is creating a mix of challenges and opportunities for waterfowl hunters heading into fall, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season. Here is a breakdown of what the experts are seeing on the ground.
When federal and state officials surveyed North Dakota’s wetlands in May, the habitat conditions were found to be less than ideal, but consistent rains in late spring and throughout the summer boosted water levels and helped ducks pull off a highly successful season of production.
“With maybe only a few exceptions, North Dakota really had excellent waterfowl breeding conditions. We received the precipitation at the right times during the nesting and brood-rearing months to really make a difference,” says Mike Szymanski with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “And I think we cranked out a ton of birds.”
Szymanski adds that Canada goose production in North Dakota was also strong this summer, meaning that hunters should see plenty of opportunities during the early weeks of the season.
“It’s always better for hunters in North Dakota when we have good local production of birds, but it may be especially important this season when we may not see as many young birds come out of Canada, where the wetland conditions were not as strong,” he says.
While wetland conditions remain good across the state, Szymanski says that wet conditions have kept farmers out of the field, delaying the harvest. The good news is that when the crops do come out, there should be plenty of food for the ducks and geese to eat.
“It looks like we have the right mix of small grains and field peas that are good for waterfowl and provide foraging habitat,” Szymanski says. “As long as we don’t have an early freeze, the outlook for the season in North Dakota is pretty darn good.”
Habitat conditions in South Dakota are at almost unprecedented levels heading into fall, according to Bruce Toay, Ducks Unlimited’s manager of conservation programs in the state, and hunters will likely benefit from the tremendous duck production that took place over the summer.
“We are seeing great numbers of mallards and pintails, and there are still an exceptional number of blue-winged teal up here heading into the third week of September. They all seem to be pretty content, and for good reason, as we have a lot of water,” Toay says.
The extremely wet conditions that boosted duck production in the state this year also had a large impact on farmers trying to plant fields in the spring, which Toay says could play a role in the distribution of birds this fall. Scouting those areas where farmers were able to plant corn and other traditional food sources could pay dividends.
In addition, recent severe storms, dropping as much as 10 inches of rain or more in localized areas of eastern South Dakota, created vast areas of shallow floodwaters, which will likely impact at least the first weeks of the duck season for hunters.
“It’s hard to predict just how much of an impact the water is going to have, because there is water everywhere,” explains Rocco Murano, chief waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “At this point, we’re all still assessing the aftermath of these storms. How much flooded corn is out there? Are traditional wetlands and sloughs going to be too deep to access? There are a lot of questions. Hunters are going to have to scout to find some answers.”
One thing is already clear, however. The ducks are already on the move, exploring the vast expanses of floodwater.
“We outfitted roughly 80 hatch-year mallards with transmitters late this summer in North Dakota and South Dakota, and just in the last week these birds have started to bounce around, looking for resources in these areas of new water,” Murano says. “These birds will find it, and until we get a freeze, they’ll likely stay there.”
Hunters in Nebraska will also likely benefit from strong local production of ducks, thanks to above-average wetland conditions in the state, says Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“The sandhills region, in particular, had excellent conditions. There were wetland basins in that region that held water that I haven’t seen flooded in 20 years. The Rainwater Basin is another region where there is more water than I’ve ever seen,” Vrtiska says. “And the ducks responded. Hunters should see a good number of local birds early in the season.”
Overall, the habitat conditions are looking as good as he’s ever seen them, Vrtiska says, adding that there may be almost too much of a good thing.
“The ducks are going to find plenty of options to feed and loaf in places typically void of water, including areas in the southwest corner of the state,” he says.
Another area to watch is the Missouri River corridor along Nebraska’s eastern edge.
“This region experienced some severe flooding this spring, which kept farmers out of the field and left thousands of acres unplanted,” Vrtiska says. “When the waters receded, the fields sat undisturbed and native moist soil plants grew, so the entire region looks like one huge moist soil unit just waiting for more water. If this area gets water, watch out. It could hold a lot of ducks because there is a lot of food out there.”
An abundance of water remains the leading story in Kansas, where the state’s migratory game bird specialist describes the outlook for the season in a single word: interesting.
“The water has not only altered the landscape in terms of habitat and food availability across the state, but also to the north of us, where our ducks and geese come from, so it really will be interesting to see what happens,” says Tom Bidrowski, with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “We know our local conditions are going to create challenges for hunters, but also provide opportunities.”
Above-normal precipitation has created extensive areas of flooded food sources, Bidrowski says, including around some of the state’s large reservoirs. The timing and extent of any draw-down on these reservoirs could hamper opportunities to hunt birds in those areas where smartweed and millet have thrived.
Meanwhile, deep water at the popular Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area prevented the germination of moist soil plants and limited the efforts of staff to manage cattails and phragmites over the summer. Recent rains have the area’s wetlands full, providing vast areas of roosting, loafing and feeding habitats for migrating waterfowl.
Early migrating ducks like pintails, wood ducks and shovelers have been quick to key in on these areas of shallow water, which means that hunters will have their work cut out for them in terms of finding concentrations of birds.
“Scouting this year will be key,” Bidrowski says. “Hunters will need to be flexible and being mobile will likely be a huge benefit. Hunters are going to have to get out, look, and find the birds.”
In a normal year, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation directs an extensive program of seeding millet around the perimeter of large reservoirs and other water bodies that are popular hunting areas for waterfowl. The summer of 2019, however, was anything but normal.
Excessive amounts of rain in the spring and late summer severely impacted the management of public hunting areas in Oklahoma, according to Josh Richardson, the senior migratory game bird biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“We are hurting, in terms of habitat on these public areas this year, there’s no doubt about it,” Richardson says. “It’s not going to be a habitat desert down here and there will still be ducks, but we just didn’t get to do the normal habitat management that we normally do.”
Crops in areas of Oklahoma are behind schedule because of the wet spring, but Richardson believes that there should be plenty of waste grains available by October and November, when migrating ducks and geese typically move into the state.
And while too much water impacted spring and summer management activities in the state, Richardson says a hot and dry month of September is creating another set of challenges.
“In September, we’re looking for little cold fronts to move teal into the state for a few days, but we just haven’t had that kind of weather to push birds around. For the most part, we haven’t seen the teal show up at all,” he says. “As it sits right now, our water levels are pretty good. There will still be ducks around and there will still be options for hunters, but this is not a year that I’d care to go through again anytime soon from a duck management standpoint.”
Note: Texas Preview will be coming soon.