A combination of strong local duck production and a recent push of migrating birds from the north has South Dakota hunters enjoying a strong start to the waterfowl season. With a change in the weather on the way in the coming week, the hunting opportunities should only improve in the days ahead.
The abundance of water on the landscape remains the top story from South Dakota, including at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast corner of the state. The most recent migration report from the refuge summarizes what hunters are encountering across the state: the birds are here, but they are not where you would normally find them.
The number of ducks—including mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, and shovelers—has remained steady since a mid-October winter storm helped push new birds into the area, but the unusually high water levels throughout the region has the birds “widely scattered.”
“Bottom line is that during times of high water at Sand Lake and surrounding areas, such as now, waterfowl often prefer the freshly flooded wetland areas outside the refuge, rather than the refuge itself,” the report says.
Veteran South Dakota waterfowl guide Ben Fujan has experienced similar conditions while hunting in the eastern half of the state. “Traditional areas just aren’t holding birds like they normally do for a couple of reasons. First, the weather has pushed the harvest so far behind schedule that there just isn’t much food available in many of these places. I’m not sure if I’ll hunt a field of combined corn before November, which is really unusual,” Fujan says. “The water on the ground is the biggest factor, though. The ducks are hitting these spots of new water, but there is so much of it around that the birds are really spread out.”
As a result, large concentrations of ducks are hard to find, Fujan says, so he has focused his time scouting pockets of new, shallow water and targeting smaller groups of mallards, wigeon and other puddle ducks as they feed in flooded fields.
A change in the weather predicted for next week could change his strategy, however, as overnight low temperatures could drop into the 20s or teens for several days, likely putting ice on many shallow bodies of water. Combine this with a chance for measurable snow across portions of South Dakota, and the birds could be on the move. While the weather may not be severe enough to send a lot of mallards and other hardy species migrating south, it will likely impact the birds’ daily routines and help concentrate them in areas with ample food resources.
Rocco Murano, head waterfowl biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, says even with colder weather, hunters will do well to focus on areas with an abundance of shallow water. “The James River valley is a good place to start,” Murano says. “There are good diver numbers up on the Prairie Coteau, but the mallards and other puddle ducks are really not showing up in these traditional staging areas. They are following the new water, which we have plenty of right now. It’s been a crazy year.”