Poor Conditions Have Created Lackluster Hunting
Date: Jan. 17
Location: the entire Atlantic Flyway
The 2018-'19 season will be one to remember for Atlantic Flyway hunters. For many hunters, those memories won't necessarily be good. Warm weather and record rains led to delayed migrations, birds spread across the landscape and generally tough hunting. That's not to say some hunters didn't fare well. Plenty of ducks and geese flew south, and waterfowlers who did their homework, had access to the right spots or just got lucky continued to kill ducks and geese. The rest of us are still waiting.
Warm weather has plagued much of the flyway for almost the entire season. With a few brief exceptions, temperatures hovered above or even well above normal. Those mild temperatures combined with excess water led to some pretty tough hunting. The birds were widely scattered and just didn't fly much.
Some rivers remain out of their banks throughout parts of the Southeast. Low spots are flooded, and swamps are higher than normal levels, creating an overabundance of duck habitat.
Although temperatures are expected to be more wintry in coming weeks, they probably won't decrease enough to freeze the shallow ponds, marshes and swamps south of the Potomac River before the seasons close. Daytime highs in Virginia, for example, will climb into the mid and high 40s for much of the rest of the season.
Things are turning in the northern part of the flyway, according to Ducks Unlimited regional director Arliss Reed. Western New York is starting to get some lake-effect snow, and daytime temperatures are struggling to climb warmer than freezing.
Smaller waters are starting to freeze, and I expect the larger ones will start icing over pretty soon, Reed said. However, there is no snow cover in eastern New York, so I doubt the birds that are around are going to leave.
Species and Numbers
Seasons are set to close throughout most of New York soon, and that's fine with Reed. The season was pretty poor, overall, but they had a few decent shoots in December, he said.
I think we are seeing the impact of the decline in Atlantic Flyway mallards, he said. There just aren't many out there. Goose hunting was good for some and poor for others, but overall, I would say it was definitely down.
Things are hit or miss elsewhere, too. Florida hunter Eric McHugh has been having an epic season on black-bellied whistling ducks near Lake Okeechobee for reasons he and his friends can't explain. A good hatch? Luck? Who knows? But he's grateful, because other species have been sparse.
The stormwater treatment areas have been hunting fairly well, McHugh said. Some are holding a good number of ringnecks and some teal and mottled ducks.
The big lake, however, is still suffering from abnormally low water, severe algae blooms and an overall lack of food for wintering ducks. A few teal and ringnecks can be found on Okeechobee, but it definitely isn't what it could be.
Things have also been hit or miss to the north. Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Dwayne Padgett said the massive amount of water and warm weather has made for a pretty poor season in South Carolina.
It's been terrible; absolutely terrible, he said. We have a few birds, but they've been here for weeks, and they are tough to kill. Even our draw hunts have been pretty slow. From what I've seen, the only places that are holding good numbers of birds are private impoundments, and they aren't even holding nearly as many as they should for this time of year.
He's not even seeing many wood ducks.
I have a couple of beaver ponds on my place that normally hold hundreds of wood ducks this time of year, he said. The last I checked, there were just a few. I don't think they have migrated here yet.
That's possible. Hunters in Virginia are still seeing fair numbers of woodies, although as with many other places, the birds are widely scattered, thanks to abundant water. Some big ducks have trickled down from the North, but they also seem to be scattered. Some hunters are having good hunts; others not so much. Divers are showing up on the tidal rivers, but mild days have translated to brief morning flights.
Things have improved somewhat for hunters near Chesapeake Bay. Delaware guide Albert Dager said Canada geese have showed up in good numbers in Delaware and on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
We've done OK on ducks, he said. We are shooting mostly mallards and blacks, but other species have been kind of scarce.
Chestertown, Maryland, resident and Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Kenny Gray said geese are on the Shore, but they are bunched up and spending more time on the ground than in the air.
Goose numbers are definitely down overall, he said. I didn't believe the reports of low nest success from the Fish and Wildlife Service, but now that I'm seeing it, I believe it.
Divers are the bright spot for Chesapeake Bay hunters. Scaup in particular have made a great showing the past few weeks, and Gray is finding them farther up tidal creeks than ever before. He isn't sure, but he thinks that might have something to do with the massive amounts of rain that have plagued the region all summer and fall.
Puddle ducks are horrible, he said. There are some around, but they are staying on the private impoundments and not moving much. I hear guys are doing pretty well on sea ducks, though.
What to Expect
Seasons run until late January in many parts of the flyway, so there is still time for things to pick up. The good news is that immediate forecasts aren't calling for any major rains. However, it's unlikely things will dry up enough to push ducks off the endless number of swamps and concentrate them on bigger waters. Nor are those swamps and marshes likely to freeze in much of the South.
That might not be the case to the north, though. Colder, more seasonable weather is on the way to parts of Virginia and north, so things might get good at the end of the season.
We are expecting our first real freeze-up soon, Gray said. That could be a game changer.
In other words, some hunters will have a banner end to an overall lackluster season, and others will continue to struggle to put a few birds on the water.
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