Duck and goose numbers good, but hunters waiting on weather
Date: Dec. 10
Location: all regions of the Atlantic Flyway
Second split seasons got off to a good start in many parts of the Atlantic Flyway, thanks partly to a powerful cold front in early November. Extended freezes locked up ponds and marshes throughout the upper Midwest and parts of Canada, pushing ducks and geese to hunters farther south. Hunting was good to excellent, especially in the northern half of the flyway.
That red-hot action didn't last long. Mild weather returned, and birds shifted back north or haven't moved much. Some hunters have continued to scratch down a few ducks and geese, but overall, hunting has only been fair throughout the flyway.
Ice is mostly gone in the northern reaches of the Atlantic Flyway, thanks to a two-week string of mild weather. Temperatures inches into the 40s and even low 50s in parts of New England in November and early December. However, a few cold-weather events have resulted in good hunting in some regions.
We hunted in 12-degree wind chills the other day and had a pretty good shoot, said Palmyra, New York, resident Jeremy Bedette, a Hard Core pro-staffer. We still have some snow on the ground in places around me, but we are warming up.
Another strong cold snap is expected to descend on the northern United States this week before trickling into the mid-Atlantic at the end of the week. That should bring another push of birds into Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas.
Generally, things are pretty typical in most parts of the flyway, but there are exceptions. Maryland resident and Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Marshall Starkey said some ponds, inland marshes and swamps are still low from a drought that lasted throughout late summer and early fall. However, water levels are pretty good overall throughout the Southeast because of a steady string of big storms in recent weeks.
They are just now cutting corn in parts of New York, so the birds are really starting to spread out, Bedette said. Crops went in late because of the wet spring, and there have been some delays in the harvest, but farmers are really starting to get after it now.
Much of New England remains under a blanket of snow dumped by a recent Nor'easter, and inland ponds are mostly locked in ice, said New Hampshire Ducks Unlimited chairman Ray Jackson.
The tidal marshes along the coast are open, he said.
Despite good rain in the Southeast, some larger reservoirs are still below full pool, said South Carolina resident Cody Harlin. That's a result of seasonal drawdowns and a drought that plagued the region throughout late summer and fall.
That has helped exposed a lot of grass and shallow flats, which is what the ducks feed in, he said. There should be plenty of habitat available for the birds.
Wind has been a constant issue for Eastern Shore guide Jeff Coates, who mostly targets sea ducks and divers in the Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
We've been pretty warm, too, he said. I can't get to my best spots because of the wind, and my backup spots aren't doing too well because it's so warm. The birds aren't flying where it's calm.
Species and Numbers
Overall, though, Coates said sea duck numbers are pretty good but not as good as they have been in past seasons. That could be weather-related or the result of increased hunting pressure.
A lot more people are hunting them, so I have to think it's having an impact on their numbers, he said.
Other species seem to be in a holding pattern, as well. A pond that normally has a thousand canvasbacks near Coates' home doesn't have one so far. He's seeing decent numbers of buffleheads, though, which might indicate other birds are close behind.
Things are spotty farther north, particularly in New England. Inland marshes and ponds are frozen, and deep snow has pushed out all but a few determined Canada geese.
We have some mallards and blacks along the coast, and there are some geese around, but this snow is certainly preventing them from feeding, so I expect they will be moving out, Jackson said.
The good news is that parts of New York have lots of geese. Bedette is seeing large numbers of Canada geese and increasing numbers of snow geese between the Finger Lakes region and Syracuse. He's also seeing and shooting lots of ducks.
We shot a five-man limit of mallards not too long ago on Lake Ontario, and we've been seeing lots of black ducks and ringnecks and a few greenwings still, he said. There are lots of scoters, longtails and bufflehead, and I've heard of some guys shooting a good number of redheads and some cans, too.
Mallard and black duck numbers are strong in Delaware, and outfitter Albert Dager is having one of his best seasons in years.
We are full of ducks, he said. Everyone I talk to is shooting two or three every time they hunt. I've seen more gadwalls and wigeon than usual, although our teal numbers are way down. All these mallards make me wonder why they cut our limit to two birds per day. Same with geese. We have lots of them.
Canada goose numbers have been ebbing and flowing, but overall numbers are strong. Dager said he had a pile of geese on his ponds at Thanksgiving, but their numbers have dwindled since.
Some Virginia hunters had a banner few days during the state's second split season. One group of hunters I know shot an eight-man limit of mallards, wigeon, gadwall and wood ducks on public land. That was an exception, but it indicated good numbers of ducks. Now, birds are gone or hiding. Other reports, along with my observations, suggest low bird numbers throughout the state.
Some might have pushed south. Numbers are building in South Carolina, Harlin said. Wood ducks remain abundant throughout the state, and ringnecks are increasing on major reservoirs.
The clubs that have flooded impoundments around lakes Marion and Moultrie are starting to hold pretty good numbers of gadwalls, shovelers and some other species, he said. I've been seeing some mallards, decent numbers of gadwalls and some teal on the larger reservoirs, as well.
What To Expect
The impending cold front should provide a fresh wave of birds for hunters up and down the flyway, but where ducks end up is anyone's guess. The Atlantic Flyway is notoriously fickle. Hunters in one part of a state might limit out while another group nearby wonders where the ducks are. Almost everyone, however, agrees the rest of the season will be better than in 2018-'19.