Mallards dominate the bag; goose numbers appear promising
Date: Dec. 3
Location: middle to southern portions of the flyway
Since waterfowl seasons began in northern portions of the Central Flyway, cold temps and a delayed crop harvest have been the most influential factors affecting the migration. Now that waterfowl season will close soon in parts of the Dakotas, which just received another blast of Arctic weather, the action has shifted to the flyway's midsection, as larger concentrations of mallards and geese head south.
Major Weather Trends
It was largely a season to forget in most of North Dakota, as freezing temps in October and November made birds migrate early or bypass the Rough Rider State on their way south.
On the other side of the Dakota marker, however, it was a season to remember, as duck and goose hunters throughout South Dakota have reported phenomenal hunting. Abnormal floodwater conditions throughout the James River Valley in east-central South Dakota have been a magnet for tens of thousands of mallards and other puddlers for most of November, but that changed quickly Thanksgiving weekend thanks to snow and blizzard-like conditions, said avid waterfowl hunter Brett Andrews from Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Although most of November was colder than normal, Andrews said bird numbers were still high heading into the holiday weekend. Snowfall from the most recent weather system likely sent most birds packing, though.
The birds that do stick it out will be highly concentrated in pockets of open water and feeding close by, he said.
In Nebraska, a major cold front at the beginning of November froze some smaller waters and pushed some birds out of the state a bit earlier than normal, said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Then it warmed up to the 60s, he said. It was a really weird pattern that didn't help duck hunting.
Warm temps were also prevalent farther west in Colorado.
We had fairly warm, dry weather through much of November, and waterfowl got settled in available habitat, said Dr. Jim Gammonley, who leads the avian research team for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. We've recently had some storms and colder weather that will likely freeze up the smaller wetlands for the remainder of the season and move birds around to find food and roost sites.
Josh Richardson, migratory bird biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the weather in his part of the flyway was pretty quiet during the second half of November.
Another front will be coming through Sunday into early next week, but we are going into our 12-day split season starting Dec. 1 through Dec. 13, he said. It'll reopen Dec. 14.
Habitat, Water Conditions and Crop Harvest
In South Dakota, the crop harvest has stalled but not stopped, Andrews said.
Farmers are still trying to get out what crops they can get to, he said, noting the additional snow will complicate things. Water levels are still extremely high throughout the region. Flooded fields, sloughs and even small lakes are frozen, but big lakes and rivers still have open water.
In Nebraska, Daniels reported a similar story, as most small waters will freeze by early December, leaving rivers and creeks as the remaining habitat for migrating waterfowl.
I have a spring-fed creek that I have permission on that will be really fun moving forward, he said. We hunted it Nov. 23 for the first time. It was a bit early, but a few flocks gave us a look.
Gammonley said larger reservoirs and main rivers in Colorado are open and will be important habitat for migrating waterfowl the rest of winter.
Large numbers of geese roost on some of the large reservoirs and help keep the water open even when it gets much colder, he said. We've had decent numbers of birds around, and my sense is that hunters are having good success so far. It helps having occasional cold fronts and storms that bring new birds in and move around the birds that are already here.
Kansas habitat conditions are day to day, said Tom Bidrowski, migratory game-bird program manager for KDWPT.
We have had three periods with 1 to 2 inches of ice on the marsh for a couple of days, but it hasn't been too prolonged or cold enough to affect larger water bodies, he said. Reservoir and river hunting have been tough, as well. Spring flooding and late-fall drawdowns have left very little perimeter habitat. The release of high water has also led to high river flows, making it difficult to hunt. Western playas that were full and holding birds in the early season are starting to dry up.
Species and Numbers
Mallards are the most abundant ducks in South Dakota, Andrews said.
Pintails and wigeon are also around but not in the numbers they were a few weeks ago, he said. Most other puddle ducks have moved south. Diver ducks can be found on open water, and snow geese are abundant in the region, as well.
Nebraska has also largely evolved into a mallard-focused migration, Daniels said, though he added that December hunters can expect to see peak numbers of Canada geese.
Throughout Colorado, many smaller ducks have moved through, but Gammonley said there are still small numbers of various species.
Mallards are, of course, most common and preferred by many hunters, and usually comprise about two-thirds of our annual duck harvest, he said. We have a lot of Canada and cackling geese, and many hunters will start focusing on geese starting now through the end of the season in mid-February. Snow and Ross's geese are highly mobile and move around on the eastern plains throughout the winter and during the spring conservation order. I haven't talked with my colleagues north of Colorado, but I suspect that even with the series of cold fronts we've had, there are still substantial numbers of mallards and Canada geese staying north until more weather hopefully pushes them to us later in the season.
Bidrowski said Kansas hunting has also turned into a mallard-driven affair, noting that greenheads are becoming more predominant in the bag as the season progresses.
There are still fair numbers of gadwall, shovelers, green-winged teal and other mid-season birds around, he said. The bright spot has been geese. We have very good numbers of white-fronted geese and light geese, with Canada goose numbers building. The light goose hatch was a little better than expected, and field hunters seem to be having good success. There are high hopes that the next round of weather will push a new batch of birds into the state, but we're also hoping it is not severe enough to send them south.
Heading into gap between Oklahoma's split seasons, Richardson said the migration has been consistent.
We've built bird numbers since last report and have begun our shift over to mallards, he said.
The keys to success are no different than any other time — scouting and concealment, Daniels said. These birds we are dealing with have been hunted from Canada through the Dakotas, so attention to detail is more important by the day. Don't be afraid to hunt off the X if that is where the good hide is. Try not to get caught in the rut of hunting the same spots year after year, week after week. Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and put some miles on your vehicle, as it may pay off greatly. Also know that late in the season, it's best to plan for an all-day hunt if you can make it work. Birds tend to feed midday as temps drop, so it never hurts to be ready and waiting.
Although Colorado is a relatively dry state, Gammonley said there are plenty of opportunities waiting for waterfowlers willing to put in windshield time.
Now that it is getting colder, the duck hunting on public areas along the rivers should get more consistent, he said. We have a lot of state areas along the South Platte and Arkansas river corridors. The best goose hunting is usually on private land, which is costly to lease, but CPW is trying to provide more public access to goose hunting through the walk-in program. As always, it helps to do some scouting as weather and habitat conditions change, especially if you haven't hunted an area before.