Early hunting results seem mixed as duck hunters pray for rain
There's a recurring theme in the Central Flyway this fall: It's dry.
In my home state of Nebraska, it's really dry. For Cornhusker waterfowlers, that's particularly bad news.
As expected, teal season seemed to be challenging for many due to the lack of water across the landscape, said John McKinney, waterfowl program wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The Rainwater Basin and Sandhills remain significantly dry, and there has been almost no change in conditions since teal season.
McKinney said basically the only areas in the Rainwater Basin (in the south-central part of the state) with good water are those where water has been pumped in. For current wetland conditions and a list of wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas scheduled to be pumped, go to outdoornebraska.gov/waterfowlchecklist, and click on the Wetland Conditions tab.
McKinney also noted that the Platte River is mostly dry in central Nebraska and running very low in western Nebraska. I can verify that. Although not bone dry like it was this past summer, the Platte is still pretty low in central Nebraska, with limited flows. Hopefully that will change as autumn progresses. McKinney said flows are closer to normal downstream (east) of Columbus.
On Oct. 1, opening day in Nebraska's Zone 2, my dog Komet and I sat in the middle of a Rainwater Basin marsh that had recently been pumped. Happily, we were alone in that out-of-the-way area, but as I drove by other public areas later that morning, several were occupied with hopeful hunters. I didn't see any ducks on the tailgates, though, and many hunters were still in the field, indicating they hadn't limited out yet.
Sadly, I didn't bag any ducks, either. As I was readying my gear in the parking lot during the pre-dawn darkness, several flocks of ducks flew over me, departing the marsh well before shooting time. After it got light, I spotted the likely reason why they bugged out early and never returned — a hawk that kept circling the wetland. Still, the dog and I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise in quiet solitude. No shots were heard anywhere nearby.
This might be a challenging year due to the lack of water across the landscape unless our weather patterns drastically change, McKinney said. Pre-season scouting is highly encouraged to improve your success.
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In Kansas, things aren't any better.
Most of Kansas was not welcoming to teal looking for an early fall stopover, and that is reflected in the low early-season waterfowl counts, said Tom Bidrowski, migratory game bird program manager with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Overall, teal season success was poor. Hunters that were able to find some water or hunted the upper ends of reservoirs likely found fair success, but for many, there wasn't much of a teal season, and for some none at all. Statewide, the September teal harvest is expected to be very low.
The general season might not be any better unless conditions drastically change in the Sunflower State — soon.
Kansas' 2022-'23 waterfowl season hinges on weather in the next month or so, Bidrowski said. First, Kansas needs a lot of moisture; abnormal autumnal amounts of rain. Second, we need favorable fronts from the north to push birds south, but not so severe to keep them heading south.
For many areas of Kansas, the season's tone is set by teal season, and that was not good. Lack of precipitation has greatly impacted wetland, agricultural and reservoir water levels across the state.
Bidrowski also pointed out that many crops have been harvested early for silage because of the drought.
This will greatly reduce waste grain for waterfowl, which will also affect late-season field hunters, he said. With more stable precipitation in the eastern half of the state, wetland conditions are slightly better, and hunters there should fare better. Waterfowlers hunting larger water bodies, like the north-central reservoirs, should also do OK. However, most shallow marshes in central and western Kansas remain very low or are completely dry.
When discussing Kansas waterfowling, it's difficult not to mention Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, which remains dry, Bidrowski said.
That will displace many ducks and geese, as well as a lot of hunters, he said. Expect high pressure on public hunting areas that have suitable habitat conditions.
Bidrowski conceded that it's probably going to be a tough season for Kansas waterfowlers.
The best bet is southeastern Kansas marshes and the upper reaches of the larger reservoirs, he said.
Nolan May, president of Carlson's Choke Tubes, in Atwood, Kansas (choketube.com), echoed Bidrowski's dire report.
To sum up my teal season in northwestern Kansas, it was extremely dry, he said. Many ponds that used to have some ducks are completely dried up. One small mud puddle I went to had eight teal on it. I didn't pursue them as that's all I found.
In North Dakota, conditions aren't quite as bad as on the central Great Plains. Overall, weather has been nice, so ducks haven't been too active, and hunting has been pretty spotty, said Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Szymanski provided a link to an article about wetland conditions on the department's website. To sum it up, the department's annual fall wetland survey indicates conditions for duck hunting are fair across the state.
Andy Dinges, a department migratory game bird biologist, reported that the number of duck hunting wetlands are up statewide about 26% from the extreme drought conditions experienced in Fall 2021 but still 29% below the long-term average. He said the number of suitable duck hunting wetlands counted on the survey was the sixth lowest since 2003, and that all regions are still below average for the number of wetlands observed. However, the northwestern and north-central parts of the state showed the greatest improvements from 2021, up 102% and 51%, respectively.
Based on those statistics, hunters might want to focus on those regions of the state, but I gathered from the report that, overall, North Dakota seems to have far more water than many other areas of the Central Flyway. Water is only one component to consider, though. Waterfowl hunting in North Dakota, as everywhere else, also depends on weather conditions and migration patterns, and it's still too early to predict how those factors will play out.
This season will definitely be challenging for many Central Flyway waterfowlers. Just how challenging remains to be seen, but one thing's certain: The drought isn't helping anyone — especially ducks and duck hunters. Even so, the worst day duck hunting is still better than the best day working, although we might have to keep reminding ourselves that a bit more often than usual this season.
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