Strong Duck and Goose Hatches Boost Early-Season Action
Date: Oct. 19
Location: Flyway-wide, trending toward the northern states
Ah, it arrived at last — Oct. 14, the opening day of Washington's 2017-'18 waterfowl season. Coming off an extremely pleasant and physically demanding muzzleloader elk season — alas, no elk this year — it was nice to hump a dozen decoys and a blind bag rather than a 40-pound pack and a single-shot. But I digress.
Here at home, and in Oregon and the northern half of California, we enjoyed a tremendous duck hatch during Spring and Summer 2017, thanks largely to the inordinate amount of water the Northwest received during winter. Mallards, gray ducks and cinnamon teal numbers were, biologists agreed, up to some degree. Inland — Nevada, Utah and the western portions of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana — things were drier. However, I'm hearing about decent numbers of local birds, with most ducks and dark geese starting their migration not long after this report appears.
The big news in all four flyways is the one-pintail bag limit imposed for the season. I'm sure in coastal Washington and Oregon, as well as much of middle California, it's difficult, if not impossible, to fathom a single-sprig daily bag when hunters seem to be surrounded by them many days. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys, pintail populations have declined for five consecutive years, standing (in 2016) at 2.62 million birds, which is 34 percent below the long-term average. On a positive note — two, actually — Atlantic Flyway fowlers can, for the first time in decades, have two black ducks in their daily bag. And Washington goose hunters have reason to rejoice, thanks to a new 20-bird daily bag limit. Yes, that's 20 birds per day per hunter, to include four Canadas, six specklebellies and 10 snows. We'll wait to see the social media photographs there.
Major Weather Trends
Normal might be the best way to describe the weather. In Washington, it's been a traditional mix of rain and sun on the western side, with temperatures ranging from the mid- to upper 30s to high 50s to mid-60s. It's been colder on the eastern side but nothing out of the ordinary. California remains warm (lows in the 50, highs in the 70s to 80s), with Nevada and Utah's Great Salt Lake area sharing a mix of near-freezing nights to mid-60s daytime temperatures.
According to the most recent predictions from The National Weather Service, the Lower 48 should see warmer-than-average temperatures throughout October, November and December, along with forecasts for higher-than-average precipitation for the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies, which includes much of the Pacific Flyway. Another La Nina year, experts say with relative certainty, will mean lots of water. That's a mixed blessing, as it can make for phenomenal hunting while also spreading birds out.
Water conditions throughout the flyway are all over the map. In southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon, there's no sheet water. However, ponds appear to be at average pool, and the Columbia and her tributaries are at normal flows. Some rivers in northwestern Washington are at low flow, but that's of greater concern to fisheries (salmon) biologists and hatchery personnel than waterfowl hunters.
Elsewhere, Banded pro-staffer Geff Duncan, of Chehalis, Washington, reported dry conditions, and colleague Kent Contreras, in eastern Washington (Newport), reported good water levels. Other Banded pros chimed in: Gene Carter, of Yuba City, California, noted favorable water. Travis Lyle, of Fernley, Nevada, said there's lots of water out there. Most areas are full or close to it. Rivers are still running good. Areas that haven't had water in years are full now. Rob Friedel and Chad Yamane, who operate on or near the Great Salt Lake in Utah, mentioned great-looking management areas and excellent water conditions.
Species and Numbers
Currently, the usual suspects dominate the Pacific Flyway — a mix of mallards, wigeon, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal and some northern shovelers. Gray duck numbers, as forecast by state and federal biologists, are high, or at least seem to be higher than in previous years. Wood duck populations, by my admittedly unscientific conclusion, appear to be stable in the Pacific Northwest; no increase but no decrease. A hidden dark-water pond that held a dozen woodies in 2016 has a dozen woodies in 2017, and that's good news for Westerners seeking this bucket-list bird.
A lot of specks this year, said Gene Carter of California. More than I've seen this early in quite a few years.
Eddie Upton, also a Californian and a member of the Banded team, seconded Carter's assessment of the white-front situation with his a lot of specks, along with pintails note.
Friedel and Yamane agreed they've lost some cinnamons from the expansive salt marshes, but there are plenty left, along with excellent numbers of greenwings, gadwall and pintails. Diver fans will have to wait for a bit. It's early, but those bluebills, redheads and canvasbacks should be on their way.
It was Willapa Bay for me and Sadie Mae, the black dog, for the opener. Hunting was slow but steady; high tide at 10:35 a.m. and a mixed bag limit, heavy on the greenwings, by 11:30 a.m. Weather was perfect, with some clouds and blue sky, and just enough wind to keep the decoys moving. I test-drove an 18-block Puddler Pack from Avery tied to the bottom with Rig 'Em Right's 54-inch, 6-ounce Xtreme Texas Rigs, with a two-greenwing jerk cord thrown in, and I couldn't have been more pleased. In all, the tides were kind, Sadie Mae came out of her summer retirement nicely, and, other than the occasional centerfire crack — the deer opener and duck opener are the same day (ugh) — we really didn't hear much shooting. I have to tweak the cover on my Aquapod skiff a bit to make it a little more user-friendly, but other than that, it was a good trial run. One day down; 106 to go.
As is often the case in waterfowl hunting regardless of the flyway, hunters will have to watch the weather. With mild conditions predicted, at least in western Washington, it might be a scenario with plenty of water and widely spaced birds that linger long enough before heading south to make hunting a challenge. We'll see, because even Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel can't say for sure what will happen with Mother Nature. Get out and hunt when you're able. That might be the best advice for this season. That, and keep an eye on the weather.