Weather makes hunting hit-or-miss proposition
Date: Jan. 26
Region: southwestern Washington and south along the flyway
Although I hate to sound like a broken record, I'm going to sound like … well, a broken record. The rollercoaster ride continues in southwestern Washington, and from what I understand, up and down the West Coast. Birds are here today, gone tomorrow. Lows hit the teens and single digits in this corner of the state, but a week later, the mercury reads 50. Ice and snow, but then no ice or snow; wind, no wind, blue skies and then rain. Clouds of pintails one day, and nothing — and I mean nothing — the next. Guys hunting flooded corn and even not-so-flooded corn in eastern Washington are pounding out limits of hardy mallards and big Canadas. But here on the saltwater side of the Cascade Range, we're working for every bird we bring home. Still, it's better than shoveling rocks. The countdown to the end has begun, though. As I write this, a week remains in the 2016-'17 duck season. Goose season closes briefly but then reopens in early February and continues through early March. Then, it's salmon season.
Major Weather Trends
In southwestern Washington, we're coming off three weeks of unusually cold weather. Snow and ice have made for interesting driving up and down the Interstate 5 corridor. However, those inclement conditions have made for good tidal hunting. This past week — Jan. 16 — the southwestern corner has returned to normal weather pattern, meaning mild temperatures ranging from 38 to 50, with periods of rain. Toward the coast, the interior rivers have come up a bit, but I'm not seeing the valley-wide flooding I did earlier in the year. That weather — mild temperatures and intermittent rain — is slated to continue through the end of the duck season (Jan. 29) and beyond.
The recent full moon brought high tides, as per lunar usual, but water levels have calmed in recent days. Rains the past week have raised some interior streams —tributaries to the Columbia — and put a lot of sheet water on the ground between the Coast Range and the Pacific. However, it wasn't the deluge weathermen predicted a week ago. Still, there's plenty of water and many places for birds to sit unmolested.
Species and Numbers
A week ago, my brother-in-law and I watched 3,000 pintails come into a tidal marsh at dusk to roost. Maybe 4,000. The show started 90 minutes before the close of shooting time, and there were still clouds of birds — flocks of 100 to 200 sprigs — coming in waves when we left. Two days later in the same general area, it was tough to find a pintail. The cold, I'm guessing, hastened their departure, but while it lasted, it was something to see. As for other species, I wouldn't say there are any huge numbers of anything currently. Some straggler sprigs remain, with decent groups of mallards and green-winged teal still around. Wigeon have dropped off to almost nothing. However, I've been seeing more northern shovelers during the past week than I have all season. Gray ducks, too. A friend and his boy killed two limits last week, which included several drake shovelers, rounded out with gadwalls and greenwings. (Note: He apparently has concocted a recipe that makes even shovelers taste good, or so he says.) I'm seeing excellent numbers of lesser scaup on the Lower River, and have been hearing fantastic reports of canvasbacks and redheads on the Columbia in eastern Washington. A lot of ringnecks — one of my favorites — are sitting on roadside ponds and sloughs, along with what seems to be an increase in buffleheads and — ugh — common mergansers. And finally, the geese have shown up — big geese, medium geese, little geese; lights and darks. They're here, but they're not playing fair.
Personal Hunting Report
I'm a hero. I'm a zero. That's been my season from start to almost finish. Limits one day, blank the next. Still, it's been a remarkable season, and I don't suspect the final week will be any different. I'm running small duck spreads (10 to 12 decoys) after setting 75 floaters on a little puddle and being ignored by almost everything that flew by. Six Canada floaters, 12 ducks, a jerk cord and little calling —subtle calling, at that — with a good amount of whistling seems to be the ticket. But the ducks seem fickle as we grind into these final few days, not landing with decoys or live ducks. Pairs and small groups want to isolate themselves. Geese are playing the same game, but I'm not above pass-shooting my way to a four-bird limit should the situation warrant.
Boat Ramp Chatter
Hunting pressure is at an all-season low, despite the approaching close. I can't explain that. In fact, pressure has been relatively low all season, a variable that has, I'm sure, contributed to the lack of flight activity we experienced during several hunts the past six weeks. Fewer waterfowlers? I'm not sure. I'm not complaining, mind you, as we hunt almost 100 percent public ground, but the absence of duck and goose hunters is somewhat alarming.
Here in Washington, it's done in a week. Extended goose season comes next. We'll have a four-hour smelt season in February, if we even get that. Folks are fishing for winter steelhead now, and it won't be long before the neighbor, Charlie, starts readying his gear for spring chinook — if he hasn't started already. Yes, waterfowl season will end soon, but there's always plenty to do in the Pacific Flyway.