Bird numbers are good in some spots, but action has been spotty
Although the season is well underway in most areas of the Central Flyway, the waterfowl report hasn't changed much. Conditions are still dry, and the migration has been somewhat spotty. Hopefully that will change as the season progresses and the weather gets colder.
Pretty slow, said Mike Szymanski of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department when asked how the season was going. We had pockets with a fair number of ducks around but not a lot of activity by either ducks or geese due to nice weather. The goose and crane migration was pretty slow in October and it's shaping up to be a fly-by event.
North Dakota wetlands were still drying up in early November, when the state experienced temperatures in mid-70s for several consecutive days.
Now it looks like we're going straight from sunburns to freezing hard, Szymanski said.
Farther south, conditions aren't much better.
It's been a little slower than normal this fall in northeastern South Dakota because of the dry conditions, said Paul Johnson of Lynn Lake Lodge (lynnlakelodge.com), near Webster. Many ducks have had to relocate because the small ponds are drying up.
However, there is hope.
Mid-sized sloughs are still open, so ducks coming in have been replenishing the ducks going out, he said. It's been pretty steady this month, but you have to go out and find the birds.
When I spoke to him in mid-November, Johnson said that had been the best week so far for northern mallards, but no snow geese had shown up at his camp yet. But the next day, he emailed me and said, The snow geese came in by the thousands yesterday.
Johnson also noted that his hunters shot a lot of local Canada geese in October, but they hadn't seen many cranes yet. At the time, his area was in the middle of an ice storm, so he was hopeful that would bring some birds down.
No snow on the ground, so I'm guessing ducks will be around for a couple of weeks yet with all the big water still open, he said. There's also been very little tillage due to the dry conditions, so there's lots in the fields for the birds to eat.
Regarding cranes, my observations echoed what Szymanski and Johnson witnessed. Cranes didn't show up over the skies of my native Nebraska until early November, about a month later than normal, and they appeared to be headed south with no intentions of stopping. (Although there is no crane season in Nebraska, we still like to watch them.)
As for ducks, John McKinney of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission said, During the month of October, hunters that were able to find water likely found fair success. However, conditions continue to be challenging. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a significant portion of Nebraska remains in an extreme drought. The Rainwater Basin and Sandhills remain mostly dry, and Platte River water levels are very low west of Ashland due to minimal precipitation this past month.
The migration has been slow throughout most of the state," he continued, "but with recent northern fronts, we should begin to see more birds. If hunters are able to find water, November into early December should be more favorable.
However, McKinney also noted that shallow wetlands will probably begin freezing in December. That's likely already occurred in many places, because temperatures dropped drastically in mid-November and remained sub-freezing overnight.
Fortunately, it was warm when Nebraska's Zone 4 season opened Oct. 22, and I was sitting by a pond that, although low, still held plenty of water. At sunrise, a flock of woodies flew into my decoys, feet down.
After thinking about it for a few minutes, my young dog, Komet, jumped in and fetched a beautiful drake wood duck for me. It was his first water retrieve. I couldn't have been prouder. Despite this fall's challenging conditions, our opening day was a success.
Back at the parking lot, a group of three hunters had bagged five ducks, and another group saw nothing, illustrating the boom or bust hunting a lot of Central Flyway hunters will likely experience this fall.
Farther south, Tom Bidrowski of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks said, Not much has changed from the early-season reports, and those reports weren't too favorable for ducks or duck hunters. There were some spotty rains in late October but not enough to break drought conditions.
Some duck zones are reaching midseason, while others are just getting started. It's starting to feel more like late fall, and we're starting to get better reports of duck and goose numbers. Kansas typically experiences a bump in migration activities around Veteran's Day, and mallards start to become more prevalent in hunters' bags.
Bidrowski said despite the overall dry conditions, hunting pressure has been extremely high, quickly educating new birds.
Given habitat conditions and hunting pressure, scouting remains key, he said. Best bets are still southeastern Kansas and the upper ends of reservoirs in north-central and northeastern Kansas.
Oklahoma waterfowl guide Cole Rogers (Sandstone Outfitters on Facebook) reported that ducks have started trickling into the state, but numbers have fluctuated greatly.
We still haven't gotten a push of birds that has stuck, he said. Little geese haven't showed up yet, but we have had quite a few cranes for a week or so now.
That confirms what hunters to the north have been seeing: cranes flying over the dryer upper states and continuing down the flyway until they find water.
The water situation is looking better after recent rains, so that sure helps us out here in western Oklahoma in terms of holding ducks when they do start to show up in greater numbers, said Rogers, who was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season.
So despite dry conditions, hunters are still hunting, and some are even enjoying success, albeit limited in many cases. For those who can manage their expectations and focus on appreciating time afield regardless of the number of birds bagged, it's probably going to be an okay season. Thankfully, most waterfowlers are eternal optimists, unfazed by seasonal ups and downs.
(Don't miss: Game-Changers: How Ducks React to Shifting Conditions)