Fly High this Duck Hunting Season

Fly High this Duck Hunting Season

Shutterstock image

It’s time to clean up the shotguns, paint the dekes, pimp the blind, perk some coffee, grab a good cigar, ready the hounds and prepare for a great season of duck and goose hunting.

And let’s be as optimistic as possible and say we will have plenty of roast duck in our oven and meat in our smokers! In fact, good numbers of mallards, wigeons, teal and pintails are expected in the West, with increased numbers of other species, as well. Counts are up on several species throughout the regions of the Pacific Flyway, with some slight decreases in numbers from 2017.

HABITAT CONDITIONS

According to the annual waterfowl survey conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, habitat conditions across North American duck-breeding grounds improved from the prior widespread drought conditions. This being said, numbers are much higher than the overall long-term average.

Surveys conducted in the North-west Territories and British Columbia showed duck number estimates similar to 2017 and also slightly above the long-term average. Spring was slightly delayed in Alaska and one of the latest in recorded history due to late ice melt. In Oregon, Washington and other portions of the Pacific Flyway, winter precipitation was slightly below normal, which led to a reduction in available breeding habitat in comparison to the last few years. Late spring precipitation in May will somewhat improve conditions, particularly in the Pacific Flyway, covering the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

“Overall wetland conditions are pretty dry this year, and that will translate into fewer local birds produced on our marshes and tougher hunting conditions this fall,” says Blair Stringham, regional waterfowl biologist at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “The Great Salt Lake is higher than it was last year, which is a good thing, but the water level will decrease over the summer. This will result in less cover to hide in for hunters and less feed for birds, and our snowpack this year was below average in nearly all parts of the state, so most water bodies around the state will also shrink as the summer wears on,” Stringham adds.

THE FOWL

Mallard populations remain more than 30 percent above the long-term average but slightly down overall, with more than 445,000 birds estimated by the USFWS. Throughout Alaska and the Yukon Territory, overall estimates were down for many species, but gadwalls, northern pintails, green-winged teal and American wigeon were nearly similar to last year. Increased limits for northern pintails across the West this season are on tap, which should make for some happy hunters.

With fairly late ice-breaks, coupled with coastal flooding during the peak hatch period in the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta, Alaska delivered a poor outlook for production of cackling and white-fronted geese. Coastal flooding during late June can cause increased mortality in nesting areas, with high losses in nests and goslings, according to the USFWS. Many of the geese that are typically harvested tend to be younger birds that decoy quite a bit easier, and many local populations of geese in the West are doing quite well.

“Mallards”
Mallard populations remain more than 30 percent above the long-term average but slightly down overall, with more than 445,000 birds estimated by the USFWS. (Shutterstock image)

Over the past 10 years, the Pacific populations of Canada geese have increased more than 10 percent per year (increase based on breeding ground surveys conducted by the USFWS in Alberta, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana). This is some good news, despite poor nesting this past spring in large portions of the Yukon and interior Alaska.

Cackling goose species of Taverner’s, Lesser and Aleutian geese have seemed to fair a bit better over the past few years, and no dramatic hunting season changes are expected to be reported for 2018-19.

TIPS, TACTICS AND MORE

With many ponds, small lakes and creeks likely low on water or close to being dried up, Western waterfowl hunters need to look beyond their favorite hunting sites, especially early in the season. Pre-season scouting will be very important in 2018 for early season success. Open agriculture fields that produced grass, grains, corn, peas, rice or buckwheat will be a good bet, as will draw blinds at various wildlife management units, especially early in the season where officials have the ability to flood locations without pumping.

Another option is to head toward the coast, where tidal flooding and coastal rainfall attract good numbers of local birds. Also, locating isolated ponds and creeks where there are larger sections of stagnant water will be a good idea especially for the early season gunners.

“As the season progresses and rains return, hunting should improve with the caveat being cold weather,” emphasizes waterfowl biologist Brandon Reishus of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Indeed, cold storms during November and December will push good numbers of birds through the inner-mountain and coastal West and improve the hunting, particularly on private lands and wildlife refuges. Moving water will be a key ingredient during cold snaps that ice-over stagnant waters. Rivers, creeks and small streams that do not freeze will “magnetize” anddraw fowl to these locations. Water that is not frozen near agricultural productions, where birds can transition from feeding areas to resting locations, can make for some great shooting. Those early blasts of Arctic air into British Columbia are critical to move birds down early. However, if the winter storm surge is delayed, it is likely some of the best hunting will once again be found in late December and January.

Decoy spreads of two dozen or more divers tend to work best when setting up on coastal lakes or open waters. Place your spread out in a horseshoe type formation, with 4 to 6 rafts of birds throughout. Make sure to include 3 to 4 open-water landing zones for incoming birds. Groups of birds will swing into the spread from downwind directions. Provide landing zones they can use by working into the wind.

Unless wind or other factors dictate that you must set up looking into the sun, you should always use it to your advantage.

The use of small drift-boats or motorized boats (where allowed) seems to work best to transport decoys and dogs to secluded locations along shorelines. Obtain permission whenever hiking to riverbank and lakeshore locations. Some of the best hunting is found along private tracts where hunting pressure is very minimal.

As many waterfowlers already know you will also have birds looking to pair up (for the coming breeding season), which can also tip the scales in hunters’ favor. Decoying wary birds is difficult, and, oftentimes, it’s best to only take a half-dozen or fewer decoys and set them in areas birds prefer. This and hunting feeding locations without decoys has also proven to be very effective for me in the past. However, this requires extensive scouting in order to pattern bird movements.

Of course, we all at some point will be hunting wary birds looking for locations with less pressure. I prefer seeking out backwater sloughs that might take a little hiking or sweat, hauling in the decoy bag. It’s a lot like finding a good buck during deer season, when we walk over that extra ridge only to be rewarded. Decoy spreads and great calling can be what typically puts more ducks and geese in your bag, but the location you choose to hunt is probably the most critical.

“I've had some very good days over some pretty questionable spreads simply because I'd found where ducks or geese wanted to be,” says Brian Lovett, author of The Duck Blog for Realtree.com. What folks should take from this is, in-season scouting is critical and should be done on a regular basis throughout the season. According to Lovett, hunters must have up-to-the-minute info on where birds are feeding, loafing, traveling and roosting to enjoy continued success. That takes a lot of work, and you'll have to sacrifice some hunting time, but the results are worthwhile.

I have found that waiting until mid-morning to hunt “rest and digest” bodies of water can prove some great success on returning birds that have been out to feed earlier in the morning. Patience is a huge part of any waterfowlers success. Sticking it out when things are slow will only give a hunter added opportunities.Modern camo and blinds are quite amazing and do look very realistic; however, blinds built from natural cover from the surrounding area you happen to be hunting often proves to be the best concealment. If you aren’t concealed, you will not kill many, if any, birds. Their eyesight is amazing. Many hunters might not even know that cloudy days, as opposed to sunny and clear days, make it easier for birds to pick you out.

“When it's sunny, the shadows and glare from the sun can work to your advantage. And wind is always a must. I don't care whether it's 70 or minus 20 (degrees) — a good breeze will always help you,” Lovett adds.

Whether you are hunting a pit blind, layout ground blind, camo watercraft, above-ground blind or pop-up style blind, make sure it is concealed and looks natural. It might take a few minutes or several hours to accomplish the job, but it will most definitely be worth it in the end.

Another important aspect waterfowl hunters tend to neglect, Lovett says, is keeping the sun at your back or at least off one shoulder. Unless wind or other factors dictate that you must set up looking into the sun, you should always use it to your advantage.

As for calling it really does help. Great callers can usually turn birds from a long way out and at least make them take a look at what you might have to offer.

However, if you are in a location that birds want to be, it’s best to just leave your calls on your lanyard around your neck. Little to no calling in these situations will be your best option. If you must call, take some time to listen and see how much the birds are talking. Early season birds always respond best but finding just the right notes during the late season can turn an average hunt into a great day.

PRO TIPS: PATTERNING YOUR GUN

Patterning your shotgun isn’t just for turkey hunters. Duck and goose hunters need to take heed and check out how different ammos perform in various situations and extended ranges.–Troy Rodakowski

Practice shotgunning with whatever method you like, but don't pre-mount your gun. The most difficult and critical aspect of field shooting is smoothly and efficiently shouldering your shotgun and beginning the shooting process. Shooting trap, skeet or sporting clays with your gun pre-shouldered certainly lets you work on reaction, leads and swing, but it does nothing to help your pre-mount and mount in the field. Your scores will probably decrease a bit when using this method, but who cares? Off-season practice is just that. The real goal is to become a deadly field shot.–Brian Lovett

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