Kansas' Mixed-Bag Waterfowling

Kansas' Mixed-Bag Waterfowling

You can double your chances of success by hunting where you can bag either ducks or geese -- or sometimes both -- on any morning in December. We'll show you where! (December 2008)

An abundance of mixed-bag waterfowling opportunities is available across Kansas this month -- and you might want to take advantage of them now. I'm not trying to sound full of gloom and doom, but for a number of reasons the future of duck and goose populations is uncertain.

You'll read more about those later.

First, let's cover some of the most important logistical details. Kansas has three hunting zones for waterfowl -- High Plains, Early and Late. The High Plains Zone boundary is easy to remember -- it includes everything in Kansas west of U.S. Highway 283, and continues west to the state's border with Colorado. Combined, the Early and Late zones encompass all of the Sunflower State east of U.S. 283, continuing east to the border with Missouri.

Involving a number of state and U.S. highways, and even Interstate 135 in McPherson County, the boundary between the Early and Late zones looks a lot like the intersection of two jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Rather than try to define that meandering boundary accurately here, I advise you to go to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Web site, www.kdwp.state.ks.us, where you'll find a map included on the page listing season dates. Those regulations were not yet finalized when this issue went to press, but there are some general statements about seasons that should ring true.

First and most important, all goose species will be open to hunting across all zones for the entire month of December. There are reasons for that, too, which you'll learn about a little later.

Ducks also should be open to hunting all month in the High Plains Zone. In the Early Zone, expect to have two to three weeks of hunting this month. Look for all but a day or two at the end of December for duck hunting in the Late Zone.

That said, be sure to call your local KDWP office or check the Web site to confirm the season dates. That can't be overemphasized. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets season frameworks for migratory species in the U.S., and state agencies like KDWP use those frameworks to set actual hunting seasons that will give waterfowlers the best chances for success. Dates can change from year to year, so it's imperative that you find out what part of this month is open in all three zones.

Two of the Sunflower State's most well-known and popular waterfowling destinations are Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. They are relatively close to each other -- as the ducks and geese fly -- but they are in different waterfowl zones. Cheyenne Bottoms is in the Early Zone, Quivira in the Late Zone. If you're planning a trip to that part of the state with an eye toward hunting both areas, you must be sure of the seasons to assure that duck hunting will be possible in each during the time you'll be there. Goose hunting shouldn't be a problem, as previously noted.

"December waterfowl hunting can be hit-or-miss in some areas of the state," said KDWP biologist Faye McNew, who works with waterfowl. "One example is the southeast part of the state, which tends to freeze over earlier than some other areas."

McNew noted that Cedar Bluff is an excellent waterfowl destination, as are the aforementioned Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira NWR. There also are other public hunting areas in the state -- adjacent to some of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments -- that are equipped with the plumbing necessary to flood marshes. I've hunted one on the north end of Perry Reservoir several times over the years, and enjoyed some great action there. This season should prove to be similar, if not better.

McPherson Wetlands just had an improvement projected completed, McNew said, and the Jamestown Wildlife Area near the Cloud/Republic County line is undergoing a project as this is being written. The point is that there are many places around Kansas where the hardware and habitat is in place to draw and hold waterfowl, ducks in particular, this season.

And, of course, hunters in the Kansas City area and the rest of eastern Kansas know how good the Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area can be for waterfowling. Milford and Lovewell reservoirs also are set up to -- and do -- flood waterfowl marshes in the fall. Clinton also can provide some good hunting.

Most of the spots mentioned here so far are intended for those most interested in duck hunting, but also the chance to take some geese. If you're looking more for geese -- but having some duck hunting also would be nice -- these same places will be attractive. But just about anywhere in Kansas with agricultural fields situated close to some open water will be a good bet for geese. The dynamics of North America's goose populations are, well, dynamic -- and not necessarily in ways that are all good.

One important fact about that is Kansas' emergence as an important wintering area for migrating white-fronted and snow geese. "Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms are holding more and more geese every year, it seems," McNew said.

"For the past five years, we have seen a steady increase in the number of white-fronted geese wintering here," she continued. "We have had exceptional numbers for the past two years during our midwinter counts.

"Snow geese also don't seem to be moving on south once they arrive here in Kansas. If they do move, it's later than they historically have been. And, of course, we have a resident population of Canada geese.

"Our resident population of Canada geese is increasing," McNew said, "and the northern-nesting Canadas (those migrating to and through Kansas annually) are doing well. They actually completed breeding before snow geese this year, which is good."

Not so good is that fact that snow geese populations are still way too high, with no end in sight. McNew said that snows are beginning to impact other species due to their overpopulation and the stress that puts on traditional northern habitat -- their home range.

McNew said migrating mallards also appear to be spending more wintering time in the Sunflower State. "They are definitely moving south from Kansas at least a little later than they used to," she said. Although we didn't specifically talk about this, much of the Sunflower State has experienced winters not nearly as harsh or as long as they could be, and that undoubtedly is impacting migration patterns for waterfowl using the Central Flyway.

When it comes to habitat management here, we've already covered the places around Kansas where marshes get flo

oded in the fall for visiting ducks and geese. As McNew noted, the latter also tend to use agricultural fields quite a bit, and Kansas has a lot of acreage to offer.

In the final analysis, the spots mentioned so far are bound to be good for mixed-bag hunting this month, barring some unforeseen and bizarre (given recent mild-winter history) weather event that sends birds heading south way earlier than they have been in the recent past.

It's impossible to predict just where that could happen, but personal experience also suggests there are plenty of potholes around Kansas that, if not frozen over, will draw and hold ducks. Many of them also are close to the kinds of agricultural fields that geese prefer. The point is that you're liable to find at least decent mixed-bag hunting almost anywhere in the Sunflower State.

As evidence, I offer what I'll always remember as the ultimate mixed-bag outing, which I shared with dear friend and hunting buddy Jim Givens and our pointing dogs up in Republic County. We were after quail and pheasants that day, but walking up one draw, which was oriented north-south, I looked to the east and spied about a 5-acre pond practically covered with ducks and geese. At the top of that same draw, we walked into a field of native tallgrass from which exploded close to a dozen prairie chickens.

Neither of us got a shot, and we didn't try for the ducks or geese because we only had lead shot with us. Even so, that encounter speaks volumes about the mixed-bag possibilities of a Kansas hunt. We saw quail, pheasants, prairie chickens, ducks and geese on the same property well within an hour.

The point is that you should think about the places you hunt regularly. Think about those with crop fields and ponds available. If those ponds are still open this month, you might just have the makings of a little waterfowl honeyhole to hunt.

Also, as alluded to earlier, now -- this season and the immediate future -- may be the best time you'll have to take advantage of Kansas' great mixed-bag waterfowling opportunities because some things are going on that could change the duck-and-goose landscape in a big way.

In other stories I've written for this magazine over the past few months -- stories about deer hunting and pheasants -- loss of CRP acreage has been discussed. When it comes to the ducks and geese that migrate to and through the Sunflower State, the trend toward taking land off of CRP rolls in states to our north could wreak havoc.

Landowners are taking acreage out of CRP for a return to agricultural production -- mostly for corn because of the ever-growing demand from the alternative-fuel world. Corn can be used to make ethanol, and our vehicles can run on ethanol instead of gasoline. As more corn goes into fuel production, demand goes up everywhere. Economics take over, and farmers see the potential of growing more corn through use of land they've had in CRP.

"Here in Kansas, loss of CRP land won't have quite the impact on migrating waterfowl as in other states," McNew said. "We could, however, see some major effects as a result of CRP loss in the northern nesting areas for ducks."

She noted research that suggests CRP acreage in the Dakotas, for example, adds as many as 2 million ducks to the annual fall flights. The reasons are a bit complicated, but they suggest the kind of ecological synergy that some folks rarely stop to consider.

"North Dakota and the southern Canadian provinces have been in a drought," McNew said, "Now, Canada doesn't have a program like CRP here in the states, and that drought has meant that the southern provinces have been continually losing wetlands.

"Having acreage enrolled in CRP has masked those losses because of the nesting habitat that acreage has provided," she explained. "Now, with CRP land disappearing in the northern nesting states, that could devastate breeding numbers for ducks. We won't see it overnight -- there will be a lag -- but the potential for it exists."

She noted that, as this is being written, blue-winged teal estimates for the 2008 fall flights are in and show an estimated 6.6 million birds. The 2007 estimate was 6.7 million. Does this represent a blip on the radar or something more ominous? Only time will tell, but the elements seem to be conspiring to impact the overall quality of our waterfowl resource and the hunting it provides.

Think about all the things that are happening. Snow geese numbers continue to grow -- to the point where they are poised to do some real hurt to other species of migrating geese.

Ducks are losing breeding habitat in both the southern Canadian provinces and northern U.S. breeding areas. There's no way that can't have a negative impact on their numbers moving forward, although it may be a while longer before we actually begin to see things start downhill.

All of this brings me back to a statement made earlier: This may be the best time of all to enjoy some Kansas mixed-bag waterfowl hunting. Future seasons many not offer the same kind of action you're likely to find this month.

We've also scratched the surface of another major reason why the time is now for some mixed-bag hunting. Think about fuel prices -- where they've been, where they are, where they could head. These tough-to-swallow gas prices already are impacting everything we do, everything we buy, and every outing we so much as think about.

As recently as a few seasons ago, the cost of buying gas or diesel to get to Cheyenne Bottoms or Quivira from our state's major population centers wasn't enough to keep you from going. It could be now. What about a trip to Cedar Bluff from, say, Kansas City or Wichita?

How much are shotgun shells now? They're higher, indeed, and at least a part of that is due to much-higher transportation costs. I never thought I would see diesel fuel ever get a-dollar-per-gallon more expensive than gasoline, but it has -- and even higher than that -- in some places. Just imagine what that means for the expense of hauling goods like shotgun shells, duck decoys and camo gear to your favorite outdoor store.

Your outings are definitely more expensive this season, but the hunting opportunity Kansas will provide this month should be worth the investment. Also, think about what you read earlier regarding small potholes and the other elements necessary to draw and hold ducks and geese in a given area. You may discover some places close to home that are great bets for a mixed-bag hunt this month.

Everything points toward duck and goose numbers being excellent again this season, and recent history suggests that once the birds find a place in the Sunflower State that they like, they're hanging around longer.

Presuming that season frameworks are similar to past years' (and I can think of no reason to believe otherwise), you should be able to enjoy most of December for mixed-bag hunting no matter where you live. Just remember to check on a few things before you plan or begin a trip.

Most important, make sure you know the boundaries of the three Kansas waterfowl zones, and make sure you know the current season dates for ducks and geese. Use a map to determine whether the places you really want to hunt will be open to ducks and geese when you want to hunt there.

Call ahead to see what the numbers are like before you head out. Nothing is worse -- especially now with gas and diesel prices -- than showing up for a hunt only to learn that the birds you were expecting have moved on. Admittedly, the information from McNew about extended wintering here suggests that's not nearly as likely as it once was, but it still can happen. Take the time to check on bird numbers.

Now then, it's time to load up the gear and hunting buddies and head for the blinds!

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