Weather-Watcher's Waterfowling

If you want to score consistently on ducks and snow geese in Kansas, it pays to be a weather-watcher. Here's why.

By Tim Lilley

For people living in Kansas, watching the weather is a way of life. Sometimes it has to be. In springtime, for example, tornado-producing cells can explode seemingly out of nowhere, threatening lives and property with sometimes little or no warning. And at this time of year, the winds much colder, conditions may spawn the kind of blizzards and heavy snowstorms that can leave areas cut off and without power for days at a time.

So we watch the weather and prepare the best we can. Hunters who go beyond that to learn how the weather can affect their trips are (excuse the pun) ahead of the game. And at no time is that truer than during our annual waterfowl seasons.

When you get right down to it, those very seasons themselves depend on the weather. If things aren't right, hunting can be virtually nonexistent. Regardless of whether you prefer chasing ducks or geese, knowing the weather and what it means to the waterfowl resources can help you make the most of whatever blows in.

"For Kansans to enjoy good waterfowl seasons, the factors are pretty simple," explained Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks state biologist Marvin Kraft. "We need weather up north that will move the birds out, and weather here that will stop them and hold them."

No other hunting in our state is so totally dependent on the weather - or so capable of being affected so dramatically by the elements.

"Fronts pretty much always move birds," Kraft continued. "When you talk about the early migrants we see - teal, pintails and gadwalls - a good front will move them right out. Strong winter fronts tend to chug our waterfowl seasons right along."

Photo by John R. Ford

On the other hand, lack of dynamic winter weather can provide surprising longevity to some forms of waterfowl hunting. "Some years," Kraft offered, "the gadwalls and pintails don't ever really leave the state. We had hunters taking pintails in decent numbers during the final days of the season in some areas. Although it's uncommon, it can happen."

Some hunters also don't pause to consider how weather throughout the year influences prospects for a prospective hunting season. No matter what happens up north, ducks, especially, and geese aren't going to spend much time in Kansas or anywhere that doesn't offer what they need to hang around. That gets back to what Kraft described earlier: the conditions that will stop birds and then hold them. Although a particularly harsh norther will move birds farther south no matter what, there are some elements that, earlier in the year, can combine to generate really favorable hunting conditions in the Sunflower State.

Kraft talks about relatively dry summers that lead into fairly wet falls, which bring on rising waters as migrants from the north begin showing up. This combination is important, because of what it creates in food and habitat.

Around the state, both natural and manmade marshes, if they are fairly dry through the summer, benefit from the growth of plants that provide food and cover, especially for ducks later on. But those marshes have to have water at the right times, too, which is why the need for wetter fall weather is important.

Veteran waterfowl hunters know that Kansas managers and federal wildlife managers have taken steps to help assure appropriate marshy habitats at some spots around the state by developing manmade habitat.

"We have the ability to pump water and create marshes at Perry Reservoir, and at the Neosho and Marais des Cygnes wildlife areas," Kraft noted. "We also have smaller marshes at Tuttle Creek, and we've done a tremendous amount of work on the upper end of Milford. It has the potential to become a real hot spot in the future. And of course, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done similar work at John Redmond Reservoir.

"All of these places will provide reasonably reliable hunting," Kraft added, "except for those years when we have really hot and dry summers. In those years, we pretty much fight a losing battle in terms of having really good habitat available when the ducks get here."

Kraft observed appreciatively that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has "really gone to bat" for manmade marsh development at Milford, where a number of marshes are being developed on the upper end of the lake. Eventually, this series of spots on Milford's upper reaches should provide the greatest amount of manmade habitat at one location in the state.

There also are natural marshes that hunters can take advantage of at places like the McPherson Wetlands, Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. But the bottom line is that no matter how good or bad the winter weather gets, conditions much earlier in the year can affect hunting prospects.

With that in mind, hunters would do well to monitor weather patterns as the late spring, summer and early fall play out. Doing so will give you an idea of how conditions are setting up the Sunflower State's ability to hold migrating waterfowl once conditions push birds down this way.

"I would say that during average years, there is reason for optimism as the season approaches," Kraft explained. "The only times I get concerned are when things either are really dry, or when we have extremely wet springs with regular rain that extends into the summer. That will really hurt plant development, and that hurts the habitat in the fall and winter."

When it comes to geese, Kraft notes, large Canadas are migrating pretty much from the same places that puddle ducks, like mallards, are vacating - that is, from the northern Great Plains, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. He said these birds generally don't migrate very long distances, and they definitely won't go farther than they have to. For Kansas hunters, that usually bodes well. When snows in the Dakotas and northern Nebraska cover their food source, which is primarily waste grain, they'll head this way, and will stay unless things get terribly cold and snowy.

"When you talk about snow geese, small Canadas and whitefronts," Kraft added, "they primarily are Arctic-nesting birds. In an average year, we can count on seeing them in good numbers, and they have been providing some fantastic hunting opportunities in recent years."

When you get right down to it, Kansas is little different from the rest of the Central Flyway when it comes to how the season plays out in terms of hunting pressure and hunter interest. Most hunters will get out for the early migrants - teal primarily, but also pintails and gadw

alls.

But once it starts snowing north of here, the interest shifts mostly to mallards, with Canada geese coming in second. The light geese attract some interest, but not nearly as much as mallards and Canadas - except for those years when the latter are experiencing population crises, as has been the case recently, or when the weather just pushes them straight through Kansas and farther south.

For better or worse, then, Kansas waterfowlers really should be watching the weather from Memorial Day on. Doing so will help them understand what kind of habitat is coming together for the approaching season.

Then, once late October gets here and the winter season begins to unfold, they should be watching developing weather patterns up north first, and then here in the Sunflower State. Taking that approach will help them figure out when birds are likely to be moving into Kansas, and how long they're likely to stay.

From here, it's a good idea to get out as much as you can before things turn really snowy - especially if you want to hunt mallards. With that in mind, it's also a good idea to pay attention to long-range forecasts once ducks and geese begin showing up in the Sunflower State. If it looks like a major snowstorm is heading this way, you probably should hunt as much as possible before its arrival.

Milder winters don't necessarily mean the hunting will be totally predictable. Just because it's warmer than normal for snow doesn't mean things will stay dry. And if this winter plays out to be fairly rainy, migrating waterfowl may be spread out.

"If we get lots of rain through the winter months," Kraft said, "geese will move off public refuges, because there will be plenty of water elsewhere. And they might not return at all that season. It can be tricky keeping up with them."

Regardless of the weather, game managers do their part to help keep hunters abreast of what's happening throughout Kansas' waterfowl season. Counts are conducted from the ground at more than 30 areas around our state. Then there's the annual aerial survey in January.

"That happens at the same time across the country," Kraft offered. "From the standpoint of knowing what's going on with the overall resource, it's important that the aerial survey be done from border to border in the U.S. at the same time."

Here, Kraft said, the aerial survey focuses first on all the areas known to concentrate migrating waterfowl. But that doesn't mean it doesn't lead to some surprises.

"We do find birds that most hunters would consider to be out in the middle of nowhere when you consider the traditional hotspots in the state," he said.

Surveys also reveal important shifts in migration and wintering areas around the country. Especially when it comes to geese in the Central Flyway, there has been news to report in recent years as a result of the surveys.

"The Texas Panhandle, for example, is now a major place for geese to stop over," he noted. "And here in Kansas, we have noted a shift in goose migration from the east more to the central portion of the state. Snow geese, in particular, have really changed their migration routes."

Kraft also said that managers use harvest information supplied by hunters to help figure out where the ducks and geese go once they cross the Sunflower State's northern border: where they stop, where they stay, and where they go if pushed on by weather and/or hunting pressure. The latter, however, really doesn't seem to play a major role.

"Hunting pressure in Kansas has been stable in recent years," Kraft said. "Hunter numbers here haven't continued to just climb and go through the ceiling. Success has been consistent, too, and ducks really rule the hunting pressure numbers here because they offer hunters a decent opportunity for harvest pretty much on an annual basis."

All of that notwithstanding, however, hunters seem to be paying more attention to the state's visiting geese. "Over the years, geese really have become more important in our waterfowl resource," Kraft explained. "They have become more common; they definitely have become more abundant; and in some ways, they are more reliable."

For one thing, as noted earlier, they'll tend to stick around longer. For another, their populations are healthy, to say the least. Waterfowlers who follow news about the resource through the year know that, in some areas up north, there has even been concern that goose numbers have climbed so high that their historical nesting grounds may not be able to support their exploding growth. As a result, seasons and bag limits have been liberalized in an attempt to bring some measure of stability to things.

"The interesting part of that is that snow geese, in particular, face unbelievably intense hunting pressure from the time they leave the Canadian provinces throughout their migration south, all the way through April on their way back north," Kraft said. "Hunting pressure and available food are the reasons they move more than any others."

Food. Maybe that's the single most important element for all waterfowl. "Ducks and geese simply have to go where the food is," Kraft noted. "We pretty much know where they're going to go as they move through Kansas, when and why."

Hunters will find ducks border to border throughout the state, with a much more diverse collection of species as you move east toward the Missouri border. Marais des Cygnes, Kraft said, is pretty much a mallard place when it comes to ducks.

However, as you move west from there and into the state's central corridor - which includes longtime stopovers like Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira and the manmade places like the marshes at the north end of Perry Reservoir - you're going to encounter the early migrants, too. And there they'll be until winter's inevitable turn for the colder and snowier moves them out.

Kraft suggests that history plays a major role in central Kansas' having always offered migrating waterfowl more natural marshes to use. Geese, which tend to prefer the significantly more-open waters found along the Missouri River drainage (and have always tended to stay more east in Kansas as a result) have only recently begun moving west in significant numbers.

And it could be that as they've moved, lower hunting pressure and the availability of significant food in spots like the Texas Panhandle, which isn't that far from our southwestern border, have contributed to the kind of migration shifts that will become long-term.

The news is that weather more than anything else affects the prospects for a given waterfowl season - no matter whether you hunt ducks or geese.

As you read these words, pause to think about what the past several months have brought to your area of Kansas. If the summer was pretty average (read that as "reasonably dry") and the fall was pretty average (that is, the rains returned), there's a good chance that

migrating ducks, in particular, are now benefiting from good habitat here.

If it's snowing in the northern Great Plains, the species that most hunters prefer going after - mallards and large Canadas - are likely to be here already or definitely on their way. You'll find them at places like Marais des Cygnes, Perry, Milford and John Redmond. West of there, pretty much average winter weather now means you likely can encounter ducks of all kinds at Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira or the McPherson Wetlands.

As this month and the rest of the season play out, you should pay attention to forecasts that suggest the arrival of significant snow or rain. The former will cover the waste grains that mallards and Canada geese rely on, and likely will push them south. If that kind of snow it on its way, you should get out and hunt them. If it's warm enough for rain instead of snow, you should know that migrants likely will spread out. They'll be tougher to find, but once located it's unlikely they'll be heading on south - unless things turn really cold and snowy.

Out of all of this, the hope here is, you'll take away a sense of the importance of weather is to every Kansas waterfowl season, and use the information in making your hunting plans. Hunters who acknowledge that influence and begin to follow the changing weather patterns through the four seasons are going to be much more prepared to make the most of every hunting day this season.

They'll know where birds are likely to be, and for how long. They'll know when conditions are conspiring to move birds out of Kansas, so they can get some hunting in before the patterns change. And they'll know how mild or severe weather - whichever winter brings - will affect ducks and geese. Maybe they'll stay; maybe they'll go. Either way, weather-watching waterfowlers will know.



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