Oklahoma Waterfowl Outlook

How was the waterfowling in your part of the state last year? Well, some biologists believe that you can expect the same again this fall. (October 2008)

Depending on where you hunted, 2007-08 was either your best waterfowl season in years or your worst.

More than likely, you experienced both extremes, possibly at places within a few miles of each other. That situation wasn't confined to any particular part of the state, either: It happened everywhere.

Like our weather, duck and goose hunting in the Sooner State is a study in extremes. If a place had ample food and water, the hunting was probably great last year. If a place lacked either or both of those requirements, the hunting was poor -- and it's likely that's how it will be again this year, too.

As a whole, waterfowl hunting in Oklahoma has been very good in recent years. According to the 2006-07 Migratory Bird Harvest Report issued last summer by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oklahoma consistently ranks third among states in the Central Flyway for waterfowl harvest. We kill a lot fewer ducks and geese than they do in Texas, for example, but that state is much larger than ours. However, we compare favorably with North Dakota, which ranked second. Every other state in the Flyway was way behind us.

In 2005, we killed 285,100 ducks and geese in the Sooner State, and we killed 302,400 ducks and geese in 2006. In North Dakota, by comparison, hunters killed 519,400 and 378,700 ducks, respectively, in the same years. In 2005, Oklahoma hunters killed 125,375 mallards, and 126,446 mallards in 2006. Our annual bags for those years also included 57,475 gadwalls in 2005, and 68,983 in 2006. Green-winged teal was our bronze medal winner, with 29,807 killed in 2005 and 35,520 killed in 2006.

Our total goose harvest in 2005 and 2006 was 42,500 and 55,100, respectively. Of those, we killed 29,545 Canada geese in 2005 and 42,436 Canadas in 2006. Snow geese numbered 6,591 in 2005 and 6,665 in 2006.

The USFWS had not released harvest totals for 2007, but they were probably similar, if not higher, than those in 2006.

Unfortunately, the quality of waterfowl hunting in Oklahoma depends on many important variables that are far beyond our control or influence. Since the overwhelming majority of the ducks and geese killed in Oklahoma are born and raised in the Prairie Pothole Region of Canada, the Dakotas and Nebraska, the number of ducks and geese we'll see this season depends entirely on habitat conditions in those states and provinces.

If nesting and brood-rearing habitat was poor, the 2008 spring hatch was probably poor, too, as was recruitment of young birds into the migrating population. That more than anything will influence the number of birds that come to Oklahoma this fall and winter, but the effect will be even more noticeable, either positively or negatively, in the 2008-09 season.

We can get an accurate picture of those conditions from the annual May pond counts and breeding mallard pair counts conducted by the USFWS. The USFWS uses these indicators to establish its annual hunting season framework. Complete numbers were not available when this article was being prepared, but Mike O'Meilia, waterfowl biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said initial impressions were not encouraging.

"It's drier than last year, but that could change tomorrow if they get a big snowfall up north," O'Meilia said. "Last year was pretty good, and all indications were that we had a good year for recruitment, which is always critical to hunting success. If all things were to remain the same, we're looking to be down from last year."

O'Meilia described the situation as precarious. If conditions tilt a little too far the wrong way, the USFWS might prescribe a moderate 45-day season or a conservative 30-day season. That would be a huge adjustment for younger duck hunters who have known nothing but liberal 60-day seasons since 1995.

"That's a heck of a run in terms of conditions on the prairies," O'Meilia said. "Normally you don't see that that kind of extended cycle. The May pond counts in Canada and the number of breeding mallards they count in May are the two key considerations. People who started hunting in the last 12 years or so have never known anything but liberal seasons."

For more reasons, Oklahoma's waterfowlers should brace themselves for some bad news that might linger for a time. Due to record corn prices, many farmers in the Prairie Pothole Region have converted large amounts of waterfowl nesting and brood-rearing habitat to corn production. That includes more than 300,000 acres of virgin prairie, some of the last in the Lower 48. Virgin prairie is good habitat for growing ducks, but it's not very good for agriculture.

Also at risk is all the land once protected under the Conservation Reserve Program. Many duck hunters understand that CRP is the foundation for duck habitat in this country, but because of high corn prices, many farmers have taken their land out of CRP and planted it in corn. Farmers in 2007 chose not to renew CRP contracts on more than 1.1 million acres, and that number will probably increase in 2008. It's basic economics. It's hard to accept $30 per acre to keep land in CRP when large agricultural corporations are offering $120 per acre to plant corn. Corn is so lucrative that farmers are willing to pay the buyout penalty so they can plant their CRP ground in corn earlier.

"Whatever happens to the Conservation Reserve Program is whatever happens to ducks," O'Meilia said. "It's already happened. We're headed south already, but there's always a lag time between what happens and what you'll see.


"We don't raise the wheat and millet we used to raise, and now the snows have moved east to the rice fields of Arkansas. But Lord-a-mercy! Look at all the native Canadas we have!" -- Al Wilson, DU
 

"We had a ton of CRP on the ground, at least for puddle ducks," he added. "They have to have big patches of good, dense nesting cover, but a lot of that is going back into crop production for biofuels. At least, that's a big part of it. That's a bad deal. A lot of that CRP is coming out. Rental rates have gone up so much, it's hard for landowners to justify keeping land out of production. Not just for ducks, but a whole range of wildlife. The Dakotas have had some of their highest pheasant populations ever, but that's all about to go down."

Some hunters might be encouraged from all the rain that fell in Oklahoma during the spring and early summer. Wet weather filled the reservoirs to the brim, and ducks l

ove water, right? Again, it depends on when the water arrives. The same thing happened in 2007, and it was bad for hunting.

The ODWC is building another big wetland complex near Enid at Drummond Flats. Whencomplete, it will probably be as grand as Hackberry Flat,near Frederick.

That's because we got most of our rain early in the year, which flooded the shorelines of the lakes and their respective moist soil areas. That prevented the ODWC from planting Japanese millet and other duck-friendly foods in the moist soil units at lakes Eufaula, Keystone and elsewhere. Also in a high-water spring and summer, the only lakeside vegetation is above the high-water mark. When the water falls to conservation pool level in late summer and fall, there's nothing along the waterline for ducks to eat.

"A wet summer is the last thing I want to see as a biologist in terms of what it's going to do from a hunting standpoint," O'Meilia said. "If everything stays full to the brim every year, things go to heck in a hurry.

"Last year, all of our reservoirs had record levels throughout summer. They were brim-full all summer long, and that's where a lot of our public hunting occurs. Once we got past that wet period, the Corps of Engineers was required to take that lake level down to conservation level. Everything below that pool level is like a moonscape."

As a result, reservoir hunting wasn't all that good.

While it may not be great for gardeners, we want a dry summer if we want ducks to come to the big lakes. We also want rain in the fall to flood those moist soil areas.

"I hope for and pray for a wet fall," O'Meilia said. "A dry summer brings lake levels down and dries up the temporary wetlands. That allows those areas to grow food and cover, annual plants, smartweed and millet. Then I hope and pray it's going to rain again in the fall and early winter and flood the habitat back up. Then you've got your plate set."

Al Wilson of Sand Springs, a former state chairman for Ducks Unlimited and now DU's state major donor chairman, frequently hunts at Lake Keystone. His experiences confirmed O'Meilia's comments. The ducks never arrived last year, and if the lakes stay high through the summer this year, he expects this year's hunting to be the same.

"What's really going to affect us if they (the lakes) don't get down before the end of July or August," Wilson said. "When they start planting the millet, we need some time for the millet to get a start. If the lakes stay fairly high, and if they drop after late August, we wont get any millet. There's nothing to keep the ducks on the lakes, and nothing to keep them here. They'll just go on to Texas."

As a result of high water, DU and the ODWC have had a tough time completing an important waterfowl habitat project on the upper end of Lake Keystone. One problem has been flooding, but also because heavy current keeps shifting the river channel, threatening to landlock the project.

"The first problem is that it is hard to work on the projects when the water is 15 to 20 feet above normal," Wilson said. "Another problem they've battled for the last three years is that the channel keeps moving away from the project. Rivers tend to cut on one side and deposit on the other, and it's been depositing on the project side. They're trying to come up with a water supply they can depend on."

The ODWC is building another big wetland complex near Enid at Drummond Flats. When complete, it will probably be as grand as Hackberry Flat, near Frederick. O'Meilia described it as a big, natural depression that's dissected by three creeks.

"The hydrology has been radically changed, but it still gets real wet at times," O'Meilia said. "We're not going restore it to its natural state like we did at Hackberry, but did restore some of the hydrology to where we can manage it efficiently."

For hunters, the central question is where will this year's hunting hotspots be, and where should hunters consider avoiding. Again, it all depends on where the food and water is. Wilson said his season was poor, but other people raved about their hunting.

"It depends on where you hunted," Wilson said. "I had a lousy season, but I talked to guys last year that really got into them. Some of the southern reservoirs had pretty good seasons, and some who hunted in Western Oklahoma had pretty good seasons."

With the right water levels, the Deep Fork area on Lake Eufaula offers some of the best green timber hunting in Oklahoma. To reduce damage to the hardwoods from prolonged flooding, the ODWC has changed the way it manages water at Deep Fork. The pools are now flooded in rotation, and some pools won't be flooded at all this year. Check with the ODWC before you travel.

Wilson said that hunting could still be good at Fort Cobb Reservoir, and also on the upper end of Lake Oologah. Kaw Lake has a great reputation because it holds a lot of ducks, but Wilson said the hunting there is usually not very good.

"When I go there, what I see is that yeah, ducks roost on the lake, but I rode around one whole arm of it on an afternoon and jumped one small group. At dusk, they come back. But when you pass the farm ponds, they're full of ducks."

O'Meilia also said that Oklahoma's best duck hunting last year was on private ponds and reservoirs. With conditions likely to mimic those of the previous season, he advised not getting too excited about hunting the reservoirs.

"Last year it was real spotty," he explained. "It was where you found it really. There was no super hotspot that I'm aware of. People killed some ducks on small water. It was all on private land. A lot of people are pumped up because we had such a wet spring, and they're convinced there's going to be great waterfowl hunting. They might be disappointed."

Getting ducks to Oklahoma will also require really nasty weather up north. It's been plenty cold in Kansas and points beyond in recent years, but lack of snow allowed the ducks to remain in those states until late in the season.

"I was hunting in Kansas a couple of years ago, and we had to go out every 15 minutes and break ice. When I came back, I called a biologist and said I can't believe we don't have ducks. He said that cold weather doesn't really move them down. They only come south when snow covers their food sources. We haven't really had any big snows. We didn't get a lot of ducks down here until a couple of weeks after the season, so we want it to snow early and often up north."

Goose migrations have changed over the years in Oklahoma, too. When Wilson moved to Oklahoma in the 1970s, he said, snow geese and blue geese dominated the Oklahoma skies. The light geese have largely gone away and been replaced by Canada geese, Wilson said. "We don't raise the wheat and millet we used to raise," he noted, "and now the snows have moved east to the rice fields of Arkansas. But Lord-a-mercy! Look at all the native Canadas we have!"

Even if we crap out with habitat, water and weather, it's still a certainty that Oklahoma waterfowlers in some regions of the state will enjoy some great hunting. We may even find our sport in unlikely places this year.

As in real estate, the key to successful waterfowling is: location, location, location.

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