2010 Oklahoma Waterfowl Forecast

Recent weather patterns in Oklahoma have been favorable for a good season of waterfowling this fall. Here's what you can expect when you hit the goose fields and duck blinds this year.

All across Oklahoma, avid waterfowl hunters are ready and eagerly waiting for the regular duck and goose seasons to open.

Will it be a good year? Will the weather cooperate? Will we have water in our lakes?

Those are the questions that plague Sooner State waterfowlers every year, for so much depends on weather and rainfall patterns both during the seasons and in the months leading up to them.

And it's not just the local weather and rainfall we need be concerned with. In the springtime, we fret over what's happening up in the Canadian Prairie Provinces and in the Dakotas and adjacent states where the prairie pothole breeding grounds produce almost all of the ducks that eventually migrate through Oklahoma.

There are 64 million acres in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region, plus much more in Canada, where most of the Central Flyway and Mississippi Flyway birds are produced each spring.

Thanks to money that hunters pay for federal duck stamps, and thanks to the money they contribute to waterfowl-oriented conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, millions of acres of important breeding grounds are protected from abusive agricultural practices, unnecessary draining, etc. to ensure that the nation's "duck factory" is protected.

Still, with the exception of scattered small units that can be filled with water by pumping from rivers, most of the breeding grounds are dependent on snowmelt and springtime rains to provide enough water to make the nesting habitat viable each spring.

One interesting item that appeared last spring was an article in the technical journal "BioScience," which reported that "new research shows that the (prairie pothole) region appears to be much more sensitive to climate warming and drying than previously thought."

The article quoted a U.S. Geological Survey researcher who cautioned that, if predicted climate changes hold true, ducks may not have enough time to successfully raise their hatchlings to flight stage before the shallow prairie potholes dry up each year.

Most dabbling ducks, like mallards and teal, need 80 to 110 days of surface water in order to raise their young and for the adults to complete their molting and re-feathering process. The adults are flightless for a while during molting, making them especially vulnerable to predators if they can't escape by swimming.

Based on the pothole condition reports last spring, though, duck breeding conditions were pretty good in the Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces, even though parts of Alberta were "currently in the grip of its driest back-to-back years on record since the 1880s." In Alberta, precipitation between Nov. 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, "was generally below average and less than 40 percent of normal."

The bad conditions in Alberta are more likely to affect the High Plains portions of the Central Flyway, out in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Most of Oklahoma gets birds hatched in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where conditions were still a little drier than average, but deemed adequate to provide nesting conditions throughout the season.

OK, enough about the breeding grounds. Let's look at the conditions that attract and keep ducks in Oklahoma for a while during their southward migration.

Wetlands equal waterfowl. And Oklahoma does not have an abundance of natural wetlands.

What we do have, though, is one of the greatest concentrations of manmade surface water features in the nation. That includes numerous large reservoirs ranging from a few hundred acres to more than 100,000 acres each, plus an estimated 200,000-plus "farm ponds" that account for more than 500,000 acres of water.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board says that we have 1,120 square miles of surface water. That's a lot of water to provide resting places for migrating ducks and geese.

And what may be more important than the actual acreage is that Oklahoma has 11,600 miles of shoreline habitat -- almost equal to all of North Americas seaboard shorelines.

But what those numbers by themselves don't indicate is that conditions change from month to month and from year to year. Depending on rainfall, and on the use of water for irrigation, flood control, generating electricity and providing adequate navigable water in the Arkansas River navigation system, the surface acreage can grow and shrink, and the shoreline conditions can change drastically from season to season.

I remember a conversation I had with the then-chief of the Wildlife Department's Game Division (Now the Wildlife Division), back in the 1970s. I was concerned about acutely dry nesting conditions in the northern breeding grounds that year, but he cautioned me not to be too alarmed. "It'll affect us eventually," he said, "but if we have water in Oklahoma this fall, we'll have ducks."

And, he added, "It doesn't matter if they have a record-breaking year on the breeding grounds. If it's too dry in Oklahoma, the ducks will pass us by as fast as they can."

Let's look at just one big Oklahoma reservoir as an example. The "normal" pool level at Lake Eufaula covers about 102,000 acres. But, depending on how much water is flowing into the lake from its major feeder streams, how much water is coming from local rainfall, and how much water is being released daily through the dam, the lake can expand or shrink by thousands of acres. That marginal area, chiefly flatter land surrounding the normal pool, is the most important area for ducks. When the lake is normal or slightly above normal in the fall and winter, there is a lot of shallow, food-rich, flooded land where dabbling ducks can both rest, and feed and where hunters can spread their decoys and conceal themselves to ambush ducks.

But if the lake is a couple of feet below normal, then those important wetlands may be dry. The smartweed and other food-producing vegetation may be too far from the water, or, if dry conditions prevailed throughout the summer and early fall, may not exist at all.

The Wildlife Department does seed shorelines at some big reservoirs with millet, scattering seeds from the air, but the success of that effort depends also on the rise and fall of the water throughout the summer and fall. If the lake rises shortly after the millet is sewn, it can flood the area and prevent growth. However, if the lake

level falls too much, the millet may be too far from the water to make it attractive to ducks.

Keeping track of water levels and waterfowl habitat conditions can be a trying process, but it's much easier these days, thanks to the Internet and e-mail, than it once was. The Wildlife Department even provides a bi-weekly waterfowl habitat report describing water levels, food conditions, and so on at its waterfowl management units and at several major reservoirs. Hunters can sign up to receive that report by e-mail on the Web site www.wildlifedepartment.com.

"Beginning with the every-other-week ODWC waterfowl reports is a good starting point in the waterfowl hunter's 'success toolbox,'" said Alan Stacey, wetland development biologist for the Wildlife Department. "Although it does not give you a report within the last 24-hour period, it provides some good baseline information for any given public hunting area -- not only general information about waterfowl numbers and use but important information about habitat conditions."

Stacey also recommends keeping an eye on the weather forecasts.

"Northern cold fronts approaching our state during the hunting season are the "triggers" that can increase bird numbers overnight. Bird movements moving just ahead or during the front are common, and choosing the right day to go afield can often be critical," he advised.

Let's look at where Oklahoma waterfowlers are most likely to have successful hunts this year.

Over in Arkansas, duck hunters love trees. In the lowlands of the eastern half of Arkansas, seasonally flooded bottomland hardwood forests are the magnets that draws migrating ducks to stop and rest for a while. Yes, they have manmade rice fields too, but "green timber" hunting is the name of the game over there.

Here in Oklahoma, though, most of our duck hunting is done in more open areas on our major lakes and prairie ponds. Yes, we do have some flooded-timber hunting on some small, intensely managed wetlands. And, thanks to the beaver -- the duck hunters' best four-footed friend outside of a good retrieving dog -- we have some good flooded-timber hunting where little creeks and intermittent streams are dammed up.

But, for the most part, Oklahomans hunt ducks on big lakes and on ponds surrounded by grasslands.

Big-water hunting can be a lot of work and hunters may need a good boat and big spreads of decoys. But most of the big water is public, and so anyone with the proper licenses, stamps and permits can hunt there.

Hunting ponds can be cheaper and easier, but it usually requires getting permission, since most of the ponds are privately owned.

I sometimes think that many duck hunters, especially in northeastern Oklahoma, are missing a good bet by not hunting more on ponds. We have an abundance of big lakes in Green Country, so all around Tulsa and its suburbs it's common to see big, wide-draft, camouflaged johnboats parked in driveways, giving their owners access to thousands of acres of big reservoir water. And in their garages may be several sacks of magnum decoys, enabling them to make big, highly visible decoy spreads to attract high-flying ducks on the big lakes.

But in Western Oklahoma where I grew up, I recall many duck hunters whose equipment consisted mostly of a pair of waders and one sack of decoys -- all that was really needed for a good hunt on a small pond.

Big lakes are rare out west. But I've seen ponds out there that were so covered with mallards that you could hardly see the water. And I've enjoyed pond hunts out west on days when so many birds were flying around from pond to pond that we didn't have time to retrieve downed birds before the next group of ducks appeared.

"Jump-shooting" on ponds can be productive, although it may lack the traditional appeal of putting out decoys and calling birds in.

On the ranch where I've done most of my deer hunting in recent years are seven small ponds visited frequently by ducks. Two of the ponds are in open, grassy fields where it is almost impossible to sneak up on sitting ducks. But on the others a hunter can use the cover of nearby trees, or approach from below the dams, to flush the ducks into flight and take a few shots. My son and I have put quite a few tasty duck breasts in the freezer by jump-shooting those ponds.

One tip for pond hunters: A fishing rod can come in handy for retrieving downed ducks. I sometimes carry a rod with a large topwater plug tied on. I cast the plug past floating, downed ducks, and then snag them with the multiple treble hooks and bring them to shore without having to wade out and get them. It's a time-saver, because on days when there is little wind, it can take forever for a downed duck to drift to a shoreline.

Many years ago I fashioned a "retriever" from a weighted casting cork and the wire from a coat hanger. It was awkward to cast, but it worked even better than the topwater plug. I eventually lost the device and haven't fabricated another one to replace it.

Hunting on small waters can be very productive. And while most farm ponds are on private land, there are ponds on many state-owned public-hunting areas. Many of the Wildlife Department's numerous waterfowl management units offer waterfowl hunting opportunities as well.

Many of these areas feature marshes that can be filled by pumping and then be drained later to allow vegetation to grow throughout the spring and summer growing seasons. Some are large enough that a small boat or canoe can be useful, but many can be hunted from shorelines or elevated dikes that form the wetlands.

There are three types of waterfowl management units -- "moist soil," "green tree reservoirs" and "agricultural crop units." Maps and detailed information about the units, and the regulations for hunting them, can be found online at the Wildlife Department's Web site. Information is also published in the annual waterfowl hunting regulations pamphlets that the ODWC publishes each fall.

I've focused mostly on duck hunting, but goose hunting seasons are just around the corner as well. The extended snow goose season still offers lots of opportunities each winter. And the state's resident populations of non-migratory Canada geese have grown to the point that they are being harvested in most parts of the state these days, and in good numbers.

Goose hunting used to mean long trips to big lakes or big crop fields for most Oklahomans, but lots of Canadas are now being taken on small ponds throughout the state, even in suburban areas near big cities.

I know hunters in the Tulsa area who take several geese each year from ponds within sight of Tulsa's downtown skyline. The big resident Canadas have become so numerous locally that neighborhoods are hiring nuisance animal control specialists to trap and haul away geese that crowd neighborhood ponds and foul the sidewalks with

their droppings.

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