We are lucky to have such a variety of waterfowl hunting opportunities in our state. Here’s a closer look at how this season is shaping up.
It’s always a crap shoot. Oklahoma waterfowl hunters, especially duck hunters, never know until just about the time the seasons arrive whether conditions will be right for a bountiful waterfowl season.
So much depends on rainfall, both how much rain we get and when we get it throughout the summer and fall months leading up to the season openers. And, of course, the water levels are a key factor at Oklahoma’s many large lakes.
There are other factors too, including water levels and food abundance in the northern states and Canadian prairie provinces where Central Flyway ducks breed.
If conditions are good for the nesting ducks up north, then it’s normal for large numbers of ducks to pass through Oklahoma in the fall on their way to the Gulf Coast where ducks and geese winter on the briny estuaries and marshes of Texas and Louisiana.
But if conditions are poor in Oklahoma, many of the ducks pass through quickly, flying right past Oklahoma’s lakes and ponds and making a beeline for the Lone Star State.
If we’ve had an unusually dry summer, like we had during the recent drought that lasted several years, and water levels at Oklahoma lakes are significantly below normal, then few ducks stop and dawdle here.
But there are years when we have dry summers when large areas along lake shorelines grow smartweed and other seed-producing vegetation, and then autumn rains allow the lakes to rise a bit and create lots of shallow areas with flooded vegetation. Then flights of ducks may remain in Oklahoma for longer than usual, giving hunters here many more opportunities to call ducks to them.
High water levels can be good or bad. Sometimes when lakes are really high, and the usual feeding spots are buried under several feet of water, ducks will pass through quickly. But in other areas, where the high water moves into flooded oak groves, pecan groves and other mast-producing lowlands, ducks tend to hang around quite a while, taking advantage of the temporary windfall in food supply.
Not every duck that reaches Oklahoma goes on to Texas, especially if we are having milder weather than usual. Some ducks winter here and never make it farther south.
Waterfowl hunting habitat is diverse in Oklahoma. We don’t have the salt marshes of South Texas or the swampy, rice-growing environment of eastern Arkansas, but we have thousands of acres of large reservoirs — from 10,000 surface-acres up to more than 100,000 acres each.
SEASON DATES, BAG LIMITS
At the time of this writing, the 2017-18 waterfowl seasons and bag limits had not been announced. The seasons usually are set after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service evaluates reproductive success of various waterfowl species after the spring and summer months. The USFWS then tells the states in the various flyways what the frameworks of their seasons can be. All of that information, including bag limits for each species, should be available now from license vendors, or online at wildlifedepartment.com.
Out in the Panhandle we have high-plains playa lakes, at least when they get a little rain out there, and the playas are surrounded by many irrigated crop fields where ducks, geese and sandhill cranes can find spilled grain or tender shoots of sprouting winter wheat.
And when it comes to small lakes and farm ponds, Oklahoma has an embarrassment of riches.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board says that Oklahoma has 52 lakes of more than 1,000 acres. We also have about 3,000 lakes of more than 10 acres, and nearly 400,000 smaller lakes and ponds, with more being built every year.
Waterfowl hunting can be found at just about any large lake, but a few of the more consistently good ones include Salt Plains and Fort Supply lakes in the northwest; Kaw, Hulah and Sooner lakes in the north-central region; Oologah, Fort Gibson and Grand in the northeast; Webbers Falls, Kerr and Eufaula in eastern Oklahoma and Sardis, Wister, Hugo and Texoma in the southeast. Waurika Lake, near the Texas border in southwestern Oklahoma, can be good too.
Most serious Oklahoma duck hunters hunt the big lakes. Their boats are camouflaged and they put out several dozen decoys to draw ducks down to their particular spot in the shallows of a lake. Some apply each September for blind permits that allow them to construct a blind at an assigned spot on one of the more popular lakes.
(Hunters can erect temporary blinds in undeveloped areas at most lakes, but those with current blind permits have first rights at their assigned blind locations where blinds that may last throughout the season can be built.)
Eastern Oklahoma duck hunters are a wee bit spoiled when it comes to having a lot of choices of places to hunt. Because most big lakes are in the eastern third of our state, the choices are abundant. For example, at least 10 very large lakes are within 90 minutes of Tulsa.
But in central Oklahoma, and especially in the western counties, hunting smaller waters is the norm. Some big-lake hunters who haven’t hunted out west might be surprised at how good pond hunting can be.
I’m not certain exactly what makes a given pond attractive to ducks while other nearby ponds are ignored. I know that emergent vegetation, shoreline cover, surrounding landforms and human activity all play parts, but those factors don’t always seem to have the same effect. On a ranch where I have hunted for three decades there are six good-sized ponds from about 1 to 3 acres each, plus a couple of smaller water holes that dry up some years. A couple of those ponds consistently draw ducks of several species, while the others attract far fewer ducks, even though vegetation and shoreline habitat seem pretty much the same.
I’ve seen ponds on the urban area outskirts where homes, roads and lots of human activity is close, that were virtually covered with ducks while traffic rushed past. I’ve written before about what I called my “rush-hour duck hunt,” at a couple of beaver ponds located within sight of the downtown Tulsa skyline.
There, four of us killed limits of mallards while listening to car horns honking away at a busy intersection where a fender-bender was causing congestion. From our hastily made blind we could hear the radio speakers of the police car that came to investigate the accident.
I believe that food plants growing in or near the water is a factor, yet growing up in Western Oklahoma we killed limits of ducks on small, muddy ponds with no emergent vegetation and surrounded by nothing but Bermuda grass pasture.
There are two ways to hunt our small ponds. You can hunt them like the big lakes, building a good blind and putting out a fresh spread of decoys early in the morning, or you can “jump” the ducks by creeping up to the pond using the dam, shoreline trees or whatever cover is available to hide you while you get close enough to flush the ducks and shoot.
Some ponds are better suited to jumping ducks. Those with high dams and surrounding trees are easier places to sneak up close, while those just scraped out of a grassy pasture may offer no concealment for a stealthy approach.
I think the ideal pond for jumping ducks is one that has shoreline cover, but can be seen from some vantage point a few hundred yards away. At such ponds a hunter can scan the pond with binoculars from far enough away that the ducks aren’t spooked. Then, if there are ducks on the water, the hunter can approach from behind cover.
If you cannot see the pond from afar, you may waste time sneaking in, only to find there are no ducks.
Approaching a pond from below the dam usually offers the best cover, but the ducks usually tend to spend more time at the upper, shallower portions of the pond, which may be out of range of shooters at the dam.
Since ducks tend to flush and fly away from whatever disturbs them, it can sometimes be effective to have one or two hunters approach from behind the dam, while others creep as close as possible to the far end of the pond. When the ducks flush, at least one of the two hunters, if not both, is likely to get some shooting. Hunters using this method should use caution and not shoot directly toward one another.
If you hunt ponds frequently, on property that is secure, it can help to put two or three decoys in the pond and leave them there. Migrating ducks, or ducks roaming the area looking for feeding or resting spots, may be more likely to land on a given pond if they see a few decoys bobbing on the water.
If winds are strong while you are pond jumping, it can be a factor to consider. If it’s blowing hard, ducks will often take off right toward the wind, giving them additional lift, then quickly wheel and use the wind to give them speed for a quicker escape, and so considering the wind while planning your approach can increase success.
Hunters who hunt big waters usually bring along a Lab or some other retriever to fetch the downed ducks. But dogs can be problematic when trying to sneak up on a pond; their presence can flush ducks too quickly.
A rod and reel, with sturdy line and a multi-hook topwater plug, makes a handy tool for retrieving downed ducks. I once fashioned a “retriever” from a big, weighted “casting float” and a coat hanger. I’ve used it for retrieving both ducks and doves when shooting over ponds.
Ducks are not the only waterfowl available to Sooner State hunters. In Eastern Oklahoma, considerable numbers of snow geese move through that part of the state each year. And migrating Canada geese can be plentiful in the central and western regions.
The Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Oklahoma, and the nearby farmlands around Jet, the “Goose Hunting Capital of Oklahoma,” has long been a productive spot for hunting migratory Canadas. I’ve seen estimates that a quarter-million or more geese pass through that area some years and I’ve seen biologists reports that as many as 35,000 geese are there at peak times.
There are always a few landowners and guides offering hunts on private lands in the Salt Plains area and limited hunting is available on the refuge itself.
In the last 25 years or so, we have established a good, self-sustaining population of the non-migratory giant Canada geese in many parts of the state. As a result, hunters now have chances to kill Canadas on farm ponds, municipal lakes, and other small waters.
In my younger years, I didn’t think I liked goose meat. I was never able to bake one in a manner that tasted appealing. But about the time the non-migratory Canadas were being established I learned to slice the goose breasts into bite-sized pieces and grill them, wrapped with bacon, on a grill or over coals, which makes a tasty treat.
Besides the big lakes and rivers and the smaller ponds and lakes, hunters can take advantage of the Wildlife Department’s numerous wetland development units — WDUs — that are scattered throughout the state.
There is a list of them, and maps, on the Department’s Web site. The Department has been building wetland units since the early 1980s, using funds from state duck stamp sales, federal contributions and donations from groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy.
Whether they stay for long or short periods of time, ducks and geese will move through our state this season. Be here during a peak migration period and you can enjoy waterfowling action as hot as it gets anywhere in the country. That’s for certain!