August 13, 2021
It's that time of year again, the dog days of summer, when duck hunters start dreaming of skies filled with mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, and teal, flocks of quackers that push south through the flyways with every northerly breeze in the coming autumn.
While the start of 2021-22 duck seasons across the northern U.S. is only weeks away, and the opening-day salvos from blinds down south are only a few weeks behind that, duck hunters dreaming of their retriever swimming back with a fat greenhead or two had a bit of a reality check a few days ago.
That came when news broke out of the Northern Great Plains of the U.S. that drought continues to rear its ugly head and will likely result in fewer ducks winging south this fall.
Put simply, it's dry in the Duck Factory. And dry enough that duck hunters are likely to notice this autumn, after what appears to be a much weaker hatch that has taken place this spring and summer.
That prospect seems likely after less snow last winter, little rainfall in the spring and early summer months, and a lot of recent warmth have intensified the gathering drought in the prairie pothole region of southern Canada and the northern U.S., drying up prairie potholes and wetland basins in ways not seen for many years.
But It's a Guess
The best educated guess about all of this—and that's all it is, a guess, after the cancellation of the annual May breeding population survey and spring pond count effort for the second year in a row—is that the duck-production effort this year has undoubtedly dropped quite a bit from the last several years.
That much seems apparent when you consider the recent news coming out of North Dakota, one of the few places that has managed to conduct waterfowl survey efforts the last couple of years in the absence of data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered all of the federal data-gathering efforts, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department has been able to soldier on, giving waterfowlers at least some information to chew on.
And that information certainly suggests that fall flight numbers will likely be down this autumn, at least if mid-July duck-production survey results from the NDGF can be applied elsewhere across the continent's prime duck-breeding grounds.
In fact, this year's duck data is so strong that biologists in the state at the top of the Central Flyway have warned that this year's fall flight could be something quite different than what many current duck hunters are accustomed to seeing.
NDGF biologist Mike Szymanski, the migratory game bird management supervisor for North Dakota, said that observations from the state's mid-July duck-production survey show that numbers are down a sobering 36 percent from last year.
"Hunters should expect waterfowl hunting to be difficult in North Dakota this year, with the lone bright spot being Canada goose hunting," said Szymanski in the NDGF news release. "Nonetheless, localized concentrations of ducks, geese and swans will materialize throughout the hunting season as birds migrate through the state."
Given the uncertainty heading into the upcoming duck-hunting seasons, Szymanski said hunters might want to take advantage of early hunting opportunities they find this year, at least in his state.
"Hunters should take advantage of early migrants like blue-winged teal during the first two weeks of the season," he said. "We won't be able to depend on local duck production to the extent that we have in the past."
That's troubling news for duck hunters elsewhere, especially in light of the fact that North Dakota is a part of the fabled Duck Factory and often supports some of the best waterfowling action found anywhere in the U.S. each year.
But the lack of water on the prairies this year has severely impacted duck habitat across North Dakota. In fact, state biologists say that breeding conditions were fair at best, very poor at worst, and led the wetland index in the Peace Garden State to decline by some 80 percent. That's an alarming drop, no matter how you look at it.
While North Dakota biologists estimated that there were 2.9 million ducks present during the NDGF’s 74th annual breeding duck survey back in May, Szymanski said at the time that the behavioral clues seen by biologists suggested breeding efforts by those ducks would be low this summer.
Unfortunately, his guess has proven to be accurate.
"Conditions are not good statewide and, after a high count in 2020, the decline in wetlands counted represented the largest one-year percentage-based decline in the 74-year history of the survey," said Szymanski. "Overall, this year's breeding duck index was the 48th highest on record, down 27 percent from last year, but still 19 percent above the long-term average."
Low Brood Numbers
While that last bit of information—the fact that this year's breeding-duck index in North Dakota is still 19 percent above the long-term average—is good, Szymanski said that the number of broods observed by his biologists a few weeks ago fell 49 percent from last year's count and is also a disappointing 23 percent below the average seen from 1965-2020.
While the number of duck broods observed last month is the lowest since 1994, Szymanski did note that the count this year was at 6.46 ducklings, a figure down 4 percent from last year, but still 62 percent above the long-term average.
To understand the numbers a little better, it's important to note that North Dakota biologists arrived at their summer duck brood survey information by traversing 18 routes across the state, except west and south of the Missouri River.
During those survey routes, NDGF biologists annually count and classify duck broods and water areas within 220 yards of either side of the roadway. Started in the mid-1950s, the mid-July duck-brood survey has used the same survey routes since 1965.
While the news earlier this year was depressing, and the news from last month even more so, there's still one more chance for North Dakota waterfowl biologists to find some good news to pass along this year. And that will come in mid-September when they will assess the state's wetland conditions heading into fall hunting campaigns.
For now, Szymanski says that while this year's figures in his state are certainly disappointing, the sky isn't falling. Yet, that is.
"At this point, we are not overly concerned about undue negative impacts of the harvest on ducks during this season, but we'll re-evaluate the situation during the federal regulations process," he said. "One year of drought won't be a disaster for ducks, but we could have issues if these conditions continue into next year."
What's the Bottom Line?
The bottom line this year is that things are exceptionally dry in North Dakota and duck numbers certainly appear to be down as a result. If those trends are also seen in other prime duck-nesting areas across the Duck Factory, then it seems all but certain that this year's fall flight will be down as we head into 2021-22 duck hunting campaigns.
"This is the bad news we knew was coming," said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl in a news release. "The reduction in water is staggering. It's the highest percentage decrease in the history of the North Dakota survey."
That's an amazing fact when one considers that 2020 was the sixth wettest year on record in North Dakota, months before 2021 became the fifth driest year in 74 years of record-keeping during the NDGF's annual waterfowl surveying efforts.
It's also important to realize that we're not talking about a population collapse here, just a year on the prairies that is dry and will likely result in a lowered fall flight this year.
"Duck populations remain strong, but I don't expect a ton of juveniles in the fall flight," said Rohwer, who also noted that there would likely be little, if any, re-nesting efforts in a one-and-done kind of breeding year along with the fact that duckling survival could be low this year.
All of this might mean tougher hunting conditions down the flyways this year in duck honey holes located well to the south of North Dakota.
"Experienced, adult birds are far tougher to decoy, which will challenge hunters — especially in Louisiana, Texas and other regions of the southern United States," added Rohwer.
Do keep in mind that there are still a good number of ducks that have carried over from previous years. Those ducks, and whatever young of the year they were able to produce this breeding season, are finishing up their summertime growth and will soon head south as the days shorten and the wind freshens out of the north.
And as these quackers push south through the flyways, there will still be plenty of opportunity for waterfowlers to get out, pitch the decoys into the pre-dawn gloom, and sit back as the retriever whines and mallards and their feathered kin circle overhead in those final delicious moments before the law comes off of shooting time.
While it's true that there may not be quite as many ducks this season as in recent years, the ducks are still coming and that's reason enough to set the alarm clock for an early morning wakeup call.
Because when waterfowl wings are whispering overhead at the break of dawn, there's no better place to be than a duck blind, even in a year that is a bit drier than we had all hoped for.