No one can predict the weather from season to season, but with just a little cooperation from the weatherman this year, the stage will be set for a banner year for Great Plains duck and goose hunting.
Weather has a more profound effect on the success or failure of the sport of waterfowling than any other outdoor endeavor. It determines when birds migrate, how long they stay and how far they go. Even with adequate water and a terrific breeding season, weather determines how successful the hunting will be in the fall, especially in the Great Plains states.
Last year for many waterfowl hunters in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, it was a short and sweet season. There were plenty of birds around but they didn't stay long. A quick shot of cold, ice and blustery weather sent most of the birds heading south and left hunters shaking their heads. Of course, no one can predict the weather from season to season, but with even a little cooperation from the weatherman this year, the stage is set for a banner year for Great Plains waterfowlers.
"Last year was pretty poor," lamented migratory game-bird biologist Mike Szymanski of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "We were frozen out by October 10 and by the 12th there were 2 inches of ice on the ponds. It thawed out a week later, but by then the ducks were gone."
That was a major disappointment for waterfowlers because pond counts were up 250 percent in 2009. An equally strong breeding population matched the proliferation of wetland numbers. Ducks numbers were up substantially for many species last year, and there were millions of ducks passing through North Dakota on the fall migration. Problem was, they didn't stay.
Wetland conditions in North Dakota in 2010 are good again.
"I think the wetland conditions are somewhat similar to 2009, as far as water and numbers of ponds," Syzmanski observed. "The west might be a little dryer. Last year we had really good production, and a lot of water is still around. I would suspect that production will be similar to last year, but it's hard to quantify when we really haven't been out to survey yet. But it shouldn't be much different." That bodes well for species like pintails and shovelers, which experienced big gains last year. Other ducks should benefit, too.
The loss of habitat is likely to have more of an effect.
"In 2010, North Dakota will lose approximately 80,000 acre of (land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program) in the Prairie Pothole Region of the state, which is north and east of the Missouri River," Szymanski reported. "Statewide, we stand to lose approximately 250,000 acres in 2010. The big losses for the PPR will be in a few years, unless there are new sign-ups for that area€¦. The loss of CRP will definitely have an effect on nesting success."
The PPR produces a substantial portion of the waterfowl produced in North America. In fact, last year was the first year it was estimated that more ducks were produced in the US than in prairie Canada.
Szymanski said popular waterfowling venues include the Devil's Lake and Jamestown watershed. "The WPAs are popular with hunters," he added, but he cautioned that hunting them can be feast or famine and hunters need to scout. "There's not much duck hunting west of the Missouri River," he offered.
Planning a trip to North Dakota for waterfowl can be tricky.
"It's been really squirrelly the last couple of years," Szymanski pointed out. "Early has been better. It used to be the third week in October was prime time but not anymore."
For more information on waterfowling in North Dakota, contact the North Dakota Game and Fish Department -- phone: (701) 328-6360 or visit the agency's web site at www.gf.nd.gov.
"Wetland habitat in South Dakota in 2010 is excellent," declared waterfowl biologist Spencer Vaa of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "I just returned from a three-day meeting in the Black Hills, and east to west across the entire state there's water everywhere. On the same drive I also observed new conversions of grass to cropland."
Vaa said breeding-pair and habitat surveys are being conducted as this is being written; but, in general prospects, he added, look for good reproduction and great hunting this fall.
"I expect strong numbers of dabbling ducks in SD as well as high pond counts," Vaa said. "My concern is the aforementioned loss of grasslands -- a key component for good duck production -- across the state as well as the proliferation of tiled drainage in eastern South Dakota. Anytime land is converted from grass to cropland, it means less habitat for waterfowl, as well as a host of other species. The trend is not good, even though 2010 looks good."
According to Vaa's data, recent harvests in South Dakota runs about 200,000 ducks and about 50 percent of the birds are mallards. Another 30 percent or so is comprised of teal and gadwall, he added.
Whereas weather can be a bugaboo for waterfowlers, a wet fall in South Dakota last fall proved to be a bonanza.
"We had some excellent duck hunting in South Dakota last fall due to flooded croplands (cornfields) in portions of northeast and north-central South Dakota," Vaa said. "Some of those cornfields are still not harvested."
Vaa added that other popular hunting areas for waterfowl in South Dakota include the northeast Pothole Country, the Missouri River for late-season mallards, and nearby Canada goose hunting in the adjacent crop fields. Goose hunting along the Missouri River near Lake Oahe is legendary. Hundreds of thousands of Canadas roost on the reservoir and feed in the adjacent crop fields. The South Dakota DGFP leases some 35,000 acres of lands -- called the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Hunting Area --north of Pierre for public hunting. "It's probably the best public Canada goose hunting in the United States," Vaa revealed.
Another hotspot for Canadas in the state is near LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge in southwest South Dakota, but goose hunting is generally good statewide.
"We take about 100,000 Canada geese each fall. When you include the spring light-goose conversation order, we harvest about 100,000 snow geese as well," Vaa said.
In fact, there are so many geese in South Dakota, state and federal wildlife agencies have authorized an unprecedented August goose season this year that runs August 14-29 in 16 eastern South Dakota counties. The hu
nt is for residents only, and the bag limit will be eight birds. This season will supplement the early September season, which accounted for a harvest of 37,275 Canadas in 2009, the highest in a number of years.
Even with this great hunting and all the opportunities South Dakota offers waterfowlers, hunter numbers are on a downward slide.
"Hunter numbers continue to decline," Vaa said. "In the late 1990s we had about 25,000 resident duck hunters. That number has declined to about 18,000 resident hunters."
Non-resident hunters must apply for a hunting permit and are restricted to a 10-day period. The number of non-resident hunters is also strictly controlled. Last year, 4,500 non-resident permits were issued.
For more information on waterfowling opportunities in South Dakota, contact the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks -- phone: (605) 773-3485 or visit the agency's web site at www.sdgfp.info.
Weather, again, was a major factor regarding hunting success in Nebraska last season.
"I anticipate the duck harvest last season will be down in Nebraska," stated waterfowl biologist Mark Vrtiska of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (referring to harvest stats that were not available at press time). "We had a relatively warm November, and when a quick, severe weather pattern finally came it pushed ducks out of the state. October was good, but after that it was poor across much of the state. It was my personal worst duck season since moving back to Nebraska in 11 years."
Some found great waterfowling though. The water levels on 36,000-acre Lake McConaughy continue to rise and with it, waterfowling fortunes. Vegetation that has been growing for a decades on the dry lakebed is now flooded and ducks have been swarming into the newfound habitat.
Last year, hunting was outstanding for a variety of puddle ducks on McConaughy. Diver ducks were plentiful for those who wanted to target them. The hunting was good during the early season and peaked in late October when colder weather and snow brought fresh birds from the north. Limits were common. To sample Lake McConaughy's hot waterfowling, contact Gnat's Charters -- phone: (308)-203-1044 or visit their web site at www.gnatoutdoors.com.
Vrtiska said much of the duck production in Nebraska takes place in the Sandhills region.
"It's primarily mallards, gadwall and teal," he revealed, adding the shallow spring-fed lakes provide ideal nesting habitat for ducks. "Breeding conditions in the Sandhills look to be average or maybe slightly above average. There is good water condition in the western Sandhills and average conditions in the east. We need continued rains in those areas to keep water and nesting effort up. Conditions are much better than we've had up until last year. Breeding populations are between 100,000 and 200,000 (birds), which is above the long-term average."
Hunters will find great opportunities in the Sandhills within the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Both areas provide unique hunting experiences. The land is arid cattle country that doesn't look like there'd be a duck within 100 miles, but over nearly every hill is a pond that's teaming with resident and migrating waterfowl.
Once the Sandhills lakes and other reservoirs begin to freeze up, the Plate River and its north and south branches are a magnet for ducks and geese. The Platte is especially good for mallards and late-season Canadas. The only problem is that almost all the land along the river's length is private and/or leased, and hunting leases go for a hefty sum. There are some public hunting opportunities along the river, but they are very limited.
Goose hunting is very popular in Nebraska, especially late in the season along the open waters of the Platte River.
"Production has been good in recent years for resident Canadas," Vrtiska said, pointing out that the resident Giant Canadas provides the most opportunities in eastern Nebraska. "There are about four or five species of migratory Canadas that migrate through the state."
A light-goose conservation season is also very popular with hunters in the middle and eastern portions of the state.
There were once 4,000 wetlands in the Rainwater Basin covering more than 100,000 acres. There are now less than 10 percent left. Sixty-one areas are now managed as Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) in a 14-county area in southeastern Nebraska. They range from 1-acre ponds up to about 40 acres big, with a few covering 1,000 acres. When filled with water, they provide exceptional early-season opportunities for a variety of puddle ducks and some divers.
For more information on waterfowl hunting opportunities, seasons and rules contact the Nebraska Game and Park Commission, phone: (402) 471-0631 or online at www.ngpc.state.ne.us.
"We went into the winter in good shape as far as water," stated waterfowl specialist Faye McNew of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "The western counties may be a little dry, but for the most part there's good water."
A lot of the waterfowling effort in Kansas is centered on the reservoirs in the north-central part of the state.
"The large reservoirs in the north-central part of the state can be very good. We've had adequate water in them the last couple of years so hunting had been pretty good," McNew said.
Places like Lovewell (5,125 acres), Webster (8,018 acres), Glen Elder Wildlife Area (11,314 acres), Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge (5,700), and Keith Sebelius (2,3200 acres) and Kanopolis (3,550 acres) reservoirs offer great hunting and hold birds long after local ponds and smaller lakes have frozen up.
The reservoirs are a big attraction for puddle ducks.
"We mainly harvest mallards, teal and gadwall during the early part of the season," said McNew, but she admitted the 2009 season was a little different. "I would say that overall the hunting was good to average depending on where you hunted, but there was no real big push of birds. They seemed to filter through in small groups that made for consistent hunting."
McNew added that goose hunting was average to good across the state, and there were big pushes of snow geese at the end of the fall and spring seasons. She said hunters typically have harvested between 130,000 and 140,000 ducks the past three years, with the peak being 200,000 birds.
Annually, Kansas hosts about 24,000 waterfowlers, which isn't many considering the opportunities the state has to offer. "There's really not a lot of hunting pressure for waterfowl," McNew observed.
The major reservoirs are
n't the only places Kansas hunters will find great waterfowling.
"Neosho is very popular with waterfowl hunters," McNew pointed out. Located just east of St. Paul, Kansas, Neosho Wildlife Area was first open to waterfowl hunting in 1960. Covering more than 3,000 acres near the junction of Flat Rock Creek and the Neosho River, the area also includes 400 acres of food plots that are flooded to attract waterfowl. Special regulations regarding hunting times and restricted areas apply. Check with management personal -- phone: (620) 449-2539 -- for conditions and rules.
Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge and Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area are named for the river that runs through them. The early French explorers named it "Marsh of the Swans." Purchased by the federal government between 1953-1955, with tracts added through 2004, the area includes more than 7,500 acres of managed wetland and bottomland hardwood forest, much of which is open to waterfowling hunting. The area is located 6 miles north of Pleasanton on US Highway 69. For more information, call the refuge office at (913) 352-8941.
"There are several large natural marshes that are managed for waterfowl by controlling water levels" McNew said. "It offers hunters a classic style of waterfowling over decoys. At most of managed areas there are permanent blinds that hunters can use or you can bring you own boat."
The Golden Triangle consists of several areas: the 20,000-acre Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (phone: 620-793-3066) near Great Bend; one of Kansas' premier waterfowling areas, the 7,000-acre Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (phone: 620-486-2393) near Strafford; and McPherson Valley Wetlands Wildlife Area (phone: 620-241-7669), which during normal conditions holds more than 1,750 acres of surface water in more than 50 wetlands.
Located within a 50-mile radius, the Great Triangle wetlands complex is a major attraction for migrating waterfowl and offers hunting alternatives when water conditions are poor at other destinations. Special regulations are in place at each area. For more information, hunters should consult state hunting guides or visit the KDWP web site at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.
McNew said that although Kansas is not considered a waterfowl production state, reductions in lands enrolled in CRP could have a far-reaching effect on the number of ducks and geese that make their way through the state on their migration.
"CRP could have a big effect on Kansas," she pointed out, "because we're dependant on ducks that are hatched up north."
Kansas is broken up into three waterfowling zones: High Plains, Low Plains Early Zone, and Low Plains Late Zone. There is an early teal season in September. The regular duck season is split and runs from early October into January.
"More than half of the state's waterfowlers, or about 12,000 hunters, participated in the late hunt. The late season can be very weather dependent, but we harvest a lot of mallards then," McNew said.
The season for Canada geese in Kansas runs from early November through mid-February statewide. The light-goose season runs the same as the Canada goose season and includes a spring conservation season. White-fronted geese are also available.
For more information on waterfowling in the Sunflower State, contact the Kansas Wildlife and Parks office in Emporia -- phone: (620) 342-5911.