Great Plains Waterfowl Forecast
September 30, 2010
Waterfowlers will soon be out in force, working our region's lakes, fields and marshes for their bounty of birds. What should they expect to find out there? (October 2007)
Photo by Ron Hustvedt Jr.
The northern Great Plains' waterfowling should offer a lot to the hunter this fall, as indicators heading into the season point to solid duck numbers and excellent goose populations.
The Plains region has been on a general downturn in duck numbers the past few years, drier weather having cut into bird production on the prairies of the Dakotas and Canada.
But last spring was wetter, and nesting
conditions were better.
The overall goose population in the Central Flyway remains strong. Most of those birds nest in the northern Canadian provinces, where habitat destruction hasn't so far been nearly as great as it has in the United States, so the birds' numbers have remained stable at robust levels for a number of years.
Given the number of birds in the flyway this autumn, opportunities ought to be plentiful throughout the Great Plains states. As usual, local weather conditions on the day of a hunt will exert a pivotal influence. Following: a run-down of some wildlife agency biologists' expectations for the waterfowl seasons in their states, along with some of the best places to pursue web-footed quarry.
Waterfowling in North Dakota is always some of North America's best. Lots of natural potholes and sloughs remain there, so it's a welcoming place for ducks to nest and raise their young, and thus a source of first-rate duck and goose hunting each fall. Indeed, sportsmen from states to the east whose habitat has largely been destroyed travel there, as the state's wealth of wetlands translates to a lot of places to hunt. The action is of a quality such as waterfowlers from elsewhere can only dream of.
Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, keeps track of waterfowl for the entire state. "Basically, anywhere in eastern North Dakota is pretty good," he said, "as long as you aren't in the Red River Valley -- there aren't any wetlands there. Once you get west of there, the prairie pothole country starts up."
Much of the waterfowl production in the United States still takes place in this natural wetlands area, a rich shallow-water environment of which some is only seasonal. If the edges have ample vegetation, the ducks will favor it both for nesting and for the food they'll readily find in the marshy areas. As a result, North Dakota hunters have the best of it: lots of locally produced ducks, and many birds flying south from Canada stopping there on their southward journey.
"The migration the last few years has been pretty good," said Szymanski. "The last week, things are getting ready to end, but during the last couple of weeks, if there's real strong storms, it can be really good. But when those storms will happen, it's hard to say; last year it was around Halloween. There were birds in the south part of the state. It's good in mid-November in other years. Basically, after Halloween you are rolling the dice as to whether you will be able to hunt or not."
The mallard, the staple of duck hunting, remains the most popular species, but big complements of gadwalls, redheads, canvasbacks and scaup are also present. "Folks in North Dakota usually target mallards," said Szymanski. "Early in the year there are quite a few bluewings around, but that is real early. Usually by the first week of October we have lost most of our teal. Really, you can run into about any kind of duck."
Over along the Missouri River, hunters go after ducks in the field and on the big water. That can prove to be a sort of hunt very different from the smaller typical wetlands hunts you'll find just to the east. A number of hunting styles will be found there, so waterfowlers can take their pick. Setting out decoys remains quite popular; it's effective, and very sporting.
"It's mostly decoy hunting," said Szymanski. "A lot of folks hunt out in fields, too. That is getting pretty popular -- setting out several hundred decoys."
Canada goose hunting has probably been improving in some respects. As corn planting moves farther north on the continent, the geese coming down from the north tend to stop, and to stay longer, in North Dakota.
"The Canada geese are doing all right," said Szymanski. "They have been riding this wet cycle pretty good; they are way ahead of objectives. We do worry a little bit about them, because snow geese are overpopulated."
Szymanski recommended that those going out for the first time should arrive at least a day early to scout for birds and get the lay of the land. "Find out where the birds are, where the birds will be," he said. "You have to get out there and look around. A lot of it is on private property. There are federal waterfowl production areas. We have the North Dakota PLOTS program (Private Land Open to Sportsmen)."
As corn planting moves farther north on the continent, the geese coming down from the north tend to stop, and to stay longer, in North Dakota.
South Dakota typically is second to North Dakota in duck production in the continental United States each year, and sometimes pushes past into the top slot.
Much viable duck habitat remains in the state, mostly in East River, where the natural lakes, potholes and sloughs dot the countryside. But the western part of South Dakota has a small amount of duck hunting, often of high quality and quite secluded, at the stock dams on the prairie, and even along the edges of some lakes. In a change of pace from recent years, East River's potholes and sloughs were drenched with water last spring.
Early in the season in October, the top quarry ducks are blue-winged teal and mallards, said Spencer Vaa, waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in Brookings. "In the fall time there are usually good numbers of both of them," said Vaa. "Then there are always gadwalls, widgeon, shovelers, green-winged teal; then we get the diver ducks a little later. It is similar to what it has been the last few years. It looks pretty good."
According to Vaa, a band from Huron to Aberdeen has looked especially promising in terms of duck habitat this year. Some of the waterfowl coming through the state from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the north in Canada will stop in the sloughs and potholes, providing some worthwhile action.
Tactics that are among the most traditional for duck hunting -- involvin
g the use of decoys in shallow wetlands -- are quite common in northeastern South Dakota. "Some of the best hunting is later in the season in the fields," said Vaa. "They come in to both duck and goose decoys. Guys who are into mallard shooting like the late-season shooting in the fields. There is a lot of decoy hunting, and some people of course jump-shoot. But most put out decoys."
Giant Canada geese are scattered all over South Dakota. Hunters in the areas inhabited by the resident birds, which live full-time in the state and raise their young there, get some nice shooting in with the local geese, but most of action is with migratory birds from Canada that rest in gigantic flotillas on the Missouri River, mostly right near Lake Oahe. The geese typically fly out to feed in grain fields, where they're hunted; they then fly back to the water to rest and spend the night. As they fly to and from the feeding areas, a lot of pass-shooters draw beads on them.
"We have good public hunting on Oahe," said Vaa. "There are 30,000 acres we lease for the public to hunt on -- the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Hunting Area east of Oahe north of Pierre. It is land the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks leases for public hunting.
"It is probably the best public Canada goose hunting in the United States, so that is one thing that hunters who go to the Pierre area use quite a bit; it gets used a lot, and hunters have very good hunting there late in the year. It is a good late-season hunting opportunity for a lot of people."
The amount of opportunity is still among the highest in the nation. And waterfowling is one of the main sports, being something still very traditional in smaller communities during the fall duck and goose flights.
"There is all kinds of good Canada goose hunting all over eastern South Dakota," said Vaa. "And even southwestern South Dakota has good Canada goose hunting. There is a lot of opportunity for people who want to hunt waterfowl in South Dakota -- state game production areas, federal waterfowl hunting areas, and state walk-in areas. And it is still true in South Dakota that if you ask a farmer, and you look like a decent person, you will probably get access."
The main waterways of the Cornhusker State act as magnets for ducks during the fall flight, so hunters concentrate much of their efforts along those corridors. As is the case in other states in which most hunting focuses on birds flying in from the north, weather conditions are the pivotal factor on any given day.
One traditional annual hotspot is south-central Nebraska's Rainwater Basin. "They are basins," said Lance Hastings, wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at North Platte. "When we have high rainfall, they have water in them, so they are basically shallow wetlands. It all depends on how much rain we have, but they are anywhere from a few inches to 3 to 4 feet."
By early October, the waterfowling in the basin, which attracts both ducks and geese, is often going great guns. The main species are pintails, gadwalls, American widgeon, northern shovelers, and green-winged and blue-winged teal; divers such as redheads and scaup will also be on the scene. Later in the season, mallards and Canadas are the main quarry.
As hunters venture west, much of the waterfowl hunting takes place along the Platte River. This is on private property, so permission to hunt is required.
"Actually, most of the Platte River through the entire state will be good," said Hastings. "You have some of the same species of duck hunting early, and then the same thing in the latter portion of the year -- mostly mallards and Canada geese."
A uniquely beautiful hunting experience can be found in the remote areas of western Nebraska's Sandhills. This is ranch country: lots of hills, and sandy -- and, surprisingly, substantial quantities of water in the shallow water table just below the surface. The lakes there play host to some rewarding action -- if you can get permission to hunt them.
"That habitat is basically the Sandhills lakes and marshes and wetlands," said Hastings. "It is undisturbed, with a wide variety of duck species early, and there are some Canada geese. But a lot of times later on in the year, those areas will freeze up -- so then a lot of those birds will move to the Platte River system."
Most of the hunting in Nebraska is found on private lands, but some public hunting exists. To find the spots, sportsmen use the Guide to Hunting and Public Lands published by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
A uniquely beautiful hunting experience can be found in the remote areas of western Nebraska's Sandhills. The lakes there play host to some rewarding action -- if you can get permission to hunt them.
The waterfowling continues to be pretty decent when the geese migrate through the state. And Nebraska is far enough south that some of the birds end up staying the entire winter. Not a bad deal for hunters, eh?
"Quite a bit of the Canada goose hunting is done in the fields or meadows," said Hastings; that's especially true along the Platte River. So a lot of waterfowlers tend to hunt in the crop fields and meadows along the river. It doesn't even have to be right next to the river: The geese do fly quite a ways to feed. Most of it is decoy hunting; most of it is a pretty big spread. And most of it is Canada goose hunting. There is some mallard hunting in the fields, but 98 percent is Canada goose hunting."
The main thing that hunters are looking at in the fall is the weather. After a cold snap, the birds are pushed down from Canada and the Dakotas into Nebraska. "The number of birds that we have during the season all depends on the weather up north," said Hastings. "Two or three years ago it didn't get cold farther north, so we didn't see many geese -- they just stayed farther north. Last year there was some colder weather that moved some birds, but most of our fields were covered with snow, so they kept on going. When the snow covers the grain fields there is nothing for them to eat, so they keep flying south. That's what pushes them from the Dakotas and Canada: when there is snow on the ag fields, and colder weather."
The Sunflower State's waterfowling occurs in its big wetlands areas, at the upper end of some of the big reservoirs and rivers feeding them, and in the small farm ponds in some areas. Major public areas include the Jamestown Wildlife Area, McPherson Wetlands, and national wildlife refuges at Quivira, Flint Hills, and Cheyenne Bottoms.
The quarry birds are mostly migrants from the north, and as they stop there to rest and feed on their fall flight, Kansas often makes available some very serviceable duck action. "Mostly they are from the Canadian prairies and the Dakotas," said Faye McNew, migratory game bird coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at Pratt. Some even arrive from Alaska on their journey to the south
"We are only a stopping point," said McNew. "Being a migration state, we depend on cold fronts
up north to push the birds down, and having open water available here in Kansas. In dry years the birds will fly right over. Some birds may stay the entire winter. Some go to the Gulf Coast of Texas. It depends on how cold they get, and how much water we have, whether the birds will stay to feed and rest."
Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the old-line waterfowl hunting areas in Kansas, and is uncharacteristic of what people expect in Kansas: a wetland marsh with ducks. "Cheyenne Bottoms is in the Early Zone for ducks," said McNew. "It is mostly decoy hunting. At Cheyenne Bottoms we do have a shooting line for geese, which is mostly pass-shooting."
This hunting is more the classic style of wetlands waterfowling. "At Cheyenne Bottoms it is all marsh hunting," explained McNew. "We have permanent blinds on the area that hunters use, but more and more are bringing their own boats to hunt out of. It is traditional hunting. The soils don't allow for crops such as corn -- it just doesn't grow well there -- so we stick to traditional marsh management. We leave enough water in for marsh conditions. As the water recedes, vegetation grows. It is usually a balance of 50 percent emerging vegetation to 50 percent open water. And that seems to be what ducks prefer."
Quivira is managed in a similar fashion.
Kansas has historically enjoyed some nice teal hunting early in the season. "We have breeding mallards, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, and some gadwall," said McNew. "During migration, it is typically mallards. Mallards are our first harvested species, followed by green-winged teal and gadwall. There is good early-season teal hunting in September. It depends on conditions as to how long it will last."
Some of the roughly 20,000 who undertake to hunt waterfowl in Kansas each year go after geese. "We have Canada geese, white-fronted geese, snow geese," said McNew. "The western portion of Kansas is most known for the goose hunting opportunities. The whitefronts, as well as snow geese, tend to stay in the western portion of the state. Canada geese are resident, so there are opportunities for them.
"They set decoys out and pass-shoot. With snow geese, it requires quite a few decoys, so I believe pass-shooting is popular with them. Canada geese require fewer decoys, so they can set out a good spread."