Ducks & Geese Galore

Ducks & Geese Galore

That's what Great Plains waterfowlers are hoping for this season -- but will they get their wish? According to these experts, the outcome on a hunt can hinge on timing and locale. (October 2008)

Great Plains hunters are opportunistic, taking both ducks and geese as chance provides the quarry. Kansas shotgunner Matt Farmer has a double on mallards and a fat Canada goose -- the two most common waterfowl bagged in our states these days.
Photo by Marc Murrell.

Waterfowling in the Great Plains states is quite often at the mercy of Mother Nature. Ideal and cold conditions at the right time send ducks and geese packing on their migration southward, with hunters anxiously awaiting their arrival. But Mother Nature often manages to throw a monkey wrench into even the best laid of the hardcore waterfowler's plans. Hunters able to adapt are the ones who end up with plenty of ducks and geese in the bag.

Following is information that might just help pull more ducks and/or geese into your waterfowling setup this season.

Kansas is towards the tail end of the migration in the Great Plains. Despite that fact, hunters in the Sunflower State routinely chase both ducks and geese.

"We sell around 25,000 waterfowl licenses," said Faye McNew, migratory game bird coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "In 2006 we had 12,663 active duck hunters that spent about 85,416 days afield and averaged 12.8 ducks per season. There were 12,038 goose hunters that spent about 60,994 days afield and averaged 7.5 geese per season."

The 2007 waterfowl seasons were boom or bust, depending on where you hunted in Kansas. Neosho Waterfowl Management Area in southeast Kansas and McPherson Valley Wetlands in south-central Kansas set records for duck harvest last year. "But," reported McNew, "Marais des Cygnes and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife areas had low harvest due to flooding damage."

In 2006 Kansas duck hunters killed 65,780 mallards, 30,594 gadwall, 24,847 blue-winged teal and 15,889 green-winged teal. The same year's goose harvest was 22,658 snow geese, 2,336 white-fronts and 59,566 Canada geese.

Much of the duck harvest in Kansas takes place during the first portion of the season; the number of hunter-days tapers off from there. "Typically, that's when we have most of the hunters out," McNew said. "Peak migration is usually around early to mid-November."

Making up nearly 50 percent of the harvested ducks in the state, the most common duck in the Kansas bag is the mallard. It's followed in numbers by gadwalls and teal.

Canada geese are king among honker hunters, but chances at others are available, too.

"Cheyenne Bottoms in the early duck zone is an ideal place for ducks, geese and cranes," McNew said. "You get a selection of Canada geese, snow geese and white-fronted geese there."

A Kansas resident hunting license is $20.15 and a non-resident license is $72.15 for an adult and $37.15 for a non-resident under age 16. Waterfowl hunters are required to buy a state hunting license and a state waterfowl stamp, plus have the Kansas Harvest Information Program stamp. All waterfowlers who are 16 and older must have a $16.50 federal waterfowl stamp as well; this must be signed across the face.

"Those that do it are pretty passionate about it," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission concerning his state's waterfowl hunting. "A lot of it depends on where you live and if you're close to areas where you can go duck and goose hunting."

Vrtiska believes that Canada goose hunting is gaining in popularity owing to dramatic increases in the size of resident goose populations. The last decade has seen liberal duck season packages throughout the Central Flyway, and so that interest has also stayed high.

The 2007 season was tough to interpret, according to Vrtiska.

"In early October we had decent water in parts of the state and it went pretty well," he said. "Unfortunately, it stayed pretty warm in November and we didn't get a major cold front until the beginning of December, and I never received a lot of reports of a big push of mallards or Canada geese into the state like we normally see on a big front like that."

Nebraska has about 30,000 waterfowl hunters. In a good season they'll shoot more than 200,000 ducks -- generally about half of them mallards -- and from 80,000 to 100,000 Canada geese.

"December is probably the biggest month for Canada goose hunting in Nebraska looking at band returns and other information," Vrtiska said. "For ducks it varies and we have a lot of birds here in October and then we finally get some pushes of mallards in November, and so we really have two different peaks for ducks.

"In looking at a number of years, as you can't look at just a single year, the first couple of weeks in November are best because you typically have a lot of those gadwall, widgeon, teal, pintails and wood ducks hanging around," he added. "And then you get the first big push of mallards from the north clearing out and we get those first waves of mallards," he added. "Once you get past Nov. 15, you really don't see a lot of ducks other than mallards."

The No. 1 duck in the bag in the Cornhusker State is the mallard. Green-winged teal run second, followed by the blue-winged teal. "Widgeon, gadwall and pintails are about the No. 4 duck, as they're really close in the number of ducks harvested," Vrtiska said.

Canada geese are the predominant goose in the Nebraska bag. "If we kill 10,000 snows and 10,000 specks (white-fronted geese) in the fall we've had a pretty good fall," Vrtiska said.

The biologist joked that the best place to hunt ducks or geese in Nebraska is where they were decoying. But in all seriousness, he pointed to the diversity of habitat within the state to appeal to many different kinds of waterfowling opportunists.

"You have the Sandhills for early season hunting, if you've got access to the Platte River you've got great late-season hunting, and reservoirs are good for late-season hunting, too," Vrtiska said. "But the Platte River probably sticks out as the No. 1 place to hunt waterfowl in the state of Nebraska, without question.

"But right behind that is probably the Rainwater Basin area, and Lewis and Clark Lake in the northeast, and Harlan County Reservoir can also be good," he advised. "But there are a lot of places

across the state that are relatively untapped that have good numbers of birds and little or no pressure."

If the public areas don't produce good results, Vrtiska advises, hunters should get a little private.

"I think there are still a lot of places where you can gain access just by asking landowners to hunt ducks or geese," he said. "I don't think a lot of people have problems with it if you ask."

The Nebraska duck seasons typically start in early October and the Canada goose season begins later that month. White-fronts and snow geese begin in early October.

Waterfowlers hunting in Nebraska need their Federal Duck Stamp, a Nebraska HIP stamp, a state duck stamp ($5) and a $16 habitat stamp. The non-resident hunting license is $81, while a resident license is $14.

Over the last few years, Vrtiska acknowledged, much of the state's waterfowling success has been dictated by Mother Nature. "We need precipitation on the landscape to attract and hold birds here in the state when they come through," he said. "If we have some rains at the end of the summer, that is the first ingredient in a good season for us."

"We're one of the better waterfowl hunting states in the country, so it's pretty popular," said Spencer Vaa, waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We don't have a whole lot of hunters because we're a small populated state."

Vaa suggests that while some hunt strictly ducks or geese, most waterfowl hunters go after both. "There are probably a few more guys that target geese," Vaa added, "because we have so many geese."

Last year's season was pretty good and similar to past seasons, according to the biologist. He says hunting has generally been good for waterfowlers over the past few seasons, particularly for hunting geese as each year they kill about 125,000 Canada geese and 30,000 snow geese in the fall.

"We're at a high population of resident giant Canada geese and we open those seasons in early September and then run them 107 days, the maximum allowed by the federal framework," Vaa explained. "In our Missouri River counties we start that later in October and run it 107 days because those birds don't come in until later, and we're hunting into February."

Duck hunting in South Dakota, as in other states, is water dependent. Plenty of wetlands with little hunting pressure make for some good opportunities, according to Vaa. Each year about 20,000 resident and 5,000 non-resident duck hunters kill approximately 250,000 ducks in South Dakota. Duck hunting seasons typically open near the end of September and the best hunting might be late October or early November.

"That's when we get a push down," Vaa said. "During the year, 50 percent of our harvest is mallards and then it's blue-winged and green-winged teal and gadwall."

Vaa points to northeast South Dakota as the best choice for duck hunting, due to the number of potholes. Goose hunting is best along the Missouri River late in the season. Eastern South Dakota is also good as is the southwest corner of the state near La Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

"We've got a pretty good Walk-In Hunting Area program and some of those are good for waterfowl, especially in the eastern part of the state," Vaa said of public opportunities. "We have about 160,000 acres of waterfowl production areas open to public hunting, too."

Vaa has seen a decline in the number of resident waterfowl hunters over the last decade, but really doesn't know why.

"They've got all kinds of opportunities and they've had good populations," Vaa pointed out. "But we've had such darn good pheasant hunting recently, and maybe more guys are doing that, or buying more deer licenses as there's a lot of other things do to besides just hunting waterfowl."

A non-resident waterfowl license is $110 for 10 days for much of the state, and the licenses are issued through a drawing, as there's a cap on the number issued. A three-day license is also available for $75 for a portion of northeast South Dakota. A $5 HIP stamp is required of any hunter, as is a Federal Duck Stamp if required by law.

"It's pretty popular," said Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department of the waterfowling traditions in North Dakota. "We have more waterfowl hunters in North Dakota than they have in all of prairie Canada."

Szymanski credits consistent hunting opportunities for the popularity and about half of the waterfowl hunters in North Dakota each fall come from out of state.

"It's just a different experience for them," Szymanski said. "It's kind of a vacation-type atmosphere and they get to go on a hunting trip. North Dakota is generally a pretty good destination, and a lot better hunting than where some of these folks are coming from."

Information from the 2005 Federal Harvest Information Program shows there were approximately 36,000 duck hunters in North Dakota and 26,500 goose hunters. The goose hunters used to pound snow geese back in the 1970s, but the snow geese don't show up like they used to, at least according to Szymanski.

"But Canada goose hunting has gained quite a bit of popularity because of increases in their population," Szymanski said. "So now we have about an equal split of duck and goose hunters in the state."

Szymanski described the 2007 season as being "kind of rough." The hunting was difficult and didn't produce good results until later in the season. Most of the successful hunters were in the eastern portion of the state, as much of the western two-thirds of the state is in a drought.

"For the best waterfowl hunting in general, you want to be north or east of the Missouri River, which is about two-thirds of the state."--Mike Szymanski, NDGFD

"Hunting in October is typically the mainstay of hunting because in a lot of years we'll be completely froze up by the 31st and we're pretty much done dancing," Szymanski said. "Every now and then we'll get a year that trickles out a couple weeks into November, but if you get that late, you don't have any gadwalls or blue-wings around, so you're really dealing with some late-season geese and mallards.

"It makes it kind of tough because we have a high density of wetlands around here and if you're dealing with a small number of birds like that, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he added.

Canada geese are now tops on the leader board, overtaking snow geese in recent years, as far as goose harvest. Total goose harvest has been about 150,000 birds.

Concerning the goose harvest, Szymanski had this to say: "Starting in the late 1990s, it flip-flopped completely and it's now dominated b

y Canada geese. You can pretty much get Canada geese anywhere, so there's no real hotspot."

Mallards are atop the list of most harvested duck species in the state followed by gadwall and blue-winged teal. North Dakotans shoot about 500,000 ducks in an average year.

"For the best waterfowl hunting in general, you want to be north or east of the Missouri River, which is about two-thirds of the state," Szymanski said. "If you get south and west of that, you're not really talking about good waterfowl hunting habitat."

Szymanski says local hotspots can develop and success is often dictated by hunting pressure, or the lack thereof. It also depends on annual precipitation events and those that are blessed with moisture tend to attract and hold ducks and geese.

The North Dakota waterfowl season typically starts around the first of October for non-residents. Residents, with a liberal framework package from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, get to hunt a week ahead of the non-resident opener.

Non-resident hunting licenses are $85 for a zone-specific one and a statewide one is $125. A hunting certificate for non-residents is $2. Residents have several options for purchasing a license, which includes waterfowl hunting privileges. A habitat license is also required for any hunting; it's $13.

Federal waterfowl management production Areas are available and open to hunting in the state. North Dakota's Private Land Open to Sportsmen program leases private land for public access. Szymanski said many of these areas could be excellent choices for waterfowling.

"But those are actually closed to non-residents during the first week of pheasant season," he said. "That's to provide pheasant hunting opportunities to residents of North Dakota."

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