Great Plains Waterfowl Preview

Great Plains Waterfowl Preview

Precipitation earlier this year makes for a good outlook for duck and goose hunting in the Great Plains. All we need now is a good cold blow. (October 2009)

You'll find a number of widgeons in hunters' bags on the reservoirs in the north-central part of Kansas.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

The Great Plains States can offer some of the best waterfowling in the world, when conditions are right. It takes a combination of snowmelt and spring rains and just the right amount of frigid weather at the right time. It appears that half of the equation is in place. We can only hope for well-timed cold weather.

During a pheasant hunt late last season in Kansas, I was struck by the sheer volume of water last year and into 2009. There were oodles of swollen creeks, ponds, rivers, tanks and reservoirs. And water is key to good waterfowling anywhere, but especially in Kansas.

"We've had quite a bit of water. So there are plenty of places for waterfowl," said Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks waterfowl specialist Faye McNew. "Lots of areas reported average to above-average hunting for ducks last season. The way this year is shaping up, this fall should be even better."

Kansas has been mired in a prolonged drought until recently. As water again filled ponds and reservoirs, better hunting will follow.

Although Kansas is not considered a production state, it will benefit from improved habitat conditions in the Dakotas and Canada as well.

"The majority of birds we see are pushed down by cold fronts and weather from points to the north. The attraction is open water, and in very dry years, birds sometimes fly right over," said McNew.

This year, birds should find plenty of reason to stop.

Some years, Kansas is a migration stop. Other years, it's a destination.

McNew said that reservoirs in the north-central part of the state are a big attraction. "The large reservoirs found there are very good when we can get water into them," said McNew.

Mainly, the harvest consists of mallards, teal and gadwalls during the early part of the season.

Large reservoirs worth checking out include Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge (5,700 acres), Glen Elder Wildlife Area (11,314 acres), Webster (8,018 acres) and Lovewell (5,215 acres).

Jamestown Wildlife Area (3,239 acres) is managed for waterfowl hunting and is in close proximity to the reservoirs.

The reservoirs are used for irrigation, and their levels can vary greatly, which will affect the number of waterfowl they attract.

One exception is Cedar Bluff Wildlife Area, located 16 miles south of MaKeeney. The state of Kansas recently negotiated the water rights to the reservoir at Cedar Bluffs, so it's not subjected to drawdowns. That's good news for waterfowl hunters.

Hunters can get current information on water levels and waterfowl population counts that are updated weekly on the state's Web site at

Another area that attracts big numbers of waterfowl is the Golden Triangle in the central part of the state. "There are several large natural marshes that are managed for waterfowl by controlling water levels," said McNew. "It offers hunters a classic style of waterfowling over decoys. At most of the managed areas, there are permanent blinds that hunters can use or you can bring your own boat."

The triangle consists of nearly 20,000-acre Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (620-793-3066) near Great Bend, one of Kansas' premier waterfowling areas, 7,000-acre Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (620-486-2393) near Strafford and McPherson Valley Wetlands Wildlife Area (620-241-7669), which sports more than 1,750 acres of surface water in more than 50 wetlands during normal conditions.

Located within a 50-mile radius, the wetlands complex is a major attraction for migrating waterfowl and offers hunters alternatives when water conditions are poor at one destination. Special regulations are in place at each area and hunters should consult the hunting guides or the KDWP web site.

Named "Marsh of the Swans" by early French explorers, Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge and Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area is named after the river that runs through it. Purchased between 1953-1955 with additions up until 2004, the area includes more than 7,500 acres of managed wetlands and bottomland hardwood forest much of which is open to waterfowling hunting. The area is located six miles north of Pleasanton on U.S. Highway 69. For more information, call (913) 352-8941.

Located just east of St. Paul, Kansas, Neosho Wildlife Area was first open to waterfowl hunting in 1960. It covers more than 3,000 acres near the junction of Flat Rock Creek and the Neosho River. Unlike most managed areas in Kansas, 400 acres of food plots are planted at the area and then flooded to attract waterfowl.

Special hunting times and restricted areas apply. Check with management personnel at (620) 449-2539 for conditions and rules.

Kansas is broken up into three waterfowling zones: High Plains, Low Plains Early Zone and Low Plains Late Zone.

Because Kansas is not considered a production state, it has the option of having an early teal season, too.

For more information on Sunflower State waterfowling, contact the Kansas Wildlife and Parks office in Emporia, Kansas at (620) 342-5911.

Similar to Kansas, two things are necessary for great waterfowling in the Cornhusker State: weather and water. And, like Kansas, it looks like water may not be a problem this season.

Water conditions are looking pretty good, said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission waterfowl biologist Mark Vrtiska. "Conditions are much better than we've had the last few years. Breeding populations are between 100,000 and 200,000, which is above the long-term average."

Vrtiska said that much of the duck production in Nebraska takes place in the Sandhills region. "It's primarily mallards, gadwalls and teal," he said.

The shallow spring-fed lakes provide ideal nesting habitat for ducks.

Two groups of Sandhills lakes prov

ide great hunting opportunities. One group is located within the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the other is in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Rules and regulations are different for each lake, some are open to hunting; some aren't. Check with the respective management agency. Both provide a unique hunting experience. The land is arid ranch country and doesn't look like duck country at all. Don't be fooled.

"The Platte River and its North and South branches are a main focus for waterfowl across the state," said Vrtiska.

Once the Sandhills lakes and other reservoirs begin to freeze up, the river is a magnet for ducks and geese. The Platte is especially good for mallards and late-season Canadas. The only problem is that almost the entire river is private and leased, and leases go for a hefty sum. There are some public opportunities along the river, but they are very limited.

There are plenty of public opportunities in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin, especially when there's water. Some years, the ponds are pretty dry and hold few waterfowl. In others, they might have 3-4 feet of water. This looks like it might be one of those wet years that waterfowlers relish.

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 in a 14-county area in southeastern Nebraska. They range from 1-acre ponds up to about 40 acres 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.

It's estimated that 90 percent of the continental population of white-fronted geese, nearly 50 percent of the continental mallards population and 30 percent of the continental pintail population use the Rainwater Basin during their migration.

For more information on hunting the Rainwater Basin, contact the USFWS office in Kearney at (308) 236-5015.

Nebraska duck hunters enjoyed a 74-day season last year that begins the second weekend in October.

Because only a portion of Nebraska is considered a production state, some of those days are allotted for an early teal season in September in the southern half of the state.

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," said Vrtiska.

Resident giant Canadas offer the most action in eastern Nebraska.

"There are about four or five species of migratory Canadas that migrate through the state," he said.

Nebraska has an early goose season in September aimed at controlling resident giant Canada goose numbers in the eastern portion of the state. The state is broken up into five goose zones during the regular seasons.

A light goose conservation season is popular with hunters in the middle and eastern portions of the state.

For more information on waterfowl hunting opportunities, seasons and rules, contact the Nebraska Game and Park Commission at (402) 471-0631 or online at

South Dakota has the best of both worlds. Plenty of small wetlands and natural lakes in the eastern half of the state and the draw of the Missouri River, which is like a super highway for waterfowl migrating down the Central Flyway from Canada.

Like North Dakota, South Dakota has a lot of WPAs, state game production areas and state walk-in areas that attract incredible numbers of waterfowl and offer great public hunting. Some of my most memorable waterfowling days were spent on the Missouri River.

South Dakota waterfowl specialist Spencer Vaa said that he expected good numbers of breeding ducks and resident Canada geese for this year. "We had a very high pond count this spring, so it's generally looking good for water across South Dakota, both in the prairie pothole country of the eastern state and the West River stock pond country," he said.

"Nesting cover is another matter," Vaa lamented. "We're losing hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland each year due to high commodity prices for corn and soybeans."

Farmers are plowing up CRP areas at an alarming rate. For example, about 230,00 areas of CRP acres are slated to come out this fall. The lack of nesting cover is likely to drive down duck and upland game recruitment considerably if the present trend continues, he said.

Recent harvest in South Dakota runs about 200,000 ducks. About half are mallards. Another 30 percent or so are teal and gadwalls. About 100,00 Canada geese are taken here each fall.

With the spring light goose conservation order, about 100,000 snow geese are harvested as well.

Even with the great hunting, the number of waterfowl hunters continues to dwindle.

"Hunter numbers have declined," said Vaa.

In the late 1990s, there were about 25,000 resident duck hunters. That number has declined to about 15,000.

Non-resident hunters apply for a hunting permit and are restricted to a 10-day period. The number of non-resident hunters is also controlled.

In western South Dakota and along the part of the Missouri River, there are longer duck seasons in what's known as the High Plains. This is generally western South Dakota.

In recent years, the High Plains has enjoyed a 97-day season. Hunting there is best late in the year when mallards show up on the Missouri River reservoirs and places like the Cheyenne River.

In the east, the Low Plains are divided up into the North, Middle and South zones and the season has been 74 days for many years.

Eastern duck hunting is usually best in the potholes of northeast South Dakota.

Goose hunting along the Missouri River near Lake Oahe is legendary. Hundreds of thousands of Canadas roost on the reservoir and then feed in the adjacent crop fields. Some 30,000 acres of land north of Pierre, called the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Hunting Area, are leased by the Department of Game, Fish and Parks for public hunting there.

For more information on waterfowling in South Dakota, contact the Department of Game, Fish and Parks at (605) 773-3485 or online at

Wildlife biologist Mike Szymanski would be the first to admit that waterfowling in North Dakota could be feast or famine.

"Last sp

ring, we had our 10th driest spring on record. Production was poor and hunting suffered," said Szymanski. "This year, we had near-record snowfall across much of the state and lots of rain this spring. Pond counts were up 250 percent this spring, and we've seen a huge increase in the number of wetlands. It's kind of a here-today-gone-tomorrow proposition."

Szymanski said even though the habitat might be there, there may not be birds to utilize it. With duck populations sliding a little bit the last few years, there may not be enough breeders to take advantage of the vastly improved conditions. Much of eastern and northern North Dakota, South Dakota and prairie Canada are in the prairie pothole region that produces the majority of the fall flight.

"I think we're just starting into a cycle of wet conditions, and if that happens, in a few years we should have good nesting production."

Szymanski said that he's seeing excellent numbers of pintails and shovelers taking advantage of the improved habitat.

One byproduct of the last few dry years is that seed-bearing plants and invertebrates that are so important to migrating waterfowl should flourish once the wetlands fill back up.

Another necessary ingredient for waterfowl to make full use of the wetland habitats is adjacent grasslands. "CRP is an immense factor," said Szymanski. "A hen mallard might nest a mile from the nearest water, so having that quality grassland habitat is important."

Szymanski said that in North Dakota more than 1 million acres have been taken out of the CRP program. Fortunately, a lot of the ground lost has been west of the Missouri River.

Szymanski said that North Dakota's Private Lands Open to Sportsman has more than 1 million acres enrolled, and that number has remained relatively stable. The lands are important to waterfowl and hunters. For information on the PLOTS program and other public hunting opportunities in North Dakota, contact the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at or at (701) 328-6300.

North Dakota is a bonanza for the freelance waterfowler.

"There are hundreds of waterfowl production areas that range from 40 to 200 acres that are open to hunting," said Szymanski. Most of these are located in the eastern half and northern third of the state.

The WPAs are popular with hunters, but hunting them can be feast or famine. Hunters need to scout.

"The table is set for a banner year," he said.

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