Dakotas' Waterfowl Preview

Dakotas'  Waterfowl Preview

All we need is some cold weather, and these hot-spots will keep us waterfowlers busy all season! (November 2009)

North and South Dakota are two of the best-kept hunting secrets in the United States.

Photo Courtesy of Mike Lambeth

When people outside of the Dakotas think of the Dakotas, they think of deer and antelope, or maybe pheasant hunting. However, the Dakotas have some of the hottest waterfowling in the nation!

Great Plains Game & Fish has put together the lowdown on the top waterfowling hotspots in both states. So, read on to find out what the experts say about where to hunt.

According to Ducks Unlimited, most of the waterfowl that are present in the Dakotas are raised on the prairies and in the western boreal forest of the arctic regions. Saskatchewan is also a very important breeding area for ducks and geese that will wing through the Central Flyway.

Last season, duck numbers in this area were down 19 percent from the previous year's estimate. Although waterfowl production in southern Saskatchewan was poor, DU biologist Michael Hill reported that some breeding ducks fared better where wetland conditions were more favorable.

"Good numbers of mallard, gadwall, blue-winged teal and shoveler broods were the most common seen," he said.

In 2008, May pond numbers were down in the north-central United States causing the populations of most duck species to decline. South Dakota reported 3.4 million breeding ducks, a number similar to the previous year's estimate, but 54 percent above the long-term average.

North Dakota's breeding population of approximately 3.8 million ducks was down 22 percent from the previous year, but remained 25 percent above the long-term average.

"With the exception of a few areas like far eastern South Dakota, breeding ducks were limited by a lack of suitable wetland habitat," said DU biologist Scott Stephens. "In North Dakota, for example, our research crews found only about half as many duck nests as we did last year on the same sites. We did receive much needed precipitation in late spring and early summer, benefiting late nesters like gadwalls and blue-wings, but production appears to have been down considerably overall compared to the past several years."

The outlook was much better for goose populations in the Dakotas. Good spring weather with an ample amount of spring rains and late-season snowfall resulted in average to above-average numbers of geese on many of their northern breeding areas. Lesser snow, Ross' and white-fronted geese appear to have had a good hatch, resulting in an increased fall population in the flyway.

Jim Ringleman, DU's director of conservation programs, is excited about the upcoming season, because of habitat conditions being exceptional in North Dakota, and very good throughout most of north-central and eastern South Dakota.

According to a survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, duck numbers were up 18.1 percent from last year, and 87 percent above the long-term (1948-2008) average.

"Water (pond) conditions are an astonishing 293 percent above last year, and 69 percent above the long-term average," said Ringleman.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the estimated number of ducks in all flyways is now 42 million, which represents a 13 percent increase over last year's count and a 25 percent increase over the long-term average (since 1955).

The forecast for this coming season is awesome, according to the federal population numbers, state surveys and Ringleman's assessment.

Still, the loss of CRP land will hit hunters and waterfowl hard and soon.

"North Dakota lost 408,000 acres in 2007 and 136,000 in 2008," Ringleman said. "We expect to lose another 500,000 acres in 2009-10. Long-term this will impact duck production, since the CRP is prime nesting habitat."

Sportsmen need to be advocates of CRP.

North Dakota's waterfowl hunters are blessed for two reasons: Their state is home to good numbers of waterfowl nearly year 'round, and they are the first state in the Central Flyway to be visited by waterfowl migrating south from Canada.

Weather, as usual, will play a key role in the numbers of waterfowl that will be present and when they will arrive. Adding to the mix is the fact that more North Dakota farmers are now growing corn for use in ethanol production. These corn fields are likely spots to stop migrating ducks, and especially geese, and will hold them for a long time.

North Dakota waterfowlers should see another great season, said resident Joe Fladeland.

Fladeland is a pro-staffer for Avery Outdoors and logs many days each season pursuing ducks and geese.

"North Dakota may not hold the large concentrations of ducks and geese like the states farther south do, but we make up for it with more land accessibility," he said. "The state is not locked up with leases, and most landowners are nice people that allow hunting to hunters who are courteous."

Hunters can expect to see good numbers of gadwalls, blue-winged teal and widgeons. Later in the season, hunters see other species as well.

"The goose migration here is spectacular," Fladeland said. "Don't expect to kill too many limits of specks (white-fronted geese), but the hunting for Canadas and snows is incredible in the fall."

Fladeland said one of the most important ingredients to his waterfowling success is scouting, especially when there is plentiful water on the prairies. It seems that ducks and geese have a penchant for certain waterholes.

"Hunters should do their homework before hunting," said Fladeland.

Step 1 is to get a Private Lands Open To Sportsmen, or PLOTS, map and look for areas with good concentrations of potholes and public land. You'll save a lot of time and gasoline.

North Dakota biologists said the state's best waterfowl habitat generally lies north or east of the Missouri River. With that said, Fladeland suggests that hunters try Logan, Stutsman and Pierce counties. Great duck hunting from October through November can also be found in the Devils Lake area on potholes and nearby fie

lds, and in the Minot area, as well.

If South Dakota had a waterfowling ambassador it would be Tyson Keller. Keller is undoubtedly one of the nicest duck and goose chasers I have ever met. Each fall this waterfowl guru spends a good amount of time hunting ducks and geese.

I recently chided Keller, who heads media relations for Avery, about hunting in the bitter cold weather in South Dakota.

"Though the winter can get pretty cold here, generally, you can always find a spot with open water, and that's where you'll find ducks and geese," said Keller.

Keller's job gives him the opportunity to hunt waterfowl all over the U.S., yet the Pierre native believes his home state has some topnotch hunting itself. Keller has hunted waterfowl all over the Mount Rushmore State, and is uniquely qualified to boast on the state's top duck and goose hunting spots.

Keller said that Pierre is a great spot for hunting because of the number of Canada geese and mallards that winter there. With the Missouri River running through the state, he estimates the numbers of both Canadas and mallards that winter there to fluctuate from 250,000 to 500,000 at times. The area offers both field- and water-hunting opportunities.

Keller also named Brown, Day, Hughes, McPherson and Sully counties as areas with tremendous public hunting opportunities.

Biologist Mark Grovijahn agrees that winter weather is the key ingredient to good waterfowling.

"Typically, our geese will stage in North Dakota until a winter storm pushes them down to our area," the waterfowl biologist said. "We may not see good numbers of geese until late November, but good numbers will remain here until the closure of our season in mid-February."

When the biologists and hunting experts were polled as to the top hunting areas in the Dakotas, their answers varied. Some gave general areas, while others were more specific.

Ringleman named the Devils Lake and Tewaukon wildlife management districts as his picks for great waterfowling in North Dakota. Ringleman then picked Sand Lake, Waubay and Madison WMDs as his picks for South Dakota.

Keller also picked the Devils Lake area in North Dakota. The waterfowling expert is also fond of hunting on the Missouri River near Bismarck.

"There are large numbers of ducks and geese that winter there," Keller said.

Lastly, Keller picked the pothole areas around Minot for good early-season hunting.

Keller named his favorite South Dakota spots by first mentioning the areas around Pierre.

"Due to the large concentrations of mallards and Canada geese that winter there, the hunting is usually great," he said. "There are both field- and water-hunting areas available."

Another great spot Keller picked was the Glacial Lakes region around Watertown, where abundant potholes offer great duck and goose hunting opportunities. Finally, Keller picked the Aberdeen area, where both pothole and field-hunting opportunities exist.

Grovijahn weighed in on his favorite spots in South Dakota by first picking the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Access Area located near Pierre. The area has more than 40 decoy fields ranging in size from quarter-sections, to plots well over a section in size. These areas are hunted through a drawing process. See the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Guide at www.sdgfp.info/ publications/LOWAG.pdf.

This area is prolific for Canada geese, and Grovijahn said hunters harvested more than 3,000 Canadas here last season. The area also features more than 80 pit blinds dug on the bluffs overlooking the river, where hunters can usually get in some good pass-shooting.

Next Grovijahn chose Bitter Lake located just south of Waubay. This lake is home to large numbers of mallards and a variety of diver ducks.

"Boat hunters can take advantage of numerous islands and points that offer some spectacular hunting," he said.

His final choice was the river bottom areas near Springfield, S.D., on the Missouri River. He claims this area can be superb when the northern areas freeze up.

Waterfowl biologist Spencer Vaa said that scouting was the key to finding a good hunting area.

"Hunters that find the best lands, spend a lot of time scouting," Vaa said. He suggested that waterfowlers key in on the northeast part of the state to find the best all-around waterfowling. This area is home to ample numbers of Waterfowl Production Areas and Game Production Areas, as well as Walk-in Access areas.

Vaa encouraged hunters to first obtain a South Dakota Hunting Atlas -- that has maps of all of the public hunting areas.

Lastly, the sage expert said the Missouri River running all the way from the North Dakota line to Sioux City, Iowa, provides a good opportunity for Canada geese and mallards, from November until the close of season.

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