Great Plains Waterfowl Forecast

Great Plains Waterfowl Forecast

Great days of shooting in the marsh and the field are what Great Plains waterfowlers are used to getting — but will this season live up to their expectations? This analysis should answer that question.

By Tim Lilley

All it takes is one time through this exercise - talking to Great Plains waterfowl biologists and asking them to predict how the upcoming season will unfold - and you understand what a tough job weather forecasters face on a daily basis.

A year ago at this time, biologists from the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas were talking about things being fairly dry, which meant not a lot of prairie potholes for ducks to use. And since the upper Great Plains is in many respects North America's "duck factory," the news reported in the 2003 version of this story wasn't very exciting.

But, oh, what a difference a little rain makes.

"We got a really good shot of rain in early May last year," said Mike Johnson, a wildlife biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "We got good production as a result." He also remarked on fall flight predictions for last season that - thanks in part to a brood index 239 percent above the long-term average - were high

In other words, things didn't turn out as badly as some folks thought they might. Before looking ahead, let's take a quick look back at how things played out across the Great Plains.

Johnson characterized last season in North Dakota as "pretty good to start." But: "October was really warm," he continued, "and that made for pretty difficult hunting; then we got snow in November. We did enjoy some geese late in the season on the Missouri River."

South Dakota sometimes rivals its sister state to the north in terms of annual production. It's a good bet that one of the two will lead the nation in duck production during any year, but 2003 was drier than normal.

"Our production was down from previous years," noted Spencer Vaa, waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "Our season was pretty average last year."

"We did better than we thought we might, although it seems that the migrating Canada geese are hanging up longer in North Dakota than they have in the past. As a result, we'll be starting the season a little later."

Vaa added that South Dakota has a pretty good population of resident Canada geese - birds that are available when the season opens each September.

Things also turned out better than expected in Nebraska. "From what I heard, the western part of the state ended up being better than average," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "We got birds out there in the first part of November, and we got some colder weather in January, which made for some pretty decent hunting."

Duck hunters in Kansas didn't do as well last season, except for those visiting a couple of specific areas. "We were dry last year," said Marvin Kraft, waterfowl biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "But the marshy areas we create on the north end of Milford Reservoir drew and held ducks. The northeast and north-central parts of the state had pretty good duck hunting."

Kraft added that a relatively mild winter affected goose hunting, too. "I don't have all the harvest numbers just yet," he said, "but I'm going to guess that we were down on Candies ... and I'm just not sure about our snow geese. I do believe birds may have hung up north of us, however.

Photo by Albert Lavallee

"In general, the birds just never built up to the numbers you expect when fronts up north move them to the south. The hunting was spotty. You'd get some birds in and have decent hunting for a few days; then it would be a while until more birds showed up."

Kraft also noted that hunters at the Marais des Cygnes and Neosho wildlife areas did pretty well. Things were spotty in the Sunflower State.

Notably, Kraft said, the big numbers of light geese that seemingly had moved their migration routes west in 2002 didn't repeat their trip in 2003. He noted that light geese, which had long passed through eastern Kansas on their way south, had moved west in 2002, ultimately ending up wintering in the Texas Panhandle - quite a shift from historic migration routes.

"Last year, the light geese didn't build the numbers that we had in the previous year," he offered, "and I don't know where those birds went. I did hear that Mississippi ended up with an unusually high number of light geese last season. I even heard of a guide who moved his entire operation from Texas to Mississippi because the birds were there. They may have taken a totally different route to the south last season ... maybe down the Mississippi Flyway to Texas ... then moved east to Mississippi.

"Figuring out what these birds do is a lot like watching mercury," Kraft added with a chuckle. "You never know where it will go."

His perspective is different from that of his counterparts to the north because Kansas, more than any other Great Plains state, depends on migrating birds during the open seasons. Southern Nebraska is similar, but from there on northwards, resident ducks and, to an extent, geese play large roles in the relative success of a given season.

As a result, when looking at prospects for the 2004 season, the same elements must be considered in different ways as you move from North Dakota's border with Canada to the other end of the Great Plains, where Kansas meets Oklahoma.

In the Dakotas and northern Nebraska, wetlands are necessary to enhance annual production and the development of the resident populations that hunters get after when the season opens. In southern Nebraska and all of Kansas, the wetlands are necessary to attract and hold birds that migrate from the north.

Weather - cold fronts, chiefly - marks the other unknown. Hunting stays good in the northern Great Plains until the first real blasts of winter start pushing birds to the south. So in southern Nebraska and throughout Kansas, waterfowlers hope for those fronts to arrive up north at the right time to push plenty of birds to them during the season.

It's a fascinating set of dynamics that affects every waterfowl season in the Great Plains. This year will be no different, although it appears that not even a healthy shot of May rain will push duck numbers up into the ranges they've reached in recent seasons.

That in mind, let's move from north to sout

h across the Great Plains and see how the 2004-05 season is taking shape.


"We're dry," Mike Johnson said. "We were dry basically all fall and winter. Northwestern North Dakota had a lot of snow through the winter, but there was no frost field. When the snow melted, it all went into the ground and did nothing for our potholes. Heck, through the end of April, Bismarck had only 2 inches of moisture for the year."

That's dry.

"Fortunately, we have a lot of bigger waters that are carrying over some volume because of the wet spell we've had over the past 10 or 11 years," Johnson added. "It's possible we could get some moisture, but I don't believe it's likely that we'll get enough to be a big help."

Another interesting element of this season was the early arrival of spring in North Dakota. "We were almost two weeks ahead of average," Johnson noted. "I was seeing groups of two, three and four drake mallards in mid to late April, and we normally don't see that kind of grouping activity until mid-May.

"I'm not sure what's going on in Canada. Parts are drier than normal, but there also are parts that are in pretty good shape.

"I expect to see some kind of drop in numbers from recent seasons," he concluded, "but they really could do anything."


Spencer Vaa pulls no punches about the prospects in his state. "This year, I'm confident we'll be below the long-term average in numbers," he said. "The central portion of the state is very dry, and the west is dry. It's a dry year, and we just don't expect as many birds."

He added quickly, however, that the drying-out of needed brooding and nesting areas is sometimes necessary from a multiyear perspective. "If we don't have cycles like this to rejuvenate our wetlands, then many of these potholes will just turn into fishing holes," he explained. "They are drying out now, and when the next wet cycle arrives, they are reborn, and the ducks return."

As Vaa talks about prospects for the upcoming season, he doesn't see gloom and doom. "We will still have decent hunting this season," he said, "but the birds will be more concentrated, and hunters will have to go to the big water around the state to find them.

"I think one thing we have going for us is a relative lack of hunting pressure. We only have around 4,000 non-resident hunters here during the season, which is quite a bit lower than in North Dakota. And there are plenty of opportunities for hunters.

"We have quite a bit of public land - we call them waterfowl and game production areas - around the state, and we even have some Walk-In access areas with wetlands on them."

One potential problem, however, relates directly to the dry weather, according to Vaa. "Upland cover also is extremely important to our waterfowl, and we need the big chunks of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land. If it stays so dry and some of that land is released for hay production and grazing, that could have an effect, too."

As in North Dakota, Vaa reported, reproduction began earlier than usual this year. Whether that bodes well is impossible to predict yet, but it does mean that ducks were in need of good nesting habitat (which - if you're reading this at the end of a very dry summer - they may not have found).


By the time you reach the Cornhusker State, you're into that part of the Great Plains where habitat serves at least as much of a calling card to migrating ducks as it does for resident birds. Mark Vrtiska didn't have much good to say about the prospects.

"The drought conditions have hurt us in recent seasons," he observed, "and, unfortunately, the western part of the state is looking pretty bleak. Actually, I believe you can say that for about two-thirds of western Nebraska.

"If you're a hunter who prefers to hunt shallow marshlands, they are pretty much going away in Nebraska just now, or they will be. It's not necessarily a good thing for a given season, but it is part of the cycle we endure."

Production will be down, Vrtiska believes, in parts of the state that usually serve as part of the Great Plains' duck factory. "A few years ago, we had around 200,000 breeding pairs. That was down last year, and will be down even more this year."

The NGPC's waterfowl program manager suggested that the bottom line for waterfowlers in his state this season will consist in finding the best water they can in the areas they plan to hunt. "The North and South Platte rivers, the Platte, still have some water and they'll stop (migrating) birds. And even though many of our reservoirs are down, they'll still hold some birds, too."

He also touched upon an interesting element that could affect your season: your ability to adapt.

"As conditions have gotten worse as this dry spell has continued, I've heard reports of some hunters shooting more ducks than they have in the past," Vrtiska said, "and of some who aren't shooting as many. As the conditions change, the dynamics change.

"Some of the best advice I could give to hunters this season is to stay cognizant of where the birds are and where they're going. Keep up with what they're doing, and adapt to it. Otherwise, you may not enjoy the best of the available hunting."


Kansas is dry, too, and possibly the only thing that could save the state's waterfowl season this year is plumbing. At places like Perry Reservoir and Milford, equipment is in place that lets state wildlife managers pump water from the main lakes to flood shallow, marshy areas every fall. They literally create wetlands that will attract and hold ducks and geese moving in from the north.

And this year in particular, that could be a very good thing. "Cheyenne Bottoms was almost dry by the middle of the spring," Marvin Kraft noted. "There was water in one refuge pool, I believe. But it could be bone-dry by the time birds start migrating from the north."

Cheyenne Bottoms is known around the country as one of the most important stopovers for migrating birds in the central United States, and when it's devoid of water, things get really shaky in Kansas.

"To have spectacular duck hunting in Kansas," Kraft noted, "you have to have water. If we get water back in Cheyenne Bottoms, this season could be spectacular."

As a result, hunters should focus their efforts on places like Milford and Perry, with their artificial marshes, and other areas like Marais des Cygnes and Neosho.

And here, unlike that large expanse of Great Plains to the north, the timing of winter's first really cold weather plays a huge role in how the seas

on unfolds - with or without a lot of water.

At press time the hunch was that things likely will be spotty again. So as is the case in Nebraska, hunters in Kansas will do well to keep track of the weather up north and be ready to adapt - to head for the best available water in the areas they plan to hunt when northers push birds south from Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Across the region, things aren't shaping up to be quite as good this season as they have been in the recent past. Most of this you can attribute to the cyclical nature of prevailing moisture. It's dry throughout most of the Great Plains now, which means two things: (1.) There isn't as much good habitat in the traditional production regions up north, and (2.) there aren't as many places to attract and hold migrating birds farther south.

It appears that hunters throughout the region should expect lower bird numbers as the seasons open in various states. And those in the southern areas of the Great Plains should hope for good timing with the bad weather up north.

Make no mistake: This season won't be as bad as some of those experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, but it's also not going to be one of the more memorable.

Could be worse ... could be better. Sounds just like something a weatherman would say!

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