Hoosier 2006 Waterfowl Forecast

Hoosier 2006 Waterfowl Forecast

From mallards to shovelers, here's what you can expect this year while hunting our public lands in each of the state's three waterfowl zones. (Nov 2006)

There is one essential environmental "ingredient" that is synonymous with skies full of ducks: rain. Waterfowl biologists and seasoned waterfowl hunters alike will tell us there is a direct correlation between a "wet" spring and thriving populations of ducks.

Last spring, we had a wet season with plenty of rain in Indiana and the upper reaches of the Midwest. Ditches along the roadways that I travel had standing water in them (for a change) and the ponds along my travel routes were filled up to normal levels.

Twice last spring, I've had to come to the rescue of ducklings that had wondered into harm's way -- once in my front yard and once along the interstate. Although these rescues won't sway any scientific statistical study that duck populations are headed up, I have to believe that ducks enjoyed a good spring in terms of rearing new ducks.

Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) publishes a Waterfowl Population Status Report. The intent of this report is to help set up hunting regulations in the United States for the upcoming waterfowl season. This report includes the latest breeding population and propagation (success) information available for waterfowl in North America, and it is the end result of unified efforts put forth by the USFWS, the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), various state and provincial conservation agencies, and private conservation organizations.

The following information is from the 2005 survey. At press time, the new survey for 2006 had not yet been released. However, because of the long-term approach of the survey results (from prior years), an extrapolation about the status of waterfowl in North America can be determined.

Much of the information that goes into the Waterfowl Population Status Report is obtained by surveys that are conducted using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. These "fly-over" surveys are performed on a whopping 2 million square miles that encompass the principal breeding areas of North America.

The USFWS divides the principal breeding region (for ducks) into two strata or major divisions. One of these is the traditional survey area, and it comprises parts of Alaska, Canada, and the north-central U.S. This area is approximately 1.3 million square miles in size.

The other major survey area is the eastern area, which includes parts of Ontario, Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, New York and Maine. This area is approximately .7 million square miles in size.

The total duck population estimate is 31.7 million birds, which is similar to 2004's estimate of 32.3 million. However, the 2004 estimate was 5 percent below the 1955-2004 long-term average.

One of the primary species of ducks that are hunted in Hoosierland is the mallard. Mallard abundance in the survey was 6.8 million birds, which was 9 percent below the 2004 estimate of 7.4 million birds and 10 percent below the long-term average.

The survey had good news for northern shovelers because they were 67 percent above the long-term average. In addition, there was good news for gadwall and green-winged teal numbers as well, as both were above average.

The news was not so good for northern pintails, which remained at 38 percent below the long-term average, even with a 2005 increase in abundance.

Adam Phelps is the waterfowl biologist for Indiana. He said that he relies on the USFWS survey to determine the status of waterfowl.

"I haven't seen the official survey yet, but I've had some unofficial reports that the prairie pothole region had a lot of rain last spring," Phelps said. The prairie pothole region of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota is where many of Indiana's ducks come from.

Glaciers scraping the earth's surface during the ice age formed prairie potholes. The potholes are depressions that fill up with water and form a freshwater marsh. The source of water for the potholes is snowmelt and rainwater.

These potholes are extremely important to waterfowl. The prairie pothole region is home to more that 50 percent of North America's migratory waterfowl, with many species dependent on the potholes for propagation and survival.

With the potholes relying on snowmelt and rainwater, it's easy to see the direct link between healthy waterfowl populations and normal amounts of snow in the winter and normal (or above normal) precipitation levels in the springtime. The upper Midwest did have a (more) normal spring in 2006 as far as precipitation, which should translate into more waterfowl this fall.

In terms of how the 2005 season ended up, Phelps said, "It depends on where you were at." Phelps noted that waterfowl-hunting results were largely localized. And he also noted that there was a correspondence between water levels and how well hunters did (i.e., more water equaled more ducks).

Another factor that came into play last year was the weather. "At the end of November, the North Zone was froze up and there was a lot of overflight," said Phelps of the "freeze up," which occurred about a month earlier than what is typical.

Phelps had an interesting point relative to getting too much rain in the fall. "If the rivers flood way up into the bottoms, it can make finding the waterfowl a lot tougher, because they have so much timber to use."

Additionally, Phelps noted that the Crop Restoration Program (CRP) is also important for waterfowl -- not just upland birds. All upland hunters know the importance of CRP, and funding from this program also helps to keep the grasslands where the prairie potholes are located in good shape.

Indiana is divided up into zones in terms of its duck-hunting calendar. The main zones are North Zone, South Zone and the Ohio River Zone. Each of these zones has a little different waterfowl-hunting calendar. This is because of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) making an effort to mesh the migratory patterns of waterfowl with (geographically) different parts of Indiana.

With our state being about 300 miles from north to south, it means there's quite a bit of distance for ducks to travel through on their way south. Across these 300 miles, there can be a big difference in climatic conditions, thereby "stretching" out the migratory "progress" of the warm-weather seeking waterfowl. The trick is to time the progress of the ducks heading south with each zone's respec

tive season dates.

Let's now take a look at a public-land waterfowl-hunting facility in each of the three zones.


Kankakee Fish And Wildlife Area (FWA)

Located in Starke County, the Kankakee FWA is one of the better public-land waterfowl-hunting facilities in the state.

Part of the reason for Kankakee FWA's success and popularity as a public-land waterfowl area has to do with its history. This 4,095-acre FWA is located on property that used to be part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

At one time, the Grand Marsh encompassed over 550 million acres of pristine wildlife and fish habitat, but the Grand Marsh was drained. The agricultural industry recognized (in the early 20th century) how well the rich soil under the marsh's water could grow corn and beans, and it was subsequently drained. Another part of the reasoning for draining the Grand Marsh was for flood control.

Before it was drained, wildlife abounded, and ducks came here by the millions. Old-timers, who hunted on the property where the Kankakee FWA is located back in the 1950s, remember how incredible the hunting was.

Ed Lewandowski of Valparaiso is now in his 60s; he hunted the Kankakee FWA before it was purchased by the state. Lewandowski is still an avid waterfowl hunter, and he said he'll never forget the good old days when the sound of ducks taking flight "was deafening."

The ducks still come to the Kankakee FWA, and the hunting here is usually good.

"It was an average season," said Kankakee's assistant property manager Mike Schoof of last year's (2005) waterfowl hunting. Approximately 1,800 ducks were killed last year at Kankakee with the main species being mallards. Schoof also said that wood ducks are very common at Kankakee FWA.

"We take wood ducks, and at the beginning of the season we are definitely shooting local ducks," he related.

Schoof said that Kankakee has about 40 "spots" for waterfowl hunting with a couple of walk-in areas, too. Typically, this FWA will operate 20 blinds on any given day of the season. Access to most of the blinds is by boat. "Boats and oars are provided," Schoof said, "but you have to bring your own life jacket."

Beginning in late September or early October, Kankakee FWA personnel will flood about 1,800 acres of standing corn, which provides an attractive food source for migrating ducks. Schoof said that last year at its peak Kankakee was holding between 5,000 to 8,000 ducks. Not insignificantly, Kankakee FWA also has a refuge area for ducks. This year should be a good year for Kankakee. For more information, call (574) 896-3522.


Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)

The Patoka NWR was established in 1994 along the Patoka River. The refuge is about 20 miles long from east to west, not counting river bends. The Patoka River NWR is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and it is located in Pike and Gibson counties.

An attractive feature of this NWR is its location in the north-south flyway in the Wabash River Basin. The Patoka River NWR is only about 16 miles from the Wabash River.

This facility doesn't have permanent blinds, so you must bring your own blind setup. Refuge manager Bill McCoy said that in a typical year the opportunity for good waterfowl hunting is dependent on how well the river floods.

"We're a river-bottom refuge," McCoy said. He noted that the area called Oatsville Bottoms will usually flood three miles wide and is a good place to hunt.

"If we have floodwaters, it will present a lot of opportunity. It floods every year, but it depends on when it starts flooding," McCoy said.

McCoy emphasized the importance of the river flooding and not freezing up for good waterfowl hunting. Because of its expansive size and wildness traits, it would be wise for hunters to get a map of the refuge from the refuge office. The office phone number is (812) 749-3199. McCoy said that hunters can call the office and a map will be mailed out.

Hunters utilizing the refuge should stay aware of the latest flooding conditions. Additionally, certain parts of the refuge have a motor restriction. Patoka River NWR is a good bet for those who would like another public-land waterfowl-hunting prospect and like hunting in flooded timber. For more information, call the number listed above.


Hovey Lake FWA

Home to a 1,400-acre oxbow lake, Hovey Lake FWA is 6,963 acres in size. This FWA is a waterfowl magnet located in Posey County, in the Ohio River Zone.

Hovey Lake FWA is in the traditional flyway at the confluence of two major rivers: the Wabash and the Ohio. The southwest tip of Indiana is loaded with lowlands and swamps that waterfowl are looking for. The ecosystem here is definitely "duck" friendly!

Last year, Hovey Lake adopted a new program for their blind setups on the lake. Instead of choosing floating blinds on the lake, hunters pick a zone on the lake to hunt.

"It (the zoning concept) worked out great," said Mark Pochon, Hovey Lake FWA's property manager. Hunting out of their own boats, waterfowl hunters can set up anywhere in their zone to hunt.

"It was kind of a tough one around here last year for waterfowl hunters. I think we took more ducks than we would have without the zoning system," Pochon said. "It seemed to help," he added.

Last year, 1,828 ducks were killed at Hovey Lake. "We had a pretty good mix, but mallards are the biggest percentage," Pochon said.

Out of the 1,828 ducks taken, 958 were mallards. This means mallards accounted for about 52 percent of the total harvest. Pochon said the other 48 percent consisted of green-winged teal, gadwalls and wood ducks.

Pochon said Hovey Lake has four zones on the main lake and along with the other areas, it can accommodate about 25 parties per day. Hovey also has hunting out of traditional blinds, along with field hunting.

Hunters who participate in field hunting are restricted to the number of shells they can take into the field with them. On some fields, it's 15, and on others, it's only 8.

Pochon said the ducks will come, "they always do." But, he noted, it will depend on how good of a spring and fall we'll have for the total number that migrate through Hovey Lake's part of the flyway.

Call (812) 838-2927 for draw and scheduling information on waterfowl hunting at Hovey Lake.

To up your odds of taking more ducks and geese this season, it would be a good idea to get out and pattern your shotgun right now. Steel shot and other nontoxic shot types often

pattern differently than lead shot. If you use the same gun to upland game hunt as you use to waterfowl hunt, you might be in for a real surprise as far as patterning goes. When you transition from lead shot to steel shot, you'll most likely see a difference.

You may not think patterning plays an important role in how well you'll shoot, but as a competitive skeet shooter, this writer can tell you (from experience) that patterning variances do happen, and they can make the difference between shooting great or just average. This is why it's important to try different types of shells and choke combinations before you go hunting. By doing this, you could make the difference between limiting out with "dead-on" shots, or plenty of misses and crippled birds.

One of the reasons there can be a patterning difference is because steel is harder than lead. This means you need to choke less with steel shot as compared with lead shot because steel shot resists being constricted more so than lead shot.

It's also not a bad idea to get out and practice shooting before you go hunting. It's a great deal of fun to hone your skills at a clay course. You'll feel more confident when that first flock of ducks comes bearing down on you -- and the bag results will be more to your liking. The 2006 waterfowl season looks like it will be a good one. Good hunting!

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