Oklahoma Waterfowl Forecast

Oklahoma Waterfowl Forecast

Is this year shaping up to be another great one for Sooner State waterfowlers? Here are some indications and locations that point to a positive answer.

By Bob Bledsoe

Break out the brown camouflage. Dust off the duck calls. It's just about waterfowling time again!

Some Oklahoma hunters have probably already downed a few waterfowl this year, in the early teal or resident goose seasons held in September.

But the regular seasons are fast approaching. And chances are good that this year will be an improvement over last.

Last year was one of "those" years for many Oklahoma waterfowlers. For much of the season, there just wasn't enough water to attract and hold ducks, or to allow hunters to get to the places where ducks were spending their time.

And a lack of frigid weather in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas allowed many ducks to stay farther north throughout most of the winter.

Most of my duck hunting friends had a few productive hunts last year, but most also had numerous days when the pickings were extremely slim indeed.

Photo by Soc Clay

Teal were here in abundance. Skilled hunters who normally fill their bags with nothing but mallard drakes were reduced to shooting tiny teal on many days last fall and winter.

Not that I have anything against teal, mind you. Blue-winged teal, although not very big, are in my opinion, the tastiest duck to eat. But when you hold two or three teal in one hand, and two or three fat mallard drakes in the other, you might wonder why you even bothered to shoot at the teal.

There's one sure thing you can say for teal: They're challenging targets. They're tiny and they fly fast. They come whistling, literally, past your head and are gone in a second, before you have time to shoulder your gun and fire. On one hunt last year, at least three flights of teal came in from behind and landed before we ever raised our guns. They didn't circle the decoys like mallards usually do. They just came in on a beeline and splashed into the water in front of us. We flushed one group and downed a pair as they were leaving. The others eventually swam away as we waited, in vain, for some larger ducks to appear.

The lack of mallards frustrated quite a few northeastern Oklahoma duck hunters last year. And low water levels on some lakes prevented hunters from getting to spots where some mallards and other puddle ducks were feeding and resting. Most duck hunting on large lakes takes place in the upper reaches of the lakes. When lakes are at normal levels or above, there are often weedy, brushy flats covered with water that is shallow enough to be attractive to puddle ducks but deep enough to allow hunters to get into the areas with shallow-draft johnboats.

Last year, though, at some large lakes the upper ends were dry. There were potholes where ducks could rest and feed but no way for hunters to get to them - not unless the hunters wanted to carry heavy decoy bags and equipment on foot through hundreds of yards of mud.

It's never easy to judge what the water levels will be on opening day of duck seasons. Predicting our weather patterns months, weeks or even days in advance is folly. But based on statistics, hunting conditions are likely to be better this fall than last.

Let's look at some of the places where duck and goose hunters can expect to find good shooting this year.

Those of us who live in northeastern Oklahoma, where most of the state's big reservoirs are located, sometimes fall into the thinking that all the ducks that migrate through our state follow the big waters. But big numbers of ducks move through central and western Oklahoma.

When I was growing up in Enid and going to college in Alva, I enjoyed some highly productive duck and goose hunting around Salt Plains and Canton lakes, and on some private-land ponds.

I was reminded of those good ol' days last winter as my son and I were driving west of Alva on our way to a post-Christmas pheasant hunt in western Kansas.

"Look!" my son shouted, pointing to a cloud of ducks that looked like black smoke rising from behind a hill.

A telltale line of cottonwood treetops indicated that a pond or small watershed lake was located just behind the hill, perhaps a quarter-mile from the highway. I don't know what spooked those ducks off the pond that morning, but there were hundreds of them in the air at once, clustered so tightly above the pond that I don't know how they beat their wings without hitting each other.

The scene reminded me of some of the big flocks of ducks we used to flush off the ponds around Alva and Cherokee on winter afternoons after college classes.

Salt Plains is an excellent duck hunting area. And it's known as the capital of goose hunting in Oklahoma. Around the town of Jet, just south of the lake and salt flats, there are local landowners who rent blinds to hunters by the day. If you're looking to bag some Canada geese, especially the migratory variety (as opposed to Oklahoma's ever-growing flock of resident Canadas), Jet is a great place to start.

Fort Supply Lake, northwest of Woodward, is another promising duck hunting spot, as is Canton Lake, a little farther south and east.

And even farther north and west, out in the Panhandle, Optima Lake sometimes attracts surprising numbers of ducks, geese and even sandhill cranes. Optima rarely holds a lot of water - at least, not when you look at the size of the "reservoir" property. But out in this semi-arid country, it doesn't take much water to provide a popular oasis for migrating waterfowl.

In north-central Oklahoma, Kaw and Hulah lakes usually offer some good duck hunting prospects. Both of those lakes butt up to the Kansas border, and both have a lot of brushy, shallow flats - at least when the lake levels are normal or above - where mallards like to dawdle.

A few miles south of Kaw, Sooner Lake is a good duck hunting spot and is known for its local population of Canada geese. And farm ponds in the area, stretching from all the way from Ponca City down to Stillwater, often see numerous big Canada geese visit daily. Most of Oklahoma's resident Canada goose populations are of the maximus subspecies, a race of geese once thought to be extinct but which came back in big numbers through nurturing by several state wildlife agencies.

In northeastern Oklahoma, duck hunting spots are plentiful, with many likely places to hunt ducks. With six very large reservoirs, plus numerous medium-sized ones, and

thousands of ponds and watershed lakes and several major rivers, Green Country is duck country.

Oologah Lake, northeast of Tulsa, is one of the best lakes. It has lots of shallow water and shoreline cover, and the Verdigris River Valley seems to be a favorite travel channel for migrating ducks. Some pretty good hunting occurs along the Verdigris, downstream from Oologah, as well. There are a handful of oxbow lakes and cut-offs along the Verdigris River navigation channel where ducks can be ambushed. Fort Gibson and Grand Lake, as well as Keystone Lake (just west of Tulsa), all produce some good duck hunting during most seasons.

Moving southward, we come to giant Lake Eufaula and its 102,000 acres of water sprawling across the Eastern Oklahoma map. Eufaula is one of the state's most popular duck hunting venues. It attracts a lot of ducks, but because it also attracts a lot of hunters, hunting at Eufaula can be challenging. On weekends, and even some times on weekdays, it's hard to find a spot in which to set out decoys without being uncomfortably close to other hunting parties.

Kerr Lake, where Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge is located, is also a great duck hunting spot. Snow geese use the refuge and the surrounding bean fields at times. Some early-season goose hunting may be available as the geese move through going south, but there is sometimes better goose hunting late in the regular season or when the special extended goose season begins after the regular season ends.

Wister Lake, near Poteau in Southeastern Oklahoma, and Hugo Lake, down near the Red River, are two of the best duck hunting spots in that quarter of the state. Sardis Lake southeast of McAlester has also been known to attract quite a few ducks.

One public tract of land in Southeastern Oklahoma that may deserve a visit is the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area. Acquaintances who hunted there last season came back with good reports. Red Slough is a 7,800-acre area with lots of wetlands that was formerly a rice farm. It was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service about six years ago and has been managed for wildlife, especially waterfowl, by a team of agencies since that time. It lies in that tiny portion of the state, in extreme southern McCurtain County, that is Gulf Coastal Plain-type habitat.

ODWC wildlife biologist Mike Smith says Red Slough typically has a lot of teal during the early teal season and attracts many ducks during the second half of the regular duck season. Snow geese are sometimes found there too. Red Slough is near the southeastern corner of the state and the county, about 20 miles southeast of Idabel.

Big Lake Texoma, on the Texas border, is among the region's best duck hunting spots. And Waurika Lake, a little farther west, is another likely lake to try. Almost any of the reservoirs in southwestern Oklahoma can pay off. In counties where surface water is rare, reservoirs are doubly attractive to migrating waterfowl. Fort Cobb is probably one of the best duck hunting lakes in the region.

Besides the major reservoir areas already mentioned, there are numerous seasonal wetland units, like Red Slough, located on wildlife management areas throughout the state. These areas are mostly natural wetlands that have traditionally attracted waterfowl but have been enhanced by the building of dikes, the pumping of water into shallow ponds, and the planting of smartweed or similar wetland plants favored by ducks or by the planting of millet or other non-traditional food plants.

Many of these areas are ideal for hunters who don't own large boats needed for hunting big waters. Some can be hunted more efficiently without a boat at all, by shouldering a sack or two of decoys and either walking the levees or wading into the flooded pools. On the state wildlife department's Web site (see the address below) is a list of those wetland areas and printable maps of each one.

And don't forget Oklahoma's hundreds of thousands of farm ponds and watershed lakes, many of which are regular stops on the journeys of migrating ducks. When I was a youngster, I killed numerous ducks on northwestern Oklahoma ponds without ever employing a single decoy. We "sneaked" the ponds, creeping up from below the dams to peek over the top and flush any ducks that were on the ponds. It may not be as traditional as spreading decoys and calling ducks into the spread, but it is legal and it is fun. Just make sure you have permission from the pond owners.

Oklahoma duck hunters are divided into two camps. The first group is made up of those hunters who favor the latter days of the season's second half - a time when you likely have to break ice to spread your decoys and when the weather can be miserably cold but there are often some big numbers of mallards on Oklahoma lakes and the birds are eager to land on any patch of open water.

And then there are those who really prefer the early part of the season - those days when weather is often mild, water temperatures are still temperate, and the duck population is a varied mixture, heavy on gadwalls and teal, but with enough mallards to keep it interesting.

I'll grant you, it sometimes doesn't seem like duck season when we're having those Indian Summer days in early November and the temperature can climb into the high 70s and low 80s. But the ducks don't care. There are often more sunny days in the early part of the season, too. And most knowledgeable duck hunters prefer a sunny day to an overcast one.

I know you may have read, like me, those romantic descriptions of hunting waterfowl on eastern shores when the clouds hung low over the water and the storm squalls raked the water with rain. But it's been my experience that the ducks fly better on nice days. And it is definitely easier to hide yourself from a duck's vision on sunny days when a camouflaged hunter is hard to see against the sun's glare and among the contrasting lights and darks of shoreline cover.

I enjoyed a surprisingly successful outing early in the season last year sitting right out in the broad, open daylight. We shot our limit of ducks with nothing to hide behind except a single log that protruded from the water. But because our decoys were spread straight north of us, and it was a mid-day hunt, the ducks circling the decoys, and looking south toward the sun, could probably only see dark shapes that looked like two more stumps where we sat in the open water in our folding chairs.

Waterfowl hunters should make sure they have a current Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP) permit before hunting. The free HIP permits are required of all migratory bird hunters in the United States. Data collected from the surveys helps state and federal migratory bird biologists better gauge bird harvests and hunter numbers, which are used to improve migratory bird management. Annual license buyers can complete the HIP form while purchasing their license. Lifetime license holders need to stop at a license vendor or state wildlife department office to complete the form.

For complete details, see the 2003-2004 Oklahoma Waterfowl Hunting Guide, available at hunting license vendors, or log on to the state wildlife department's Web site, located at wildlifedepartment.com. That site offe

rs several categories of information useful to waterfowlers, including current waterfowl reports, season dates and complete regulations. Wetland status reports include the size of the area, a percent of the unit that is flooded, and forage conditions. Maps of the wetland units are available online at www.wildlifedepartment.com/waterfowl.htm

Will we have a bountiful duck season in Oklahoma this year? Only time will tell. So much of our success in this state depends on water levels at our major reservoirs and on weather patterns to our north.

One thing is likely, though: The numbers of migrating ducks in the Central Flyway should be good this year. Many pairs of breeding ducks returning to the Prairie Pothole region in southern Canada and the northern states last spring were greeted by an April blizzard that dumped up to 18 inches of snow on the region.

Ducks Unlimited's chief biologist, Bruce Batt, says that "spring snow is especially beneficial because it melts quickly, filling small, temporary wetlands that influence how many breeding pairs settle on the prairies."

"These small, shallow wetlands, often less than an acre in size, support an amazing abundance of aquatic invertebrates, which provide the nutrients that female ducks need to nest and produce eggs," Batt says. "Pintails, in particular, seek out these shallow wetlands, so we are hopeful that breeding populations of pintails and other waterfowl species will increase on the prairies this year in response to improved habitat conditions."

Here's hoping the pintail population rebounds. Last year there were harvest restrictions on pintails, but a couple of good years on the prairies could reduce or eliminate those restrictions.

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