November 03, 2017
Here's a look at what hunters could expect this waterfowl hunting season in Illinois based on recent migration and hunting data.
The reports on breeding conditions in the Dakotas and Canadian prairies are in, and the result of the aerial surveys of the nesting ponds is a good one. Nearly all the "duck factory" nesting habitat is rated in good or excellent condition.
Statistically, the abundance of nearly every species of waterfowl is at or near long term average highs.
- Green-winged teal lead the way with 104 percent population rise, followed by gadwall (90 percent), redheads (82 percent), northern shovelers (56 percent), mallards (51 percent), blue-winged teal (34 percent), wigeon (31 percent), and canvasback (26 percent).
- Black ducks have recovered enough, plus 14 percent, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to boost their daily bag limit from one to two, and the gadwall population has exploded, pushing the "gray duck" into third place on the most populous list.
- On the negative side, northern pintails declined for the fifth straight year (14 percent in the 2016 survey), falling 34 percent below their long-term average, prompting FWS to cut the daily pintail bag limit to one.
- Canada geese are in good shape, and of course the light geese continue to increase in numbers.
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun to formulate each season's dates and bag limits based on the previous year's data, this important information will now be released to the public in May, rather than in August, as was the case in prior years. Waterfowl hunters will now be able to plan trips well in advance, and be forewarned of any regulation changes that may be implemented.
As always, weather is the deciding factor in any waterfowl hunting season. All waterfowl movement is influenced by Mother Nature's vagaries. Too much rain will wash out the emerging vegetation the ducks depend on as they travel south, and scatter the birds across abundance of flooded habitat. Too little rain will dry out the landscape and keep the birds moving to more suitable habitat.
Severe storms and cold fronts can cause large segments of the migration to overfly affected areas, even entire states. Steady strong directional winds will shift the migratory patterns, resulting in great shooting in one area, and virtually no shooting in others.
Freeze-up, which generally signals the end of the hunt, can only be generalized using long-term average dates. An early freeze-up will push some of the birds into rivers and large lakes, but will send the majority fleeing southward.
While weather decides the movement of the waterfowl, it seems that experience is what determines how hunters change their tactics to adjust to the seasonally fluctuating conditions.
It is for this reason that I put great value on a recap of last season's hunt, knowing that while these conditions may not repeat this year, they will eventually recur, even if partially, and understanding how the birds reacted will enable a hunter to adapt accordingly.
The 2016 Illinois waterfowl season opened on Oct. 15, in the northern zone, and with one exception reports were, at best, dismal. From the Mississippi River to the Indiana state line duck hunters saw a few teal, very few wood ducks, and an occasional mallard.
Then, from out in DePue, came a report of the migration being in full swing, with tons of northern mallards "everywhere." I don't know what this fellow was smoking, so I will charitably credit him with having a bizarre sense of humor.
On the other hand, Canada geese were reported to be available in very good numbers throughout the northern zone. These had to be primarily the molt migration resident giant Canadas that came pouring in during the first two weeks of the month. With much of corn and soy bean crop being harvested, goose hunters were experiencing prime shooting on opening weekend.
By Oct. 24, duck hunters were in a holding pattern awaiting the end of an ongoing heat wave. All was not quiet however, as a report arrived from Rock Falls of 18 ducks of various species, and three Canada geese. As reported all cross the Midwest, white fronted geese were in full migration, and duck hunters were scoring well on teal and wood ducks. Very little duck migration was observed as central zone hunting quietly commenced.
The effect of the heavy spring and summer rains flooding out the growth of moist soil plants was being felt as few ducks were holding in northern Illinois. The birds would appear today, and be gone tomorrow — a condition that did not bode well for the rest of the season.
Especially hard hit was the Illinois River Valley, where late August flooding wiped out nearly all the duck food, and hunting was at rock bottom for most of the season, only picking up a bit during the final 10 days.
As October came to a close, and with warm, and in some cases hot, weather holding across the entire state, the consensus report from the upper half of Illinois was: "Forget about it." No migration was evident, and the local teal and woodies were not moving. With no cold fronts approaching, the outlook was a dim one.
By mid-November, with warm weather continuing, mallard numbers were increasing, pintails were moving in and divers began to appear. Sadly, most reports told of seeing more birds, but not harvesting many of them.
Mallards began filtering into the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys around the 8th of November, and a substantial increase was noted by the 15th. With a strong storm front approaching, it was likely many of the dabblers would soon be pushing farther south.
Although the Mississippi River was filling up with ducks, the rest of the state was still waiting for new birds. Pool 19, especially, was holding a great many ducks of a wide variety.
On Nov. 22, good reports came in from Braidwood Lake, in the northern central zone. But not much had changed throughout the rest of the state. What concentrations of ducks there were did not move out of the refuges. Geese were abundant all over the northern zone. There were very few ducks reported in the southern third of Illinois, but hunters were will bagging some teal and woodies.
By Dec. 1, the southern refuges were holding record numbers of ducks and northern counties were getting large flocks of migrating Canadas. Not much action was reported elsewhere.
On Dec. 3, there were reports of numerous mallards in the Mississippi River mid-state, but hunting remained poor on average. Birds were reported in refuges, or out on the river, and feeding at night.
By Dec. 6, with few exceptions, hunting was slow statewide. More ducks were pouring into southern refuges. Unprecedented numbers of ducks were reported in the central Mississippi River pools, but hunting remained slow. The Illinois River was holding good numbers in open water areas.
On Dec. 8, slow hunting was reported, in general, as was heavy duck movement into southern refuges.
By Dec. 9, plenty of geese were moving through after northern zone snow, but only going south of I-80. Ducks were spotty, with Braidwood doing well. Most water was freezing up.
On Dec. 12, heavy snow was reported in the north, with freezing extending south. Carlyle was hot, and Shelbyville was cold. Hunting at southern refuges was in full swing, with tons of birds reported.
By Dec. 14, good goose hunting was reported in the north. Central-state hunting was slow, and south-central hunting was spotty.
By Dec. 17, cold and snow pushed geese into central Illinois. Ducks were in open water, but moving out. The Braidwood area was holding lots of ducks and geese. Good hunting was reported on the lake. Almost everything else was frozen.
On Dec. 19, ducks and geese were reported all over but were scattered and moving constantly.
By Dec. 22, Louisiana reports estimated 3.61 million ducks on hand.
On Dec. 28, geese were plentiful and easy northern and central areas. Good mallards were reported in lower central and south zones.
Here are some statistics picked out of the latest available U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey that will show the trends in Illinois' waterfowl harvests. The survey compares the number of each species of duck and goose bagged in the state during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
In 2014, hunters bagged 192,265 mallards, but due mainly to late summer flooding, only 137,339 green heads went home for dinner in 2015. The annual total fell from 36,414 in 2014, to 22,837 in 2015. The harvest of green and blue winged teal dropped by nearly 50 percent during this period, also. However, hunter reports make it likely teal, wood duck, and gadwall all made a comeback in 2016. Most other duck species also rang up large declines, although the 2015 migration was a very large one. Blame it on the weather. More snow/blue geese were taken in 2015, but both Canadas and white front numbers were down a little.
Waterfowl hunters throughout the Mississippi Valley and Central flyways can expect to encounter increasing numbers of gadwall, or "gray ducks." The gadwall population has surged amazingly over the past 60 years, rising from a low point of 650,000 birds in 1955 to a 2016 estimated level of 3.7 million; 90 percent above its long-term average. Gadwalls are now the third most harvested duck in North America, behind mallards and teal.
Illinois' DNR offers waterfowl hunting opportunities at many managed sites throughout the state. To try to predict when, where and if the birds will arrive is tantamount to herding cats. It just can't be done. So, your best bet is to visit the DNR website, where details of every public hunting area will be found.
Pick out those of interest to you, learn how to find them, how they run their waterfowl program, (each area differs), and scout them regularly for migration activity. Also, do not hesitate to call the headquarters office to keep up with current developments. Then, when the time is right, go hunting.
The number of waterfowl hunters continued to slide nationwide last season, and Illinois was not an exception. It is important that we all make an effort to introduce new and young hunters to the sport. We need all the support we can get.
On a historical note, 2016 marked the 100th year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty. As game harvesting methods improved, it became apparent protections were needed to conserve the waterfowl.
The Migratory Bird Treaty paved the way for the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and North American Wetlands Conservation Act.
We head into the 2017 waterfowl season with high promise of a great year. So get your boots muddy, your decoys wet, and always remember — let 'em work.