Here's a look at what Indiana waterfowl hunters could expect this season based on recent migration and hunting data.
The reports on breeding conditions in the Dakotas and Canadian prairies are just 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 will scatter the birds across an 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.
On opening day in the northern zone (Oct. 24) the temperature reached well into the 70s, restricting waterfowl movement. Hunters along the Michigan border reported good mallard populations and excellent hunting. Elsewhere, local teal and woodies were the only game in town, and there were not a lot of those ducks.
Warm, dry, still weather conditions greeted the Oct. 29 opening weekend of the split Central Zone's waterfowl season. The main action was provided by teal, woodies, and a few local mallards. The best report came from Covington, where some hunters took mixed limits of ducks, and a few geese. Other than that, everyone was waiting for a good, old-fashioned cold front to move some northern birds in. The weather man was not encouraging in that respect.
By Nov. 13, things in general had gotten worse as the local birds had either moved out or became decoy shy. There was no hint that a migration had occurred. This condition carried through to the 18th, despite heavy north winds and cooler temperatures.
By Nov. 20, only hunters in the extreme northern tier of Indiana counties had seen any positive results from the season's first cold snap, and those reports, exclusively from the far northwestern corner of Indiana, mostly reported birds flying high and headed south.
By Dec. 2, no migration was seen statewide. The hunting reports were dismal.
On Dec.3, unusually large numbers of snow geese were reported. But very few ducks were reported, and no sign of a migration. Where will new ducks come from?
For Dec. 8, there were only two reports from entire state. And those reports were dismal.
On Dec. 9, reports noted that geese were migrating heavy. Reports of ducks were spotty.
By Dec. 12, the northeast corner of the state was heating up. The rest of the state was freezing, and hunting was slow.
By Dec.17, the north was frozen. Central-state hunters were killing some geese. The Wabash River was hot for mallards.
On Dec. 21, the central and southern part of the state reported more geese and some duck. There was not much movement, though.
By Dec. 22, Louisiana reports estimated 3.61 million ducks.
Based on the previous few year's experience, it would behoove Hoosier waterfowl hunters to be in their blinds during the first 10 days to two weeks of the season to take advantage of the local birds before they find refuge away the guns. After that initial period, expect a leisurely migration, during which the waterfowl will filter through the state in small flocks, suddenly appearing, and then just as quickly disappearing as they move on south.
Here are some statistics picked out of the latest available U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey that will show the trends in Indiana's 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 2015, Indiana hunters harvested 35,886 mallards, a decrease from 2014's 46,515. Gadwalls rose from 4,768 to 5,152; green winged teal went up from 4,768 to 5,152; blue winged teal leaped from 7,989 to 13,679; and the decline in the overall pintail population was apparent as the 2015 harvest dropped from 1,289 to just 355. On the other hand, the recovering black duck accounted for a rise from 773 to 1,066.
The Canada goose harvest sagged from 44,678 to 37,068 in 2015, and while no figures for snow geese were available, reports on the DU Migration Map (ducks.org) indicated a large increase of these birds moving through Indiana last season. And a good-sized flock spent the winter in the extreme southern counties.
Well, the facts seem to indicate the major cold fronts and snowstorms of yesterday are probably going to be viewed as aberrations these days. For quite a few seasons the migration has not been greatly influenced by harsh early winter weather events, and, there is no sign that things are going to change any time soon.
What is happening is mild, snow free weather has been clinging to the Canadian prairies until nearly December, and the waterfowl flocks have no reason to move on. The distinct possibility exists that this mild weather could extend even later as time goes by, and this fact alone changes everything that can be written concerning future migratory patterns of the waterfowl. There are now plenty of birds, but they are migrating in a scattered and unpredictable manner. And that makes for some tough hunting.
In northern Indiana, Adam Phelps, Indiana DNR's chief waterfowl biologist, mentioned the Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area, near the town of North Judson. All waterfowl hunting sites at Kankakee is allocated by draw. Drawings are held each morning of the waterfowl season.
Near Mongo, Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area provides waterfowl hunting opportunities on its 11,794 acres of land, 529 acres of lakes and impoundments and 17 miles of free-flowing river. Daily registration is required.
The Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, located near Morocco, Ind., offers quality hunting opportunities on its 9,956 acres, which includes 1,200 acres of open water, marshes and flooded crop land. During waterfowl season, daily drawings begin at 4:30 a.m. local time. Special daily permits are required for all hunters. Read the site-specific rules posted and online.
Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area in Greene County provides quality hunting, opportunities on 8,064 acres of prairie and marsh habitat. This is very productive area is operated under a rather complex set of permit regulations, so be sure to contact the headquarters for details.
Nestled in the Ohio River and Wabash River floodplains in extreme southwest Indiana, the Hovey Lake FWA covers approximately 7,404 acres and features a 1,400-acre oxbow lake, other smaller sloughs, marshes and extensive bottomland hardwood forests. This property is located near Mount Vernon, Ind.
By all means, if you intend to hunt any public land call beforehand to find out exactly how the site operates its waterfowl hunts, as they all differ in some respect.
A full map showing all the public hunting areas in Indiana is available on the DNR website. By inspecting this map you can find all the public hunting opportunities in your location, and get precise driving directions. Once you have settled on an area you wish to hunt it is always a good idea to take a ride to it in daylight, just to familiarize yourself with the roads, and determine how long of the trip is. Remember, if you arrive late for a blind drawing you are probably not going to hunt that day.
There were two rather startling changes that I picked up while analyzing the DU reports. The first was how many gadwalls were bagged throughout the Midwest states, especially during the first four weeks of the season. In fact, gadwalls represented the bulk of birds shot during that time, out numbering mallards by a wide margin. Considering their sudden population growth, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
The other change was that both teal and wood ducks were still being shot regularly throughout November, and to some extent, even in early December.
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 â€“ let 'em work.