Here's a look at what Iowa 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 in. 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 dictates 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.
Typical warm weather conditions greeted northern zone Iowa waterfowl hunters when their season opened on Oct. 15. As with their counterparts in states to the west, the migration, which had never really been under way, was stalled north of the Canadian border. Reports of "worst opener ever" were scattered from points all across the state. Apart from quite a few teal, and not so many wood ducks, there wasn't much activity of note.
Some goose movement took place, and while that helped, it did not make up for the generally slow hunting experienced by Iowa's duck hunters.
As usual, cold fronts that would push "new birds" down the flyway were longed for, but the weather man was, at that point, not inclined to cooperate. In fact, temperatures pushing back into the 80s were forecast. Considering that most of the waterfowl were still living large on Saskatchewan's prairies, it would take a formidable arctic blast to noticeably improve things.
By Oct. 20, reports from two of Iowa's traditional hotspots, Ruthven, (NW), and Green Island (NE on the Mississippi River), were of interest. The Ruthven hunter, who should visit the sporting clays course, shot at a lot of teal and woodies, and saw some white-fronted geese moving through. Over on the Mississippi River, an experienced hunter reaped limits of green heads on two successive outings. He reported heavy hunting pressure in that area.
Everyone was awaiting a cold front to liven things up. By Oct. 24, not much had changed, with local teal, wood ducks, and shovelers providing whatever action there was. Many specklebelly geese moving through, but only a few being taken.
Warm weather continued to dominate the state during the final weekend of October, and waterfowl hunting remained stagnant, with woodies and teal the only reliable species. Few mallards were seen, or taken, but gadwalls and some wigeon were reported. Hunters along the Mississippi River did best, but nothing hot and heavy was noted. The 10-day weather forecast was for more of the same.
With few exceptions, Iowa's waterfowl hunters were pursuing pheasants and deer on the second weekend of November. There were no signs of a significant migration anywhere in the Midwest.
Although heavy north winds and cooler temperatures blew through on Nov. 18, little migration was noted, and hunting remained poor, in general. There was no freeze-up in the Dakotas, where hunters were still waiting for mallards to push out of Canada.
By Nov. 20, a good push of mallards had finally arrived. Reports indicated the best hunting was on the rivers, but most reports were positive. The best concentration of birds was on the Mississippi River around Keokuk.
By Nov. 21, new ducks had begun to move into Iowa, especially along the rivers. No major push was seen, but hunting had improved, especially for those who put in the time to scout thoroughly.
Scattered migration was noted throughout the state, with the best along the Mississippi River.
No change on Dec. 3.
Snow on Dec. 4 pushed some ducks into northern Iowa, where the season was closed. Central and south Iowa had fair results.
North zone closed with birds just starting to move in. South zone was still struggling as the last week began. Everyone wanted later dates.
By Dec. 8, heavy goose migration was reported. Ducks were spotty. No best areas were noted.
With the arrival of Dec. 14, the north was frozen and closed to ducks, while south was doing well on ducks and geese.
By Dec. 17, plenty of geese were reported statewide.
As Dec. 22 arrived, Louisiana reports estimated 3.61 million ducks.
On Dec. 26, hunting was fair.
The latest harvest statistics compiled by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 2014-2015 show Iowa hunters having bagged about the same amount of ducks: 174,100 to 167,900. Mallards were down 59,968 to 48,850; teal, 74,000 to 63,000; wood ducks, 16,000 to 30,000; gadwall, 7,500 to 9,100; and Canada geese, 47,000 to 54,000.
The fact that the migratory patterns of ducks and geese across North America are changing is evident. As with most other wildlife, waterfowl have been quick to adapt. Hunters must also adapt.
Ducks, in particular, migrate in two distinct manners. Some species move south instinctively, while others need a little shove from Mother Nature. Specifically, teal and wood ducks historically have been the first of their kind to leave for the wintering grounds, with most of them being gone by the time the regular waterfowl hunting seasons open in mid-October. This was the reason for the early teal seasons. Obviously, something has changed.
Gadwalls (gray ducks), common in the Gulf Coast states, also have become abundant in northern climes, especially along the major rivers. They are not completing their migratory journey non-stop, as they once did.
Mallards, the most plentiful and most desirable of quackers, no longer await a punishing winter storm to create the fabled "push" everyone longs for. Instead, this multi-million flock of ducks holds tight on the bountiful Canadian prairies, often until Thanksgiving, or later. Sub-flocks of these mallards intermittently drift south, accounting for outbursts of hot shooting in areas where they pass, but having no effect at all elsewhere. The idea of a "Grand Passage" of mallards just doesn't seem to be in the cards, anymore.
The snow geese migrate when the mood strikes them, and when they do make a move, it is a long one. Canada geese will hold fast anywhere they have some open water and sufficient forage, and usually only fly south as far as necessary to find bare ground. Geese that suddenly appear just below the snow line are very likely to head back north as soon as the weather moderates.
There were two rather startling changes that I picked up on while analyzing the DU reports. The first being 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, outnumbering 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.
So, the bottom line seems to be to concentrate on what has become the new normal for waterfowl migrations. Don't rely on memories, because in many cases what once was is no more. Diligently scout your entire hunting area to locate any flocks of ducks that are filtering through. Hunt there while the birds are there. Then scout some more. Don't expect the ducks to come to you.
Iowa is blessed with a wide distribution of public hunting areas. The new Hunting Atlas is an interactive map that shows all lands open to public hunting in the state, totaling over 680,000 acres. The Hunting Atlas also gives us basic information about those areas, such as acreage, general habitat description, expected species and links to more information and maps, if available. It will also tell a user what hunting zones any area of the state falls into. You can download this valuable map from the IDNR website.
Another IDNR resource is the weekly Waterfowl Migration Survey, which offers up-to-date information on what numbers and species of waterfowl are holding in various areas around the state. You can also find current wetlands habitat conditions there. Do your homework, pick your hunting area, and scout, scout, scout.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose responsibility it is to set the overall range of waterfowl hunting regulations, will once again allow a 60-day liberal duck hunt, a maximum 90-day dark goose hunt, and the late season conservation light goose hunt. Expect the dates in your area to be generally the same as last year. At the time of this writing the exact dates were not available, so be sure to check them out before setting your decoys.
Major regulatory changes occurred in daily bag limits, where black ducks, which seem to be holding their own, increased from one to two, and northern pintails, currently 24 percent below the long-term average, dropped from two to one per day.
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.
There should be good hunting opportunities available this year for hunters who put in a little effort before heading afield. By using the recent data available to you and the research tools offered through the state wildlife department or other sources, you can take some of the guesswork out of planning your next hunting trip.
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.