After years of superb conditions, the past couple of waterfowl seasons have ruffled the feathers of many duck and goose enthusiasts.
Two years ago, Lone Star State duck and goose hunters, outfitters and biologists faced fowl conditions that were nothing but foul, and there was a near-complete failure of snow goose nesting efforts over the summer of 2009. The resulting absence of young birds in wintering flocks translated into the lowest overall harvest in two decades and the lowest harvest of light geese of all varieties in almost three decades. Duck callers fared a little better but still dealt with lousy conditions that simply kept many devoted hunters at home.
This past waterfowl season, though still not on par with what many have come to expect, was somewhat better as more favorable hunting conditions allowed an increased harvest with more hunters in the field.
While it's always tough painting a clear picture of any hunting season in advance, there are some key aspects that bode well for hunters across the state. The best thing we've got going for us is that we can hunt geese for nearly five months — from the beginning of November through the light goose conservation order that runs until the end of March — and the most liberal of our duck frameworks allows for more than two months of chasing quackers.
Another upside is the fact there will be no shortage of waterfowl, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates. This year's surveys show that superb conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region again made the region a duck factory, helping to produce an overall estimate of 45.6 million birds, which is an 11 percent increase over last year's figure of 40.8 million. This year's figure also is 35 percent above the long-term average. There should be an abundance of numerous sought-after species, including mallards, which were estimated at a count of 9.2 million, a rise from 8.4 million the previous year, and pintails, which saw an increase to 4.4 million from 3.5 million. The blue-winged teal estimate was off the charts at an estimated record of 8.9 million, up from 6.3 million in 2010.
Typically, the conditions that bode well for duck production also aid goose production, especially in years when the northern United States receives adequate to above-average moisture.
Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said severe drought will have significant impacts on waterfowl hunting this fall, but he said dry conditions do have a silver lining.
"The great news is the same weather pattern that has left Texas high and dry for the last eight months has continued to bless the entire breeding grounds with tremendous amounts of moisture," he said. This is coming on the heels of a couple of good to excellent years of productivity for many species of ducks. So the outlook with respect to duck numbers is as good as we have ever seen it."
As for the impact on Texas, Kraai said there are a number of things to consider.
"This drought has impacted the wetlands, marshes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks and bottomlands across the state," he said. "Natural food production will most certainly be limiting in many areas. On the positive side, many of these systems often need periods of dryness to get certain seed-producing plants to germinate. Receding reservoirs and ponds across the Rolling Plains and Blackland Prairies may be a potential bright spot, assuming the rain finally comes. We are hopeful that the drought is not so severe that vegetation simply doesn't burn out and result in no seed production.
"The playa lakes associated with the High Plains are another story altogether. This drought has kept them all high and dry now for months and what little vegetation was growing in these wetlands has been utilized by cattle grazing by area farmers and ranchers; it's simply the only green vegetation available. If and when it starts raining, the most important factor in successful hunting will be proximity of good available 'irrigated' waste grain."
Kraai said there also are a few bright spots along the coast of Texas and just a little farther north in some of what traditionally has been solid waterfowl hunting range.
"When one looks at the very complicated outlook for the Gulf Coast prairies and marshes, one bright area this coming year will be the areas in and around the rice industry," he said. "Even with the available rice acres, we will still need lots of rainfall to inundate those habitats beyond the artificial pumping and flooding that occurs on some of the landscape early in the fall. The coastal marshes are likely being impacted the greatest. Much of the marsh is dry and what is holding water is very salty. The high salinities are obviously having an adverse impact on the fresh and brackish marsh vegetation, but is even impacting some of the more salt-tolerant vegetation. The whole system is just not going to yield the food resources that we would like to see.
"The seagrass beds of the bays along the Texas Coast has the potential to be a real bright spot, assuming fresh water in close proximity, when considering the populations of redheads and pintails that are heading our way."
Michael Rezsutek, a Texas Park and Wildlife Department biologist for the Upper Coast, said during late summer that the outlook is not as good as it has been in previous seasons in what typically has been exceptional hunting habitat.
In respect to waterfowl numbers, he said, "We have the potential for an extremely good year this year. The fly in the ointment is the extreme drought the Coast is experiencing. Jefferson and Orange counties are at least 24 inches behind in rain since Jan. 1, and that doesn't include the deficit we had from 2010. Our fresh water is quickly evaporating or gone, and the coastal marshes are extremely salty for the lack of fresh water. And farmers are having to face the possibility that they won't be able to flood their fields for a second crop, an activity that usually left a lot of water on the landscape for ducks arriving early."
HUNTING A NEW YEAR
There really are two Lone Star goose seasons after Jan. 1. The first one is the final weeks of the traditional goose hunt, which can mean harder hunting for smarter geese across the state. The other is the special light-goose only season, which begins when the dark goose season ends.
Whether you're gunning for dark or light geese, the rules change for late-season honkers and it's pretty easy to see why — they've migrated from one end of the continent to the other and have checked out every decoy spread imaginable. Despite being at the top of their game, they still have to fill their bellies, and that means you can overcome their smarts by hunting green fields ranging from winter wheat stands in the northern part of the state to rye grass pastures and rice fields in the south.
The light goose "conservation order" season began as a push to thin numbers of the birds before they destroyed their arctic nesting grounds because their numbers became so large. During that season, there's no bag limit and the shooting hours are expanded.
However, the conservation order season isn't a slam-dunk, and light geese have become more difficult to call into range, leading some guides and outfitters to actually call off their hunts at the end of the regular season. Using electronic calls by simply turning them on and letting them run will usually educate light geese. Many guides agree that the practice almost works as a deterrent when the geese figure out how hunters are trying to play the game.
The top of Texas is the winter home to more than half a million lesser Canadas, in addition to a good number of snow, Ross's and speckle-bellied geese. In the Western Zone in past seasons, hunters have been allowed to harvest five dark geese and 20 light geese per day during the dark goose season that runs into early February.
Goose hunting in the Panhandle most often is done in new growth winter wheat or in harvested corn or bean fields. Most of the best hunting traditionally has been on irrigated croplands north and west of Amarillo in areas near Dumas, Hereford and Dalhart. However, in recent seasons the geese have spread into the eastern Panhandle and down into the Rolling Plains. Hunting a stand of crops near any kind of water source is almost always one of the best ways to find good numbers of geese. Lake Etter often is mentioned in hunting reports and typically holds thousands of birds that have migrated down, and the nearby Cactus Playa also holds impressive numbers of birds.
There, more than almost any other place in Texas, hunting pressure is a major factor later in the season. A few hunting guides I've tagged along with, and most others, believe that the key is switching things up with your decoy spread and moving often — if you have access. It especially is vital when more snows than Canadas are flying around, and it doesn't take long for the wary birds to figure out where and when not to fly.
When most hunters in the Lone Star State think of this region, sizable deer and quail populations come to mind, but there also are big flocks of Canadas that congregate on the large fields of peanuts and other grains extending in a line from Abilene north to the bottom of the Panhandle.
Canadas often will migrate into the area and find it to their liking, keeping them from going farther south. The majority of the light geese, which aren't seen in the same kind of numbers as in other locales, will be Ross's geese rather than snows.
Just like in the Panhandle, any kind of water is a sure bet to hold geese. Whether it is flooded fields or conservation lakes, the geese — and ducks — love to have the wet stuff nearby. Hunting the Rolling Plains, especially hotspots such as Shackelford, Haskell and Knox counties, is easier in the early season, but the numbers of geese aren't as great before they migrate in. That happens later in the season. As in other places by that time, the birds will be much warier and tougher to call into effective shooting range.
Some guides may choose to let the first flock of geese go by and land in a decoy spread to add realism to the spread, which may not be as large as in earlier months because the geese may have become more scattered in their search for food. Then they'll bust the successive flocks coming in.
There has been a shift in this region of the state as more geese are changing their winter patterns. Areas such as the plains region west and south of Abilene are beginning to harbor more birds. As with other regions, it all comes down to what food sources are where, and this time of year green fields should be the first places to target if you have access.
NORTH TEXAS/EAST TEXAS
These portions of the state may not hold the same notoriety as other hotspots, but they attract and hold impressive numbers of waterfowl, especially as birds increase their ranges in search of food and safety. There is no shortage of lakes, ponds and stock tanks, which could make this a banner year for many hunters. That's especially true if conditions remain dry from severe drought that wreaked havoc statewide. Any place that holds even a little bit of a steady water level will be an attractive locale to migrants.
This is wood duck and canvasback country more than anyplace else in the state, and the regions also boasts impressive numbers of other dabbling ducks. Sloughs, timber ponds and shallow coves on reservoirs typically hold the highest densities of ducks, including gadwalls and some teal later in the season.
Among the state's wildlife management areas that offer waterfowl hunting in North Texas are Ray Roberts, Cooper, Tawakoni and Pat Mayse. And there's Caddo in East Texas. Those areas also offer teal hunting opportunities during the season.
COASTAL RICE PRAIRIES/MARSHES
There was a time when the majority of goose hunting in Texas was done in the strip of coastal marshes and rice fields from Louisiana to Matagorda County. This area with loads of forage sources drew and kept most of the geese that wintered in Texas.
While there still are geese in that part of the world, they've expanded their range far south, past Corpus Christi, and as far north as Brenham. The region is famous for holding massive numbers of snow geese, numbering up to or more than a million, and good numbers of specklebellies numbering up to half a million. The region also will hold about 100,000 or more Canada geese.
Bay hunters typically enjoy steady success from Port O'Connor down to Rockport, with good shoots also reported in Baffin Bay and into the Lower Laguna Madre. Green fields in the Wharton, Eagle Lake and El Campo areas also typically have drawn in flocks of birds for years.
A late-season hunt a few years ago out of Goose Island near Rockport brought an amazing variety of birds, including a mixed bag that included redheads and pintails for our group of hunters. But some of the best hunting in this territory requires the use of an airboat as low tides that hinder regular craft often restrict access to some of the best hunting spots through the final weeks of the season.