The Pacific Northwest offers waterfowl hunters a wealth of fantastic opportunities each fall. These are some of the finest out there.
For waterfowlers in the Pacific Northwest, where to throw a decoy spread on any given morning from mid-October through the end of January often presents a dilemma. Not that the choices are so few, but rather almost without number.
"A man could duck hunt every day of his adult life on the Columbia River," a wise old man told me 25 years ago when I first moved to southwestern Washington, "and never hunt the same hole twice."
Sadly, the old boy's gone now, sitting, I'm sure, in a warm, well-hidden blind with a hot cup of coffee, an L.C. Smith side-by-side, and a three-year-old black Lab dog at the edge of a picture-perfect coastal marsh swarming with greenheads, sprig, wigeon — Eurasian wigeon, of course — and green-wing teal.
What hasn't gone are the 'fowling opportunities to be found from northwest Washington's famed Skagit Bay to the shores of the Columbia River and into south-central Oregon's popular Summer Lake Wildlife Area. Multitudinous, one might say, though the old man wouldn't have used such a fancy term.
There's just a lot of duck ground 'round these parts, he'd say. And he'd certainly be right.
Where? Here's some of the best waterfowling to be had in the Pacific Northwest, albeit it a mere sampling of the fantastic hunting that the Evergreen and Beaver states can provide.
"The 2016-17 season seemed like a mixed bag, depending on where you were in the state," noted Kyle Spragens, waterfowl section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). "Those areas (of Washington) that are true wintering regions — the Skagit Delta, Lower Columbia River, and the Tri-Cities to Moses Lake — did decent to well."
Areas that are more migration-pulse driven, Spragens explained, didn't fare as well because the birds that would typically have held up in Washington waiting for water to the south had already blown through.
At the time of this writing, Washington waterfowlers were well aware of the regulatory changes proposed and approved by the WDFW wildlife commission. In addition to a one-pintail-per-day limit, a reduction from the 2016-17 daily limit of two sprig, "the big change," said Spragens, "is a separation of the goose bag limits from the previous aggregate daily bag of four geese to a (new) daily bag limit of four Canada/Cackling geese, six white geese (snows, blues, and Ross'), and 10 white-fronted geese."
Other changes include the addition of Whatcom and Clallam counties to the brant hunting roster with a limited three-day set season, and a "slight adjustment to season dates," explained Spragens.
"In Goose Management Area 2, or the Southwest Washington Dusky Conservation Zone, that would allow for increased opportunities at early migrant cacklers and white-fronted geese," he advised. Hunters would still be required to take and pass the goose identification test before hunting Goose Management Area 2.
At the time this was being written, departmental biologists and pilots were in the process of completing the state's annual aerial waterfowl breeding survey on both the east and west sides of the Cascades. And while final data and numbers weren't available, Spragens was "cautiously optimistic" based on what his personnel had seen.
"There was a lot of water," he reported. "And we seemed to see good numbers of the species we'd expect (such as) mallards and Western Canada geese. But also good numbers of those species we'd expect to take advantage of good wetland conditions, e.g. blue-winged and cinnamon teal, pintails, wigeon, and gadwall."
Washington, as does her sister state to the south, offers up an incredibly diverse waterfowling environment. From tidally influenced sloughs and marshes near the coast to dune-surrounded potholes in the Central Basin and on eastward to the shores of the Pend Oreille River, the Evergreen State has something for every 'fowler. This is but a small sampling of some of the best.
Few public hunting lands are as synonymous with waterfowling in the Pacific Northwest as is the Skagit Wildlife Area. Located in part in the western portion of Skagit County, this 17,000-acre area provides 'fowling opportunities for nearby residents of Seattle, as well as many up and down the Interstate 5 Corridor.
The Skagit consists of several different units or areas, some of which are tidally-influenced; others, such as the Island and Samish units, include water control structures designed to assist in regulating water levels both before, as well as during the hunting season.
"Each unit (at Skagit) has its own specific characteristics," said Greg Meis, assistant manager at the complex. "Some offer walk-in access, while others offer boat-in. There's just a little bit of everything here."
Curran Cosgrove, natural resources technician at Skagit, explained that the Island Unit on the South Fork (of the Skagit River) was diked in and is flooded in the winter.
Waterfowlers access the Island Unit by boat, often launching at the Headquarters ramp, and once at the unit, hoof it into the morning's hunting location.
"At the (now tidal) Headquarters Unit, the dikes were removed, and now it's conducive to small boats like Aquapods or kayaks or canoes," Cosgrove continued.
Like many public hunting areas near major population centers, The Skagit can and does get more than its fair share of attention. "There is no reservation system here," noted Meis, "but rather first come/first served. We do have some overcrowding issues, and a raffle and reservation system has been brought up; however, we haven't the manpower to implement those systems."
Instead, wildlife managers have put a 15-shotshell limit in place in some of the units, e.g. Island, Samish, and Debay Slough, which, said Meis, "appears to be greatly benefitting" the whole of the waterfowling experience on the area. Detailed information about The Skagit can be found at the WDFW's website under Wildlife Areas.
No discussion of waterfowling in Washington is complete with a mention of Grant County's Potholes Reservoir. Immense, at more than 32,000 acres, Potholes proper was formed with the creation of the O'Sullivan Dam near Moses Lake. The resulting backup inundated hundreds of small sand dune islands northwest of the main body of the reservoir; islands which today are covered all or in part by a mix of willows and scrub.
Decoying and jump-shooting are the two most popular duck hunting methods on Potholes. Pump-powered sleds ferry 'fowlers out to one of the many islands, where an often large mixed spread of duck and goose fakes is set. Hunting is then done from a well-camouflaged boat blind, or as is typically the case, from a small hide fashioned on-site of willows.
Not surprising, Beaver State waterfowlers shared Washington's wild winter during the bulk of the 2016-17 season. And as it did to the north, Oregon's weather played a role in the results experienced by 'fowlers from the mouth of the Columbia to the Snake River, and everywhere in between.
"It (the winter) was abnormal in that we had much more cold and subfreezing weather," said Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) stationed in Salem. "Things were good early on, according to harvest statistics we've gotten from our wildlife area personnel. But then the ice in the Portland area affected the hunting for many. If you had access to open water, you did well."
In eastern Oregon, Reishus continued, November was warmer than normal. "But then it froze, and they had a hard winter," he noted. "Again, those who had access to or hunted the rivers tended to do well. January saw a slight thaw, and there just wasn't a ton going on."
Given the record-setting rains during April and May from the Willamette Valley to the Oregon coast, did Reishus have any cause for concern that local ducks and geese nesting success might be impacted, an impact that waterfowlers may notice as November gives way to December and the close of the season?
"I certainly don't expect anything negative," Reishus noted. "In many of the places, water levels were (already) high when the ducks went into nesting season. There might have been some geese that potentially sat out nesting due to the habitat being under water; however, I'd expect the rainfall to be beneficial."
There were improved wetland conditions in eastern Oregon, and the spring breeding surveys showed most of the ditches still flowing, Reishus explained.
"Western Oregon mallard numbers," he continued, "were down slightly compared to the averages. We're not sure what's going on there. It's not a concern, but rather a surprise. And it could be related to the timing of the (aerial) survey flights, which are typically around April 20 but were late this year due to the weather."
To those thinking that duck hunting is a wild 'n wooly affair, with settings far off the proverbial beaten path, it may be difficult to believe that some of the best waterfowling to be found in the Pacific Northwest lies a short 10 miles west of downtown Portland. Covering approximately 90 square miles, Sauvie Island is the largest island in the Columbia River, encompassing some 26,000 acres and wintering more than 150,000 ducks and geese each Fall.
The downside, if one can call it that? Due to the island's proximity to The Rose City, it attracts more than its fair share of human attention during the flyway's 107-day season. Fortunately, there seems to be plenty of room and plenty of potential for success.
"Hunters will find any type of waterfowling opportunity here at Sauvie Island," said Mark Nebeker, area manager at the installation since 1998. "Hunters can put in for a reservation prior to the season. There's a randon on-site chip drawing, a lottery style draw, for blinds. There's first come/first served, and free-to-roam hunting."
In a nutshell, 'fowlers have four options should they wish to hunt Sauvie Island — a pre-season computerized lottery (reservations); a non-reservation lottery that fills any "unfilled" or "unmanned" reservations; a chip draw, i.e. lowest numbered chip gets first choice of the available blinds; and a limited number free-to-roam area known as the North Unit. The process may seem complicated; fortunately, the ODFW has done a wonderful job summarizing the hunting opportunities and draw nuances at the facility in their online reference "A Beginner's Guide to Waterfowl Hunting at Sauvie Island," which can be found at the agency's website.
A crown jewel among federal refuges nationwide, the Umatilla NWR near Boardman, Ore., is actually part of a larger system known as the Mid-Columbia River Complex, which also includes, among others, the Cold Springs (Hermiston), McNary (Pasco, Washington), and McKay Creek (Pendleton) refuges.
"Cold Springs and McKay Creek are both reservoirs," said refuge manager, Lamont Glass. "McKay is open to hunting, but it's not a destination for waterfowl hunters. A portion of McKay is open-water refuge, but there is some pass-shooting (opportunities) or hunting over the creek itself."
Cold Springs, Glass continued, does feature a managed blind system offered on a first come/first served basis. "It's not a big destination spot," he said, "but more of a local area." Ten blinds are available on Memorial Marsh located at the southeastern end of the facility, with some shoreline goose hunting done on the southern fringes of the reservoir.
Umatilla, however, is a 'fowling destination. A pre-season lottery conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides hunters chances at both duck or goose blinds for the day. "The McCormick Unit," said Glass, "offers (duck) blinds on the Columbia River and on McCormick Slough. There are also five center-pivot agricultural fields, with pit blinds for goose hunters."
As is the case at Sauvie Island, mallards are the draw at Umatilla's McCormick Unit, followed closely by wigeon and green-wing teal. For more information, visit the USFWS's website.