Waterfowl Season Takes Flight

Expect longer seasons but perhaps fewer ducks.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Andy Walgamott experienced that rarest of duck-hunting phenomenon last fall: His feet never got cold as he crouched in Washington's Skagit Valley marsh. But the Seattle waterfowler's gun never got hot, either. He bagged a few ducks, but the big flocks of mallards and teal that typically descend on the fields north of the city never materialized. He blames bluebird days for his poor hunting.

"The birds just didn't come down," Walgamott says. "We never got that dose of weather needed to push ducks around." That was an observation shared by thousands of waterfowl hunters across the country last fall. While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) reported near-record-high numbers of ducks, the weather was so mild into December across much of the country that the fall migration turned out to be spotty.

While no one's predicting this winter's weather, duck production is down nationwide for the second straight year, due largely to another drought on Canada's prairies. And although the USFWS has proposed generally long seasons and liberal bag limits, federal waterfowl managers predict a harvest similar to last year's. But you won't get to shoot canvasbacks this fall; the season is closed nationwide to protect dwindling populations, and pintail seasons have been shortened dramatically. It's a good year to target honkers, though. In every flyway, Canada geese are abundant, and while mallard numbers are off their 1999 high, they're still well above their long-term population count across the continent.

Following is a flyway-by-flyway outlook for this fall's waterfowl flight.

ATLANTIC FLYWAY
If you don't want to wait for weather to push ducks and geese south into Chesapeake Bay and the mid-Atlantic marshes, head north. You may not see big flocks of black ducks, ringnecks and wood ducks, but action on a mix of northern and resident mallards and Canada geese should be good through New England south to Pennsylvania, says Jerry Serie, the Atlantic Flyway technical representative from the USFWS.

"The northern states had better harvest than the southern states last year. That was partly because the northern birds stayed there longer, but a big reason was that our resident mallards have grown in numbers," says Serie. "Golf courses and suburban development have been good for both geese and mallards. That's not good in the long run, but in the short run it's providing hunting opportunity in years when the fall flight is late."

Waterfowl managers are concerned with black duck populations, which still are depressed, although recent declines apparently have stopped. The continental population of lesser scaup is another worry, but ringnecks, wood ducks and mallards all are abundant.

Goose hunters who cursed the season closure in the 1990s have reason to celebrate now. The population of Canada geese that breeds in northern Quebec has rebounded to the level where hunters can take two honkers in the mid-Atlantic region and a single bird in the Chesapeake Bay region.

"Closing the goose-hunting season really bore fruit," says Serie. "We're looking at a good age-class of breeding birds, and hopefully that population of Canada geese is out of the woods."

MISSISSIPPI FLYWAY
While mallards are the bread-and- butter duck for waterfowlers from Lake Erie to Louisiana's timbered bottoms, hunters can expect to see fewer greenheads over the Mississippi Flyway. Blame poor production in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The drier-than-usual prairie will also send fewer pintails, gadwalls and teal, as well as diving species, south this fall.

Hunters may need to add a few more decoys to their spreads and to call a little more earnestly to fill their bag limits. That's because a poor nesting season has resulted in fewer young, naïve birds in the flock, suggests Ken Gamble, technical representative to the flyway couil.

"Younger birds are more vulnerable to hunting than adults," he says. "If you have a larger proportion of young birds, you can often have a higher harvest because they're more gullible and respond more readily to calling and decoys. But the converse is true when you have a higher proportion of adult birds in the flock. It can be tougher hunting."

Still, expect to see plenty of local ducks, especially mallards, which will be available when the season opens but will probably push off when hunting pressure and winter weather intensify. Mallard production south of the border has increased in recent years. That's also the story with geese in the flyway, says Gamble.

"Our goose production outlook isn't good because we had a very late spring up in the main breeding ground adjacent to Hudson and James bays," he says. "However, the races of giant (Greater) Canada geese that nest in each state are doing quite well, and should just about make up for the decreased northern production."

Hit the marsh early for the local ducks, then hope for incrementally severe weather that pushes the northern tourists south, but not too far south. Early on, target the Mississippi River and its main feeder rivers, plus western portions of the Ohio River valley. Later, shift focus to the rice fields of Arkansas and Louisiana.

CENTRAL FLYWAY
David Sharp loves being part of an anomaly. The USFWS representative to the Central Flyway relished the flyway's deviation from the norm last year and hopes it repeats itself this fall.

Last year hunters in the Central Flyway, a diverse chunk of country that extends from eastern Montana to the Texas Gulf Coast, set records for duck and goose harvest. "We had excellent production last year, mostly in the Dakotas, which bolstered the fall flight," says Sharp. "The mallard harvest reached an all-time high, with 1.3 million ducks bagged, and the Central recorded the highest harvests for pintails, redheads and canvasbacks."

This fall's outlook isn't quite so rosy. Credit for much of the domestic duck production goes to the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), through which farmers are paid to leave cropland in native grasses. This year emergency haying provisions were approved for CRP across the northern plains and that's not good for nesting ducks.

"Many CRP fields were cut for hay during the peak hatching period around July 1," says Sharp. "I expect duck production in 2002 will be greatly reduced from that recorded in 2001, and I would expect hunter success to decline correspondingly."

But goose hunting should be great, he says, and could be on pace to break last year's record harvest of 1.2 million. Northern honkers are plentiful, but so are the light geese (snow and Ross's geese) that are overpopulating their tundra nesting grounds. Hunters who want to help thin the population can participate in "Conservation Order" seasons-both earlier and later than the traditional waterfowl seasons-in which limits are high and other restrictions are loosened.

The best overall hunting for resident and migrating ducks and geese should be experienced in North Dakota. Kansas and Oklahoma are also good bets, says Sharp.

PACIFIC FLYWAY
Expect more of the same out West: lower overall duck populations and fewer young birds in the flock. Hunters in the Pacific Flyway should also note that waterfowl are shifting their habits and adjusting their migration to match changing habitat.

"We're seeing some major distribution shifts," says Bob Trost of the Pacific Flyway Council. "With changes in the Klamath Basin (in southern Oregon), we're seeing more birds stay farther north. And in parts of California where rice production has increased, farmers are flooding the fields to decompose the grain and that's attracting good numbers of birds-often not until quite late in the season."

As in the other flyways, mallards are the dominant duck on the coast and along inland migration routes, making up 35 to nearly 50 percent of the total bag, according to Trost. Last year hunters bagged just over 1 million mallards, and Trost expects the harvest to be similar this fall.

"Greenwing teal make up a good proportion of our bag, and we shoot quite a few wigeon, unlike in some of the other flyways," he says. "We don't see many diving species though."

The Pacific Flyway goose outlook is bright. "We have two different groups of geese," notes Trost. "We have an inland population that's increasing even in the drought conditions, and we have a population of snow geese that breeds on Banks Island and the interior Arctic-they didn't do well this year. That's not a bad thing, given their high populations, but it's still a concern."

Throw in various brant, dusky goose and cackling species, and goose gunners should heft heavy bags this fall, predicts Trost. He warns, however, that nature is always prepared to throw hunters a curve ball in the form of warm weather that makes ducks want to stay put.

"Hunting success will depend on where you are and what the weather's like," he says matter-of-factly. "If you can adjust to the conditions and go where the birds are, you're going to get some shooting."late in the season."

As in the other flyways, mallards are the dominant duck on the coast and along inland migration routes, making up 35 to nearly 50 percent of the total bag, according to Trost. Last year hunters bagged just over 1 million mallards, and Trost expects the harvest to be similar this fall.

"Greenwing teal make up a good proportion of our bag, and we shoot quite a few wigeon, unlike in some of the other flyways," he says. "We don't see many diving species though."

The Pacific Flyway goose outlook is bright. "We have two different groups of geese," notes Trost. "We have an inland population that's increasing even in the drought conditions, and we have a population of snow geese that breeds on Banks Island and the interior Arctic-they didn't do well this year. That's not a bad thing, given their high populations, but it's still a concern."

Throw in various brant, dusky goose and cackling species, and goose gunners should heft heavy bags this fall, predicts Trost. He warns, however, that nature is always prepared to throw hunters a curve ball in the form of warm weather that makes ducks want to stay put.

"Hunting success will depend on where you are and what the weather's like," he says matter-of-factly. "If you can adjust to the conditions and go where the birds are, you're going to get some shooting."