Waterfowl Numbers Up Again in 2013, What Does it Mean for Your Hunting Season?

Another wet spring has spurred a high level of duck production in the US and Canada. With pond counts throughout Canada and the US sitting about 24 percent higher than the long-term average, it looks like 2013-14 will see yet another strong season of birds filling the sky and winging south this winter.

To summarize the report, this year's population (45.6 million birds) is about six percent below last year's record population (48.6 million birds; the second year in a row a population record was set), but still 33 percent above the 1955-2012 long-term average. Some highlights from the Fish & Wildlife Service's report include:

• Estimated mallard abundance is 10.4 million birds, similar to the 2012 estimate of 10.6 million birds and 36 percent above the long-term average.

• Blue-winged teal estimated abundance is 7.7 million. Although this is 16 percent below the 2012 estimate of 9.2 million, the blue-wing population is 60 percent above the long-term average. Similarly, the green-winged teal estimate of 3.1 million is 12 percent below last year but still 51 percent above their long-term average.

• The northern pintail estimate of 3.3 million is similar to the 2012 estimate of 3.5 million and 17 percent below the long-term average.

• Estimated abundance of American wigeon is 2.6 million and 23 percent above the 2012 estimate and similar to the long-term average.

• The combined lesser and greater scaup estimate of 4.2 million decreased 20 percent from last year and is 17 percent below the long-term average of 5 million. The canvasback estimate of 787,000 is similar to the 2012 estimate and 37 percent above the long-term average.

In response to yet another near-record population, the government has proposed a liberal framework for states to set season dates within - that typically means more days to hunt and larger bag limits.

Both the population count and the liberal season dates and bag limits are good news for waterfowlers, but does that mean you'll be covered up in ducks from September to January? If the last two years are any indication, most definitely not.

The 2011-12 season set the population record and waterfowlers rejoiced. Those of us in the media planned "mightiest migration" features to capitalize on the good news. But while the largest number of ducks ever existed in North America, it was the migration that seemingly never happened. All across the country, waterfowlers waited, calls and guns at the ready. And they waited. And then waited some more. By most accounts, the migration never hit with any impact; an early push of birds followed by a trickle every few weeks was about the extent of it.

Last season saw an even greater waterfowl population; another record actually. While by most accounts last year was better than the season before, again, there wasn't a big, steady push of new birds that continually made their way down. Here in Washington state, we had an early push and then a trickle, with birds staying in areas for weeks on end. This made for very smart birds and very tough hunting. Having seen everything, they would circle a couple of times and then vanish - if they gave your spread a look at all.

The effects of the overall weather patterns, as well as local conditions - including weather, water, feed, temperatures, open water, etc. - all combine to influence birds' decisions to stick around or move north or south of a general area. DU's Chief Scientist, Dale Humburg, puts it like this:

"Even with abundant moisture on the prairies and good breeding success this year, the weather and habitat conditions the birds encounter on their fall migrations can impact local hunting success. Many areas along traditional migration routes are experiencing significant drought, and this will likely have an effect on how many birds hunters see this fall. Other areas have seen excessive moisture, which could affect food supplies for migrating birds. And, as always, weather patterns can also have a huge impact on local hunting conditions and the timing of the migration."

So while this summer news makes it fun to imagine the winter skies darkened with huge flocks of ducks clamoring to get into your shooting hole, temper your expectations and start taking stock of the conditions around you and imagine what the landscape will look like in December. Find where the open water and food sources will still be present, and start laying the groundwork for access now. It is after all that possibility of watching thousands of ducks tornado above you that makes these reports so much fun - and it could happen. But, the ducks aren't going to fall into your lap during the season just because there are a mass of them sitting in Canada now.