Despite predictions of a banner year for ducks, most flyways didn't live up to the hype.
When comments like “the best bird numbers in recent times” and “prairie potholes teeming with water” start getting tossed around with factual information like an 8 percent increase in total population, waterfowl hunters sharply take note. So when the 2014 spring report showed a total population of 49.2 million birds, the largest estimate on record, I think every waterfowl hunter had a hard time not thinking about just what the fall would bring. Would this be the best season ever?
While spring breeding and total population counts certainly correlate to the state of waterfowl and their continued positive progression, how that number affects hunting is an entirely different matter. The true hunting effect of the population rise can only be seen in the reflections of a waterfowler’s season. To that, we take a look at four waterfowl hunters in four flyways for their season synopsis.
Location: New York, Atlantic Flyway
Name: Mike Bard, Avery Pro-Staff
Weather: Unseasonal cold in mid-November locked up many small water bodies earlier than usual, followed by a warm-up in late December. This late December warm-up caused a dispersing of birds, making late-season hunting tough. The weather finally turned colder post-Christmas, making the last five days of the late-season the best hunting days of the year.
Report: Overall, it was a strange season that started in October with higher numbers of pintails and widgeon than years past that hung around until mid-November. After the November freeze, an early December warm-up brought more typical numbers of mallards to the region, but the warm weather had them spread out, leaving moderate numbers in the typical stronghold areas. This dispersion made the majority of late season hunting for divers and puddle ducks on the Finger Lakes difficult until the birds finally condensed back into larger groups when the temperatures plummeted with five days left in the late season. The only thing consistent with past years was that the Canada goose migration and bird numbers were strong.
Location: Missouri, Mississippi Flyway
Name: Ben Fujan, Avery Pro-Staff
Weather: Mild temperatures in November and December led to difficult hunting in the latter part of the season as birds in the area became stale. The best hunting days were centered on changes in weather patterns rather than cooling temperatures or freezing water. In late December, the migration gates finally opened and freezing temperatures pushed hundreds of thousands of mallards into the area around Christmas, just in time for a few good hunts before the season closed.
Report: The season started off well with above-average little-duck numbers starting in late October and continuing until Thanksgiving. Strong big-duck numbers began showing up in early November, making for some unbelievable hunting for most of November. When the temperatures remained mild through the end of November and into December, birds became stale — would-be new birds short-stopped further north without a need to migrate. The birds that had been around all season became nocturnal to avoid hunting pressure and had no urgency to feed given these warmer temperatures. The mass migration didn’t resume until late December, just as the season started to close.
Location: Nebraska, Central Flyway
Name: Jeff Vondrak, DOA Decoys
Weather: We had up-and-down weather conditions that went from periods of super cold to warm in alternating fashion several times throughout the season. We got very little snow overall when compared to previous years, but a mid-November freeze locked up many small ponds, concentrating the birds for the remainder of the season.
Report: The first push of ducks was right on schedule, with a November 1 cold front bringing in the first big wave of mallards. This push was followed in succession with multiple smaller pushes that led to the excellent hunting throughout the entire season. What made the hunting dynamic was the changing temperatures that pushed birds from north to south and in reverse, allowing for a continual change in birds and less stale numbers. While bird numbers were overall good throughout most of the season, many birds never made it to Nebraska or Kansas as the Dakotas were void of snow cover, allowing the birds ample feed and no reason to head south.
Location: Oregon, Pacific Flyway
Weather: We had overall mild weather for most of the season with below-normal amounts of rainfall. Hunting was more difficult than normal due to very few cold snaps that typically trigger bird movement and change in daily patterns.
Report: The season started off well due to a combination of good numbers of local birds and an early push of migrators in late October and early November. This strong early push eventually made hunting later in the season more difficult, as birds became stale with no major weather fronts to change up their daily activities or move birds around. Widgeon, a typically strong part of the puddle duck diversity in the Pacific Northwest, showed lower-than-average numbers in 2014-15 while pintails, mallards and teal were average or slightly above average, helping make up for it. This lack of widgeon made sheet water hunting slower than normal, and during dry periods, birds became concentrated, requiring extra scouting activity. Luckily, goose numbers were strong this year, helping to make up for periods of lackluster duck hunting. An interesting note, Aleutian Canada geese numbers continue to grow, with more being seen every year in the valley and coastal regions.
In summation, while duck numbers are at peak levels, this 8 percent increase from 2013 truly only showed up in the spring surveys, not bag limits. Weather is/will always be the driving force to determine how waterfowl season shapes up. Instead of using the spring count to salivate on over the summer months leading up to waterfowl season, with bird numbers remaining well above the long-term average, maybe the Farmer’s Almanac is the key to determining just how our waterfowl season will truly turn out. Let’s all hope for a good spring count and seasonal weather during hunting season for the 2015-16 season.