Waterfowl preview: Duck numbers look good despite dry conditions
With the regular waterfowl season on the horizon in North Dakota and Minnesota, hunters could be excused for worrying about the impact of this year's dry conditions on their hunting prospects.
By most accounts, such worries would be unfounded—at least in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.
Waterfowl season opens Saturday, Sept. 22, in Minnesota and in North Dakota.
Mark Fisher, district wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake, said many of the small wetlands so important for ducks in the Lake Region were bone dry during the annual waterfowl survey he conducts along a set route throughout May and into the first week of June.
Bigger wetlands still had water, he said, but they tend to be less productive for raising ducks.
Duck counts during the survey "were kind of average, or even below," Fisher said, and he figured rains that fell later in June and refilled some of the smaller wetlands came too late to be of much benefit for nesting ducks.
"I had this idea in my mind that we may not see a lot of birds this year and production might be down, and I was just plain wrong," Fisher said. "That water, when it kicked in, it refreshed a lot of wetlands that had been dry from the previous year, and the productivity of those wetlands was incredible. And sometime by around the first week of July, there were duck broods everywhere—just all kinds of ducks—and it was really kind of exciting.
"I would talk to people that keep their eye on the landscape, and everybody was talking about duck broods."
The state Game and Fish Department reported duck broods were up 37 percent from last year, and the fall duck flight is expected to be up 12 percent, based on results from a mid-July waterfowl production survey that dates back to the 1950s.
It's been relatively dry since mid-July, and wetland conditions have gone backward, Fisher said, but there are a lot of ducks scattered across the region.
"There's birds in locations that are interesting to me," Fisher said. "One of them is around the edge of Devils Lake and stuff that's connected with Devils Lake. There are thousands of ducks along the edge. The lake is starting to fall and there's the beginning of a mud edge, so it's shallow, and it's incredible the number of birds that are along and around Devils Lake proper."
The same can be said for larger wetlands farther from the lake where falling water levels have created muddy edges, Fisher said.
"They seem to be scattered across the landscape, and you can find pockets where the densities are really high," he said. "That's pretty consistent across most of the landscape in northeast North Dakota. There are a lot of birds out there."
In northwest Minnesota, water levels at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River are about 8 inches below fall targets, manager Kyle Arola said. That will create a few access challenges for hunters launching boats along the south side of the lake, he said, but ramps on the northeast corner of the lake and up the Moose River won't have any issues.
"It's not impossible to get out by any means—it will just require a little more effort to drag a boat or canoe out to where it's deep enough to drop the motor" on the south side of the lake, Arola said. "Once hunters are out there, nothing is going to be different as far as concealing your boat or setting the decoys."
Cover such as phragmite and bulrush islands are in good shape with the low water levels, Arola said. And even though it's dry, conditions are nothing like 2012, when water levels on Thief Lake were 22 inches below target, he said.
"I don't want people to think they will have to drag their boats across mud flats like they did then," Arola said. "They will just have to drag their boats out a little ways."
The dry conditions resulted in a strong hatch of local ducks, he said. In June, 1.9 inches of rain was recorded at WMA headquarters, compared with an average of 3.9 inches dating back to the 1950s.
"It was an ideal production year locally for waterfowl," Arola said. "The lake levels bounced up after the spring runoff, and it was just kind of a slow drawdown, is what it amounted to, without any rain. The nests weren't flooded out, and we had good breeding pair counts and brood counts."
With lower water levels, duck hunters could see more variety in the bag, Arola says.
"Last year, we were at target, and about 70 percent of the bag was ringnecks and redheads," he said. "When we see those lower water levels, we see an increased proportion of dabblers in the bag, so it could be more of a 50/50 split between dabblers and divers."
The first push of migrant Canada geese typically hits Thief Lake about Sept. 7, and this year's migration is following that trend, with the first geese arriving sometime Friday, Sept. 7, or Saturday, Sept. 8, Arola said.
"It's still early, but we're seeing a lot more goose activity in the area," he said.
In the Devils Lake area, Fisher of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the only migration activity he's seen to date is sandhill cranes, although smaller migrant Canada geese should start showing up any time.
Unlike ducks, production of resident giant Canada geese looks to be down this year in the Lake Region, Fisher said. A late spring and wintry conditions that persisted into early May likely affected the hatch, since geese nest earlier than ducks.
In 2017, Fisher said he saw his first broods in the middle of May. This year, by comparison, Fisher said he had yet to see a brood when he wrapped up his spring duck survey the first week of June.
"A lot of the giants this year did not hatch," he said. "They were later than normal, and the brood numbers were smaller than normal."
Groups of 20 to 40 geese are starting to show up in fields, Fisher said, but the birds seem to be widely scattered.
"Most guys I've talked to as far as hunting in that early honker season haven't really done as well as they have in the past," Fisher said. "Guys are going out and scratching a few birds. I'm sure there's some guys that got into some really heavy pockets, but most guys I talked to were a little disappointed with the numbers."
Access looks good
Barring major precipitation, land access should be good for field hunters on both sides of the Red River.
"It's still pretty good on prairie trails and such," Fisher said. "Things can get wet in a hurry over here. But right now, the access is pretty good and most everything is pretty dry."
There are more dry wetlands on the landscape this fall than he's seen in a long time, Fisher says, and that likely will factor into hunters' plans.
"I don't want to use the word drought, but it's kind of like 'where there's water, there's birds,' " Fisher said. "There's not water all over the landscape, but there is water on the landscape, and where there's water, there's usually some ducks."
Bottom line, there's plenty of cause for optimism on both sides of the Red River.
"I think it's shaping up to be a good season," Thief Lake's Arola said. "We'll see how it goes, but it's an exciting time of year."
Rules of the Hunt
Here's a look at waterfowl season dates and bag limits in North Dakota and Minnesota.
• Ducks: Sept. 22-Dec. 2 residents; season opens Sept. 29 for nonresidents. Bag limit six ducks daily with the following restrictions: five mallards of which two may be hens, three wood ducks, three scaup, two redheads, two canvasbacks and two pintails. Hunters can take an additional two blue-winged teal from opening day through Sunday, Oct. 7. The daily limit of five mergansers may include no more than two hooded mergansers. For ducks and mergansers, the possession limit is three times the daily limit; shooting hours are half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
• Canada geese: Sept. 22-Dec. 28 (Zone 1), Sept. 22 to Dec. 21 (Zone 2), Sept. 22-Dec. 16 (Zone 3); season for nonresidents opens Sept. 29 with same closing dates. Bag limit eight daily (Zones 2 and 3), 15 (Zone 1); possession limit three times the daily limit. Shooting hours half-hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. CDT Sept. 22-Nov. 3; closing time 2 p.m. CST beginning Nov. 4 through end of season.
• White-fronted geese: Sept. 22 to Dec. 2 statewide; season opens Sept. 29 for nonresidents. Bag limit three daily, nine in possession; shooting hours same as for Canada geese.
• Light geese: Sept. 22 to Dec. 30 statewide; season for nonresidents opens Sept. 29. Bag limit 50 daily with no possession limit; shooting hours same as for Canada geese.
• On the Web: gf.nd.gov/regulations/small-combined.
• Ducks: Sept. 22-Nov. 20 (North Zone), Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 6-Nov. 25 (Central Zone), Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 13-Dec. 2 (South Zone). Daily duck limit of six with the following restrictions: four mallards of which two may be hens, three scaup, three wood ducks, two pintails, two redheads, two canvasbacks and two black ducks. Hunters can shoot up to six ducks of other species. The daily merganser limit is five with no more than two hooded mergansers. The possession limit for ducks and mergansers is three times the daily limit. Shooting hours half-hour before sunrise to 4 p.m. from opener through Friday, Oct. 5, and until sunset after that.
• Geese (Canada, white-fronted, brant): Sept. 22-Dec. 21 (North Zone), Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 6-Dec. 26 (Central Zone), Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 13-Jan. 2 (South Zone). Bag limit three combined, possession limit three times the daily limit; shooting hours same as for ducks.
• Snow, blue and Ross's geese: Season dates same as above. Bag limit 20 daily, possession limit three times the daily limit; shooting hours same as for ducks.
• On the Web: mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
-- Forum News Service report