Plenty of Ducks, But What Does That Really Mean for Hunters? 

Waterfowl forecast says populations up, but sheer numbers alone don't make for a great season

Monday, Oct. 9, 2017

By John Gordon

Duck populations are strong again after another year of good habitat conditions in Canada and the northern United States. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates have the fall flight at 47.3 million breeding pairs, 34 percent above the long-term average.

This is wonderful news but sheer numbers alone do not make for a great season. If you want to see a bunch of dissatisfied duck hunters at the end of the year, tell them there were a lot of ducks but their personal hunts were mediocre at best.

Each fall, waterfowl hunters head to the field excited and eager to see what the new season will bring. Catalogs are poured over, new gear is purchased, blinds are built and brushed; getting ready is half the fun. All spring and summer is spent with the new pup, getting him or her ready to retrieve countless limits. The boat is cleaned up and the motor tuned; it purrs like a kitten. New decoys are rigged and ready to attract birds by the thousands. Duck report is out..plenty of ducks! Now all we need is to go out there and get them, right? Wrong.  

Every season is different from the one before. So many variables go into habitat conditions both on the breeding and wintering grounds that hunting success is impossible to predict. Bobby Cox is a retired biologist who spent 12 years on the front lines of waterfowl management for the federal government. He has witnessed the roller coaster ride waterfowl hunting is, and shared his thoughts on why consistently good hunting is so hard to achieve from season to season.

“Estimates of large numbers of ducks are never a bad thing, but they don’t tell the whole story,” he said. “What were the weather patterns over the spring and summer in your hunting area? How have conditions changed since last season? How many young birds hatched and survived to migrate this fall? The answers to these questions are the real predictors of how good a season will be.”

Bobby explained that year-to-year variations in habitat should be a much bigger concern to hunters than population numbers.

“Most duck hunters have that ‘favorite spot’ they love to hunt, and it’s based on good hunts there over the years. In these areas, however, some seasons are invariably better than others. Why? Because of habitat change. For example, dry conditions dominated your area and moist soil grass seeds lay dormant. Then fall rains hit, the seeds germinated, and the perfect amount of natural food and water made the area very attractive to waterfowl. This year the spring and summer were very wet and those grasses overgrew and choked out a location with too much growth. Hunting then becomes difficult if not impossible, all due to weather timing.”

Cox concluded that ultimately local habitat variation drives hunter success and not population numbers.

No other waterfowling is driven more by nesting achievement than snow goose hunting. If the population consists on millions of adults then decoying birds will be very difficult. Only a million birds, but they have a great nesting year? If so, then hunting will be very good. This applies to ducks, Canada geese, specklebellies, the whole lot. It’s only common sense that more young birds equals birds with little or no experience and that means more feet down in the decoys.

And nesting success relies on cover and water in the heavy production regions of North America such as Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario in Canada and the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota in the US. Bottom line, weather determines happy hunters in both nesting and wintering scenarios.

Many hunters are certain that temperature is the biggest factor in bird movement: cold equals migration. For two species, mallards and snow geese, this is true although exceptions are always possible. But for the vast majority of ducks and geese, they base migration patterns on the calendar. The autumnal equinox marks the beginning of fall every year and it already happened on September 22. This is when the plane of the earth’s equator passes through the sun’s disc, once in fall and once in the spring.

Many duck species, such as pintails, gadwall, wigeon and teal are triggered by changes in daylight to begin heading south for the winter. Whether or not they stay in your area depends upon what they find when they get there.

What all of this means to the waterfowl hunter is this -- being willing to adapt from year to year separates the good hunters from the best. Knowing your hunting locations intimately pays huge dividends, so preseason scouting is at a premium. See how things are different, they almost certainly will be, and plan accordingly. It’s always good to hear that populations are up, but don’t think means heavy straps and smiling faces on every hunt this season.