Keep riding the wave, folks. Nothing good lasts forever. Biologists fear there's a crash in duck and goose populations out there in the not-so-distant future. But for at least this year, we are in high cotton.
The 49.5-million ducks that headed to the breeding grounds last spring were the most ever counted. The previous record was last year's 49.2 million.
It seems like we've been saying every year's breeding population is the most ever for the past several years. And we have. The ducks aren't slowing down.
"We just keep blowing the top off the overall duck numbers," said Kent Van Horn, a migratory gamebird ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The breeding population of ducks this year was up about 1 percent over 2014, and is 43 percent above the long-term average from 1955-2014. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the current count of breeding ducks included the most mallards (11.6 million) and green-winged teal (4.1 million) ever documented.
"I can't tell guys enough to get out there," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "It's not going to get any better than this, and someday we're not going to have all these birds."
Hunters are taking notice of the record-high waterfowl numbers. Last year, the number of waterfowl hunters in the U.S. increased over the previous year for the first time in a long time. Some 1.1 million waterfowl hunters loaded their shotguns last season — up from 1.02 million the year before. The number of duck hunters grew from 881,400 in 2013 to 961,500 in 2014. The number of goose hunters climbed from 561,900 in '13 to 616,700 in '14.
Unfortunately, that jump in participation didn't translate to an increase in the number of birds in the bag. The total U.S. duck harvest was estimated at 13.3 million, which was down from 13.7 million in 2013. The goose harvest — which includes all species — was 2.5 million, down from 2.7 million in '13. We all know that just because we show up in a particular spot, it doesn't mean the birds will.
Habitat conditions across North America were pretty good during the spring nesting season. The total pond count was estimated at 6.3 million last spring, which was 12 percent below the 2014 count, but still 21 percent above the long-term average.
In the eastern half of Canada, the birds had it easy. Ontario had areas rated as excellent, good and fair, and then regions to the east was either good or fair. None of the habitat was considered to be in poor shape.
Moving west, there were some pockets of poor habitat. Tiny pieces of prairie in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were deemed to be in poor shape, while the rest of the provinces up into Northwest Territories were considered to be either in good or fair shape. Alaska's important waterfowl nesting grounds were all in excellent shape.
The key areas in the Lower 48 are where the worst conditions existed. Basically all of South Dakota's habitat was rated as poor. Same goes for slices of southern and eastern North Dakota. The rest of North Dakota and Montana were rated as good or fair.
Mike Szymanski, North Dakota Game and Fish Department's migratory gamebird biologist, disputes the "poor" rating for any of North Dakota's waterfowl habitat.
"I saw their map," he said of the USFWS nesting habitat report. "We were fair to good before the rain came (in late spring) and then it just got better. We're sitting pretty decent for duck production.
"I'd say it's similar to 2013, and I don't think anybody said that was a bad year."
The only real change in duck hunting regulations this year is the addition of a second canvasback to the daily bag limit, nationwide. We had a two-bird bag two years ago, then it switched back to one last year, and now we're back up to two again.
"I think anybody should be excited about two canvasbacks," said Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It's pretty rare."
Conditions on the nesting grounds favored by the continent's various populations of geese were largely favorable. Some places had it better than others. Good to excellent gosling production was expected for goose populations that nest in the western Arctic and Alaska.
Variable-to-average production was expected for populations that nest in the central and eastern Arctic, with average to below-average production expected in areas along western Hudson Bay and Baffin Island, where the winter chill lingered and late ice and snow melt occurred.
"I don't think anyone is going to be hurting for geese this year," said Rocco Murano, waterfowl biologist with South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
Across southern Canada and throughout the U.S., conditions for geese were generally good, with the exception being the central prairies and western states, where dry conditions persisted.
"Overall, production of temperate-nesting Canada geese from most of their North American range was expected to be average," the 2015 USFWS waterfowl report states.
The following is a flyway-by-flyway, wildfowl forecast look at duck and goose population and hunting forecasts for the 2015-16 season. It's shaping up to be another great year for waterfowlers, so like Vrtiska said, "get out there."
Wood ducks had a good nesting season, and should have a strong fall flight. Mallards and black ducks in the flyway should be average. Look for a fall flight of Canadas similar to last year, while snow geese should be more abundant, with a good number of juveniles.
For ducks, 60 days between Sept. 26 and Jan. 31, 2016. Six ducks total, with no more than 4 mallards (2 hens), 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 hooded mergansers, 2 pintails, 2 scaup, 2 canvasbacks, 1 black duck, 1 mottled duck, 1 fulvous whistling duck and 4 scoters. Limit on mergansers is 6, only two of which can be hooded.
For light geese, 107 days between Oct. 1 and March 10, 2016, as set by each individual state. Daily bag limit of 25. Canada goose season length varies. Daily bag limit of 5 in zones established for resident populations of Canada geese.
In hunt zones established for migratory populations, daily bag limit of 5 or fewer to vary among states and areas. Atlantic brant season length can be 30 days. Daily bag limit of 1.
Daily canvasback limit increased from one bird to two; daily brant limit cut from two birds to one.
The wood duck harvest was up last season, but kills for many other species in the flyway declined. Mallards dropped from 328,029 in 2013 to 294,063 last year; lesser scaup declined from 143,503 to 117,832; black ducks fell from 75,104 to 56,511; and buffleheads also dropped from 84,955 to 78,452.
Wood ducks were the bright spot in the Atlantic Flyway last year, with hunters taking 403,956 woodies, as compared to 326,423 in 2013. Wood ducks are the most-shot ducks in the Atlantic Flyway. Other increases were seen in the takes of green-winged teal — 115,303 last year, as compared to 113,113 in 2013 — and gadwall (90,036 last year, as compared to 80,107 in 2013).
Hope springs eternal for the 2015 hunt on the East Coast.
'The wet summer we've experienced to date should provide above average water on the landscape to attract migrating waterfowl this fall, ' said Kevin Jacobs, waterfowl biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Count on plenty of woodies and teal making the migration this year.
'Wood ducks should have had a good nesting season this year, and we get lots of green-winged teal from eastern Canada, which had decent nesting conditions, ' Hindman said. 'We had good brood cover, which is good for duckling survival. '
As I noted in the introduction, ducks and geese that nest in eastern Canada had pretty decent conditions last spring. Biologists believe that translated to good duckling production, which means lots of young birds in the fall flight.
'We've got lots of ducks in North America right now, ' said Maryland's Hindman. 'That's always a good start for hunting season. '
Sliding down into the northeast U.S., nesting conditions were a bit rougher, due to a prolonged, snowy, frigid winter. Record snowfalls and record cold were experienced in many places across the northeast U.S.
Overall, breeding populations of ducks in the northeast U.S. remain down. This year's count was similar to last, which is 14 percent below the long-term average.
Atlantic Flyway waterfowlers could use a good season this fall, since last year's was off just a bit. The flyway's total duck kill dropped from 1.6 million in 2013 to 1.5 million last year.
Atlantic Flyway goose hunters didn't fare any better than duck hunters last year, even though more of them turned out to hunt last season (131,700) than the year before (126,500), marking the first time in many years that the number of goose hunters didn't decline from one year to the next.
Last year, goose hunters bagged 636,520 Canadas, as compared to 676,726 in 2013. The snow-goose take dropped from 29,255 in 2013 to 20,080 last year.
Atlantic Flyway goose hunters rely on the Atlantic Population, Southern James Bay Population and Atlantic Flyway Resident Population Canadas for the majority of their honker hunting. The number of Atlantic Population Canadas has been holding steady for the past decade or so.
This year, the total population was similar to last year, but the number of breeding pairs was down a bit. Still, with decent conditions on the breeding grounds, biologists expect an average fall flight of Atlantic Population Canadas this fall.
The number of breeding Southern James Bay Canadas has been trending down for the past decade. This year's breeding population count was 32 percent below the 2014 count. But, there was an average to below-average snow pack on the population's wintering grounds, and spring brought rapid snow melt to the breeding grounds. So the nesting effort likely was good and an average fall flight of these birds is expected.
The flyway's resident birds had to cope with a frigid winter and lots of snow through much of their range. Fortunately for the geese, however, spring was dry in the flyway. Although nesting efforts started a little later than normal, good gosling production was expected, and so an average fall flight is predicted.
'In states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, the Canada goose is king, ' Hindman said. 'Those hunters should have plenty of geese to work with this season. '
Mallards, teal, canvasbacks and gadwall are all up. Wood ducks should be up too. Canada geese had good nesting conditions, and an above-average fall flight is expected. White-fronts are up, and extra hunting opportunities are possible. Look for an average fall flight of snow geese.
For ducks, 60 days between Sept. 26 and Jan. 31, 2016, as set by each individual state. Bag limit of 6 ducks daily, with up to 4 mallards (2 hens), 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 pintails, 3 scaup, 2 canvasbacks, 1 black duck and 1 mottled duck. Daily bag for mergansers is 5, only two of which can be hooded. For Canada geese, seasons generally between Sept. 26 and Jan. 31, 2016, with season lengths set by each state. Limit varies from 1 to 3 daily.
For light geese, 107 days between Sept. 26 and March 10, 2016, with daily bag limit of 20. For white-fronted geese, season proposed in Ala., Iowa, Ind., Mich., Minn., Ohio and Wisc. would not exceed 107 days with a 5-bird daily bag in aggregate with dark geese; and in Ark., Ill., La., Ky., Mo., Miss. and Tenn., not to exceed 74 days with a 3-bird limit, or 88 days with a 2-bird limit, or 107 days with a 1-bird limit between Sept. 26 and Feb. 14, 2016.
Daily limit on canvasbacks increased from one bird to two; white-front season split within the flyway, with opportunities to take more birds per day, depending on the state.
The other ducks of greatest importance to Mississippi Flyway hunters include gadwalls, green-winged teal and blue-winged teal. All are at or near their all-time high populations. Gadwalls are 100 percent above their long-term average; green-winged teal are 98 percent above their average; and blue-winged teal are 73 percent above normal.
'The number of ducks is just unbelievable, ' said Andy Raedeke, a resource scientist with Missouri Department of Conservation. 'It's unbelievable to me that we are going into our 19th year of a 60-day duck season, and we still have record numbers of ducks. '
Van Horn said duck hunters in Wisconsin ought to be particularly excited about the prospect of a doubling of the daily canvasback limit from one to two birds. Canvasbacks showed up on the breeding grounds in big numbers across their range this spring. The total number of breeding canvasbacks was estimated at 800,000. They showed gains ranging from 17 to 96 percent in six of the eight areas where they are surveyed.
'Seventy percent of the continent's canvasback population migrates through Wisconsin, ' Van Horn said. 'The chance to take two of them per day just doesn't come around all that often. '
Overall, Mississippi Flyway waterfowlers had a down year in 2014. The total duck kill was 6.5 million, down from 6.8 million in 2013; and the goose kill was 995,200, which was below the 1.2 million they took the previous year. But that doesn't mean hunting was lackluster throughout the flyway.
When it comes to snow geese, Atlantic Flyway hunters rely mainly on the population of greater snow geese that nest on Bylot and Baffin Islands in the North Atlantic and in Greenland. The population has been holding firm at around 800,000 birds the past few years, and that trend held this year.
Conditions on the nesting grounds were very good for the greater flocks this spring and gosling production was expected to be excellent. A strong fall flight of greaters is forecast this season, with lots of juvenile birds in the flocks. That's excellent news for Atlantic Flyway snow goose hunters.
If you can't get excited about the duck hunting prospects in the Mississippi Flyway, then you'd better have your pulse checked, says Wisconsin's Van Horn.
'The mallard numbers are huge, the blue-winged teal are too, ' he said. 'We have a lot of ducks and geese. '
As already reported, this year's breeding mallard count was the highest ever. Well the greenhead rules the Mississippi Flyway. Last year, hunters there missed bagging 2 million mallards by less than 8,000 birds. That was up from the 1.8 million they took in 2013. And there likely will be even more mallards in the fall migration this year.
Water was good through mid-summer in most places, including the Dakotas, which were flagged as 'poor ' by USFWS for nesting conditions. Mallards and green-winged teal at record highs; blue-winged teal near their record. More white-fronts expected in the migration, so bigger bags and/or longer seasons are in the works.
For ducks, 74 days (97 days in the High Plains Mallard Unit) between Sept. 26 and Jan. 31, 2016, as set by each individual state. Bag limit of 6 ducks total, with up to 5 mallards (2 hens), 3 wood ducks, 3 scaup, 2 redheads, 2 pintails, 2 canvasback and 1 mottled duck. Mottled duck season in Texas closed first five days of season. Bonus of 2 blue-winged teal allowed during first 16 days of duck season in Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. For Canada geese, in the East Tier, 107-day season between Sept. 26 and Feb. 14, 2016, with a daily bag limit of 8. East Tier states can set a 74-day season on white-fronted geese with a 3-bird daily limit, or an 88-day season with a 2-bird limit. In the West Tier, states can select 107-day season for dark geese, with a daily bag limit of 5. For light geese, 107 days between Sept. 26 and March 10, 2016, with daily bag limit of 50.
Daily limit on canvasbacks increased from one bird to two; daily bag for white-fronted geese increased by one per day in East Tier states.
The fourth factor, of course, is the ducks themselves. You have to have lots of ducks to shoot lots of ducks. In the Central Flyway, mallards are king, followed by gadwall, green-winged and blue-winged teal. All are at or near record highs.
'Our crops are looking good, so as long as the water holds and we get the right weather, it should be a lot of fun this season, ' Decker said.
'We carried a lot of ducks into the spring this year, ' said North Dakota's Szymanski. 'We've lost some habitat and we've lost some CRP, but the ducks are still finding a way. '
Central Flyway duck hunters did pretty well last season. The duck kill climbed from 2.7 million in 2013 to 2.8 million last year. That boost came, in part, from jumps in the mallard take from 721,127 in 2013 to 817,940 last season; the bag of blue-winged and cinnamon teal, from 399,602 in 2013 to 412,079 last year; and in the green-winged teal kill, from 332,482 in 2013 to 342,076 last year.
If all things fall correctly, Murano said this season could be as good as the 2014 hunt.
'It looks like we're set up for a fall flight similar to last year, and last year was pretty impressive, ' he said. 'The only birds that are of some concern are the pintail and the scaup. They're down a bit, but there's still a good number of them. '
The white-front forecast has Luke Naylor, a waterfowl biologist with Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, downright giddy.
'As a white-front hunter myself, I'm always excited about the white-front season coming in, ' he said.
As for the snow-goose crowd, the Mid-Continent Population of Light Geese, which includes both Ross's geese and lesser snows from the central Arctic, continues to hover above the 3-million-bird mark. Those birds encountered varied conditions on their respective nesting grounds — ice and snow on Southampton Island and Baffin Island; open ground and water in the Queen Maud Gulf region and central Arctic — and so the available information suggests an average fall flight is anticipated.
Don't panic Central Flyway waterfowlers. The USFWS rating of nesting conditions in South Dakota was bad, bad and bad. But there's more to the story for one of the most important duck factories in North America. The federal report correctly observed that it was really dry in SoDak during the survey period. But it started raining right at the end of the survey period, and conditions improved nicely.
'If we keep getting water like we've been, we should be in good shape for the fall, ' South Dakota's Murano said in late July.
There was more good water news just to the south in Nebraska.
'We've had some significant rains and all of our rivers and some of our basins are holding good water through the summer, ' said Karie Decker, assistant administrator for the Wildlife Division of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Water is one of the four most important factors that affect duck hunting. Two others are weather and food. Combined, those three dictate when and where migrating ducks show up during the fall and winter.
Drought conditions persist in California, but it's possible El Nino could change that. Pintails are down again this year, but nearly all of the Canada flocks that wing through the flyway had solid nesting seasons, and lots of honkers are expected. Same goes for light geese.
For ducks, 107 days between Sept. 26 and Jan. 31, 2016 as set by each individual state. Seven ducks total, with no more than 3 scaup, 2 hen mallards, 2 redheads, 2 pintails and 2 canvasback. For scaup, the season length is 86 days. For Canada geese, 107-day season between Sept. 26 and Jan. 31, 2016, bag limit 4; white-fronts and light geese, 107 days between Sept. 26 and March 10, 2016, bag limit of 10 for white-fronts and 20 for light geese. Brant, 16 days in Oregon and Washington, and 37 days in California, 2-bird daily limit.
Canvasback limit increased from one bird to two; brant season extended by seven days in California.
Elsewhere, conditions were looking pretty good during the summer. In Idaho, Jeff Knetter of Idaho Department of Fish and Game said the Snake River Valley had decent water, and was expecting good migrating conditions there.
'As long as our water holds, we're looking at some pretty good duck hunting, ' he said.
In the northern part of the flyway, conditions certainly are right this year for a killer duck season. Mallards, wigeons and green-winged teal all are up, and all are important to the flyway's waterfowlers. But duck hunters in Oregon and Washington will have a tough time topping the 2014 season. The total duck take in Washington last year climbed about 25 percent over 2013 to 395,000. In Oregon, it grew by 22 percent over 2013.
Canada goose hunters in the Pacific Flyway had a pretty good year in 2014. They boosted their kill from 271,000 to 314,000. This year could be another good one. Biologists predict average to above-average fall flights in the Pacific Population Canada, Dusky Canadas, Cackling Canadas and the Lesser and Taverner's Canadas. That's basically every type of Canada goose hunted in the Pacific Flyway.
Biologists expect above average gosling production, and an above-average fall flight of these birds is projected.
Of course, weather during the migration plays a role as to when and how long the migratory Canadas hang around specific areas. In North Dakota last fall, conditions were mild, which kept the birds in Saskatchewan into November, and then, all of a sudden, the mercury plummeted.
'Our migrants blew through North Dakota in literally three days, ' Szymanski said. 'So you never know what you're going to get from them. '
The various populations of snow geese and Ross's geese that wing up and down the Central Flyway all are showing strong numbers and had good nesting seasons. Same goes for white-fronts. Biologists predict a decent flight of these birds.
'I don't foresee a lack of snow geese in the Central Flyway, ' Murano said.
The biggest issue in the Pacific Flyway continues to be the lack of water in California. The Golden State is in the midst of a multi-year drought that has most areas in either extreme or exceptional drought — the two worst categories recognized. Any way you slice it, the dry conditions has impacted duck hunting in California. But that's not to say the impact has been all bad.
Water during this record dry spell is allocated by the California Water Resources Control Board to certain areas at certain times. The water allocations for much of the public duck-hunting areas have been cut in recent years, which means the state has had to reduce the number of duck hunters allowed on the refuges. But the refuges always get some water. The same can't be said for private clubs.
'The one thing I can say about the drought in California is that, if you have water, you have ducks, ' said Dan Skalos, environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 'Last year in California, 65 percent of the harvest came from public lands. Public land hunters took home more ducks than the private clubs. '
Will an El Nino turn things around for California this fall? Some forecasters during the summer were saying California could be deluged with rain during fall and winter as a result of a strong El Nino, and it's safe to say hunters will be doing their rain dance.
Nowhere in North America are pintails as important as they are in the Pacific Flyway. Hunters there shot 226,000 sprig last season, which is about half the total number taken in all four flyways. And within the Pacific Flyway, California is the X for pins, since hunters there took home more than half of the flyway total.
Pintails seem to be on a continuing slide, which is not surprising given the poor nesting conditions in the Dakotas the past few years. Their count dipped by 3 percent this year from last, and their numbers remain 24 percent below the long-term average
In Arkansas — the unofficial greenhead capital of North America — hunters boosted their total duck take to 1.2 million last season, as compared to 933,000 in 2013. That includes a 110,000 jump in the state's mallard kill. Missouri had a pretty good duck season, too. Their take climbed from 446,600 in 2013 to 480,100 last year.
Things worked out pretty good for us last season, ' Raedeke said. 'We're hoping for favorable conditions this year. '
Some Mississippi Flyway states, such as Missouri and Illinois, endured heavy flooding earlier this year. Raedeke said that flooding likely will limit the amount of food available for migrating waterfowl in some places this fall.
'Some of the native plants the ducks like didn't go to seed because of all the water, ' he said. Illinois, Tennessee and Wisconsin goose hunters all took home more geese last season than they did in 2013. They are the only states in the flyway that can make that claim.
Speaking of geese, nesting conditions were generally good across the states and Canadian provinces in the Mississippi Flyway this spring, and biologists noted average or above-average gosling production. Several flocks of honkers fly through the Mississippi Flyway. The biggest is the Mississippi Flyway Giant Population. Their total population was estimated this spring at 1.6 million. That's 11 percent higher than the 2014 count, and, thanks to decent production, a strong flight is expected this year.
The Mississippi Valley Population of Canadas, which winter in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, had a tough spring and a below-average flight is expected. The Eastern Prairie Population, which winters in Manitoba, Minnesota and Missouri, had a pretty good nesting season, and biologists expect above-average production.
Mid-continent population white-fronted geese nest across a wide swath of northern Canada before migrating south through Saskatchewan and Alberta to winter mainly in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mexico.
The numbers of these geese were up 29 percent last year over the previous count in 2012, and with good nesting conditions in the western Arctic and Alaska, and variable conditions in the central and eastern Arctic, gosling production was expected to be very good. The fall flight should be average to above average, according to the USFWS.
Goose hunters in the Central Flyway had a decent season last year, overall. The Canada goose take fell by 25,000 from 2013-2014, but the light goose kill climbed by 66,000 and the white-front take grew by 86,000 birds.
The honkers that hunters here rely on come largely from the Western Prairie and Great Plains populations. They are counted together because they intermingle throughout the Central Flyway. Their count was down a bit this spring as compared to 2014, but nesting conditions were favorable in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and central North Dakota. They were rated as poor in the rest of the Dakotas. Still, biologists expect average production and an average fall flight is expected.
'We're down from the peak of a few years ago, but that's not a bad thing, because they were giving us some problems, ' Murano said.
'There's still a heckuva lot of geese out there. '
The other Canadas important to the flyway, the Central Flyway Arctic Nesting Canada Geese, found excellent nesting conditions in the Northwest Territories this past spring