August 11, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
For more than a year now, American hunters—including those that love the grand game of fall waterfowl hunting—have been shaking their heads at disappointing news headlines, even when it comes to many coming from the outdoors world.
Take last year, for example, a time when waterfowl fall flight numbers were strong, but American hunters were locked out of the prime hunting grounds of Canada as the COVID-19 pandemic closed the border between the U.S. and its neighbor to the north.
Thankfully, the land border between the two nations opened on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020—provided you meet requirements and are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, that is—in a long awaited move that left long lines of citizens waiting to get across to one side or the other according to various news reports.
For waterfowlers dreaming of hunting ducks and geese a few weeks from now in September as waterfowl start to stage and move on the Canadian prairies, if you’ve taken the vaccinations against coronavirus, the news is finally good, and you can start packing for a trip north.
Down on Ducks
The problem is, there may not be nearly as many ducks to shoot at as there were a year ago, and certainly, over the last decade when spring habitat conditions have helped spur on some tremendous fall flights. This year, poor habitat could mean tougher hunting than usual in Canada, and eventually, further south in the U.S. as ducks push down the flyways.
Why is that? In general, it’s because winter snows and spring rains never really came to the fabled Duck Factory, and the guess—and that’s all it really is at this point—is that waterfowlers can likely expect to see fewer ducks migrating south this fall.
The primary evidence of that sad possibility—after the cancellation of the annual May breeding population survey and spring pond count effort for the second year in a row—is that in the absence of hard, on the ground data from biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service, duck hunters must turn to nuggets of information still being produced in other places like North Dakota.
And that information from the Peace Garden state certainly suggests that fall flight numbers will likely be down this fall, at least if mid-July duck production survey results from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department can be applied elsewhere. In fact, biologists in the state at the top of the Central Flyway have warned that this year’s fall flight could be something that many current duck hunters aren’t accustomed to.
North Dakota Game & Fish (NDGF)biologist Mike Szymanski, the migratory game bird management supervisor for North Dakota, said that observations from the state’s mid-July duck production survey show that numbers are down some 36-percent from last year.
Expand Your Opportunities
“Hunters should expect waterfowl hunting to be difficult in North Dakota this year, with the lone bright spot being Canada goose hunting,” said Szymanski, in the NDGF news release. “Nonetheless, localized concentrations of ducks, geese and swans will materialize throughout the hunting season as birds migrate through the state.”
Given the uncertainty heading into this autumn’s duck hunting seasons, Szymanski said that hunters might want to take advantage of early hunting opportunities they find this year, at least in his state. “Hunters should take advantage of early migrants like blue-winged teal during the first two weeks of the season,” he said. “We won’t be able to depend on local duck production to the extent that we have in the past.”
That’s troubling news for duck hunters elsewhere, especially in light of the fact that North Dakota is a part of the fabled Duck Factory and often supports some of the best waterfowling action found anywhere in the U.S. each year. But the lack of snowmelt at the end of last winter, the lack of rain this spring and summer, and warm temperatures have caused intensifying drought conditions to severely impact duck habitat across North Dakota. In fact, state biologists say that breeding conditions were fair at best, very poor at worst, and led the wetland index in the Peace Garden State to decline by some 80%.
While North Dakota biologists estimated that there were 2.9 million ducks present late this spring during the NDGF’s 74th annual breeding duck survey back in May, Szymanski said at the time that the behavioral clues seen by biologists suggested that breeding efforts by those ducks would be low this summer.
Unfortunately, his guess proved to be accurate.
“Conditions are not good statewide and, after a high count in 2020, the decline in wetlands counted represented the largest one-year percentage-based decline in the 74-year history of the survey,” said Szymanski. “Overall, this year’s breeding duck index was the 48th highest on record, down 27% from last year, but still 19% above the long-term average.”
While that last bit of information—the fact that this year’s breeding duck index is still 19% above the long-term average—is good, Szymanski said that the number of broods observed by his biologists a few weeks ago fell 49% from last year’s count and is also a disappointing 23% below the average seen from 1965-2020.
While the number of duck broods observed last month is the lowest since 1994, Szymanski did note that the count this year was at 6.46 ducklings, a figure down 4% from last year, but still 62% above the long-term average.
To understand the numbers a little better, it’s important to note that North Dakota biologists arrived at their summer duck brood survey information by traversing 18 routes found in all sectors of the state, except west and south of the Missouri River. During those survey routes, NDGF biologists annually count and classify duck broods and water areas within 220 yards of either side of the roadway. Started in the mid-1950s, the mid-July duck brood survey has used the same survey routes since 1965.
While the news earlier this year was down, and the news from last month even more so, there’s still one more chance for North Dakota waterfowl biologists to find some better news to pass along this year. And that will come in mid-September when they will assess the state’s wetland conditions heading into fall hunting campaigns.
For now, Szymanski says that while this year’s figures in his state are certainly disappointing, the sky isn’t falling. Yet, that is. “At this point, we are not overly concerned about undue negative impacts of the harvest on ducks during this season, but we’ll re-evaluate the situation during the federal regulations process,” he said. “One year of drought won’t be a disaster for ducks, but we could have issues if these conditions continue into next year.”
So what does all of this mean for duck hunters elsewhere in the continental United States and Canada this fall?
It’s hard to say, since waterfowl populations are dynamic and can sometimes adjust to conditions. That could mean that it’s possible that some ducks overflew the southern Prairie Pothole region in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, going on to the Parkland wetland areas found in central Canada.
Theoretically, that could mean that maybe just a few species could have adjusted to poor conditions down south and pulled off a stronger breeding effort. But unfortunately, that can’t be confirmed.
All that can be confirmed this summer is that things are dry in North Dakota and that duck numbers certainly appear to be down. “This is the bad news we knew was coming,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl in a news release. “The reduction in water is staggering. It’s the highest percentage decrease in the history of the North Dakota survey.”
That’s an amazing fact when one considers that 2020 was the sixth wettest year on record in North Dakota, months before 2021 became the fifth driest year in 74 years of record keeping during the NDGF’s annual waterfowl survey efforts. It’s important to note that we’re not talking about a population collapse here, just a year on the prairies that is dry and will likely result in a lowered fall flight this year. “Duck populations remain strong, but I don’t expect a ton of juveniles in the fall flight,” said Rohwer, who also noted that there would likely be little if any renesting efforts in a one-and-done breeding year along with the fact that duckling survival could be low this year.
All of that could mean tougher hunting conditions down the flyways this year in duck honey holes located well to the south of North Dakota. “Experienced, adult birds are far tougher to decoy, which will challenge hunters — especially in Louisiana, Texas and other regions of the southern United States,” added Rohwer.
Delta Waterfowl’s Kyle Wintersteen did note in his news release, however, that the not all breeding duck news is bad this year from other states.
With the mixed news trickling out of other places, it’s worth noting that while habitat isn’t all that great in Wisconsin, duck numbers are fairly good according to Delta Waterfowl’s news release. Similarly, Michigan has had an apparently promising year of duck production while Oregon has seen its duck breeding efforts improve by 3% from last year and check in at only one-percentage point below the long-term average.
What does all of that mean? Things are definitely dry in a good portion of the continent’s prime duck country this summer, and that could result in less ducks in some spots later on this fall.
But with the duck breeding news mixed in some other places, and with localized hunting conditions being highly variable from one spot to another, waterfowlers that live for the whisper of wings over an autumn marsh still have plenty of reason to set the alarm clock early this season.
Because there will be ducks, the days will shorten, and the north wind will blow, urging North America’s ducks and geese to vault into the sky and make the long trek south through the flyways towards their wintering grounds. And because of that annual migration urge, when it comes to the grand and glorious sport of chasing ducks and geese, you get up and go because you just never know what might happen, now do you?
Editor’s Note: As of this writing, the border between the U.S. and Canada is open, although lines are reported to be extremely long. While Wildfowl hasn’t received any official information saying that the border will close again, the situation is fluid and rumors persist that additional border closures could happen in the future if rising COVID-19 case numbers don’t reverse in the U.S. If you have waterfowling plans in Canada this year, check with your travel providers and outfitters often, and of course, keep checking back at Wildfowl.com for the latest news concerning 2021-22 waterfowl hunting seasons.