The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently released its annual waterfowl forecast report, "Trends in Duck Breeding Populations," and the results look promising for waterfowlers this season.
The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, conducted over 2 million square miles of North American waterfowl habitat in May and early June, estimates that 49.2 million birds will take to the skies in 2014.
Start finessing the final touches of your blind blueprint. It could be a busy season with the report projecting an eight percent increase in total duck population over last year's estimate of 45.6 million birds.
The preliminary estimate puts 2014 at a 43 percent increase over the long-term average thanks to high spring precipitation levels and a total pond estimate (U.S. and prairie Canada combined) reaching 7.2 million ponds.
"This spring, as has been the case for the past several years, saw abundant moisture across much of North America's most important duck breeding areas," Ducks Unlimited Chief Biologist Scott Yaich said. "That bodes well for duck breeding success this summer and, we hope, for hunting this fall."
Despite opportunities for heightened breeding success, continual loss of wetland and grassland nesting habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region still hampers strong fall flights.
Overall, the survey found 2014 to be an especially encouraging year for blue-winged teal and American wigeon. Blue-winged teal estimated abundance is 8.5 million, surpassing the 2013 estimate of 7.7 million, 75 percent above the long-term average. The American wigeon estimate of 3.1 million is 18 percent above the 2013 estimate. Mallard numbers remain similar to last year's with an estimate of 10.9 million birds turning hunters' eyes to the sky this fall.
It's no wonder Louisiana
leads the country in overall duck harvests. Bayou State hunters killed about 2.8 million birds in 2012, more than twice as many as were harvested Arkansas. That's due in part because where the Mississippi Delta meets the Gulf of Mexico is an endless swamp, a sea of marshes, backwaters, grass flats and other first-rate duck habitat. It helps that the birds can't go any farther south without crossing the Gulf of Mexico, of course, but they can go all the way to the tip of the boot to 115,000-acre Pass a Loutre WMA or nearby Delta NWR. Both offer great freelancing opportunities. Other WMAs are generously scattered throughout the region.
ACE Basin, South Carolina
Mild winters can mean slow days in the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Basin, but teal and resident wood ducks always seem to make an appearance at a couple of public areas in the ACE Basin. Strong cold fronts can bring in a mix of big ducks, though, and buffleheads and other divers show up on the salt marsh in good numbers, too. Located in South Carolina's Low Country, the ACE is a mix of seasonally-flooded bottomlands, salt and brackish marsh and mixed upland forest. The best hunting tends to be on well-managed private ground, but hunting is permitted on 12,000-acre Hollings ACE Basin NWR, as well as a couple of managed state lands
through a lottery.
Arkansas Public Timber
Call it combat hunting or call it one of the best public opportunities in duck country. Whatever you want to call any number of Arkansas' public green timber areas, you can count on lots of company and gobs of ducks when the birds show up. Places like Rainey Brake WMA or White River NWR offer thousands of acres of knee-deep water. Get there early. Word travels fast and locals and out-of-staters alike all jockey for a hole in the trees. Some hunters can get a bit, um, carried away in their desire to stake out a patch of timber, but most play nice. Toss out a small spread, kick the water and call, call, call to mallards winging just above the tree tops.
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Beaver Dam, Mississippi
If you listen closely, you might hear the ghost of Nash Buckingham hitting a few high balls followed by the booming of Bo Whoop, his AH Fox double, echoing through the cypress trees. Okay, maybe not. But if you want to get a taste of what the legendary waterfowler and writer experienced back in the day, head to Beaver Dam, a 1,200-acre oxbow lake near Tunica, Mississippi. Gadwalls are the primary species, but mallards and woodies are abundant, as well. Access, however, isn't. There are no public access points on the lake, but a handful of guides
can lead you on a hunt that steps back in time.
Central California Refuge Hunts
Four refuges that make up the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge System
are open to hunting, offering a mixed-bag opportunity in a region brimming with ducks. Refuge access is gained through a handful of methods, including reserving a date in advance, applying through a lottery or by standing in the 'sweat line ' where hunters wait to fill no-show slots. Hunters average two to four birds per day, not bad for heavily-hunted public ground. The rules are strict, but hunt a couple of times and you'll feel like a regular.
The Dakotas are duck hunting heaven, but they aren't the only states in the Prairie Pothole Region that offer fantastic hunting for unpressured birds. The wide-open spaces of eastern Montana are laced with rivers and dotted with stock ponds and potholes. Even better, public opportunities are abundant. About 2.5 million acres of private land on 322 properties is enrolled in the state's Block Management Program in Region 7, which covers about , and another 3.8 million acres of land is owned by the federal or state government. Much of it is open to public hunting.
Central North Dakota
Limits may be higher and crowds a bit lighter, but if you don't want the hassle of hunting Canada, hunt south of the border in North Dakota. Public opportunities on waterfowl production areas
abound and private land that isn't posted is also open to hunting without permission. Even posted land can be accessed by knocking on a few doors and asking politely. North Dakota may be the last best place for duck hunters. Early-season birds aren't always in full color, but action can be red-hot before the countless potholes freeze. Later, focus on corn fields near big water.
Great Salt Lake
Mud motors and airboats dominate the Great Salt Lake duck hunting scene
, but when the access areas freeze solid, airboats rule. Roar across the ice and snow towards open water, stick a hundred duck silhouettes in the shallow mud bottom and toss out a few dozen decoys. When the birds are in, the action can be crazy. Hunting is done from layout blinds or coffin tubs, low plastic tubs that allow you to keep a low profile while staying dry. Some hunters hide in the vegetation close to open water. Limits of green-wing teal, spoonies, goldeneyes and other species are common.
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
Few areas have as much waterfowling history as Maryland's Eastern Shore. Few ducks are part of the region's culture as the canvasback. Captain Jeff Coats
specializes in sea ducks and Chesapeake Bay divers and puts his clients on canvasbacks regularly. A variety of other species like long-tailed ducks, redheads, bluebills fill out the bag, and even the occasional mallard or black duck make an appearance on the open water. Visit the Ward Museum
in Salisbury after a morning hunt, or make the trek across the Bay to the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum
on your way home.
Rhode Island Sea Ducks
It's tough to choose a single destination for sea ducks. Scoters and eiders are abundant up and down much of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Alaska has some of the most diverse species available, but getting there? Plan on spending a small fortune. Instead, head to Rhode Island, which doesn't get the pressure other New England states can get. Not only does it offer an abundance of ducks in a laid-back atmosphere, it's legal to hunt on Sunday, something Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut can't say. Do-it-yourself hunts are an option, but big water calls for experience and a guide
can put you on birds in short order.