By Nick Simonson
Conditions have set waterfowl hunters up for a successful season as a summer with plentiful rains and lush resulting vegetation have helped raise a good population of resident waterfowl throughout much of the state and sustain an increased number of huntable areas as the season gets going. With the resident waterfowl opener complete and the general season starting this weekend, there is much to look forward to, according to Mike Szymanski, Migratory Game Bird Management Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F), along with some conditions and items hunters should be aware of as they enter the field.
A Strong Start
“It was kind of an unusual year just in how wet it was,” Szymanski states “we came into spring breeding – when we were starting to attract breeding pairs to North Dakota – in pretty good shape; it’s one of those interesting years where our wetland index got classified as average, it was actually dead on to the 72-year average,” adding that while the north-central area of the state was drier, the rest of the state had very strong production of young ducks as a result of the ample water in prairie potholes.
Requiring not only the wetland areas to settle into and reside for the summer season, ducks also need surrounding cover in the form of grasslands where they will nest and conceal their young. With this upland cover fairing well and recovered from the drought of 2017, ducks found good conditions to not only nest but also raise their young.
“Ducks had a lot of opportunities this year to make nesting attempts with the continued rainfall and very lush upland cover for nesting, birds really stayed on it for a long time and we had a very protracted nesting effort and as a result produced a lot of ducks in a lot of the areas of the state,” Szymanski shares, stating that the prevalence of good grass around potholes is key to reproduction and protection of the nest from predators such as skunks, raccoons and foxes.
While last weekend’s rain may have dampened hunter participation in the early opener for North Dakota residents, pockets of hunters who were able to get out for the special start reported good results, particularly in the northeast. While the rain certainly has some drawbacks including muddy fields and the rendering of some country roads impassible, it does provide unique opportunities that may not have been available in past seasons. Among the challenges that visiting hunters and residents continuing to pursue waterfowl will find this weekend and going forward are standing crops and field hunting areas which may have been harvested earlier last year.
“[It’s] a little bit of a delayed harvest compared to other years for crop fields, we’ve got some soybeans coming off but there are some small grains and even canola standing; the big thing folks are going to watch out for are the wet conditions and really making sure they’re staying out of low spots in fields and probably just planning on walking their stuff out in many cases,” Szymanski advises, “but by and large we should have a pretty good opener here, we’ve got good conditions yet and lots of ducks around, and lots of Canada geese,” he predicts.
While resident birds are what will provide the primary hunting action as the calendar turns to October, Szymanski is eyeing the upcoming shift in the weather predicted next week, where cooler temperatures may trigger some movement from ducks up north down into the area.
“It’s a little bit early to expect those fronts to push birds down, but we should start seeing some stuff move, maybe later this next week – there’s going to be quite a few days strung together that are going to be pretty cold at night,” he advises, “we’re losing our local bluewings on a daily basis, but that’s normal, they start migrating in August, so we lose those birds throughout the late summer leading up to our hunting season,” advising that resident waterfowl also move from wetland-to-wetland on a daily basis and hunters should do their scouting to find ducks and pattern their movements.
Eye to the Future
While this spring’s duck production was good, and in the top 25 results obtained since the agency began its production survey program, concerns over decreasing habitat and the removal of wetlands from the landscape remain the primary threat to waterfowl production in the state, particularly for ducks. As the habitat goes, so do the birds and hunters should be aware that while the spring conditions boosted populations for this autumn, protecting existing habitat and restoring what once was will be the path to consistently higher duck numbers.
“Our resident population of ducks primarily is probably on the downturn, long-term; it’s going to be tough sledding in the future as we lose CRP habitats,” Szymanski advises, adding that Canada geese populations are strong and may be doing too well, “that’s why we have our ultra-liberal hunting opportunities with the management take in August and the early September season and then daily limit of 8 birds a day during the regular season, we really want to see folks letting hunters out to pursue those birds to use the hunting activity to knock back local populations,” he concludes.
With over 791,000 acres of PLOTS in the agency’s program which allows hunters access to private lands for hunting activities and thousands of acres of federally regulated Waterfowl Production Areas available, maintaining those opportunities are important to keep hunters on birds and participating each fall.
“It’s a really integral part of the hunting access portfolio in North Dakota, we’ve got to have areas that have this wide array of state-run lands, federal-run lands, and private lands and walk-in programs to stitch it all together,” Szymanski stresses, “you’ve got to have that stuff spread throughout the landscape so that there’s opportunities to pursue game in North Dakota and it’s really important to have those around to attract [hunters] to those communities,” he concludes.
The general waterfowl opener, which starts the season for non-resident hunters, is Sat., Sept. 28. The waterfowl season has been open to North Dakota residents since Sept. 21.
Featured Photo: Even small roadside puddles held ducks, like these three mallard drakes, this spring and summer. With renewed rains, hunters will have a lot of potholes to choose from for some unique settings for their decoys this autumn. Simonson Photo.