Good News Ducks

Dust off the calls and shellbags; the ducks are back. Here are ten places to find 'em near.

Field & Stream Online Editors

"Hunters would call me last year," says Arkansas Waterfowl Biologist Tim Moser, "and they'd ask, ¿¿Where are the ducks?' I'd tell them, ¿¿Teal and gadwalls are way up,' and they'd say, ¿¿Yeah, yeah, we're shooting lots of those, but where are the ducks?'"

To Arkansas hunters, real ducks have green heads; everything else is just a "scrap duck." Not every hunter across the country draws such a hard line, but the mallard remains our most sought-after duck and the mainstay of the puddle duck harvest from New York to California.

Well, this year, the ducks are back. Breeding mallard numbers, which actually declined slightly between 1995 and 1996, shot up from 7.9 million to 9.9 million this year.

"This is the third full year of ideal water conditions on the prairies," says Lloyd Jones of Delta Waterfowl Foundation in North Dakota. "Mallards have been on the increase, and a building population has the potential to make these big jumps upward."

Not only are the prairies wet, but the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has idled millions of acres of vital upland nesting cover in the pothole region. One more wet year and the greenheads might break their all-time record of 11 million birds, set in 1958.

Meanwhile, the total duck harvest this fall could surpass last year's 13.8 million ducks. Just seven years ago at the end of the Dusty Eighties, by comparison, the nation's total bag was only 6.2 million.

Overall, breeding duck numbers this spring stood at 42.5 million, the highest figure since surveys began in 1955. Based on those numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) predicts a healthy fall flight of 92 million ducks. And mallards aren't the only good news in the forecast.

Pintails: Another species synonymous with "duck" for many hunters, pintails showed their first increase in almost fifteen years, from 2.75 million to 3.5 million birds. That's a giant step in the right direction, but still well below historic levels.

Teal: We have over 6 million bluewings and nearly 3 million greenwings, far above long-term averages. Most bluewings will be relaxing in Mexico when you read this, but look for plenty of fast, sporty greenwings over the decoys this fall.

Redheads: There are almost 1 million redheads, well above their North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP, the FWS blueprint for waterfowl conservation) goals.

Gadwalls: Called "Squareheads" in North Dakota and "gray ducks" in Louisiana, gadwalls increased by nearly 1 million birds this year, from 3 million to almost 4 million.

Widgeon: Their numbers still lag well below historic levels, but this year the widgeon population jumped an encouraging half million birds up to 3 million. Shovelers: The colorful "smiling mallards" continue to set population records.

Concerns
No matter how good the news this year, there's always reason for pessimism in the world of waterfowl. A 92 million duck fall flight definitely beats the 60 million bird flights of the 1980s, but the NAWMP called for fall flights of 100 million birds in an average year. We've got 92 million with the best water conditions in history. Moreover, certain species aren't recovering, despite ideal conditions.

Black ducks: This traditional northeastern favorite continues to decline as mallards pioneer eastward, hybridizing with and displacing blacks. Canvasbacks: Cans are slightly down this year, though they remain above NAWMP goals. "You hear about the clouds of canvasbacks hunters saw even as recently as the 1930s," says Delta's Jones, "and you wonder if we aren't setting the target number way too low."

Sea ducks: Very little research is done on sea ducks, but many biologists are concerned about both king eirs and oldsquaw.

Scaup: Scaup surveys haven't shown the expected population increases despite excellent conditions on their tundra/muskeg breeding grounds. On the other hand, some biologists believe scaup may be fooling the duck counters by nesting to the east, outside the duck survey areas.

Habitat: "We've been very lucky to have CRP in the U.S.," says Jones, "Canada has no similar program and a lot of the Canadian prairie is becoming a moonscape with water."

Ten Places to Go This Year
Two years of strange weather patterns -- 1995's early, storm-driven "Grand Passage," followed by last year's wishy-washy "Pineapple Express" -- proved conclusively that no matter how many ducks there are, they won't necessarily appear over your decoys with their wings cupped this fall.

Wind and weather rarely distribute the prairie duck bounty evenly across the country. So, if the weather cooperates, if the stars align, if the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. . . . Here, in no particular order, are ten places where we absolutely guarantee you'll see ducks this fall.

North Dakota: North Dakota is the freelance waterfowler's mecca; hunters can legally trespass on any unposted land. The potholes of North Dakota in October are the ultimate destination for a wandering hunter with a bag of decoys and a pair of chest waders. There's water everywhere this year -- and record numbers of breeding ducks.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Dept. FS, 100 N. Bismarck Expressway, Bismarck, ND 58501-5095, telephone (701) 328-6300.

Texas/Louisiana Coast: With gadwalls and teal at record numbers and pintails rebounding, the coast should be covered up with ducks this winter. There are guided rice field hunts for ducks and geese at Eagle Lake, west of Houston, and around Lake Charles, Louisiana. Cameron Parish, south of Lake Charles, recorded a higher duck harvest than the entire Atlantic flyway last season. Lacassine and Sabine National Wildlife Refuges in Cameron Parish are both open to public hunting.

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Dept. FS, 4200 Smith School Rd., Austin, TX 78744, telephone (800) 792-1112.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 98000, Baton Rouge, LA 70898, telephone (504) 765-2800.

California's Central Valley: Average-Joe hunters at the state and federal refuges in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys shoot as many pintails, mallards, and teal as the millionaires at the nearby private duck clubs. Go in the afternoon for an uncrowded hunt.

California Department of Fish & Game, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 944209, Sacramento, CA 94244-2090, telephone (916) 653-7664.

Eastern Washington: The dams along the Columbia River system not only created huge lakes, they brought water to arid eastern Washington. Mallards swarm into the irrigated cornfields from December on through January. There's plenty of public boat access on the Columbia River system and Potholes Reservoir. Hunters in Washington shot nearly half a million ducks last year, and the 107-day Pacific flyway season means lots of hunting opportunities.

Washington Department of Wildlife, Dept. FS, 600 Capital Way North, Olympia, WA 98501, telephone (360) 902-2200.

Stuttgart, Arkansas: Where the mallard is king. Numerous outfitters in the area will show you classic timber and field shooting. For hunters on a shoestring, Bayou Meto (say "Bayoumeeta") near Stuttgart is as good a public area as you'll find anywhere. Great flooded timber shooting, open to anyone with the price of a duck stamp.

Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, Dept. FS, 2 Natural Resources Dr., Little Rock, AR 72205, telephone (501) 223-6300.

Sandusky Bay/Detroit River/Lake St. Clair: The Lake Erie marshes are home to some of the nation's oldest, most exclusive duck clubs, like the Winous Point Shooting Club, founded in 1856. Fortunately, the Ohio Division of Wildlife also owns public access to the Lake Erie marshes, which sit at a major migratory crossroads. Meanwhile, November diver hunting on the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and western Lake Erie has come on strong in recent years. Some give the zebra mussel all the credit for cleaning the water and stimulating wild celery growth.

Ohio Division of Wildlife, Dept. FS, 1840 Belcher Dr., Columbus, OH 43224-1329, telephone (614) 265-6300.

Michigan DNR, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, MI 48909-7528, telephone (517) 373-1263.

Niobrara/Missouri River, Nebraska: The Missouri River has been dammed into a series of reservoirs running all the way from the Montana border to Nebraska. The water stays open late into the season on Lewis and Clark Lake near Yankton, South Dakota, holding mallards who find plenty to eat in the cornfields nearby. South Dakota's limited nonresident licenses sell out early, so hunt the Santee Indian Reservation on the south side of the river or launch a boat in Nebraska and hunt the Missouri or the Niobrara from mid-November through December.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 30370, Lincoln, NE 68503, telephone (402) 471-0641.

Mississippi Delta Timber: There are tons of public hunting opportunities along the Delta from Memphis to Natchez. Boat out to the cypress breaks on the Mississippi River oxbows and wait for the mallards to come back from breakfast in the ricefields. The Sunflower and Yazoo River basins north of Vicksburg feature green timber and cypress break hunting at a variety of national forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and state wildlife areas.

_Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Par_ks, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 451, Jackson, MS 39205-0451, telephone (601) 362-9212.

Pymatuning Reservoir, Pennsylvania: This mixed bag of big water, small lakes, and beaver ponds in northwest Pennsylvania attracts prairie mallards as they swing southeast off Lake Erie to follow the Susquehanna down toward the eastern seaboard. The November duck opener often coincides with the main flights.

_[Pooded timber shooting, open to anyone with the price of a duck stamp.

Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, Dept. FS, 2 Natural Resources Dr., Little Rock, AR 72205, telephone (501) 223-6300.

Sandusky Bay/Detroit River/Lake St. Clair: The Lake Erie marshes are home to some of the nation's oldest, most exclusive duck clubs, like the Winous Point Shooting Club, founded in 1856. Fortunately, the Ohio Division of Wildlife also owns public access to the Lake Erie marshes, which sit at a major migratory crossroads. Meanwhile, November diver hunting on the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and western Lake Erie has come on strong in recent years. Some give the zebra mussel all the credit for cleaning the water and stimulating wild celery growth.

Ohio Division of Wildlife, Dept. FS, 1840 Belcher Dr., Columbus, OH 43224-1329, telephone (614) 265-6300.

Michigan DNR, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, MI 48909-7528, telephone (517) 373-1263.

Niobrara/Missouri River, Nebraska: The Missouri River has been dammed into a series of reservoirs running all the way from the Montana border to Nebraska. The water stays open late into the season on Lewis and Clark Lake near Yankton, South Dakota, holding mallards who find plenty to eat in the cornfields nearby. South Dakota's limited nonresident licenses sell out early, so hunt the Santee Indian Reservation on the south side of the river or launch a boat in Nebraska and hunt the Missouri or the Niobrara from mid-November through December.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 30370, Lincoln, NE 68503, telephone (402) 471-0641.

Mississippi Delta Timber: There are tons of public hunting opportunities along the Delta from Memphis to Natchez. Boat out to the cypress breaks on the Mississippi River oxbows and wait for the mallards to come back from breakfast in the ricefields. The Sunflower and Yazoo River basins north of Vicksburg feature green timber and cypress break hunting at a variety of national forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and state wildlife areas.

_Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Par_ks, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 451, Jackson, MS 39205-0451, telephone (601) 362-9212.

Pymatuning Reservoir, Pennsylvania: This mixed bag of big water, small lakes, and beaver ponds in northwest Pennsylvania attracts prairie mallards as they swing southeast off Lake Erie to follow the Susquehanna down toward the eastern seaboard. The November duck opener often coincides with the main flights.

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