With low water and seemingly high resident duck numbers, October can’t come fast enough for northeastern hunters. Reports from Maine and New York down through southern New England confirm dry conditions are concentrating ducks around open water. In upstate New York, many hunters are betting early season success on the St. Lawrence River as ponds and swamps in the region have all but completely dried up, said Albany-based Avery Prostaffer Arliss Reed.
“Out scouting for deer in the woods I stumbled on a little pond and jumped 20 mallards,” he said. “There are hardly any ducks in the field, but driving around every visible pond has 20, 30 ducks. We’re seeing flocks of blue-wings of 40 to 50 birds, wood ducks everywhere. I just watched 100 brant in the Hudson Valley and they were rolling! They were on their way to Long Island!”
Large groups of early migrators moving out of southern Ontario and a week of below-average nighttime temperatures are surely moving the birds along. But with such dry weather, hunters in Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont-those lucky enough to have a season opener that first week in October-want to think late season tactics. Just like December and January hunts when most water is locked up with ice, the key to hunting dry weather conditions is finding that open water-big rivers, big ponds, big lakes. Places that don’t traditionally have ducks, but have water, are spots to check.
With warm sunny weather through much of fall and summer, farm ponds and swamps with low water have likely turned into prime, overgrown feeding zones. Find them and you may just find ducks dropping into your dekes just after sunrise.
“Our traditional opening day hole should have water in it,” Prostaffer Reed said. “but it’s going to be lower, so there’s tons of arrowhead and smartweed available dropping seeds. That’s what ducks are looking for in October. When the water’s way up they roost on it, but now because it’s so low it’s more a feeding swamp.”
South of the Mason-Dixon, teal season has all but officially wrapped up. Captain Clark Purvis of North Carolina’s Roanoke River Waterfowl opened the early season with three limits in three days before the birds pushed further south. “As soon as the temperature drops down in the 50s, the blue-wings will migrate and we had nights around 45, 47, 48,” he said. All told, Purvis spotted wads as big as 300 birds, which made for good hunting, but can’t compare to past years with 5,000-bird flocks in the area.
Captain Jeff Kraynik of The Coastal Sportsmen hunted three of Florida’s four-day teal and wood duck early season,and had some success, as the photo above indicates. Florida is having the opposite problem as the rest of the country: high water has spread out the birds.
“There was a lot of water during our gator season,” Kraynik said, “but we’re just coming into our dry season now, so if water management doesn’t release too much we should have a good [regular] season.”
Clients did well this early season, despite the water, Kraynik said, because they were able to setup within 20 yards of established flight paths. There’s plenty of food and bird numbers are up, but the big question mark for Florida duck hunters hasn’t played out yet: weather.
Even more so than other places, Florida duck hunting rests on a careful temperature balance. It takes cold fronts in the northern states to push birds that far south, but if it drops below freezing then birds bail for the Bahamas and Cuba. Twice in the last two years major freezes have pushed birds early. “Two years ago we were actually breaking ice in the marsh,” Kraynik said. “Normally we have mild winters. But these last couple has been bitter cold. We had to warm the airboats with heat guns to get them started. That was pretty miserable.”
It all proves that wherever you hunt, playing the local water levels could make or break your October early season.