Scenes like these, with Canada geese and other waterfowl setting their wings coming into the decoys was a common sight, a few years ago, but the decrease in many waterfowl numbers along with the warm fall and into winter weather we’ve had, made 2020 a tough waterfowling year. (Gary Howey Photo)
Well, It happened, the regular goose season has come to an end in most of the Midwest and much like what’s going on with the Covid, nothing seems to be as it used to.
Witt this year’s waterfowl season wasn’t the best, as the unusual weather we had this fall and winter, the waterfowl didn’t need to come south until later, where they could stay up north where the weather was very accommodating, unusually warm.
On of our Team Members, who, out of their waterfowl pit blind and pond in southeastern South Dakota, regularly shoots good numbers of ducks and geese, not this year.
During the early season, and until shortly before this cold snap, the Canada geese enjoyed the warm weather, open water and plentiful food supply in North Dakota.
Once North Dakota was beset with cold winter weather, they began their southerly migration, moving south, to areas with less snow, those locations where they could find an adequate food supply.
There was some warmer weather that opened things up where they lingered in Southern South Dakota and northeast Nebraska until, like much of the upper Midwest, we received heavier snow cover along with the Canadian cold fronts that pretty much shut down the waterfowl hunting.
According to Delta Waterfowl, and the annual survey, conducted jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service since 1955, has the breeding duck population at 38.90 million, a 6 percent decrease from last year’s population of 41.19 million, but still 10 percent above the long-term average. The 2019 survey marks the first time since 2008 that the estimated breeding duck population has fallen below 40 million.
“The fact that the numbers are down is a reflection of last year’s dry conditions for nesting ducks,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl. “We know that production drives duck populations, so it’s no surprise that after a year of poor production, the USFWS counted fewer ducks.”
There is also some good news to be found in the survey. Mallards increased 2 percent to 9.42 million, 19 percent above the long-term average. (Unfortunately for Atlantic Flyway hunters, mallards decreased by 2 percent in the Eastern Survey Area to 1.05 million.) Green-winged teal rose 4 percent to 3.18 million, 47 percent above the long-term average. American wigeon climbed slightly to 2.83 million, 8 percent above the long-term average.
Rohwer indicated that gadwalls are almost drought proof, with their population climbing 13 percent to 3.26 million, putting them 61 percent above the long-term average.
Other dabbling ducks decreased, but remain above long-term averages. Shovelers declined 13 percent to 3.65 million, 39 percent above the long-term average. The largest decrease was observed among blue-winged teal, down 16 percent to 5.43 million, but still 6 percent above the long-term average.
“The bluewing estimate makes sense,” Rohwer said. “Bluewings didn’t fare well last spring given the dry prairie, and didn’t produce many ducks.”
The pintails were the only below-average population estimate among puddle ducks, which dropped 4 percent to 2.27 million, 42 percent below the long-term average.
“Many pintails settled in the Dakotas seeking better water conditions, as did all ducks,” Rohwer said. “But the core of the pintail’s traditional breeding range is in southern Alberta, where they’re down 79 percent, and southern Saskatchewan, where they’re down 85 percent. More than a million pintails — almost half the breeding population — settled in the U.S. prairie this year.”
All three diving duck species surveyed showed declines in 2019. Redheads fell 27 percent to 730,000, putting them right at the long-term average. Canvasbacks dropped 5 percent to 650,000, but remain 10 percent above the long-term average. And Scaup, the greaters and lessers combined) declined 10 percent to 3.59 million, 28 percent below the long-term average.
Redheads fell percent above the long-term average. And scaup (greaters and lessers combined) declined 10 percent to 3.59 million, 28 percent below the long-term average.
In the May pond count taken throughout across the U.S. and Canada, registered 4.99 million — 5 percent lower than last year and 5 percent below the long-term average. Pond counts in prairie and parkland Canada, which covers Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, decreased 22 percent to 2.86 million, which is the lowest estimate since 2004 and 19 percent below the long-term average. Pond counts in the north-central United States, which covers Montana and the Dakotas, increased 36 percent to 2.14 million, 26 percent above the long-term average.
“This year’s pond count and nesting conditions are truly a tale of two countries,” Rohwer said. “Canada is in bad shape — it started dry and got even drier. I haven’t seen portions of Canada this dry since the mid-1980s. However, the prairies in the Dakotas started wet and stayed ridiculously wet. The problem is that while many of the duck estimates in the U.S. are up, it wasn’t enough to compensate for dry conditions in a region as massive and important to ducks as prairie Canada.”
However, Rohwer said production in the highly wet eastern Dakotas region — where mallards are up 54 percent, pintails rose 64 percent, bluewings jumped 19 percent and total ducks are up 29 percent — has been exceptional.
That’s good news for hunters, who shoot the fall flight, not the breeding population. The numbers aren’t as bad as they appear,” Rohwer said. “For example, even though bluewings are down, a higher portion of their breeding population than average settled in the wet Dakotas, where they should produce ducklings like crazy.”
Even though breeding duck numbers are down overall, the U.S. prairies were incredibly wet from south to north, which will lead to strong duck production. Conditions remained wet and actually improved during the breeding season, with temporary and seasonal wetlands retaining water into July and August.
“So, when the prairies were dry last year, it hurt duck production, and in turn, duck hunters,” he said. “But this year, ducks nested and renested in the U.S. prairies with a vengeance and should have high brood survival in those landscapes.”
Strong production in the U.S. prairies should also increase the number of more easily decoyed juveniles in the fall flight, compared to the savvy, adult birds many hunters encountered last season.
According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service in a report from Delta Waterfowl, the goose harvest in the United States was up slightly, tallying 2.69 million — including 2.07 million Canada geese — compared to the 2.44 million bagged two seasons ago. The harvests of light geese and specklebellies were also up, While fewer brant were shot than two seasons ago.
Mallards continue to be the most commonly harvested species, with 2.9 million taken last season. That’s more than double the second-most harvested species, green-winged teal at 1.17 million. Wood ducks typically rank third on the harvest list, but the 946,838 shot last season are surpassed by the gadwall harvest of 1.05 million. The blue-winged/cinnamon teal harvest (the species are impossible to distinguish during wing surveys) of 802,057 rounds out the Top 5.
The ring-necked duck harvest of 374,088 leads all divers, while the harvests of buffleheads (210,846) and redheads (188,793) rank second and third, respectively.
In the Central Flyway, where we’re located, there are 212,800 active waterfowlers that harvested 2.11 million ducks and 747,500 geese.
With 77,100 active waterfowlers, Texas accounted for nearly one third of the flyway’s hunters. Not surprisingly, Lone Star state hunters also had the flyway’s largest duck harvest, totaling 787,800 birds — including 153,713 blue-winged/cinnamon teal. North Dakota’s duck harvest of 406,900 was the second highest tally in the Central Flyway last season.
All in all, 2020 Was a very “strange” year, with Covid, which changed everything, except for outdoor activities as there was no problem keeping the 6-foot distance rule intact and those of us who enjoy the outdoors, could do any number of things other than staying home because of the epidemic.
Hopefully things will be different in 2021, where the rains will return to southern Canada and the Dakotas will once again be blessed with sufficient water to fill all the sloughs, lakes and pond, allowing the waterfowl to nest and produce excellent numbers of duck and goslings and next fall’s waterfowl season will improve.
Stay warm, stay safe and enjoy the outdoors every opportunity that comes along.
Gary Howey is an award-winning writer, producer, and broadcaster and inducted into the “National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame” in 2017. He developed and was the Producer- Host of the Outdoorsmen Adventures television series for 23 years and the Host of the award-winning Outdoor Adventures radio program carried on Classic Hits 106.3, ESPN Sports Radio 1570 in Southeastern South Dakota, KWYR Country 93 AM and Magic 93 FM in Central South Dakota, As well as on KCHE 92.1 FM in Northwest Iowa. If you’re looking for more outdoor information, check out www.GaryHowey’soutdoors.com , and www.outdoorsmenadventures.com, with more information on these Facebook pages, Gary Howey, Gary E Howey, Outdoor Adventure Radio, Outdoorsmen Productions and Team Outdoorsmen Productions. The Outdoor Adventures television show is available on numerous Independent markets, and the MIDCO Sports Network.