Date: Oct. 12
Location: Upper reaches of the Central Flyway
A strange summer is finally finished on the Big Wide Open. Devastating drought pounded the central to western parts of both Dakotas, as well as eastern Montana, starting in spring, drawing down water tables and limiting grass growth for duck nesting.
But as summer waned and early fall flirted with the landscape, the rains arrived. Big time.
Birds seemed to hold their own through it all, but the hatch of local ducks could have been better.
“Production was spotty,” said Alex Heiser of Delta Waterfowl.
Duck seasons are open or opening in the northern half of the flyway, so that’s where we’ll explore.
Major Weather Trends
All the biologists mentioned recent moisture as a critical factor in current habitat conditions, and hunting prospects (see comments throughout this report). Until now, early fall has been warm to very warm, but that’s changing.
No Arctic air pushes are in the works, but there is some cooler air coming in, with steady weather and high pressure seeming to take over. We’re not talking frosts or freezes at night, but at least 30s.
Looking to the north, though, sub-freezing temperatures are in store for Saskatchewan and Alberta starting in mid-October, so that should start some more duck movement.
“Three weeks ago, I would have given you a different answer regarding our habitat,” said Rocco Murano, waterfowl biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “We’ve had over 6 inches of rain since then, and sloughs are filled up, water is standing in low spots in fields, and rivers like the Big Sioux are over their banks.
“I can only imagine how many ducks are back in the water in the flooded crops.”
“We are wet now,” said Mark Vrtiska, lead waterfowl biologist for Nebraska Game and Parks. “There’s much more water on the landscape with the rains we’ve had the last three weeks.”
At this point in fall, the crop harvest is slow to nonexistent.
“North Dakota’s beans are maybe 50 percent off,” Heiser said. “No corn is off that I know of. The big rains have slowed everything down.”
“In South Dakota, soybeans are less than 10 percent harvested, and all the corn, except what was chopped for silage, is in the field,” Murano said.
“Some soybeans are picked, and just a little corn in the southeastern corner of Nebraska,” Vrtiska said. “The farther west you go, the fewer crops are in.”
Species and Numbers
“Before now, there were no migrating mallards in North Dakota” Heiser said. “But now, we’re starting to see some. They’re not piling up, but there are northern birds in the state.”
“We still have good numbers of teal,” he added. “They seemed to produce better than the big ducks, given the habitat conditions.”
“The mallard migration is modest,” Murano said of South Dakota. “We’re seeing lots of wigeon and gadwall though. The green-winged teal are coming through.” The big mallard push is still far off for South Dakota.
Diving ducks are also moving into the Dakotas.
"Eastern South Dakota saw an influx of divers starting Sunday morning Oct. 8," said Paul Stangl of Webster, South Dakota. "Monday morning Oct. 9, a lot of redheads, bluebills, ring-necked ducks and buffleheads visited my decoys. Flocks of up to 50 birds were observed. We also harvested mallards, wigeon and gadwalls. Some blue-winged teal are still hanging around. Wetlands are full of water in most cases and scouting is a must."
In Nebraska, “we’re seeing just an OK push of mallards now,” Vrtiska said. “But there are more birds in the state than there were a week ago, that’s for sure. The cool weather predicted should keep birds coming.”
“There’s some migration going on,” said Matt Haugen, another Nebraska biologist. “I’ve seen and heard whitefronts going over. There are some geese on the move.”
Personal Hunting Reports
I hunted the eastern edge of the Flyway in late September, on the South Dakota border. Blue-winged teal dominated the bag and were around in good to very good numbers. Wood ducks we bagged were extremely young.
Reports are that the blue-winged teal are still in, but it’s probably nearing the end of their push. Greenwings are showing up.
Wood ducks are moving and should continue to for another two weeks or so.
“I’ve had one weekend on the water,” Murano said. “Quite a mixed bag, with bluewings, greenwings, wigeon, gadwalls and mallards in the bag for our group.”
“Delta Waterfowl folks hunting in Canada right now are doing phenomenally well,” Heiser said. Those birds are staging to come down the flyway.
“North Dakota’s season opened up, and I would say the hunting has been solid,” he added.
“Our early teal season was only fair,” Vrtiska said of Nebraska. “There was no big push of birds.”
Boat Ramp Chatter
“Excellent reports are coming out of North Dakota’s north-central area,” Heiser said. “The rain helped. Coupled with the push of ducks beginning, birds are holding in the habitat.”
Don’t forget about divers. There’s a lot of chatter online about ringbills starting to come through right now, especially in the eastern half of the flyway.
Opening weekends seemed slow to fair for wood ducks, but reports now are good for bird movement. Drakes are colored up.
With water tables re-charged, the western portion of the flyway could attract a lot of migrating ducks that otherwise might have bypassed to the harder-hunted east. Solution?
“Head out farther west, where there are fewer hunters,” Haugen said. “It’s a longer drive, so it keeps hunters away.”
“Take advantage of all of South Dakota’s public water hunting opportunities,” Murano said. “There’s so much, and it’s so good in that late-October/early-November time frame. If you like a mixed bag, that’s the way to go.”
Don’t wait too long and miss it.
“When crops just start coming out can be a great time for field hunting,” Vrtiska said. “When just a few fields are picked but most are still standing, the ducks have fewer places to go. Hit ’em then.”