It has been easy to understand what the upcoming duck and goose season would look like each year since 1955. The reason for this is the Fish and Wildlife Service has monitored waterfowl numbers each spring starting in that year. That survey, however, was a casualty of the coronavirus this year. The absence of these data makes forecasting how many ducks and geese will be seen during the upcoming season a bit more uncertain.
One indicator of how many birds may arrive this fall was the amount of spring rain that fell to create ponds for nesting. For those of us in Utah and Idaho, the amount of precipitation in Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta provides the greatest insight. Although precipitation in these northern provinces and state was not abundant, there was no widespread drought. This suggests the number of waterfowl migrating from this region should be similar to last year. While last year’s fall flight was not record breaking, it was above the long-term average.
Many of the birds shot opening weekend, however, are produced locally. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources suggests all state and federal waterfowl production areas have water levels similar to last year, except for Salt Creek. Recent restoration work in this state management area suggest water levels there will be below average on opening day. Cutler Reservoir has also remained full this summer. That said, a couple inches in water elevation can have a big effect on hunting success. So if you do nothing else this week, spend an afternoon with binoculars making sure conditions where you plan to hunt are what you expect.
Local birds have been moving about in flocks preparing to migrate. This behavior will benefit hunters trying to decoy waterfowl on opening weekend. Most the birds are mallards, gadwalls, and teal, which prefer shallow water habitats but will move to open water if heavily hunted. You should be forewarned that if duck hunting is like other outdoor activities this year, expect the marshes to be a bit more crowded on opening weekend. This may make it even harder to find an out of the way place to hunt.
Limits and seasons are similar to last year. Opening day in Northern Utah and parts of Idaho is Oct. 3. Make sure you check state regulations, as both states delay opening day in some regions. The daily limit for each state is seven ducks. Because the numbers of pintails, canvasbacks, redheads and scaup remain depressed, daily harvest has been limited to one or two birds, depending on the species. This is opposite of the reason why only two hen mallards are allowed to be shot a day. Mallards make up over 20% of all wild ducks, so by limiting the number of hens harvested you are fostering next years populations.
Make sure you can identify the species and sex of the birds before you shoot. This is especially important early in the season when some birds are in eclipse (males have molted and are drably colored). Similarly, make sure the lead shells you carried to hunt grouse have been replaced with steel. Before you head to the marsh to hunt, double check to make sure you have a valid license, a duck stamp, and a HIP validation. Fines are bad enough, but if you violate wildlife laws there is a chance you will lose the opportunity to hunt for a year or two.
Over the next week you should make sure all your gear is in working order. Clean your gun if you haven’t recently. Wash the mud off your decoys and check the line and weights. Buy a new duck call (everybody needs at least 5 of them) and watch a couple online videos to improve your skills. And last of all, get out and shoot a couple rounds of trap or skeet.
Duck and goose season last for just over 100 days. The first twenty days of the season are often slow except for the opening weekend. From the last week of October to the end of November, new ducks and geese are migrating into the region so this is the time to spend in the marsh. Success at the end of the season is temperature and snow dependent. It is this annual cycle of hunting conditions that makes the waterfowl season so enjoyable. Although the first few weeks can be predictable, after that, it is about being prepared, scouting, and finding the right spot to set out your decoys. Given the amount of marsh open to the public, everyone can be a successful duck hunter with time, especially if you are willing to learn.