The appearance of October signifies the start of another waterfowl season. This hunting season starts early enough in the fall that few birds have started to migrate. Therefore, locally hatched ducks and geese along with mosquitoes are the primary flying objects that capture hunters’ attention in the marsh this time of year.
Even though it can be difficult to be successful early in the season, it is amazing to be out in the marsh in October. Opening morning starts with a hint of sun to the east and wings of ducks whistling overhead. The marshes of early October sound more vibrant and feel more alive than they do in November. It is almost as if the wild inhabitants are discussing many of the marsh’s occupants impending departure to a warmer climate.
If you are in Northern Utah, waterfowl season starts October 5. Depending on where you are in Southern Idaho, it begins either October 5th or 12. In the portion of Wyoming in the Pacific Flyway, the season starts on September 21. This means with a little planning, you could hunt multiple opening days each year.
The annual surveys that estimate the total number of ducks suggest the number making this year’s migration (38.9 million) will be about the same as last year (41.2 million). The one positive outcome from these surveys is many of the ducks that most hunters shoot in shallow wetlands, such as mallards, gadwalls, and green-winged teal, have increased in number. In contrast, the populations of many divers, like canvasbacks, redheads, and scaup, are all down in number this year. So if you are an open-water hunter, successful trips may be a bit more difficult to come by.
For opening day, the number of local birds will likely be a little higher that average. The wet winter and spring kept water levels high in many of the impounded waterfowl areas. The recent rain and the fact the 10-day forecast suggests above average precipitation should bode well for the amount of water in many of the waterfowl management areas.
It’s interesting to see the trends in waterfowl populations compared to that of birds in general. A study published last week found there are 3 billion fewer birds today than in 1970. The annual surveys of waterfowl populations over the same timeframe have shown no change. Even more importantly, the current duck numbers are twice what they were in the 1930s. These trends show the importance of the hunter’s role in protecting species by protecting habitat.
Just the sale of duck stamps, which is required to hunt ducks in the United States, has raised $850 million that has been put towards purchasing and leasing of wetlands. This, and other actions, has slowed the loss of wetlands vital to waterfowl production. This is certainly true in Utah, where a number of state and federal waterfowl management areas protect wetlands around the Great Salt Lake. In fact, Utah just added another one: the Willard Spur Waterfowl Management Area. Without these areas, and the protection of waterfowl nesting ponds in Canada, duck and geese numbers may have seen the same population declines as other birds in North America.
A good omen for duck hunters this year is the water level in the Great Salt Lake. Current lake elevations are similar to 2017. That means that when hunters head to the Great Salt Lake they will find it about 1 foot higher than it was a year ago and 4 feet above where it was in 2016. Additionally, state and federal managers have been working hard at removing Phragmites (the tall cattail like plant), so you may see a reduction of this plant compared to last year.
One other question that may come up is the use of electric bikes. From my reading, at this time it is still illegal to use these vehicles to access parts of state waterfowl management areas or federal refuges that are not open to cars and trucks.
Success on opening day is primarily about finding a place away from other hunters where ducks want to land. That can be hard. So remember to take some time this opening day trying to figure out where ducks head when the marshes are crowded. Doing so could improve your success next year. It is important to remember that every day of hunting should be about applying what you already know as well as learning lessons to be applied to a future hunt.