Its time for this year’s forecast of the waterfowl season. Most years this is a simple exercise, as you can look at the Fish and Wildlife surveys of spring nesting conditions across the prairie pothole region. This is the second year in a row, however, these surveys weren’t conducted as planes couldn’t crisscross the border between Canada and the United States because it was closed due to the coronavirus.
Absent these synoptic data there are a few state surveys that provide a hint of what to expect. North Dakota’s wetland counts were below last years estimate and the southern part of the Canadian Province of Manitoba suffered a drought. This suggests the Central Flyway will see fewer ducks making the migration south.
Moving west, the region from Saskatchewan to British Columbia saw more precipitation than the central part of Canada. Although the southern Intermountain West region that includes Utah is extremely dry, counts of ducks in Oregon suggest average conditions. If you tie these data together, the number of ducks plying the Pacific Flyway this year should be similar to that seen in 2020.
The drought conditions in Utah likely meant fewer wetlands produced fewer ducks in the state this year. The lack of wetlands will also reduce the area available to hunt opening day. As I write this, the state of Utah is in the process of filling their Waterfowl Management Areas.
The speed at which they can increase water levels behind their dikes is partially dependent on the water demands of others. Many, but not all state management areas will be full by northern Utah’s opening day next Saturday, Oct. 2nd.
Much of the state of Idaho’s duck season opens on the same day, but several nearby counties (e.g., Bannock, Caribou, and Bear Lake) open a week later — but check the regulation handbook for the exact dates.
Regardless of where you hunt opening day, if the area is prone to variation in water levels, scout it before the season opens to ensure there is enough water to float your decoys. Given the historically low water level of the Great Salt Lake, Bear River Bay and Willard Spur are unlikely to hold much water until we get significant precipitation this fall.
Utah hunters should still see plenty of waterfowl opening weekend. If you can find a place with few hunters, you will likely be successful. After opening weekend, hunter success will decrease quickly and likely remain poor until the northern flights start to show up. Usually this occurs towards the end of October, but it could come later if the warm weather sticks around.
Most birds harvested early in the season are mallards, gadwall, and teal. There are few limitations on the harvest of these duck beyond the seven-bird limit except you can’t harvest more than two hen mallards.
During October there are always a few pintails in the region. Since you can kill only one of these ducks a day, I generally avoid shooting any pintail I can identify just in case I screw up and accidentally shoot one. Given the drab brown color of most female puddle ducks and that many of the males are in eclipse in October, I think this is the best strategy to avoid accidentally violating the law.
If you don’t already have a bunch of non-toxic shotshells for use on opening day, expect to pay handsomely for a box of these shells if you can find them. Over the last two months it has been almost impossible to find a box for less than $20.
The high cost of shells suggests a trip to the range to improve your abilities would be beneficial, but the cost of shells to shoot trap have also been subject to inflation. In the absence of practice, let the birds work in closer before you shoot.
Waterfowl hunters 16 years of age and older need to buy a Federal Duck Stamp to hunt waterfowl. Over the last couple years there has been a controversy over what needs to be pictured on this stamp. While the focus has always been a selected duck species, the last few years have required the incorporation of hunting imagery.
While it is nice to occasionally see aspects of hunting depicted on the stamp, the duck calls floating in the water near the lesser scaup on this year’s stamp seems a bit forced. Its too bad that this became unnecessarily political when the goal of these stamps is to protect wetland habitat; something we should all agree on.
As always, be safe and good luck.