Barring a drastic change in weather patterns, dry conditions will play into hunting strategies this fall for duck and goose hunters, especially those who prefer hunting over water.
The regular duck and goose seasons open Saturday, Sept. 23 in North Dakota and Minnesota. The first week of North Dakota's season is open to residents only; nonresidents can hunt beginning Sept. 30.
Bird numbers are favorable despite this year's drier conditions, and continental duck populations remain higher than the long-term average since 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last month. Based on results from spring breeding duck surveys in the U.S. and Canada, the service estimated total duck populations at 47.3 million, down slightly from last year's estimate of 48.4 million and 34 percent above the long-term average.
The service projected a fall mallard flight of 12.9 million birds, similar to last year's estimate of 13.5 million.
In northeast North Dakota, smaller sloughs and potholes are less abundant than previous years, but larger wetlands still hold plenty of water, said Mark Fisher, district wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake.
"On wetlands that have some size, you really wouldn't notice the difference," Fisher said. "There's a lot of big wetlands over 5 acres in this country, and they still look pretty good."
Based on mid-July production surveys by the state Game and Fish Department, North Dakota's fall duck flight is down 8 percent from last year. Game and Fish crews tallied 3.68 broods per square mile, down 5 percent from last year, but well above the long-term average since 1955 of 2.59 broods per square mile.
Mallards, gadwall and blue-winged teal accounted for about 75 percent of the broods seen in the survey, with mallard broods down 13 percent, gadwalls down 4 percent and blue-winged teal broods unchanged, the department said.
Given dry conditions across much of North Dakota, the Devils Lake region stands as a bright spot for waterfowl hunting prospects, Fisher said.
"It was certainly a dry summer with not a lot of rainfall, but we went into fall and winter so wet in northeast North Dakota," Fisher said. "I know duck production in this area was really good.
"There's a lot of ducks around right now, and most of the wheat and barley crops are down. Any time it's cool in the evening, I'm starting to see ducks, and a lot of Canada geese have actually shown up here. Birds are out in the fields feeding on the grain."
East of the Red
Thief Lake and Roseau River wildlife management areas in northwest Minnesota-two of the state's premier waterfowl hunting destinations-have less water in the managed pools than recent wet years.
Thief Lake is about 6 inches below target levels, said Joel Huener, manager of the 54,957-acre WMA near Middle River, Minn.
"That's hard to control when Mother Nature makes it as dry as it is," Huener said. "About the end of June, the spigot got turned off, and it started showing later in July.
"Right now, we're a couple of inches in arrears. We could take a little bit of rain and soak it up pretty easily."
Hunters at Roseau River WMA north of Badger, Minn., will encounter similar conditions, refuge manager Randy Prachar said. Pool 1 at the east end of the 75,206-acre WMA is about 6 inches low, Pool 2 in the center of the WMA is a foot and a half low and Pool 3 on the west end of the WMA is down about a foot.
That's intentional on pools 2 and 3, where the Department of Natural Resources is trying to establish wild rice, which grows best in shallower water, Prachar said.
"As far as hunters navigating, what I'm telling them is to bring a push pole and leave 15 to 20 minutes earlier from the dock," Prachar said.
By the numbers
Based on summer estimates from the DNR, Minnesota's breeding mallard population was 214,000, down 15 percent from 2016 and 6 percent below the long-term average since 1968.
Total duck abundance was estimated at 636,000, down 19 percent from last year but 3 percent above the long-term average.
The DNR estimated Canada goose numbers at 322,000, up from 202,000 in 2016 and 9 percent higher than the long-term average.
As in northeast North Dakota, goose numbers in the Roseau River and Thief Lake areas are strong, driven by an influx of Canada geese at the end of August. There's also an abundance of small grain stubble fields that haven't been plowed, providing attractive habitat to both geese and ducks.
Some of that stubble still should be around come opening day, Prachar says, which could help keep birds in the area.
Prachar said he's seeing fair numbers of wood ducks, mallards and blue-winged teal at Roseau River, but ringnecks and other divers are scarce and likely will be until bad weather drives them down from Canada.
"I think the best is yet to come," Prachar said. "We don't have a habitat problem-it's an issue of being in the right place at the right time when the birds get pushed out of Canada."
Huener of Thief Lake said he'll have a better handle on duck and goose numbers after conducting aerial surveys this coming week. Participants in the annual Youth Waterfowl Day on Saturday, Sept. 9 did well, he said, averaging four birds per hunter with a bag consisting of green-winged teal, mallards, ringnecks, redheads and even a canvasback.
Dry conditions mean some wetlands will be difficult to access, but at the same time, birds will be more concentrated.
"Oftentimes, people see drought and waterfowl as a bad thing," said Fisher, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Devils Lake. "I have a tendency to believe it's a concentrating effect for ducks. If we had a real extreme drought, and the only water was in the large wetlands, that's where the ducks would be. It has a tendency to shrink the landscape down into small areas.
"The good news on a year like this is there's not a lot of places the birds will go. When it's really wet, and there's high wetland densities out there full of water, birds can scatter out, and then you don't see them. But when it's drier, they have a tendency to move to other wetlands where other hunters can get after them, and that tends to move birds around, as well."
Over the long term, waterfowl prospects will diminish if dry conditions persist in future years, but the short-term impact on hunters stands to be minimal-at least in northeast North Dakota.
"I think it's going to be a good season," Fisher said. "I think people will do well. I think that, at least here in the Devils Lake area in all directions, probably clear out to Rugby, there will be habitat. There will be upland grain habitat for those people that like to sit in the fields, and there'll be wetland habitat for people that like to hit the water."
Rules of the hunt
North Dakota Ducks
• Season dates: Sept. 23-Dec. 3. First week of season is residents only; nonresidents can hunt beginning Sept. 30.
• Limits: The daily bag limit on ducks is 6 with species and sex restrictions as follows: 5 mallards of which only 2 may be hens, 3 scaup, 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 canvasbacks,1 pintail. Note: An additional 2 blue-winged teal may be taken Sept. 23 through Oct. 8 only. The daily limit of 5 mergansers may include no more than 2 hooded mergansers. The possession limit on these restricted ducks and the hooded merganser is three times the daily limit.
North Dakota Canada geese
• Statewide: Sept. 23-Dec. 21; eight daily, 24 in possession.
• Missouri River Zone: Sept. 23-Dec. 29; five daily, 15 in possession.
North Dakota light geese
• Statewide: Sept. 23-Dec. 31; 50 daily, no possession limit.
• More info: gf.nd.gov.
• North Zone: Sept. 23-Nov. 21.
• Central Zone: Sept. 23-Oct. 1; Oct. 7-Nov. 26.
• South Zone: Sept. 23-Oct. 1; Oct. 14-Dec. 3.
• Limits: Daily bag limit is 6. No more than any of the following species: 4 mallards (2 hen mallards), 3 scaup, 3 wood ducks, 1 pintail, 2 redheads, 2 canvasbacks, 2 black ducks. If not listed, up to 6 ducks of a species may be taken. The daily limit of 5 mergansers may include no more than 2 hooded mergansers. The possession limit on these restricted ducks and the hooded merganser is three times the daily limit.
• North Zone: Sept. 23-Dec. 22.
• Central: Sept. 23-Oct. 1; Oct. 7-Dec. 27.
• South: Sept. 23-Oct. 1; Oct. 14-Jan. 3.
• Dark geese limit (Canada, whitefront and Brant): Daily 3 combined; possession limit 9 combined.
• Light geese limit (snow, blue and Ross'): 20 daily, 60 in possession.
• More info: mndnr.gov.