Sep. 23—DEVILS LAKE — Last year's drought created plenty of uncertainty about North Dakota waterfowl prospects, but that concern is in the rear-view mirror, and the stage is set for a good waterfowl season — at least in the Lake Region.
"I've never seen so many dry wetlands (as last year), but this year is like a polar opposite," said Mark Fisher, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake. "We're wet again — and not only that, but we had good productivity."
North Dakota's regular duck and goose season opens Saturday, Sept. 24, for residents and Saturday, Oct. 1, for nonresidents.
The Lake Region, with its abundance of wetlands and farm fields, again looks to be a hotspot.
"I think things look excellent," Fisher said. "There's good wetland densities and quite a few birds."
That outlook also is reflected in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's fall flight forecast, which is up about 26% from last year and on par with 2007, 2008 and 2017. The Game and Fish Department's 75th annual spring breeding duck survey, conducted in May, tallied an index of 3.4 million birds, the 23rd highest in the survey's 75 years. The index was up 16% from 2021 and 38% above the long-term average, the department said in a news release.
Meanwhile, the July brood count survey tallied a 36% increase from last year, an estimate 5% higher than the 1965-2021 average.
In reporting survey results, the department said the average brood size was 7.2 ducklings, compared with the long-term average of 7 ducklings per brood and up 11% from 2021.
In the Devils Lake area, at least, broods were late in appearing, Fisher said, most likely a result of the cold, wet spring.
"It was kind of looking like, 'what's going on?'" he said. "We kind of really expected to see (broods) and then we weren't seeing them at the very first part of the spring. And then, all of a sudden, everything just kind of popped, and so there was pretty good production, too.
"Everything is lining up for a good season."
Also of interest this summer, Fisher says, was the abundance of molting adult mallards, which typically migrate into areas of prairie Canada such as the Quill Lakes region in southern Saskatchewan before shedding their flight feathers. Mallards and other ducks shed their flight feathers for a few weeks after every breeding season.
"I don't know what triggered birds to stick around and go through the molt, but in areas where there were high wetland densities, it seems like a lot of adult male mallards hung around this summer and went through their molt," Fisher said. "That was kind of an interesting observation I think we were making this summer."
Good water conditions, abundant emergent cover and ample food supplies all may have been factors, he says.
"I'm sure there were birds that went up into Canada, but what we were seeing was, there were quite a few locations where there were adult males that just kind of stuck around here in this area for the summer," Fisher said. "I think with the drought (last year), a lot of these wetlands had a high spike in productivity. These wetlands were not only abundant with water, but there was probably a lot of invertebrate life, and submerged aquatic vegetation came up really well. Everything kind of lined up, and wetland habitat was really excellent."
As with every waterfowl season, scouting will be crucial to success, Fisher says.
"One thing that's a negative with all this water is that birds can spread out really well," Fisher said. "That's an advantage of a drought is you've got fewer wetlands, it concentrates birds more and so you actually could be more successful hunting in a drought than in wet years.
"What I can say is there's a lot of birds scattered across a large landscape. And when they get pressured, they'll take the path of least resistance. If there's available habitat that nobody's hunting, people can scatter them out, push them out and birds will find those areas. So, even though there's a lot of really great wetland conditions, that's something that can happen. And if birds find a wetland where nobody's hunting, they'll just sit there all day."
While duck numbers are favorable, Canada goose numbers "are a little bit depressed," Fisher said. Even farmers who might not be thrilled about having geese in their fields have been wondering what's going on with Canada geese, Fisher says.
"They're not really heartbroken by it, but they're just not seeing the numbers that they have in the past," he said. "There'll be opportunities, of course, to shoot some honkers, but the general trend seemed like goose goslings were not really apparent this year — not like we've seen them in the past."
Most of the small grain crops in the Lake Region have been harvested, Fisher says, and access conditions look good. Dry conditions are becoming a concern in parts of North Dakota, but that's not the case in the Lake Region.
"Right now, things are really good," Fisher said this week. "We had a dry period for two to three weeks. Most of August was relatively dry. We've had some rain here, but roads are still in really good condition, so getting around shouldn't be a problem — provided we don't get some major rain event between now and into the duck season."
* Bonus blue-winged teal: Sept.24-Oct. 9.
* Regular resident season: Sept. 24-Dec.4; late High Plains Unit Dec. 10-Jan. 1.
* Regular nonresident: Oct. 1-Dec. 4; late High Plains Unit Dec. 10-Jan. 1.
* Bag limits: Six ducks daily, with these restrictions: 5 mallards of which only 2 can be hens, 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 canvasbacks,1 scaup, 1 pintail. Hunters can take an additional 2 blue-winged teal from Sept. 24-Oct. 9 only. The possession limit on restricted ducks is three times the daily limit.
* Regular resident Eastern Zone: Sept. 24-Dec. 17.
* Regular resident Western Zone: Sept. 24-Dec. 22.
* Regular resident Missouri River Zone: Sept. 24-Dec. 30.
* Regular nonresident Eastern: Oct. 1-Dec. 17.
* Regular nonresident Western: Oct. 1-Dec. 22.
* Regular nonresident Missouri River: Oct. 1-Dec. 30.
* Regular resident: Sept. 24-Dec. 30.
* Regular nonresident: Oct. 1-Dec. 30.
For more information on bag limits, shooting hours and zone boundaries, check out the Game and Fish Department website at gf.nd.gov. — Herald staff report