Cinnamon Teal like this are typically rare in a St. Mary Parish hunter’s bag but not uncommon in southwest Louisiana near the Texas state line. (Submitted Photo/Courtesy of John K. Flores)
A preview of the 2017-18 waterfowl season
Only a lunatic would try to make a prediction on what hunters can expect for the upcoming waterfowl season. Essentially, there are just too many variables to consider, and it’s impossible to know. Nonetheless, the 2017-2018 season, from an opportunity standpoint, is going to be another 60-day, six-duck daily limit liberal season, the 22nd in a row. This fact alone will have Louisiana’s waterfowl hunters counting the days and giddy with excitement.
To get a 60-day, six-duck liberal season, you have to have some fairly accurate science. And the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service and various states in each flyway have some of the best to offer.
In mid-August, the USF&WS released its comprehensive annual survey, “2017 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations.” The report may be a good indicator of how many ducks are on the breeding grounds capable of reproducing but does not predict what a flyway hunter’s season will be like.
Still, waterfowl hunters starved for information, particularly positive information, often will take the report and read more into it than it states.
Take this year’s report, for instance. For those hunters who waited with bated breath, there was in all likelihood a collective sigh of relief when the numbers came out stating that total breeding duck populations were only down a 2 percent and still remained 34 percent above the long-term average.
However, take the diminutive but popular green winged teal. The BPOP survey says this species’ breeding numbers declined by 16 percent from 2016. That is a significant obvious decline from last year, especially when looking at the harvest data from two popular coastal Wildlife Management Areas: the Atchafalaya Delta and Point Aux Chenes.
Opening day of the first split (Nov. 12, 2016) revealed green winged teal made up 44 percent of hunter bag limits on the Atchafalaya WMA and 48 percent of hunter bag limits on Point Aux Chenes WMA.
On opening day of the second split (Dec. 17, 2016) green-winged teal made up 46 percent of the Atchafalaya Delta WMA bag limits and 39 percent of Point Aux Chenes WMA.
Will the 16 percent decline in BPOP numbers for this species make a difference this year? Probably not, considering this beautiful bird is 70 percent above the long-term average, but it’s still something to think about.
Other ducks besides green-winged teal experiencing breeding number declines this year over last year were mallards (minus-11 percent), wigeon (minus-19 percent), redheads (minus-13 percent), canvasbacks (minus-1 percent) and scaup (minus-12 percent).
But, “all” species reported, except the northern pintail and scaup, remain above the long-term average.
Probably the more important revelation from the survey is the May pond counts. Pond numbers counted increased significantly over 2016 from 5.012 (in millions) to 6.096. Nesting success is critical when it comes to what the fall flight will be. And, nesting success is directly correlated to what the water conditions are on the breeding grounds.
Therefore, a significant increase in pond numbers can influence duck numbers in a positive direction.
In short, the annual survey is only one of several tools that provide scientific data to develop a federal framework, where seasons and bag limits can be set by states in each flyway.
Pintails are an example of where the BPOP survey may have contributed a change in bag limit this year. While this species’ breeding numbers were 10 percent above 2016, it’s still 27 percent below the long-term average.
Apparently, Mississippi Flyway biologists are responding to multiple years where pintail numbers have remained below the long-term average.
During the 2017-2018 waterfowl season, hunters only will be allowed to harvest “one” pintail per day.
Weather plays a huge roll when it comes to waterfowl migration. Some species, like blue-winged teal, northern pintails and northern shovelers, migrate as soon as the days get shorter, while other species prefer to sort of linger along as they move south.
Essentially, as long as there is open water to rest and plenty of food resources available, why migrate if you don’t have to? There were numerous reports coming out of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and southern Illinois during the 2016-2017 duck season detailing bang-up shoots with plenty of green-headed mallards hanging from the game strap.
Point of fact, there was very little winter in Louisiana last season. As a result, several mid-continent states reaped a bonanza when it came to waterfowl numbers, because of the unseasonably warm conditions.
Roland Cortez, is a waterfowl guide, and most years he breaks up his time between Gueydan in southwest Louisiana and Arkansas’s rich agricultural regions around Stuttgart. One thing, weather-wise, Cortez pointed out was the best duck seasons he has experienced in coastal Louisiana are when conditions are dry on the ground in Mississippi Flyway states north.
I would be remiss not to mention a line or two concerning goose numbers. Just more than two decades ago, 80 percent of the mid-continent white-fronted goose population wintered in the Louisiana. But, according to January mid-winter survey data that’s collected annually by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, that number has dwindled to 32 percent in spite of an increase in overall population numbers.
Anecdotal reports I received last year had some guides and outfitters reporting that they had their best goose seasons ever. But, admittedly, most of these hunters are located in the southwestern Louisiana sweet spots near White Lake Conservation Area, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge and Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge.
This weekend, I’ll be on Cameron Prairie NWR with my grandson for the “youth-only” lottery hunt he drew out for. One report I received from Ronny Doucett, a former guide in this region, was the ducks showed up in southwest Louisiana last weekend with the cold front.
Hunter Andras, owner of Duknutz decoy anchors, has been scouting locally with the season opening for the kids this weekend.
“Along the coast I saw plenty of large flocks of green wings, a few small flocks of Gadwall, several mottled ducks and even a couple of pintail,” Andras said. “It’s shaping up to be a pretty great season by the looks of it.”
Andras also added some of his friends from Dularge said the Gadwall have been stacked up pretty heavily for this time of year.
Again, only a lunatic would try and prognosticate what the outcome of a particular waterfowl season might be. But then, it doesn’t take much positive information for waterfowl hunters to get excited about their prospects. For them, you’re either all in or not at all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Flores is The Daily Review’s Outdoor Writer.