Don’t freak out if waterfowl breeding population estimates from the prairies of Canada and the Northern U.S. due out next month are lower than what they’ve been in recent years.
That’s the message to the state’s duck hunters from Larry Reynolds, waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who pointed out that despite great population estimates last summer, crazy weather conspired to make the 2015-16 season one lots of folks would like to forget.
“We had a high duck population and we had a pretty fair number of ponds, but after the hundred-year drought broke in late October and early November, there was water up and down the flyway like we haven’t seen in a lot of years,” Reynolds said. “We had flooding down here in Louisiana, and we had 84-degree temperatures on Christmas Day.
“So it really doesn’t matter how many ducks are in the breeding population. Under those environmental conditions, your hunting is going to be less successful than normal.”
The new data, set to be released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Aug. 15, will be used to set season dates and bag limits for the 2017-18 hunting season.
Unlike in recent years, the 2016-17 season dates have already been finalized by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, with the coastal and west zone set to open on Nov. 12 and the east zone getting started on Nov. 19. The season is once again 60 days long, with a six-bird daily bag limit.
But from what he’s heard from colleagues and read online, Reynolds is definitely expecting lower numbers in the breeding population report due out next month.
“I expect the breeding population to be down from last year, but still above the long-term average, so there’s not much to worry about as far as population is concerned,” he said. “Now, reproduction is going to be down if pond numbers are down, so it’s going to impact the fall flight.
“It’s pretty clear from reports that pilots flying the surveys saw fewer ponds in most areas, but they still saw pretty good numbers of ducks. The report from the North Dakota breeding survey said they saw fewer ducks and fewer ponds. So there likely will be fewer birds, but if we can get a cold winter, we might see more here in Louisiana.”
Last year’s mild winter up and down the flyway combined with heavy rains here last fall were the perfect storm to keep ducks from making it all the way to Louisiana, Reynolds said. And those that did come were able to head north again at their discretion because of the lack of cold weather.
“Our mid-winter survey was pretty low. Then December was pretty good, and it dropped in January — and that’s pretty unusual,” he said. “Hardly ever do we count fewer birds in January than we do in December, but with the warm weather and all the water everywhere, the birds could disperse and go back up the flyway if they wanted.
“So last year all of our indications were it was a pretty tough year.”
The dry summer on the Canadian and Northern U.S. prairies this year could mean the wet pattern — which has persisted there for years — might finally be coming to a close, he said.
“This wet period has lasted more than 20 years. We’ve only been doing this survey since 1955, and this has been the longest prolonged wet cycle during that time,” Reynolds said. “Things are starting to dry out. This may be the beginning of what we’ve been talking about for five years.
“Sooner or later the prairies are going to dry out, and when that happens the population is going to decline and things are going to change. But it’s all part of the normal process.”
Whatever the official population numbers might be, Reynolds said there’s no reason now not to be optimistic about what the upcoming season might bring.
“Get out there and hunt,” he said. “You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Whether the population is high, low or otherwise, so much depends on what else is happening in the flyway.”