Predictions of lower numbers of birds borne out in Louisiana marshes
Duck hunters know the population of North American waterfowl has been in decline since record highs in the late 1990s. Annual waterfowl surveys in Louisiana have verified that decline, which continued this season. January’s survey by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries found fewer than 2 million ducks in the state, a decline almost 250,000 ducks from December’s numbers.
But Louisiana’s hunters are not alone in having empty skies. Duck hunters across the Southeast, in major waterfowling states like Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, are seeing a lower migration, resulting in below-average bird numbers. Ducks seem to be staying north, where surveys in Montana and Illinois are higher than their historical averages.
Most hunters have shared similar experiences this season, with low duck numbers and only spotty successes. James Desormeaux, who hunts in the Mallard Bay area in the southwest part of the state had a flat season.
“I’d say par,” he said. “We did a little better than last year, but not as good as previous years.”
Most of Desormeaux’s success came in the first split, with the number of birds falling off in the second split. Better hunts were decided by weather, which he attributes to wind direction and hunting pressure.
“In our area, the birds feed in the rice, then tend to rest offshore to avoid hunting pressure,” he said. “The south wind makes it too rough to sit out there. The second spit was mostly north wind.”
Larry Reynolds, waterfowl program manager for LDWF, said while there is no study or scientific reporting, he shares the observation in the marshes around Creole.
“I’ve also noticed anecdotally that I see big flocks of birds on the large bodies of open water, even during closed seasons, after a cold northern front,” he said.
There are likely multiple drivers, but south winds tend to flood our marshes, which increases foraging opportunities for waterfowl. Particularly impactful were three tropical systems that hammered our Louisiana this summer. The refuge from hunters in open water like the Gulf, Breton Sound, White Lake and Atchafalaya Bay become a whole lot less accommodating in a strong south wind, also tending to force birds back to waiting hunters.
Dustin Koeppel, who regularly hunts both side of the Mississippi River in Venice had a tough season compared to past years.
“I hunted the last weekend of the first split,” he said. “We did terrible. They had a lot of birds. They were just going to big bodies of water.”
Venice hunters more consistently reported seeing birds, but they were under a lot of pressure. Koeppel and his group pivoted and found some landlocked areas; he believes getting away from the pressure proved to be a difference maker.
“The first weekend of the split opener we did great,” he said. “We shot two 3-man limits each day, but we could only get to the pond we hunted by dragging a pirogue.”
Duck hunters like Brian Vega who hunts “the outside” in the Delacroix area, said they only managed a few good hunts.
“Our best hunt was 13 birds between 3 guys. It was all greys, but we were only seeing a few birds compared to other years,” he said. The area he hunted is a classic saltwater marsh with more open water. Vega targeted the larger ponds and bay edges. They also had to stay late to increase their chances.
“I’d say we would stick it out to around 10:30,” he said. “You could’ve probably killed more limits if you hunted all day. The greys would just trickle in as the morning went along. We typically didn’t get any teal at first light.”
Regardless of poor hunting weather, habitat damage and degradation, even a migration shift, Louisiana duck hunters trapped in a vicious cycle, with it becoming more difficult to fill a limit.
Reynolds summed up the season the best: “I think after our 2020 experiences, our expectations, were low, and the season has obliged.”
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