The signs of fall are tough to miss as the Dog Days of August move toward September. The days have grown noticeably shorter, there’s a crisp bite in the air many mornings and many outdoors enthusiasts are turning their thoughts away from fishing and gearing up for hunting.
Anticipation for October — the best month of the year for many of us — is beginning to build. Waterfowl and upland seasons are in full swing, and for those who don’t put away their fishing rods, October can be prime time for trophy fish.
Looking back over the years, many of my biggest walleyes have come in October.
In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department soon will give waterfowl hunters a better idea of what to expect when it announces the results of its annual summer duck brood surveys. The spring breeding duck survey in May showed an index of 3.4 million birds in North Dakota, an increase of 20% from last year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this past week said continental duck numbers, at an estimated 38.9 million birds, are down 6% from last year’s 41.2 million but still are 10% above long-term averages.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service have conducted the annual survey since 1955.
This year’s tally, while still higher than the long-term average since 1955, marks the first time since 2008 that breeding duck estimates have fallen below 40 million.
“The fact that the numbers are down is a reflection of last year’s dry conditions for nesting ducks,” Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, said in a news release. “We know that production drives duck populations, so it’s no surprise that after a year of poor production, the USFWS counted fewer ducks.”
On the upside, wet springtime conditions this year in the eastern Dakotas resulted in “excellent” duck production, Rohwer said, which bodes well for fall hunting prospects.
Here’s a look at continental numbers for some of the key duck species:
Mallards: Up 2% to 9.42 million, 19% above the long-term average.
Green-winged teal: Up 4% to 3.18 million, 47% above the long-term average.
American wigeon: Up slightly to 2.83 million, 8% above the long-term average.
Gadwall: Up 13% to 3.26 million, 61% above the long-term average.
Shoveler: Down 13% to 3.65 million, 39 percent above the long-term average.
Blue-winged teal: Down 16% to 5.43 million, but still 6% above the long-term average.
Pintails: Down 4% to 2.27 million, 42% below the long-term average.
Redheads: Down 27% to 730,000, on par with the long-term average.
Canvasbacks: Down 5% to 650,000, 10% above the long-term average.
Greater and lesser scaup: Down 10% to 3.59 million, 28% below the long-term average.
“I’m concerned that bluebills may return to restrictive harvest regulations if their recent population trend isn’t reversed,” Rohwer said. “And we’ve been living off high redhead numbers for a long time, but we just had two average to dry years.”
According to Tom Moorman, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited, the wet conditions in the eastern Dakotas helped offset dry conditions in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“Fortunately, eastern North Dakota and South Dakota saw an increase in both ponds and breeding waterfowl, especially mallards, blue-winged teal, gadwalls, northern shovelers and northern pintails,” Moorman said in a news release. “Typically, when the Dakotas are wet and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are dry, we see the aforementioned species settle in the Dakotas, reminding us that we must conserve habitat across the prairies because it is rare for the entire Prairie Pothole Region to be wet.”
As always, the impact of water conditions and survey results on fall waterfowl hunting prospects remains to be seen, but the waiting is almost over. North Dakota’s residents-only waterfowl opener is Saturday, Sept. 21 — nonresidents can go afield beginning Saturday, Sept. 28 — and Minnesota’s waterfowl season opens Sept. 21.
No doubt, though, the wet conditions in the eastern Dakotas during the breeding season bode well for duck production and hunting prospects, despite the drop in continental duck numbers. In the eastern Dakotas, mallards are up 54%, pintails rose 64%, bluewings increased 19% and total ducks are up 29%, Rohwer of Delta Waterfowl said.
“The numbers aren’t as bad as they appear,” he said. “For example, even though bluewings are down, a higher portion of their breeding population than average settled in the wet Dakotas, where they should produce ducklings like crazy.”
To see the full 2019 Waterfowl Status Report, go to fws.gov/migratorybirds and follow the links.