JEFFERSON CITY —Ducks are abundant. The table is set for them at many state-managed wetland areas. If the weather cooperates, duck hunting could be excellent in the Show-Me State this year. That’s the word from the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates this year’s total number of breeding ducks at 45.6 million. That is down 6 percent from last year’s record number, but still 33 percent above the long-term average.
Mallard numbers were estimated to be 10.4 million, down 2 percent from 2012, but up 36 percent long-term.
Long-term trends for other popular duck populations in this year’s survey include:
• Northern shoveler, +96 percent;
• Gadwalls, +80 percent;
• Redheads, +76 percent;
• Blue-winged teal, +60 percent;
• Green-winged teal, +51 percent;
• Canvasback, +37;
• Widgeon +2 percent; and
• Northern pintail and scaup -17 percent each.
With numbers like that, you might think good hunting is assured. But without quality habitat and favorable weather, a boom year for waterfowl numbers still can turn into a bust for hunters.
The habitat picture at state-managed wetland areas is generally good, with plenty of water and fair to good crops and moist-soil vegetation available at most areas. Exceptions include:
TED SHANKS CONSERVATION AREA (CA), where flooding damaged levees and will prevent flooding the southernmost part of the area. The area has no row crops, but millet and moist-soil vegetation have done fairly well.
COLUMBIA BOTTOM CA also sustained significant flood damage. Row crops will be scarce, but moist-soil vegetation has done well since floodwaters receded in June, and water levels should be normal.
MARAIS TEMPS CLAIR CA, where extended high water wiped out row crops, but moist soil plants are in good shape, and water levels are expected to be normal.
EAGLE BLUFFS CA lost early crops to flooding, but there was time to replant and they are expected to provide fair to good food for ducks. Sparse natural cover will make layout boats or blinds the best way to hunt some pools.
FOUR RIVERS lost all its row crops and most of the moist-soil vegetation to flooding. Late plantings of buckwheat and Sudan grass in Draw Units 1 and 2 fared poorly due to lack of rainfall.
The 16 to 18 parties that go out on opening day will find little food or cover, and shallow water may limit accessibility with larger boats. Ongoing construction in Unit 4 will mean that much of the unit will remain dry.
There will be some walk-in hunting opportunities in Pools 17, 18, 19 and 20. Unit 3 will offer some of the area’s best hunting this year. Moist-soil vegetation growth was good in this unit, and it currently is holding 250 to 300 acres of water, with more possible with favorable weather.
Schell-Osage CA lost much of its moist-soil growth, but the outlook here is better. Schell-Osage still has decent habitat around permanent blinds and in some other places, because flooding didn’t last as long here as at Four Rivers.
The overall picture at Grand Pass CA is good. The area has good crop growth and good moist-soil vegetation. Summer flooding wiped out crops at Coon Island, but it still has fair to good moist-soil vegetation.
Montrose, B.K. Leach, Otter Slough, Ten Mile Pond, and Little River CAs also should generally have good hunting this fall.
On the other hand, although Fountain Grove, Nodaway Valley, Bob Brown, and Settles Ford CAs have fairly good habitat conditions, drought could affect the ability to pump enough water to flood wetland pools at these areas.
Updated information about hunting conditions at the Conservation Department’s managed wetlands is available at mdc.mo.gov/node/9627.
Weather is the final factor — and always a wild card — in determining waterfowl hunting success.
The best waterfowl seasons have a series of cold fronts that push waves of new ducks into Missouri from farther north throughout the hunting season.
The worst-case scenario is a strong, early-season cold front that pushes the ducks into Arkansas before Missouri hunters have much chance at them.
Another less-than-ideal possibility is a late fall, when ducks arrive late in one or more of Missouri’s three hunting zones and leave soon after.
Missouri’s waterfowl seasons are set to coincide with the average peak of migration in previous years. This year’s season dates are:
• North Zone: Youth season — Oct. 19-20;
• Regular season — Oct. 26- Dec. 24;
• Middle Zone: Youth season — Oct. 26-27;
• Regular season — Nov. 2-Dec. 31;
• South Zone: Youth season — Nov. 23-24; and
• Regular season — Nov. 28-Jan. 26.
Whether these dates coincide with peak migrations and how long ducks and geese linger in the Show-Me State this year won’t be known until the season is history.
Details of duck and goose hunting regulations are available in the 2013-2014 Waterfowl Hunting Digest, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold, at Conservation Department offices and nature centers, or online at www.mdc.mo.gov/node/5646/.
More detailed information about hunting conditions at state-owned wetlands is available at mdc.mo.gov/node/9627.
For information about this year’s duck and goose population surveys, see http://bit.ly/12AgOjx.