Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about the waterfowl season.
It’s hard to figure whether Larry Reynolds is a waterfowl hunter first and waterfowl biologist second or the other way around.
Like most of Louisiana’s duck hunters, he was excited to the point of ecstasy when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the results of May’s Waterfowl Population Status Report.
Reynolds initial response? “Wow. That’s an astounding number.”
Sure was. The annual breeding count survey estimates were that 45,554,000 million ducks were living and making ducklings in the prairie pothole regions in Canada and the northern grasslands and farms in Montana and the Dakotas.
That’s the highest estimate in the 50 years of the survey conducted jointly by U.S. and Canadian waterfowl biologists, and the last time numbers were this high — at 43.435 million in 1999 — Louisiana duck hunters enjoyed a banner season.
“There are excellent brood-rearing habitat conditions in prairie Canada and in the (northern) U.S.,” Reynolds said after putting on the cap of the state’s Waterfowl Study leader. “There’s lots of water on the Canada prairies.”
Reynolds has first-hand knowledge to make that last statement: A tour of a Ducks Unlimited project in Saskatchewan — it’s funded by a percentage of Louisiana hunting-license fees matched with monies from DU and federal sources — left him with a feeling that he was seeing history made.
“We were seeing ducks everywhere. I was there during the middle of the teal season back in Louisiana and, from all the reports, we were having a record September hunt. While we had lots of teal in Louisiana, there were thousands and thousands of teal still in Canada,” Reynolds said. “We saw eight flightless mallard broods still in the ponds.
“That means there was excellent nesting opportunity for (mating pairs) and there was strong renesting and good late-nesting success. We left hoping those (flightless) broods would be able to fly before the freezes set in.
“With record breeding with good reproduction success, we should have an extremely large fall flight,” Reynolds said.
On the other end
Louisiana is on the other end of the fall flight in two of the country’s four major duck and goose flyways.
The state gets ducks and geese moving southward in the Mississippi and Central flyways (the Atlantic and Pacific flyways are the other two) and because of that double dose, Louisiana was among the first states to be allowed to have multiple duck and goose hunting zones.
The fall flight is the migration that brings millions of migratory waterfowl and other huntable migratory birds such as doves, snipe, rails, gallinules, woodcock and millions of other birds winging south for the winter.
With Louisiana getting another in a long string of “liberal” 60-day duck-hunting seasons, what does abundance up north mean for waterfowl hunters in the Sportsman’s Paradise?
“There are just too many variables,” Reynolds said after being asked for a prediction for the season that begins Saturday with a youth-only weekend in the state’s West Zone.
“There are a lot of question marks in between (the North and Louisiana) and we’re getting mixed reports up and down the (Mississippi) flyway,” Reynolds said.
Abundant crops in the Midwest slow the migration. Dry, freezing conditions in the Midwest hasten ducks more quickly to Louisiana.
“It is not as dry to the north of us as last year, but last year was really bad. Some crops didn’t get in this year because of floods, but there is substantial corn acreage north of us,” Reynolds said.
“While it is better (up north) than last year, it’s certainly not ideal there,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds didn’t mince his words: “Habitat conditions here are poorer than last year. In northeast and northwest Louisiana we’re dry, dry, dry.
“Southwest Louisiana is drier than last year and getting drier, and ponds that had water and good submerged aquatics (vegetation) are drying up.”
Reynolds said dry conditions forced the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to cancel teal hunts on the prime hunting White Lake Conservation Area and added that “duck hunts are in similar danger.”
He termed the southeast marshes “outstanding, but not quite as good as last year. Until Tropical Storm Lee came in it was very good, but Lee pushed a lot saltwater into the system and hit the habitat pretty hard.”
For now, he’s standing on LDWF staff reports that shows “big numbers of birds on Pass a Loutre (off the Mississippi River delta) and Catahoula Lake is the same. Birds really have arrived in the last couple of weeks and that’s right on schedule.
“But,” Reynolds added quickly, “every time I make a prediction, I’m just wrong and once that happens often enough well, I just don’t do it.
“We had a good teal season, and we can hope the big duck season will be the same.”