The best way to assess the first week of the duck season is the eyeball test.
Because thousands of eyes were on the skies across south Louisiana for the past eight days, this first week passed with flying colors — colors like gray as in gray ducks, blues as in bluewing teal and greens as in shovelers and greenwing teal.
Those were dominant species showing up in the haul hunters in the state’s Coastal and West Waterfowl zones during the first days of a 60-day season.
East Zone hunters got their first shots Saturday, and in places where there was water, there were ducks. The East Zone’s best days usually come later in the season — mostly from mid-December to the last Sunday in January — after rises in the Mississippi River flood near-river stands of trees and rains have had a chance to put water on agricultural fields, rice fields and farm ponds.
The week’s only “down” days were Wednesday and Thursday when warmer conditions and little to no wind didn’t push enough ducks around in the marshes to make for favorable morning shooting. Still, hunters came from their blinds with ducks, maybe not limits, but ducks.
This early-season success broke the trend of a couple of good post-front days, then days without firing a shot during consecutive poor starts during the past three season openers, when weather and other conditions held migrating ducks farther north.
Three weeks of successively colder Arctic fronts before the Nov. 15 opening day had hunters tending their blinds talking about having more ducks in the coastal marshes and rice fields than any year in recent memory.
And when State Waterfowl Study leader Larry Reynolds and his State Waterfowl Study crew flew over these areas during the days before the opener, he reported finding more ducks in the state than any November since 1995.
Reynolds’s estimate of 3.13 million ducks in November’s survey is more than three times last November’s estimate of 1.02 million, and more than twice the past five-year November average pegged at 1.36 million ducks. Even better is that the latest count is more than 50 percent higher than the long-term average of 2.0 million ducks.
It’s the first time since 1995 that more than 3 million ducks were estimated in the state for the November opener.
One of the puzzling numbers showing up in the recent survey is that the gray ducks estimate of (biologists call grays “gadwall”) was more than double the combined bluewing and greenwing teal numbers — grays at 1,145,000 and total teal at 379,000.
Yet, when hunters reported in after their opening morning forays, teal dominated the take.
“We completed most of the survey the Tuesday before the season opened and a major cold front moved through the state Wednesday and Thursday,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds explained that after checking with other biologists and managers across the state, teal migration increased dramatically two days before the Nov. 15 opener.
The wow factor over the November survey was unusual in another way.
The big number belies the fact that, as Reynolds pointed out, estimates of only four species, gray ducks, pintail, scaup (dos gris) and ringnecks, were above the state’s long-term November average that covers more than 40 years. The long-term averages compared to November survey includes grays 792,000/1,145,000, pintail 260,000/448,000, scaup 41,000/150,000 and ringnecks 79,000/743,000.
To Reynolds it means the downright frigid weather that descended on the Midwest durint the last three weeks is reponsible for sending these species in those near-record numbers: “Along with the flocks of scaup in the coastal bays, which we typically do not see until December or January, hooded mergansers and buffleheads were also noted in southeast Louisiana in numbers more typical of January rather than November surveys.” Reynolds said.
Mallards, a late-arriving species, are reportedly hanging in the open water in Arkansas and southern Missouri.
East’s great news
Hunters in the southeastern parishes, from Terrebonne Parish marshes to the Plaquemine-St. Bernard areas, showed a marked increase.
Reynolds noted that 54 percent of the ducks counted were in the locations.
“A very large concentration of primarily ringnecked ducks was seen in the freshwater marsh of east-central Terrebonne Parish, and large numbers of mostly pintails and gadwalls were counted in the marshes east of Venice in southeast Louisiana,” Reynolds said.
And the habitat?
“Very good. Water levels in southwest Louisiana were lower than in September and about optimal for feeding waterfowl.” Reynolds said, adding that submerged vegetation and “good” water levels were found in southeast Louisiana and even in areas where there were few ducks, there was good production of aquatic vegetation.