When I began hunting waterfowl semi-seriously in the 1980s, the outlook for ducks was both grim and glum.
The count of migrating mallards out of Canada in 1985 fell to a record low of below 5.5 million birds, with other species in even more dire straits. This year, according to the recently issued 2014 waterfowl-population-status report from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (http://www.flyways.us/sites/default/files/uploads/statusreport2014_final_7-24-14.pdf), the projected mallard fall flight looks to number between 12 and 14 million greenheads, far above the long-term average.
Overall, the duck population runs around 49 million, 43 percent over average, not to mention a world of Canada and snow geese, sometimes referred to rudely in their multitudes as “sky carp.” In short, happy days for waterfowlers. Hunting ducks and geese in the Sheridan area remains problematic, though.
Wyoming has some waterfowl hotspots, such as around Torrington for world-class goose shooting. There is also the Big Horn, especially the walk-in areas over by Thermopolis, where a hunter can jump shoot, pass shoot and decoy in ducks. And nearby in Montana, such as on the Big Horn across the state line, or along the Yellowstone, ducks and geese can be found, too. Right here, though, is another story; but not to lose heart.
For a dedicated waterfowler, it is possible to scratch out hunting hereabouts. And now is a good time to start doing the homework for it.
The two keys are water and fields. Canada geese can be seen on any number of fields, to a degree that hunters can set out with the intention of trimming the population with a clear conscience.
A tip from Bud Stewart, public information specialist in the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Sheridan office, is to look for geese in alfalfa fields that have been seeded with grain nurse crops. If you can find a field or a pond, and obtain permission to hunt it, always remember that the key to all waterfowl hunting is location, location, location. There are lots of ways of saying it, but it boils down to, “You need to hunt where the birds want to be.”
A spread of carved decoys that would make Michelangelo beam, and calling that sounds like it’s from a $10,000 pair of speakers, is nowhere near as significant as a skein of ducks maple-leafing into a puddle, of its own volition.
One of the best places around to hunt for ducks is Lake DeSmet. The key is open water. As the rest of the country freezes up, DeSmet will stay open for some time, particularly the western bays. Similarly, if you can find any spring-fed water, like a cattle pond or cattail slough, check it out for birds setting in. By the end of the season, those orange-footed ducks can be on kamikaze missions to get into anywhere that is ice free.
The state’s early- and late-migratory regulation pamphlets should be out soon, containing season dates, shooting times and bag limits. If you are going to waterfowl, don’t forget your federal duck stamp and proof that you’ve registered with the migratory-bird harvest information program — stamps are at the post office and Game & Fish has the HIP cards when you get your license. Non-toxic shot is, it goes without saying, mandatory (all non-toxics are, alas, not created equal; I really like HEVI-Shot, even if it is breathtakingly expensive).
Preparedness in duck and goose hunting extends well beyond licenses and shot. Some factors to be weighed include matters of, without exaggeration, life and death.
Waterfowling traditionally remains a risky business. Duck hunters have been caught in storms on DeSmet, and some have never made it off the lake. Historically, duck hunting has been among the most deadly types of hunting on record. The most famous instance was the “Great Armistice Day Storm of 1940.”
On that Nov. 11, the weather on the Upper Mississippi started out in the 50s under bluebird skies, drawing in waterfowlers from Canada to Iowa along the river’s length. Within hours, though, a powerful storm rumbled in from the Pacific Northwest, plunging temperatures and whipping up the wind. Soon, the wind chill plummeted to 55-below and waves were cresting at five feet on the waters.
Hunters reluctant to break off their hunting before taking their limits found themselves trapped on islands and bars by day’s end. They had to shelter overnight where they were, many huddling under overturned duck boats as their only protection. The next morning, the frozen bodies of more than 50 duck hunters were scattered up and down the river, marking one of the worst storms on record.
Luckily, waterfowl hunters today have the opportunity to equip themselves with neoprene waders, flotation devices and insulated clothing. They also have more accurate weather forecasts upon which to base their hunts and better communications to call for help. Yet with all that, they still go blithely forth to die, perhaps addressing certain imbalances in the gene pool.
When the season closes here, remember that there is always duck hunting somewhere, whether on this or even on another continent. I’ve always loved sandhill-crane hunting, but this year both Sheridan and Johnson counties will be closed to hunting as the biologists study the birds, the question being whether we have mostly lesser or greater sandhills, one population, the greater, more critical than the other. Cranes are open over in Campbell county, but that may be farther than I am willing to venture. Might think about Texas, instead.
TOM MCINTYRE is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.