This is a multi-part series about the 2015 hunting prospects.
Waterfowl population status
The Washington Breeding Population Survey, conducted in May, has been occurring since 2009. This survey is an indicator of breeding effort, as it estimates the number of waterfowl present during the breeding season. These data may best represent prospects for the earlier part of the season (opening weekend through mid-November), since most of our migratory mallards have not yet arrived. However, this information must be used cautiously, as molt migration will redistribute these birds to some degree depending on local conditions.
In summary, the mallard estimate for eastern Washington did not differ from the long-term average. Gadwall and American wigeon, species that occur in abundance during opening weekend, increased by 20 percent and 23 percent over the long-term average, respectively.
Perhaps most encouraging, green-winged teal, which also represent a significant portion of the bag during the early season, increased by 110 percent above the long-term average. These results suggest that opening weekend and the early parts of the season will be significantly better than the last five years.
Of the diving duck species, results were mixed, with considerable increases for canvasback (up 107 percent) and ring-necked ducks (up 100 percent), but significant declines for scaup (down 84 percent) and to a lesser degree redheads (down 34 percent).
In addition to the survey, Fish and Wildlife also conducts regular brood routes throughout eastern Washington. Routes in the Ephrata District include the East Low Canal, West Canal, Winchester Ditch, and Ephrata Lake.
Waterfowl migration chronology and concentration areas
Migration, which peaks in November, will bring the best waterfowl hunting in the basin, as large numbers of mallards, wigeon, gadwalls, teal, scaup, redheads, and canvasbacks arrive from northern breeding grounds.
Until this time, hunters must rely on locally produced birds and early season migrants, such as American wigeon and green-winged teal. December typically provides the peak of mallards, ringnecks, and canvasbacks, while other dabbling and diving species continue their journey south.
Goose hunting will typically improve in November when early season migrant Canada geese (Lesser and Taverner’s) begin to scatter from their initial staging area at Stratford Lake to alfalfa or grain fields within feeding distance from Moses Lake and the Columbia River.
Based on Mallard Breeding Population Estimates and 2015 breeding habitat conditions, waterfowl hunting in the Columbia Plateau should be good this year, but likely not quite as good as the 2014 season. Perhaps the most compelling reasons to expect a good season in the Ephrata District is the 13 percent increase in mallard numbers in the Central and Northern Alberta – NE British Columbia – NW Territories strata.
However, conversely, there was a 4 percent decrease in the Southern Alberta strata. Hunters must be aware, however, that weather conditions can be as responsible for waterfowl harvest as bird numbers, so hope for unstable weather patterns bringing short-lived winter storms followed by warming trends.
Scouting is often the key to successful waterfowl hunting. Ample opportunity exists for public waterfowl hunts, but hunters should first identify where birds are feeding and roosting. Feeding flights for ducks typically occur very early in the morning and late in the evening, and last for an hour or so.
There is always good opportunity to harvest waterfowl during opening weekend in the Columbia Basin. A harvest rate of slightly above three ducks per person is common from year to year for the first weekend of the general waterfowl season.
Mallard, teal, American wigeon, and gadwall are among the species most commonly encountered. Also, wood ducks can be found in fair numbers concentrating in stands of flooded Russian olive trees, typically associated with the Winchester and Frenchmen wasteways, in the early season.
Late in the season, when snow is on the ground and conditions are harsh, ducks are likely to feed more during the day while the snow is soft, or will seek out fields that are grazed by cattle, so they can access the snow-buried corn kernels. Knowing when and where ducks are feeding and which direction they depart will help hunters determine the best locations to intercept the duck traffic with a spread of decoys.
Select areas to hunt based on the species you want to target. Diving ducks are typically hunted along the Columbia River, particularly at Wells Pool, Wanapum Pool and Priest Rapids Pool. They forage over beds of submerged aquatic vegetation such as pondweeds and milfoil. American wigeon will associate with diving ducks because they wait for the diving ducks or coots to bring up a bill-full of vegetation, and then quickly rush in to steal their meal.
Dabbling ducks are more commonly targeted on the plateau where grain corn and wheat fields attract mallards and pintail and shallow wetlands attract teal, American wigeon, and gadwall. Canada geese feed primarily in wheat and alfalfa fields, so requesting permission from private landowners in often necessary to secure good goose hunting.
Setting up a decoy spread on a pond between the feeding and roosting sites will generally result in some good shooting, particularly when conditions are favorable, with wind, snow and/or fog. Typically the larger roosting sites will be the Wanapum Closure (Columbia River), Winchester Reserve, Potholes Reserve, and Columbia National Wildlife Refuge Marsh units.
Hunters should be mindful that water and muck depths are highly variable and it takes a lot of trial and error to learn where you can and cannot set out decoys. For some areas, boat access is a must. Winchester and Frenchmen wasteways are crossable in some areas with chest waders, but use caution as deep holes do exist and patches of muck can be difficult to exit, particularly when packing decoys.
Next week: More hunting prospects.