North Texas awaits more ducks as season opens

Lynn Burkhead
For the Herald Democrat

In case you haven't noticed on the calendar, this weekend marks the opening bell for the 2021-22 duck season here in Texomaland as the Nov. 13-28 first split kicks off in the North Zone of Texas and in Zone 2 across southern Oklahoma.

And with that opening day rapidly approaching in only a few more hours, about the only fly in the ointment for local waterfowlers in the Red River Valley is the answer to this question: “Where are the ducks?”

The answer quite simply is still to the north of Texomaland. At least that’s what the Ducks Unlimited migration app suggests, along with other notations from waterfowlers in states further up the Central Flyway. And it’s the same song, second verse from serious quacker enthusiasts I’ve queried here in the Lake Texoma region as they look to the sky and wonder where all of the quackers are.

That’s a shame and hopefully something will change soon, perhaps a big push of cold air that will surge south between now and Thanksgiving and usher in a huge wave of southbound mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, green-winged teal, redheads, and more.

But some are wondering if those waves will ever come to Texomaland this season, since drought on the northern breeding grounds put an unknown hurt on the prairie pothole waterfowl production this year in the fabled Duck Factory of the Dakotas and southern Canada. Even worse, the true impact of this year’s significant drought in those areas is basically unknown since the spring pond counts and breeding population survey didn’t happen for the second year in a row as the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects are felt even in the outdoors world.

In the absence of that data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once again, about the only thing that duck hunters have been able to do the last couple of years is to take a look at what’s happening in North Dakota, a Central Flyway state that has done its own spring and summer habitat surveys and breeding population counts for more than seven decades now.

Last year, those counts showed good habitat conditions and a strong breeding effort, leaving many to hope those survey results would prove to be true in other parts of the Duck Factory in 2020.

And this year? That same effort in the Peace Garden State showed almost the exact opposite in results, as in  lousy habitat and a much weaker breeding effort in 2021. If those results were also found in southern Canada, eastern Montana, and elsewhere in the breeding grounds, then this year’s fall flight might be significantly down from what a lot of people have grown accustomed to in recent years.

The reason for an early build up on the coast is that many ducks are headed there every year anyway, marking the state’s first real push of ducks to the south. And with some parts of the coastal regions experiencing plenty of rainfall this year, along with some scattered dry spells too, conditions are actually in better than average shape down towards the Gulf of Mexico.

In East Texas, reservoirs are higher than normal in places, but some river bottoms are starting to look for some water as the dry weather of La Nina builds. If reservoirs can see water edge up into weed covered shoreline areas and shallow backwater flats, that could also be a big draw to ducks soon to be arriving.

Out west in the Panhandle’s famed playa lakes region, there was also a good amount of rainfall this year, even a greater amount than normal in some places this past spring and early summer. That was impacted, however, by hot and dry weather in late August and September, so the region has lost ample surface water in recent weeks. Canada geese look to be abundant this fall in the Panhandle region, particularly as they use water sources in urban areas, flying out of town each day to feed. Put simply, duck and goose hunters who have access to good water in the Panhandle region, not to mention grain fields close to towns, will likely find good shooting.

Out in the Rolling Plains, habitat conditions in the Winchester Lakes region of Knox and Haskell counties are good. Timely rains have many of the local water resources holding water in those spots and that will once again prove to be a huge draw for ducks and geese that once-upon-a-time visited the Texomaland area during the heyday of peanut farming a generation ago.

Now, tens of thousands of small Canada geese and white-fronted geese make their way to the Big Country instead of Hagerman and Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuges like they did in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Our loss is the Big Country's gain and it’s great hunting if you’ve got a spot to hunt, a leased area, or an outfitted hunt booked. If so, look for more of the same this year with some good hunting as thousands and thousands of geese and ducks fly around every morning before going to feed.

What about here in Texomaland? There is still some fair to good duck shooting when the weather gets cold enough up north to push ducks down the Central Flyway. The problem is that the food that once held waterfowl locally isn’t here in any big supply these days, so duck movement into the area can be rather transitory and waterfowlers will need to scout to find good places to set their decoys the following morning.