Who would’ve thought there was such a thing as too much water for waterfowlers?
The first segment of duck season kicked off this weekend in the Low Plains Late Zone, which contains most of northeast Kansas, but the early duck season has already been hampered by flood waters from the historic rains that hit the state earlier this year.
Widespread flooding has kept many public wetlands closed across the state, and water levels remain particularly high in northeast Kansas’ marshes.
Milford Wildlife Area and Tuttle Creek Wildlife Area reportedly are still heavily flooded, and Perry’s boat ramps and parking areas remain underwater in the West River and Kyle marsh areas, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“Most of the hunting I do is around Topeka,” said Ken Burkhead, of Berryton. “A couple of the guys I hunt with are farmers, and they have access to a lot of places for us to hunt, in the fields and in the ponds, but my concern this year is how much water there is and what those ducks are going to do.”
Even in those areas where flood waters have receded and the water has returned to the conservation pool levels, there remains a significant problem.
Many of Kansas’ wetlands remained submerged throughout the summer growing season, which prevented the growth of moist-soil vegetation upon which the waterfowl rely for a food source.
Burkhead said he usually goes hunting out west during the early season at the Cheyenne Bottoms wetland in Barton County, but skipped the trip this year because of the conditions.
“This is the first year I can remember where we didn’t go to Cheyenne Bottoms,” Burkhead said. “We usually go out there for teal season and spend three to five days out there, depending on the hunting. This year we didn’t go out there because they were flooded and they didn’t have a chance to plant any food for them, so that means they’re not gonna hold any birds out there very long all season.”
He said last week he was on a work trip in Nebraska and didn’t see a single duck or goose on his trip.
“That’s not a good sign,” he said. “That means they’re still up in Canada. ... Opening weekend is this weekend, and we’re not even going out. I’m thinking the best hunting, most likely, will be in the latter part of November, and then you get hit with the cold weather, so this could be a tough year if you’re a duck hunter.”
Besides the food issue, hunters also will have to deal with ducks being more spread out as water covers more terrain than usual this season.
Jeff Neal, president of the Topeka chapter of Ducks Unlimited, said he hasn’t had the chance to hunt yet, adding the rains have made it tough all over.
“The high water levels have sure changed things and it's tough to find a spot to hunt,” Neal said. “I expect the birds will also be pretty spread out, so that may complicate things a bit.”
Burkhead agreed it will be difficult to find areas of concentrated ducks.
“You know, if you find where those ducks are at this year, you’re going to have a great year,” Burkhead said. “But they’ve got a lot of choices. It’s just going to put a premium on scouting.”
Melvern offers opportunities
At Melvern Wildlife Area, where manager Ben Niemann said the lake remained at historic highs near 22 feet for much of the summer, lack of food is an issue in the wetlands.
“We had a ton of water all summer long,” Niemann said. “Usually during the summer when it comes to our wetlands, that’s when we’re doing a lot of management in our wetlands to grow our duck food or inundate it with water, take water off to try to get moist-soil plants to grow. So we didn’t have that option this year. Like I said, most of our wetlands were underwater for five months straight.”
In the past month, he said, the lake has gone down back to the conservation pool levels, which allowed the wetlands to be drained to let vegetation grow before pumping water back in for the ducks.
Niemann said that, due to the short time window, they weren’t able to get as much plant growth as they would’ve liked prior to refilling the wetlands with water. He said they began pumping in three of their wetlands on Monday. On Thursday, they did a waterfowl survey to get a count of how many birds were in the area. He said they were seeing a gradual increase, around 120 to 200 birds per day compared to 10-20 a few weeks ago. That day, they counted 95 blue-winged teal, seven shovelers, 20 mallards and 14 unidentified ducks on the smaller marshes.
“The weather up north is a little bit colder — obviously, we’re going to have another cold snap tonight,” Niemann said Thursday. “The big ducks are starting to show up, so we should have a pretty decent opener. Nothing like we’ve had in the past when our marshes are filled with food and we pump them full of water, but I think guys should still shoot limits on opening day.”
Because of the flooding, some hunters may be looking to the crop fields as a way to draw in birds, which is common for goose hunting but not as standard for ducks.
“That’s one thing we’ve actually tried to push for down here,” Niemann said. “We knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of food in the marshes to keep the ducks around.”
He said the ducks will use the marshes for things like preening and loafing and general hanging out, but won’t stick around to eat if the food isn’t present.
“So what we try to do — a lot of our crop fields were obviously underwater this year, as well — our tenants weren’t able to get in there and find any sort of crops,” he said. “Once that lake got down back to conservation pool, a lot of those crop fields came back out of water and then they had a couple weeks to dry.”
The KDWPT purchased about 600 acres worth of cover crop — grasses, radishes, rye, wheat — and spread it out over the grounds to help draw in ducks in the fields near the marshes.
Burkhead agreed that field hunting could be the best way to yield results.
“With this much water, the ducks are going to be in the fields more,” he said. “They’ll be feeding. And if you find where they’re roosting, then you’re gonna have a good year. They’re going to be working those fields and then they’re going to be wanting to find some place to get to water. If you can find that spot, you’re gonna have a successful season.
“But it’s going to take a lot of scouting.”
Those who are hunting in crop land should also be aware of federal regulations regarding the practice.
Hunters may hunt in standing or normally harvested crops, as well as flooded standing crops, unless that field has been manipulated — including, but not limited to, such activities as mowing, shredding, discing, rolling, chopping, trampling, flattening, burning or herbicide treatments for any reason other than a normal harvest. Grain or seed which is present as a result of a manipulation that took place prior to a normal harvest is considered bait. For example, no hunting could legally occur on or over a field where a corn crop has been knocked down by a motorized vehicle.
For more information on baiting and field manipulation laws, go to https://tinyurl.com/y6mmqez9.
Kansas waterfowl hunters got their first chance to bag some geese when the two-day first segment of the light goose and Canada goose seasons kicked off Saturday.
But hunters were likely hard-pressed to find any birds.
“We have seen no geese, and it’s very weird,” Niemann said. “We were kind of talking about it in the office the other day, you know, this time last year we had snow on the ground. That pushed the geese a lot quicker. The geese got here a lot quicker, and they flew over a lot quicker.
“In our neck of the woods here and up at Perry, we just haven’t seen the number of geese that we would normally see.”
He said that likely was due to a number of factors, including the amount of standing water in northern states and milder fall temperatures. However, he said some geese had been seen further east near the Big River in Atchison.
“It’s a weird year, man,” Niemann said. “The geese aren’t here yet and the ducks are just starting to trickle in. It’s just one of those weird years where we have a lot of things compounding.”
Nick Neff, of Lenexa, hunts mainly in northeast Kansas. He made a trip to Manitoba this week to hunt and said the birds were still mostly in the northern parts of Canada.
"It will start changing this week but water is very plentiful and a lot of crops were laid down with the three feet of snow, I think, they got," he said. "Until they get a heavy snow cover, the birds and not leaving for the most part."
While it looks tough in Kansas, he added that everyone he's talked to in Nebraska says it's the best conditions they've ever had.
In addition to the two-day first segments, which run Saturday and Sunday, the first segment of the white-fronted goose season began Saturday, as well, and continues through Dec. 29. The second segment of the light goose and Canada goose season will pick up again Nov. 6 and continue through Feb. 16, 2020, while the second part of the white-fronted goose season runs Jan. 25 to Feb. 16, 2020.