By Lefty Ray Chapa
Ducks and water go together like rice and gravy. The amount of water across North America determines whether a waterfowl hunter sitting in a blind in Texas has something to shoot at during duck hunting season. More water equals more ducks. Less water makes it more of a crapshoot.
Texas sits toward the bottom of the Central Texas Flyway, one of four waterfowl flyways spanning the continent. Water conditions at the top of the flyway, which includes the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the northern states of North and South Dakota, largely determine the breeding season‘s success.
June aerial surveys will more accurately pinpoint expectations, but at press time it is known that the Canadian provinces went into a wet winter. The snowpack, however, was less and the winter precipitation was below average, although the seasonal basins remained wet. According to TPWD waterfowl biologist Kevin Kraai, the expectation is that mallard, northern pintail, and blue-winged teal reproduction from this region will be above average.
In the Dakotas, similarly, it was wet going into winter, with the large basins holding plenty of water. But the area also experienced below-average winter precipitation and less snowpack. Kraai says he “expects good, but not excellent, production from redheads, canvasbacks, blue-winged teal, and gadwalls."
These two regions both cover vast areas with different geography, and fortunes could change rapidly depending on where the precipitation lands. All of these variables affect the ducks before they migrate to Texas. As a whole, Kraai points out, “we are riding a wave of good [duck] production over [the last] two decades." He adds, "Except for the northern pintails and lesser scaup, all other ducks are above long-term averages." The good old boys talk about the good old days, but Kraai says, “We currently may be in the heyday. It's interesting and exciting."
Once the ducks migrate to Texas, the dice are rolled from year to year as the water situation here changes, too. The recent drought years in Texas, while bad for ducks overall, have been good for some waterfowl hunters, since the ducks have been more concentrated and easier to find. These fortunate hunters found the sky filled with waves upon waves of ducks, while others found their traditional spots high and dry with nothing flying.
This past season started on a wet note, giving the formerly dry ponds and tanks water, which meant waterfowl were spread over more areas. The wider distribution put fewer ducks in the air in front of some hunters, but offered opportunities to more shotgunners across the state. The drawback was that some shooters saw only one or two species. It made for a disappointing day if those species had low bag-limit regulations—like redheads or pintails, currently limited to two each.
Much could change between press time and opening day, but at this point, it looks like hunters should probably plan on getting the state and federal waterfowl stamps or license endorsements. It could well be a good year.
Lefty Ray Chapa is an outdoor photographer/writer based in San Antonio. He is president-elect of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association.