Georgia Duck Season Forecast 2005
Water levels and weather again will impact duck numbers this season in Georgia.
If you are a Georgia duck hunter, hope for snow up north. For southern duck hunters the weather in northern states and the amount of water here are big influences on the quality of hunting.
All things being even, what’s the prospect for the 2005-06 season?
“On the poor, fair, good, excellent rating scaleв I am expecting this to be a fair season,” said WRD waterfowl biologist Greg Balkcom. “Duck numbers seem to be okay. On the continental trend, there are a few species that are down a shade, but there are still plenty enough ducks for Georgia to have another 60-day, six-duck-per-day season. That is a lot of opportunity.”
Over the past several years, however, some Georgia duck hunters have reported seeing declining numbers of ducks, and Greg thinks there may be merit to the field observations.
“I have been looking at the long-term midwinter waterfowl survey data, and we see some long-term decline in a few species of ducks,” said Greg. “Generally, hunters say that they are not seeing what they used to see.
“Statewide harvest numbers are still good. That may be a matter of a couple of things. Hunters may have become more efficient and are still successful. They hunt harder or try different tactics and still get their birds.”
Static survey data may also alter the data.
“The ducks may have redistributed themselves across the state into the available habitat,” said Greg. “Private landowners may be building new ponds or improving old ponds and siphoning off some of the birds from reservoirs and public areas. We still survey the same habitat year after year, but the data somewhat backs up what hunters are saying about not seeing the same numbers of ducks on the reservoirs and public areas.”
Greg says there are two key factors that could be influencing the numbers of ducks flying to Georgia: weather and water, and you can add agricultural practices, too.
“We are not sure why there aren’t as many ducks,” said Greg. “But agricultural practices up north may be one of the things that is having an impact. Things like no-till farming. It’s wonderful for controlling soil erosion and for nutrient retention, but it may not be the best for duck hunters in the South who depend on northern birds.
“Historically, farmers plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, and then they disc over the field leaving bare soil. Today they plant with a no-till drill in the spring, harvest in the fall, and they leave the stubble and the waste grain in the field. If there is no snow, the ducks don’t have to move. They just sit in a corn field in Iowa eating spilled corn. Even if it is five degrees, if there is no snow, and if there is some open water in a river or at a power-plant pond, they don’t have to leave. Snow cover is a big factor. If the snow covers the available food, the birds have to pick up and come south.”
If you are a Georgia duck hunter, hope for heavy snowfall farther north, especially in the area just south of the Great Lakes.
Once the birds fly south, they still require food and water when they arrive. Currently Georgia is experiencing a fall drought.
“We had a great spring and summer for rainfall,” said Greg. “But September and October have been awfully dry. We need some rain to fill up the ponds and beaver swamps.”
Obviously, food matters, too.
“Hopefully, folks with their own impoundments have planted crops so the ducks will have food here,” said Greg.
Ducks also have a requirement for some peace and quiet, says Greg. Some impoundments, such as the DU MARSH ponds at B.F. Grant, allow no hunting so they can serve as refuges. Other areas, such as the waterfowl impoundments at Butler Island on Altamaha WMA or the Dan Denton impoundments at Lake Oconee, are hunted for only half a day, one day a week.
“For people who have good habitat and want to hunt, we usually recommend a half-day hunting once a week,” said Greg. “That’s what we do at Butler Island and Oconee where we are managing so hunters can have a quality hunt.”
Two Main Flights of Ducks
Assuming cooperative weather, when do ducks usually arrive?
“Historically, we get two big influxes of ducks,” said Greg. “The first one is the third week of November, just before Thanks-giving. Those ducks are working on photoperiodism. The days are getting shorter, and their hormones are telling them that it is time to fly south. Some come to us, some fly to the Gulf, and some fly to Florida.
“Then the numbers of birds coming in kind of lays off until the third week in December when we usually get another big influx of birds. A couple of the surveys I have done show the highest number of ducks and the biggest diversity occurs about the third week of December.”
The December flights to Georgia are more likely to be influenced by weather. Greg calls them “pushed” ducks, having been pushed south by snow farther north that covers up their food supply, or cold weather that freezes up many ponds.
Duck numbers in Georgia usually drop off gradually until the end of January and the end of duck season. After that, there is a another predictable influx of ducks in early February, says Greg.
“Hunters call me in early February and say the ducks have finally arrived, but what is happening is the ducks are starting to come back through from Florida on their way back north.”
Despite the dousing of much of the southern half of the state by Tropical Storm Tammy in early October, many duck swamps and ponds could use more water.
“A lot of the ponds I have seen lately have been low,” said Greg. “At the waterfowl impoundments at Horse Creek WMA we have an existing green-tree reservoir and a new 30-acre green-tree pond below it. Both the impoundments are completely dry.”
Dry weather will also slow the filling of some managed ponds. The Dan Denton ponds at Oconee and the Rum Creek MARSH impoundment may require additional days of pumping water before they are filled. In fact, some rain may be required at Rum Creek WMA so that the flow of water in Rum Creek, which supplies water for the impoundment, is sufficient for pumping.
For the waterfowl area, public or private, that has water and food, the hunting may be very good during a drought.
“The birds will pile in if you have the only water and food in the area,” said Greg. “We have seen some of that this year at Morris Creek on Fishing Creek WMA. The technicians banding ducks had wood ducks all over them. There was plenty of water and plenty of food since they were baiting up the ducks to catch them and band them. They banded well over 200 birds this year. In a usual year they band 30 or 40.”
Greg mentioned a couple of tweaks to Georgia waterfowl regulations this year specific to certain WMAs.
New this year at Rhetts Island on Altamaha WMA is a restriction on boating horsepower. Boats entering the impoundment are restricted to one motor not exceeding 25 hp.
“We had a handful of people bringing monstrous big fiberglass boats in at high tide and somehow getting them over the dikes,” said Greg. “The big boats were causing erosion problems on the dikes when they were winching or dragging the big boat over the dikes, so we had to do something to limit access to small boats.”
There has been another more recent problem to impact Rhetts Island that had to do with the weather.
“We were in real good shape at Rhetts,” said Altamaha WMA area manager Jason Chapman. “That is until we got between 15 and 20 inches of rain in a week from Tropical Storm Ophelia.”
The heavy rain, coupled with high tidal surge, caused seawater to flow over the dike into Pond 3 on Rhetts and wash out a 30-foot wide section of the a dike.
“Right now, the water level at Pond 3 is pretty much under tidal influence,” said Jason. “There is plenty of duck food in there, and it will be fine after we get the dike repaired.”
Contractors are currently at work attempting to block the gap in the dike.
“We have a contractor with a drop-hammer pile driver and a crane on a barge that can pull into the creek right up to the breech,” said Jason. “They will make a bulkhead with two rows of pilings cabled together and then fill the area between the bulkheads to reestablish the dike.”
Jason was confident that the repairs would be completed before Georgia’s 2005 duck season begins on November 19.
Repairs to the dike are being funded jointly by WRD and Ducks Unlimited.
“We couldn’t do it without Ducks Unlimited,” said Jason. “Without them, this place wouldn’t run.”
Butler Island and Champney Island were not seriously impacted by the wet weather and are in good shape, said Jason.
“We are about to wind up our mowing and burning on Butler and Champney. I hope to have them flooded soon so that the birds will have a chance to find them and start using them.”
Across the state at Glovers Pond at West Point WMA the quota requirement has been dropped. This impoundment has been opened to the public, no quota.
“We have strong numbers of Canada geese,” said Greg. “The statewide flock is estimated at about 150,000 birds. It is just a matter of getting to them. These resident geese are awfully smart. They are around all year long, and they know where to go that they won’t be disturbed. A lot of them are hanging out in the suburbs, and they know where they are hunted and where they are not.
“I would encourage goose hunters to knock on doors and ask for permission to hunt. We still get a good number of complaints from people about having too many geese on private ponds.”
Good Year for Woodies
Wood ducks are the most common duck killed by Georgia waterfowlers. Last year woodies comprised 38 percent of the harvest. According to Greg, all the rain in Georgia in the spring and early summer was great for wood-duck reproduction.
“The critical period for brood rearing is May, June and early July,” said Greg. “There was plenty of water under the cavity tree nest sites, so we think we got a good hatch and good survival.”
Time, water and weather will tell how “fair” a season Georgia duck hunters will have this year. But to help your duck-hunting chances, come early December start hoping for the folks in Detroit and Indianapolis to be buried under a couple of feet of snow!
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