recap

Hunting The Pond Jumpers

recap

Postby forthebirds » Fri Mar 04, 2005 3:34 am

04-05 Texas Waterfowl Season In Review
Texas waterfowlers experience mixed results across the Lone Star State

By David Schuessler, Director of Fundraising & Volunteer Relations


Please Note: At this time there are no final Mid-Winter Survey or 04-05 Texas Harvest Data available from Texas Parks & Wildlife. This article is based solely on hunters’ reports from across Texas and preliminary survey results provided to Ducks Unlimited from Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Final 04-05 Winter Survey Results, 04-05 Harvest Data, 05 May Pond counts, and 05 Breeding Survey results will be posted and reviewed on this website as soon as they are available.


“The best hunting we’ve had in years.”

“My worst season yet.”

“No shortage of ducks here.”

“I scouted all day once and didn’t see a duck”.

And so went the 2004 – 2005 Texas waterfowl season. Not that anyone should have been expecting a record-breaking year to begin with. Breeding surveys conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service in the summer of 2004 showed totals just under the 50-year long-term average. Certainly not the worst it’s ever been but far from the banner flights of the late 90s that are fresh in the minds of many Texas hunters.

Chad Manlove, Manager of Conservation Planning from Ducks Unlimited’s Southern Regional Office in Jackson, Mississippi, explained the effect that had on this year’s overall migration and possible hunter expectations. Hopefully hunters in Texas understand that continental populations of waterfowl peaked in the late 90s. Current population levels are approximately 25-30% below what we experienced in the 1999-2000 season. That made a big difference in the 2004 fall flight - potentially 25 million ducks that physically do not exist versus five years ago. Fortunately, we are close to the long-term average, but average populations do not ensure hunter success. Hunter opportunity and success is driven more by regional habitat conditions and weather patterns.

And when the 04-05 Texas waterfowl season was complete regional habitat conditions did direct birds to certain parts of Texas, some areas to possibly their highest numbers in recent memory. Conversely some areas saw their lowest number of migrating waterfowl in the past few years.

The Panhandle and Brush Country had well above their average number of wintering waterfowl this past season, which was great for the very few waterfowlers who hunt these regions. The Middle Coast, Hill Country, and Northeast Texas were recipients of a fair share of the migration as well. East Texas and the Upper Coast experienced another hit and miss waterfowl season with some hunters again scratching their heads and wondering, “Where are the ducks?”

Well, hunters in the Panhandle can give them at least part of the answer.


THE PANHANDLE
As we all know, migrating ducks look for attractive habitat to spend the winter and build up nutrient reserves for their return trip to the breeding grounds in the spring. This habitat usually consists of water with a nearby food source. Many ducks visiting Texas this year found that habitat in the Panhandle of Texas. Record rainfall turned normally dry playa lake beds into superb wintering habitat, and the ducks responded by coming in what may have been record numbers and staying for the entire season.

Preliminary estimates from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Winter Surveys (conducted annually in early January) show areas in the panhandle holding between 75% and 350% of their 5-year average. Over 30% of the Texas migration was counted in the Panhandle this year. The 5-year average is 15%.

Mother nature set quite a buffet in Northwest Texas this year and the birds responded accordingly.

Brandon White of Longneck Outfitters in Lubbock explained the effects the excessive habitat had on attracting migrating ducks to his part of the state but the difficulty it presented in hunting them.

“Our area had twice our average annual rainfall. I heard some farmers talking about how they have not seen this much rain since the 50's. We had an excellent season for geese and cranes but ducks were spread out as every playa lake was holding water. There were lots of ducks in the area but they were difficult to hunt due to the water situation. There were playa lakes everywhere with an average of 20 ducks on each one. If you did find a lake with a larger number of ducks the first time you would shoot they would all fly to the next lake a mile away and you would not see them again.”

Brandon also spoke to the positive effects that had on the goose hunting in that area. “It was the exact opposite situation for hunting geese in the fields. Usually there are tens of thousands of acres of milo planted around Lubbock. The milo is planted as a secondary crop after a cotton crop is ruined by hail. This year we did not have the usual hailstorms and as a result the cotton made it to harvest. This year we saw the smallest amount of grain fields for the geese to feed in that we have ever seen. The birds were heavily concentrated in these areas and as a result there was excellent hunting.”


Terry Cooke of Straight Line Outfitters in Amarillo agreed. “Our goose season was very good with lots of geese staying in the area due to all the water. It seemed as though they knew they could move at will if they were getting too much pressure in one area. All they had to do is move 20 miles one way or the other and they could find a better home with all the food they needed. We thought it was a great year for goose hunting, much better than last year.”


Brian Schreckenbach of Blackfoot Guide Service in Lubbock spoke to the amount of ducks around his hunting grounds. “The was no shortage of ducks around the Lubbock area last year.” He also mentioned the effect the Christmas artic blast had on this year’s migration. “The migration peaked for us right around Christmas with the hunts staying consistent until the 3rd week of January. I think the colder weather had more of an impact on our ducks then they did on the geese.”


The 2004-2005 waterfowl season was good for the Panhandle hunters.




HILL COUNTRY

Hill County duck hunters, if you can find one, will also attest to a good portion of the migration spending the winter with them on unusually wet tanks and natural depressions. An uncommon amount of rainfall in late summer and early fall created premium waterfowl habitat in an area that receives very little duck hunting attention.


When people think of hunting in the Hill County most think deer, and this creates an even better scenario for ducks hoping to dodge the business end of a Texas 12 gauge. Most landowners and hunting clubs in the Hill Country will only turn to ducks, if they do at all, after deer season closes. In fact, when the Hill Country is wet it can create wintering habitat where ducks can spend their days loafing with the only hunters around being in tower stands waiting for that trophy buck to step out.




WEST TEXAS
West Texas might be home to even fewer waterfowl hunters than the Hill Country. You generally need water to hunt waterfowl, and West Texas just doesn’t have that much of it, especially the kind that attracts large numbers of ducks and geese. But, there is hunting, and those who do have access to areas with good waterfowl habitat can and do harvest ducks and geese. If you have water in West Texas you probably have a chance at shooting some ducks.


Philip Schoeneck of Dallas, whose main hunting area is just North of DeLeon, said their hunting club had a good year. Probably 90 per cent of the birds we took were Gadwalls and Widgeons, he said. Also, we didn't see as many Mallards and Pintails this year as we have in the past.”




SOUTH TEXAS & LOWER COAST

The same can be said for much of South Texas, where whitetails rule and ducks are usually an afterthought. Once again the Brush Country and Sand Plains regions experienced a wet season that created habitat that is normally dry during the winter months. This, plus unusually low waterfowl hunting pressure, sets a table birds rarely leave once they find it.


Rogers Hoyt, Jr., Ducks Unlimited’s Senior Vice President from Uvalde, shared some of his observations from the past season. “The country south and west of San Antonio had a very wet spring and fall, so ranch stock tanks were full all winter, providing good habitat for waterfowl. When rainfall totals are right these tanks grow a substantial amount of aquatic vegetation that provides ducks with a great food source. I observed about the same as I have been seeing in this part of the state for the last three years, substantial numbers of Gadwall, Teal and a good mix of other species wintering on tanks. We had a couple of big migrations of Pintail move through in late December. These birds just stayed a day or two to rest and then moved on, probably to Mexico. Many hunters that I talked to that were hunting deer in northern Mexico reported seeing large numbers of ducks between Piedras Negras and Neuvo Laredo. These birds were using stock tanks and small ranch lakes as well.


Doug Jones, TXDU District Chairman from the Ft. Worth area, chimed in what he’s seen in South Texas. “The ranch where I go pig hunting in south Texas is chock full of ducks. The ranch is located in Dimmit County, which is much better known for their trophy Whitetail and not Pintails and Widgeons. Needless to say those ranchers don’t hunt ducks in that part of the country and the average duck hunter never gets to see the impressive concentrations of birds in this part of Texas, but they are there and loving life when the landscape is wet.”




NORTHEAST TEXAS

Reports out of Northeast Texas were mixed but most hunters agreed that this season was better than the last.


Mike Beeson of Four Seasons Guide Service in Denison offered his summary of what he and his hunters experienced this past year. “It was a good year, we killed a lot more mallards this season. It was better than last year but we still had to work hard to get our ducks. We scouted every day and moved to where the ducks were. I don’t think we got the cold weather we needed to have a great year. It would be freezing one day and golf weather the next.”

UPPER COAST
The Upper Coast consists of the counties east of Houston to the Louisiana line. This area represents some of the grandest waterfowl heritage in Texas, but unfortunately some of the most severe waterfowl habitat loss as well. It is also an area where waterfowler expectations have fallen short, as hunting seasons the past 4 years have not equaled historic levels or the strong fall flights of the late 90s.

Will Beaty of Central Flyway Outfitters in Winnie shared his thoughts on the 2004-2005 season. “Teal season was a disaster. It was the worst Teal season that I have seen in 15 years. The rice was being cut and the marsh was dry and therefore we had no water to hold the birds. We did well in the early part of the season and then it turned slow. The hunting was better just prior to each front but the ducks did not seem to hold in our area and thus we had major lulls between fronts. Fortunately the goose hunting was good and carried us through the season.”

Local hunter speculations on the causes of multiple “less than average” seasons fills local newspaper columns and are common discussion topics in internet chat rooms. Most people agree there are a multitude of challenges facing the waterfowl hunters of Southeast Texas. When you analyze the major factors a clearer picture will develop as to the possible reasons why waterfowl numbers have been low on the upper coast comparative to some other parts of Texas.

The fresh water marshes of the Upper Texas Gulf Coast that once were home to millions of Central Flyway ducks and geese are disappearing. Over the last several decades thousands of acres of pristine fresh water marsh have been lost or degraded as a result of saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, urban expansion, industrialization, and other contributing factors. What coastal marsh habitat that remains is severely degraded and contributes but a fraction of the duck use days it once did.

It’s also no secret that Texas has a declining rice industry, but it might surprise some people how much of this loss has occurred in the Upper Coast.

Since the crop was first cultivated in Texas in the late 1800s it has enticed ducks and geese to spend their winters in the rice agriculture areas of the Lone Star State. Rice agriculture helped to fill the void left from decades of fresh water marsh loss. Waterfowl were quick to discover and exploit this readily accessible food source when they arrived on the coast each fall. It provided them with much needed energy replenishment after a long southward migration. Rice agriculture and waterfowl were extremely compatible and worked very well together.

Texas rice fed millions upon millions of waterfowl for decades, but relatively recent changes in agriculture practices along the gulf coast has taken the majority of this food source away. Ducks and geese will naturally search out other sources of wintering habitat when a major food source is taken away. It’s no different than you and I going to a local diner only to find out it’s closed down. We don’t just hang around hoping it opens back up, we search out another that’s open and has food.

According to the Texas Agriculture Statistics Service, between 1975 and 2002 Texas suffered a 63% decline in rice production from 547,500 acres farmed to 205,748 acres farmed.

Between 1975 and 2002 the Texas counties of Jefferson, Chambers, and Orange experienced a 74% decline in rice production from 121,800 acres farmed to 31,495 acres farmed. These 90,000+ acres of rice acreage constituted over 26% of all the entire Texas loss just in these three counties.

To put all this into perspective, between 1975 and 2002 Texas lost over 340,000 acres of rice production. Over 90,000 of these acres were in Jefferson, Chambers, and Orange Counties. Compare this to only 52,000 acres of Ducks Unlimited habitat projects between Texas and the breeding grounds (Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma) that often are unjustly blamed for short stopping the fall migration. If there is a habitat problem negatively influencing the migration it’s right here in Texas, not imaginary heated ponds and millions of fantasy acres of mega-projects being baited to the North of us.

And there’s also increased local hunting pressure to deal with as well. There are still waterfowl that call the upper coast home in winter, but they also share their habitats with some of the highest percentages of waterfowl hunters in all of Texas. It doesn’t take a duck long to realize hunting season is in on the upper coast.

Add an overall decline in breeding populations over the past four years, four relatively mild winters and unusually exceptional waterfowl habitat in other parts of the state (Panhandle and South Texas) to the mix and you have a receipt for a less than average waterfowl season on the upper coast.

So, what is it going to take to change things? That is the million-dollar question to Upper Coast duck hunters.

Well, Mother Nature is going to need to cooperate to start the process and nobody has control over that. As degraded as the habitat is in the Upper Coast it is still more attractive and offers better wintering options for ducks than the Panhandle and South Texas when they have normally dry conditions.

Getting back to normal winters won’t hurt either. Though this past year seemed to be a little colder than the previous three, it wasn’t the winter duck hunters were hoping for. It certainly got cold (you don’t get measurable snow on the Texas coast without cold weather) but it never “set in” across the mid-latitude states to give that big migratory push waterfowlers dream about.

A return to wet cycles on the breeding grounds will benefit duck hunters everywhere, including the Upper Coast. But there is no controlling the weather in the breeding grounds any more than we can control it here in Texas.

From a local habitat perspective, Upper Coast hunters need to continue to support the restoration of lost and degraded wetlands, and the protection of the ones that are left. There is one waterfowl conservation organization out there working for the people of the Upper Coast, trying to reclaim some of the acres that once served as the end of the migration for many ducks and geese. That organization is Ducks Unlimited.

Ed Ritter, Director of Conservation Programs for DU points out that “Ducks Unlimited has been involved in intensive habitat work in Texas and the Upper Coast since the early 80s. Loss of waterfowl habitat in Texas isn’t a new issue, and Ducks Unlimited and our conservation partners have been working for Texas hunters long before the cries of “where are the ducks” began. We were here in the lean migration years of the early 90s, through the duck boom of the late 90s, and we’re still working at restoring, conserving and enhancing Texas wetlands for wintering waterfowl today. We know this is what is necessary to ensure the resource for future generations. This is our part in the waterfowling world – conservation, restoration, and enhancement of wetland habitats that benefit waterfowl on the breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and critical points in between.”

Some of Ducks Unlimited’s most intense public lands work has taken place on the Upper Coast. J.D. Murphree WMA, Anahuac NWR, Blue Elbow Swamp, and McFaddin NWR have all benefited from Ducks Unlimited’s efforts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on these projects and thousands of acres have been impacted by our work.

In regards to private lands conservation, Ducks Unlimited and our partners have been restoring waterfowl habitat through the Prairie Wetlands Program since 1991. The Prairie Wetlands Program is a cost share program between Ducks Unlimited, The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and participating landowners. The program is designed to restore lost waterfowl habitats in a 28 county gulf coast region. (To learn more about how DU performs habitat work in Texas click HERE)

To date over 31,000 acres of waterfowl habitat have been restored through this program.

Over 25% have been in the counties of Jefferson, Chambers and Orange.

Ducks Unlimited understands there has been critical waterfowl habitat loss in the Upper Coast. Ducks Unlimited and our partners have been working to restore these habitats since the early 1980’s. Ducks Unlimited and our partners will continue to work to restore these habitats now and in the future.

“Our private lands habitat conservation programs in Texas are focused on providing quality habitat that is low maintenance and encourages active management”, states Ritter. “Our biologists work one-on-one with each landowner to develop a wetland system and management plan structured to their particular situation. More and more landowners and waterfowl enthusiasts are discovering that a little year around TLC in their wetlands can pay big dividends for the resource.”



MIDDLE COAST
The middle gulf coast and areas inland constitute some of the most popular waterfowl hunting acreage in Texas, if not the entire Central Flyway. In fact, there are so many bays and prairies that make up this region it’s hard to give an overall summary on how the entire season went.

A strong wind in rice country, regardless of its direction, can change the number of birds in front of your blind overnight. And rain totals measured by the foot (like El Campo received before Thanksgiving) can quadruple the amount of duck habitat available in just a day’s time. But, overall there were more positive than negative reports coming out of the historic waterfowling communities of Wharton, El Campo, Victoria, and Bay City.

The prairies in this area are known around the world for their snow goose hunting. Thousands of people annually visit outfitters in this region to take a chance at the large concentrations of snow geese that winter in and around the rice agriculture that covers the landscape. This year proved to be a challenging season for goose hunters as less than 5% of the snow goose migration consisted of juvenile birds. A late snow in the artic during the height of snow goose breeding season all but shut down any breeding for the mid-American population last summer. But, area outfitters were still able to put hunters under some geese and in front of the ducks.

“The mid-coast was extremely wet this season”, explained Ritter. “That opens up areas to ducks that typically aren’t available during a year with normal rainfall. It tends to scatter the birds over a larger geographic area, making scouting and managing hunting pressure in your hunting area even more critical than usual. Those landowners with wetlands enrolled in our private lands programs that did their management homework and controlled their hunting pressure reported some of the best duck hunting they have seen in the last 10 years.”

Some of the area’s best know outfitters agreed.

Tony Hurst, owner of Paradise Hunting Club in El Campo, shared his thoughts on the 04-05 season. “Bay hunting for ducks was good throughout the season. In fact, it was better than it has been the past three seasons. Duck hunting inland on the prairies was good after fronts but you would shoot the birds and they were gone. The Greenwing Teal were much more evident this year than in recent years, but not many Gadwall or Widgeon.”

Hurst spoke specifically to the challenging goose season as well. “The numbers were OK for the geese but we were very weather dependent. The goose hunting peaked around the middle of January. The dark geese were a welcomed sight as there were very few juvenile snow geese this year, which made it hard to decoy the birds. Goose season was just tough this year.”

Larry Gore, owner of Eagle Lake and Katy Prairie Outfitters in Katy, spoke to the success he had this past season. “Teal season was only OK, but the regular duck season was definitely better than last year. In fact, the 04-05 season was greatly improved over the last two seasons. This was more like duck season is supposed to be for us. There were good numbers of ducks through out the season. We started out with a lot of divers and kept consistent numbers of Greenwings around all season. The Gadwall and Widgeon were here and gone throughout the season but there were good numbers of Pintails.”

Gore also spoke to the challenges of snow goose hunting this year. “Goose season was fair. It was feast or famine for Snow Geese. We did really well on the Specks. It was almost automatic to get your Specks in November.”

Bill Sherrill, owner of W.S. Sherrill Waterfowl Hunting in Wharton, TX also had positive results to report from the 2004-2005 waterfowl season. “This year we had very few juvenile Snow Geese but good hunting weather. Canada geese were here in big numbers starting in December. The three bird limit made it very nice!”

“This year we may have had a little bit stronger duck season than last year but last year was strong also. The duck season was good from the first of Teal season to the very end. We had Bluewing throughout the season. Some of those may have been coming back up the flyway later in the year. The Greenwing were good throughout the season but toward December they really loaded up. Gadwall were in and out and very few Widgeon. Not many bay ducks due to our water not being what they are looking for, but we did have several groups of 8,000 – 10,000 Pintails.”

Ritter spoke to the effects DU’s private lands programs has on birds returning to the breeding grounds. “Conditions during the growing season last spring and summer were ideal for growing some high quality native duck food for those that took advantage of it. Something as simple as slowly drawing down the water level or a light disking at the right time of the year can potentially produce 1000’s of pounds of seed and other forage to the acre. These are the areas that consistently attract and hold waterfowl year in and year out. By managing the hunting pressure on these wetlands these landowners are able to hold birds in the area all season long, a benefit to the entire hunting landscape. Thanks to these landowners and overall good habitat conditions we had this fall and winter we’re going to be sending birds back north this spring in excellent condition.”



EAST TEXAS
East Texas hunters offered the most inconsistent reports from the 2004 –2005 season. But this is not to say that there were not hunters in this area who had decent hunting. Texas Ducks Unlimited Regional Director Yazoo Thomas offered an example of the hit and miss reports he’s been given. “I sat in a chapter meeting in early February and had a volunteer tell me it was the worst hunting season he had in years and another told me it was the best he’s had in years, and these two were hunting only a few miles apart. Some people just had birds and some didn’t.”

The loss of substantial grass beds in the large lakes like Toledo Bend, Lake Livingston, and Sam Rayburn continues to concern East Texas hunters, and it should. Their disappearance may be one of several factors contributing to relatively low numbers of birds visiting East Texas over the past four years.

When thriving these beds offer food and loafing areas to ducks, in essence a reason to stick around once the hunting starts. In the same manner that wet playas attract and hold birds in the Panhandle, and rice agriculture attracts and holds geese down along the coast, East Texas hunters need the grass beds in the big lakes to attract and hold large numbers of waterfowl which will feed the hunting opportunities near the lakes.

Thomas, an avid bass fisherman and duck hunter who lives on Toledo Bend, watched the grass beds disappear through the recent drought years and knew what it meant for the ducks. “When the grass is out there you can look across the lake in the middle of the day and see ducks rafting up. I’ve seen them so thick they’d be dodging spinner baits from mid-October to early spring. You just know those are at least some of the birds visiting hunting spots in East Texas. When the grass disappeared so did those concentrations of ducks, and, well, naturally so did a portion of the birds we hunt in East Texas. There are still some birds using this area but they become susceptible to hunting pressure very quickly when they don’t have those grass beds to hang out on. I really think the people who are having good season are managing the pressure on their holes with the utmost care.”

“I’ll tell you what though”, added Thomas, “the hunters who found grass this year also found birds. That tells me how important it is. We need that grass on the big lakes.”

Mark Robinson, owner of Robinson’s Lodge in Huxley, reported this past year was another in a line of bad ones. “Our season was as bad as the past four. We did see a duck or two but they didn’t stick around long due to their popularity. The resident wood ducks are wondering what they did to make everybody mad!”

Thomas looked towards the future with optimism. “Hopefully our rain patterns will settle down and allow the lake levels to remain somewhat constant. That grass can come back but it will take consistent, normal rainfall. These lakes were built to create power, and when our rain isn’t right the lake levels are going to fluctuate too much for good grass growth. They have to pull water through those dams to generate our power, and that grass can’t grow when the water’s muddy and up and down all the time.”

Waterfowl managers understand that the conservation and rebuilding of hardwood bottomlands and their associated aquatic landscapes in East Texas is also critical for the region to have a long-term impact on migrating waterfowl. The East Texas Wetlands Program, delivered by Ducks Unlimited, does that by providing assistance to private landowners for habitat improvement. The program is a partnership agreement between Ducks Unlimited, United State Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Natural Resource Conservation Service, and participating landowners.

The program is simple. Landowners within the 46 East Texas county coverage area can submit an application to participate in the program. Once a property is accepted program biologists and engineers work with the landowner to design habitat specifically for wintering waterfowl. The importance of this to the hunting public is more habitat on the ground in your region to attract migrating ducks. The more habitat in your area the better the chance you’ll have large numbers of ducks spending the winter in your area.

In conclusion, general reports are that waterfowl hunting was “better” in Texas this year, but there are still areas experiencing below average numbers, mainly East Texas and the Upper Coast. Middle Coast hunters benefited from good habitat conditions, as did South Texas, the Panhandle and Hill Country. Northeast Texas had their share of birds, as did folks who hunt West Texas.

Regardless of how our waterfowl season played out in any one particular area we must always remember to reflect on the past (both the good times and bad), remain focused on the future, and not allow ourselves to get too hung up on the present. Waterfowl populations will fluctuate, they have throughout recorded history. They also will respond relative to available habitat and habitat conditions in the breeding grounds.

The same weather conditions that influence the migration also influence waterfowl production in the prairies. While we can’t control the weather we can insure that the habitat waterfowl depend on is conserved and available when weather conditions are right. In 2004 we were all blessed once again with the opportunity to witness another fall migration. If we remain focused on habitat conservation capable of sustaining waterfowl populations in the future our children and grandchildren will be blessed the same.
The purpose of a warrior is not to engage his enemy in a test of strength or skill, it is to kill him.
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