AUSTIN – For the first time in several years, ducks heading into Texas won’t be landing in the dirt thanks to decent rainfall across much of the state in recent months. It’s a reprieve from the drought waterfowlers have been waiting for, particularly in light of reports of record numbers of ducks heading this way.
Duck populations have now hit record highs in three of the last four years, and in a normal year Texas plays host to 90 percent of the ducks that migrate along the Central Flyway; roughly 10 million birds. But dry conditions in Texas during those record-setting migrations have left waterfowlers high and dry as the ducks have sought out wetter environs elsewhere. That pattern should change this year, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“I would say conditions have improved over most of the state the last couple of months,” said Kevin Kraai, TPWD Waterfowl Program Leader. “Waterfowl are doing well, so conditions are shaping up for what should be a good season.”
Duck hunting gets under way in the Panhandle’s High Plains Mallard Management Unit Oct. 25 and in the remainder of the state Nov. 1.
Kraai said conditions have improved significantly in the Panhandle where earlier this year many playa lakes were dust bowls, but have since filled thanks to recent rains and should provide ample respite for incoming ducks.
Likewise along the coast, conditions have improved and should support ample numbers of ducks and geese this winter.
“I remain excited about the increase in rice acres in the coastal regions southeast of Houston,” said Kraai. “That should increase the foods available for both ducks and geese in that area, thus improving the populations of birds that visit the marshes of the Chenier Plain.”
According to Mike Rezsutek, TPWD waterfowl biologist for the Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project, the tides have dropped and water levels in the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area are dropping towards their target elevations.
“Chances are good that we’ll have favorable water conditions by the opening day of waterfowl season,” he predicted. “In the rice fields and other inland areas there is plenty of surface water at the moment, but that may change if the clouds stop dropping rain.”
Habitat conditions on the mid-coast range from fair to good depending on recent rainfall events, according to Matt Nelson, TPWD’s Central Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project Leader.
“Most of the mid-coast has received adequate rain over the past two months but there are still some key areas in need of additional precipitation,” Nelson noted. “Tides have been running high lately and have most of the coastal marsh full to capacity and the wigeon grass is starting to respond positively.”
Nelson went on to report the early teal season hunting on the mid-coast WMAs was slowed by lagging migration, but observations of large groups of blue wings using the marsh and large groups of pintails and gadwall arriving after the last cool front have him optimistic for the opener.
“We are starting to see some white-fronts on the coast as well,” he said. “In short, we could still use some rain in key areas along the coast but overall habitat conditions are fairly good. Now we need the birds to cooperate and migrate through.”
Additionally, the lower Texas coast south of Corpus Christi has received much needed rain in the last few weeks that has greatly increased the available fresh water on the landscape.
That’s good news for redheads and pintails that require frequent visits to fresh water after foraging on the sea grasses on the Laguna Madre.
In the eastern regions of Texas, things are also shaping up well, according to Jared Laing, TPWD waterfowl biologist.
”We had well-timed rains that produced great food resources on most North Texas reservoirs,” said Laing. “Natural marshes are in decent shape, but some stayed too wet to grow adequate plants that waterfowl prefer. Managed wetlands are good to excellent, but due to the very wet growing season, some areas are late with food resources.”
Pineywoods reservoirs are another story, Laing noted. They stayed full all spring and summer for the most part and many are now covered with invasive aquatic plant species. Bird use on these should increase as winter progresses, vegetation decomposes, and open water becomes more available.
“Of course, as always, the quality of our season and bird densities on the landscape hinges on the amount of water on the landscape,” Laing pointed out. “Right now we’re sitting fair; we just need a good 4-6 inch rain event to boost North and East Texas wetlands as the birds arrive.”
A complete summary of the 2014-15 Texas waterfowl regulations can be found online at www.tpwd.texas.gov and in the new Outdoor Annual — Texas Hunting and Fishing Regulations mobile app available for free download for iOS and Android mobile devices at www.txoutdoorannual.com/app.
Daily bag limit: Six ducks in the aggregate, to include no more than five mallards (only two hens), three wood ducks, three scaup, two pintail, two redheads, one canvasback, one mottled duck. The season for “dusky” ducks, (mottled ducks, Mexican ducks and Mexican-like ducks) is closed for the first five days of the regular season in each zone.
Daily bag limit: 20 “light” geese, three Canada geese, two white-fronted geese.
Daily bag limit: 20 “light” geese, five “dark” (Canada or whitefront) geese, to include no more than one whitefront.