Better-than-average duck season comes to a close

Sunday at sunset, Robert Mason, Denny Copeland and I were putting limits of mallards and pintails on duck straps. It was to be our last duck hunt of the 2011-12 season and one that a whole lot of us won’t soon forget.

This should give you an idea of how good the season was. Four of my duck hunting buddies in Central Texas bagged just over 800 ducks, which according to their data, is an all-time record for them. They hunt a lot, but what’s most interesting is that they only hunt on public lakes and rivers.

I spent the last four days of the season duck hunting with them up around Waco. The day I headed up there it began raining and flooded many of the creeks and rivers of Central Texas. That set up some outstanding hunts for mallards, pintails, gadwalls and even a few widgeon.

This week I talked with waterfowl biologist Jim Sutherlin, who is the area manager at the J.D. Murphree WMA in Port Arthur. Based on his data, they had an outstanding season, with lots of gadwalls bagged by the hunters there. In fact, they averaged three to five ducks per hunter.

“During the first split, we actually had some fresh water in the Big Hill Unit,” said Sutherlin. “Because of that we had thousands of gadwalls there, and the hunting was very good. But during the second split, the hunts in the Big Hill Unit slowed down a good bit. In the Salt Bayou Unit, we had a lot of slow hunts during the first split. But in the second split, the numbers of birds per hunt went up to three to five per hunter. That’s mainly because we got some badly needed rain around Christmas. And in January, we got about 5 inches of rain. That really helped.”

West of Beaumont out toward China, teal saved the day on many hunts. But a lot of the duck hunters out that way lost their water and their ducks. Beaumont’s Jerry Allen has a duck hunting lease near China and they had very good hunts during the first split. But it slowed in the second split.“We had lots of pintails and teal and tons of spoonies during the first split,” says Allen. “A lot of our first-half hunts also included specklebelly geese.”Some of the most consistent hunts were south of Winnie down toward Bolivar in the marsh. Conversely, hunters with leased land north of Winnie had major water issues, as in dry land, which converted to a lot of very slow hunts.

The best and most consistent hunts throughout the season were along the coast from High Island and on down to Port O’Connor. Pintails and redheads were pretty much guaranteed on most coastal marsh hunts around Matagorda and Port O’Connor.

The lack of widgeon had a lot of hunters scratching their heads. But prior to the season the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the numbers of American wigeon were 14 percent below the 2010 estimate and 20 percent below the long-term average. That was right on the money. Usually widgeon are pretty numerous along the coast, but that was definitely not the case this season.

Prior to the season opener the USFWS said that we were in for a great waterfowl season. Their data showed that we had an estimated mallard abundance of 9.2 million birds, a 9 percent increase from the 2010 estimate of 8.4 million birds and above the long-term average. That was definitely on the money, too. Mallard hunts up around Central Texas were as good as they get. On many of our hunts up that way, four of us were averaging 10 to 17 “greeners” per hunt.

As for pintails, I don’t recall ever seeing as many during one season. Before the season opener, the USFWS data indicated a northern pintail estimate of 4.4 million birds. That was 26 percent above the 2010 estimate of 3.5 million and similar to the long-term average. There were plenty along the coast, and lots more on rivers and lakes in the Hill Country.

Numbers of teal were excellent during the first split. But they sort of disappeared during the second half. Coming into the season, the service said blue-winged teal numbers were at a record 8.9 million, which was 41 percent above the 2010 estimate of 6.3 million, and 91 percent above the long-term average. Green-winged teal numbers were slightly down. But on the last day of the season, I saw hundreds of them on a lake north of College Station.

Hopefully, the duck numbers will continue to increase. And as we look forward to another season, think positive thoughts on more rain coming our way so the birds that do make the migration next fall will have something to keep them in the area.