Ducks here, there and everywhere – sort of

The Vaughan gang had a blast during an early season youth duck hunt on Nov. 5. F

Saturday’s duck season opener in the South Zone was fantastic if you had water and happened to be set up where ducks wanted to be. A lot of hunters reported excellent hunts – especially in parts of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur. Ditto that in flooded fields near China. But others came up high and dry, with virtually no birds.

One of the best places to be hunting was in the North Zone west of Beaumont, near China, in a flooded field. That’s where Kenny Vaughan took his three kids on a youth duck hunt.

“We were covered up with teal and pintails,” says Kenny. “At one point, we had more than a thousand birds in the field, maybe twice that. About 70 percent were teal, and the rest pintails with a few spoonbills mixed in. Teal were flying everywhere and the kids had lots of long shots. My daughters Faith and Grace each made great wing shots on fast-flying teal. My son Kennedy busted ’em on the water.”

Hunters in the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur had some excellent shoots in the Salt Bayou and Keith Lake units.

“Those two areas have lots of water, and that’s the key,” says Jerry Norris, who has been hunting there for years. “A lot of the birds taken opening weekend were teal, gray ducks and a few pintails.”

North Zone duck hunts run from Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 3 – Jan. 29. South Zone hunts are Nov. 5-27, Dec. 10 – Jan. 29.

The good news again this year is that much of the waterfowl habitat across the state appears to be in prime condition thanks to an abundance of rainfall over the last two years.

“Weather patterns, especially significant cold fronts, can have great impact on migration timing,” said Kevin Kraai, TPWD waterfowl program coordinator. “Unfortunately, this is the one factor we can’t predict, but we keep our fingers crossed for lots of frozen water north of the Red River throughout most of the winter.

“As waterfowl hunters and biologists, we are always looking to the sky to send us water for birds to forage in and for us to hunt,” said Kraai. “Rarely do we ever say that there is too much water, but we came close last year, and wet conditions seemed to have persisted into the summer months in many parts of Texas. “Overall duck and goose populations are at or near records, and we expect an excellent migration, assuming we get timely cold fronts throughout the fall and winter.”

A significant example of how an excess of water is benefitting the birds and the hunting prospects this year, restrictions for irrigation water along the coastal prairies were lifted, resulting in an additional 40,000 to 50,000 acres of rice production on the Texas coastal prairies.

“This will greatly increase carrying capacity of our Gulf Coast region and the birds are expected to respond favorably,” predicted Kraai. “We have already seen early migrants taking advantage of these new resources in surprising numbers.

While habitat conditions across the coastal region are much improved, biologists are still hoping for more rain to replenish freshwater ponds and wetlands.

“Habitat conditions were as good as we have seen in years going into early teal seasons this September, but prolonged periods of little to no rainfall since September have really dried out our coastal habitats,” said Kraai. “Our marshes and estuaries received significant freshwater inflows this summer, which has resulted in excellent growth of important waterfowl foods up and down the Gulf Coast. We hope the rain will return soon to flood up the foods that were produced this summer.”

East Texas also received extensive rainfall last year, and the lakes, reservoir and river bottoms experienced prolonged high water that biologists say will have impacted production of moist-soil plants this summer, but submerged aquatic plant production should be excellent and will attract all types of dabbling and diving ducks in this part of the state. Warm and dry conditions this fall have set in, and the region is in need of a change in weather pattern soon for the Pineywoods to hold migrating birds.