The winter wheat field we were hunting in was frozen concrete-hard in the morning, and full of soft ankle deep mud and ice-free sheet water ponds by mid-day. Migrating swans, Canada geese, mallards, and pintails filled the skies, not to mention the snow geese. The season is over for us already here, as quickly as it started. I can’t wait to do it all over again next year!
Author Archives: softshelldecoys
In your lifetime you may never meet a hunter who declares they are a big time teal hunter. Think about it, a big time teal hunter sounds a lot like like a big time bluegill fisherman. Or a devoted carp fly fisher. You meet goose hunters, deer hunters, elk hunters,grouse hunters, pheasant hunters, or the like. I have yet to meet someone who introduces themselves as a big time teal hunter. Too bad, because teal are a blast and I love hunting them.
Teal are fast and teal are small. Teal are quick to dodge, twisting in the wind and slicing through the decoys like few ducks can. Look at their wings as they drop in from up high, tucked back like little fighter jets. As far as ducks go, teal are reportedly not one of the fastest species. I call B.S. on that statistic. Teal may not fly the fastest 40, but they are quick when it’s game time. Throw in a nice stiff breeze, say 20 mph, and the day quickly turns into the best wingshooting I know of. Divers like blue bills can rip the air like teal, but they don’t dodge like their puddler brethren.
It’s so satisfying to flash your barrel through a bird and connect when they make their initial supersonic pass through the dekes. It takes a good shot from a hunter to drop one. Get on him, swing through and slap that trigger and slap it again if you have to and hopefully he goes down! And when you miss you usually laugh and say, “How did he…?! I guess I was behind him.” You know you’re missing as you’re pulling the trigger but you can’t help it.
Picking a bird, or as we say “target acquisition”, out of a decoying flock is usually the problem with teal.Far out from the decoys they line up so nice and straight, but as they start to break down into the spread the chaos begins.They maneuver and drop as they dump speed from their wings, cutting up and rocking side to side. It’s like letting loose a giant covey of quail with a 50 mph head start over the decoys. Plus, the drake green-wings are not always an easy drake to pick out compared to other ducks. Fortunately, teal are accommodating and social, they LOVE to zip through and check out their impostor buddies.
So I’ll just come on out and say it, I’m a big time teal hunter. I love ‘em. Just like I love fly fishing for carp in the summer. I’ll take these little guys any day of the week, especially when December and January come around.
We left the young dogs at home the other day in favor of Sammy, Rob Spicer’s 11 year old lab. 11 years old and still going strong!
Sammy found and retrieved all of our birds at her own pace, which is just slightly slower than we move during these icy winter hunts. Pretty good for an 11 year old, or 77 in human years if you prefer.
The highlight of the afternoon was the drake canvasback she retrieved- she waited for the bird to come back to her after it dove under an ice shelf. The big drake came back out right at her feet and she bent over and picked it up, like it was no big deal. It made our day watching her work.
I can’t imagine bird hunting without a dog. I know there are hunters out there that do, but not me. Not only are we more successful when we’re trailing behind them, they are great companions in the field and on trips (most of them anyway!). Here are some dog pics from the season so far.
This is a short video we put together after a few field hunts this fall. Talking to other hunters and outfitters this season confirms what the USFW Service reported this fall, the duck and goose populations are up!
Clearly every waterfowl season is different. It’d be great if our favorite spots produced consistently from year to year, but it doesn’t always work out that way- conditions change and force us to adapt. It may sound obvious but if there is one thing we’ve learned over the years it’s this: Follow the birds!
This year we’re experiencing drought conditions in the west, brought on by a winter of little snow followed by a summer with hardly any rain. There was six to eight more inches of water on the mud flats along the Great Salt Lake last year, and there were birds using it everywhere. Not so much this year. There are plenty of ducks and geese, they just have fewer places to go. As a result, the birds are sketchy and more sensitive to hunting pressure,which is more normal for sure.
Teal, pintails, and mallards feed on a variety of food on the mud flats: alkali bullrush seeds, algae, salicornia, and midges make up most of their diet. The birds love to get into areas that have recently flooded. Recent scouting and reports from friends confirmed the birds were using an area that has recently received some water through a series of culverts. As expected, there wasn’t as much water in the area as we’d hoped for, but enough to make a great looking spread. We deployed SoftShell mallards on the exposed mud flats, with foamers for the floaters.
The shooting was anything but fast, but we had a great morning watching mallards, pintails, teal and shovelers come into the spread.
Our conditions are changing rapidly as the weather gets colder and more irrigation water is being released on the mud flats. I have a feeling we’ll be hunting a lot of different locations depending on where the birds go, adaptability is critical to success this season.
Snow goose hunting is a numbers game, there is really no way around it. More than any other duck or goose we hunt, large numbers of decoys are required for consistent success with the white birds. The geese simply find comfort and safety in numbers. It’s not uncommon to see flocks of 5,000 to 25,000 feeding in a field. Knowing this, how many decoys do you need in your decoy spread to be effective?
So what is the number? 1,000 decoys? 1,500? More? The easy answer and simplest way to start out is to figure you will need 100 decoys per hunter on a snow goose hunt, which is probably way less than most people think they need. This is purely just a rule of thumb and will represent our baseline for most hunts. There are lots of factors that come into play which would cause you to add or subtract from that number, but that’s a great starting point. Let’s look at some of the variables that may affect the number of dekes you might put out for a hunt.
- Spring season: add 50-100 decoys per person
- Small group of hunters: figure on a minimum of 400 decoys total even if just two of you are hunting
- Trying to outdo the lease or outfitter next door: add as many as possible!
- Running traffic instead of hunting the “x”: add 100 per person
- Hunting during a significant front or storm: subtract up to 50 per person depending on the severity of the weather
- Can’t drive into the field: everyone takes a bag of 100 decoys
- Using layout blinds instead of backboards: add 20 decoys per hunter
- Trying to draw birds out of an adjacent field the birds are now feeding in: go get breakfast (remember, they’re snow geese!)
In my opinion, 100 decoys per person is a great number to start with and to hunt over in the fall, with a minimum spread size of 400. It seems like 1,000 decoys for a group of 5 hunters should be better than 500, but my experience is that you can easily make 500 decoys look like a bigger spread if that is all you have. It’s important to have a plan, and the plan should include landing areas, hiding areas, holes, family groups, etc. We focus on making distinct landing zones at the head of the spread , which is also where we generally place flyers. Groups of birds with open areas in between will make your spread appear larger and more natural.
It’s tempting to want a giant snow goose spread because we’re used to seeing huge flocks. Also, if you’ve had the experience of having 5,000 geese land in the field next to you and pull every bird that comes your way over with them, it’s only natural to want to hunt as big a decoy spread as possible. We’ve found that careful planning and placement can really increase the effectiveness of your spread, more so than just adding more decoys. If you stick to a good plan and strategically put your decoys out you will be amazed at the success you will have with maybe half the decoys you thought you needed.
Looking at the recently released waterfowl population statistics, paired with some of the harvest statistics from last year yields some interesting trends and figures. Here are a few of them that jumped out at me.
- Arkansas in the #1 state for harvesting mallards, with a bag of 639,000 birds. Wow!
- Rhode Island has the smallest waterfowl harvest in the nation at 2,100 birds with only 500 active hunters participating. I know a guide in Canada who’s clients shoot more waterfowl during the season than the entire state of Rhode Island.
- California is the top state in the nation for harvesting Northern Pintails, with a bag of 201,000.
- In my home state of Utah, there were 366 snow geese harvested in 2011. Really? It’s no wonder we travel out of the state to chase white geese.
- The entire nation killed only 393,000 snows and blues for 2011. This number strikes me as being really low when you consider the record population of light geese we now have. They have earned their reputation as a wary and tough bird to hunt.
- There were 2.2 million Canada geese harvested in 2011, almost 6 times as many compared to snow geese.
- Out of a human population of more than 311 million in the United States, only 1.1 million of us hunt waterfowl. This can’t be a good sign for the future of waterfowl hunting.
- And finally, Louisiana was the top state for harvesting coots, with hunters harvesting 207,000 birds during the 2011 season. I don’t know about you, but surely I read this as some sort of testament to their culinary skills!
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed their guidelines for the upcoming waterfowl season, and the proposal is promising for waterfowlers. The following is their press release:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced proposed hunting
season lengths and bag limits for the upcoming 2012-13 late waterfowl
seasons. The proposed federal frameworks include duck hunting season
lengths of 60 days in both the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, 74
days in the Central Flyway (with an additional 23 days in the High
Plains areas), and 107 days in the Pacific Flyway. The proposed
frameworks also include a full season on pintails with a two bird
daily bag limit nationwide, and a full season on canvasbacks with a
one bird daily bag limit nationwide. The proposed late season
waterfowl frameworks will appear in a mid-August edition of the
Federal Register for public comment.
States select their individual seasons from within the federal
frameworks that establish the earliest beginning and latest ending
dates and the maximum season length and bag limits. Flyway-specific
highlights of the proposed late-season frameworks are as follows:
Atlantic Flyway (Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maine,
Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North
Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont,
Virginia, and West Virginia):
• Ducks: A hunting season is proposed of not more than 60 days
between September 22, 2012, and January 27, 2013. The proposed daily
bag limit is 6 and may include no more than 4 mallards (2 hens), 4
scoters, 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 hooded mergansers, 4 scaup, 1
black duck, 2 pintails, 1 canvasback, 1 mottled duck, and 1 fulvous
• Geese: For light geese, states will be able to select a 107-day
season between October 1, 2012, and March 10, 2013, with a daily bag
limit of 25 birds and no possession limit. Seasons for Canada geese
would vary in length among states and areas depending on the
populations of birds that occur in those areas. The daily bag limit
will be 5 birds in hunt zones established for resident populations of
Canada geese. In hunt zones established for migratory populations,
bag limits will be 5 or fewer and vary among states and areas. For
Atlantic brant, the season length may be 50 days with a daily bag
limit of 2.
Mississippi Flyway (Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa,
Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri,
Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin):
• Ducks: A hunting season is proposed of not more than 60 days
between September 22, 2012, and January 27, 2013. The proposed daily
bag limit is 6 and may include no more than 4 mallards (2 hens), 3
wood ducks, 1 mottled duck, 2 redheads, 4 scaup, 2 pintails,
1 black duck, and 1 canvasback. The proposed daily bag limit of
mergansers is 5, only 2 of which may be hooded mergansers. In states
that include mergansers in the duck bag limit, the daily limit is the
same as the duck bag limit, only 2 which may be hooded mergansers.
• Geese: Generally, seasons for Canada goose would be held between
September 22, 2012, and January 31, 2013, and vary in length among
states and areas. States would be able to select seasons for light
geese not to exceed 107 days with 20 geese daily between September
22, 2012, and March 10, 2013; for white-fronted geese the proposed
season would not exceed 74 days with a 2-bird daily bag limit or 88
days with a 1-bird daily bag limit between September 22, 2012, and
February 17, 2013; and for brant it would not exceed 70 days with a
2-bird daily bag limit or 107 days with a 1 bird daily bag limit
between September 22, 2012, and January 31, 2012. There is no
possession limit for light geese.
Central Flyway (Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South
Dakota, Texas, and portions of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and
• Ducks: Duck season frameworks are between September 22, 2012 and
January 27, 2013. The daily bag limit would be 6 ducks, with species
and sex restrictions as follows: 5 mallard, no more than 2 of which
may be females; 3 wood duck, 2 pintail, and 2 redhead, 1 mottled duck
and 1 canvasback. Mottled ducks may not be harvested during the first
5 days after the beginning of the regular season in Texas. The
possession limit would be 2 times the daily bag limit. In the High
Plains Mallard Management Unit (roughly west of the 100th Meridian),
a 97 day season is proposed, and the last 23 days can start no
earlier than December 8, 2012. A 74 day season is proposed for the
remainder of the Central Flyway.
• Geese: States may select seasons between September 22, 2012 and
February 17, 2013 for dark geese and between September 22, 2012, and
March 10, 2013, for light geese. East-tier states would be able to
select a 107 day season for Canada geese with a daily bag limit of 3.
For white-fronted geese, east-tier states would be able to select
either a 74 day season with a daily bag limit of 2 birds or an 88 day
season with a daily bag limit of 1 bird. In the West-tier, states may
select a 107 day dark goose season with a daily bag limit of 5 birds.
In the Western Goose zone of Texas, the state would be able to select
a 95 day season with a daily bag limit of 5 dark geese (including no
more than 1 white-fronted goose). For light geese, all states would
be able to select a 107-day season with a daily bag limit of 20 and
no possession limit.
Pacific Flyway (Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah,
Washington, and portions of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and
• Ducks: States are allowed a 107-day general duck season between
September 22, 2012, and January 27, 2013. The proposed daily bag
limit is 7 ducks, including no more than 2 mallard hens, 2 redheads,
2 pintails and 1 canvasback.
• Geese: 107-day seasons are proposed for the Pacific Flyway between
September 29, 2012, and March 10, 2013. Proposed basic daily bag
limits are up to 10 light geese and 6 dark geese. There are many
exceptions to the basic bag limits and season structures for geese in
many states, so consult State regulations for specific details. In
California, Washington and Oregon, the dark goose limit does not
include brant. For brant, the proposed season lengths are 16 days in
Oregon and Washington and 30 days in California, with a 2-bird daily
limit. Washington and California are able to choose seasons in each
of the two zones described in state regulations.
The Service’s 2012 Waterfowl Population Status Report summarizes
information on the status of duck and goose populations and habitat
conditions during spring of 2012. In the traditional survey area,
which includes the north-central United States, south-central and
northern Canada and Alaska, the 2012 total duck population estimate
was 48.6 million birds, an increase of 7 percent over last year’s
estimate. Despite poorer habitat conditions compared to 2011,
population abundance estimates are good for this breeding season. The
total pond estimate for prairie Canada and the US combined was 5.5
million, which is down 32 percent from last year.
The annual survey results guide the Service’s waterfowl conservation
programs under authority of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Each
year the Service works in partnership with states from the four
flyways to establish regulatory frameworks for waterfowl hunting
season lengths, dates, and bag limits. All of this information
represents the largest data set on any wildlife species group in the
world and helps provide hunting opportunities while ensuring the
long-term health of waterfowl populations.
The Status of Waterfowl report can be found at
http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/. To view a video of the Status of
Waterfowl video visit:
Swinging a soft hackled fly makes me smile. I love the feel of the take. Just like a steelhead grab, only smaller. It brings me back to my fishing roots, when I was a kid waiting for a walleye to grab my leech in a Minnesota lake.
If done right, you won’t pull the fly from the fish when he makes the grab, and he’ll be on the reel taking line. It makes you feel like a kid again, waiting for that tug.
Mid-day caddis hatches are the perfect set up, and the fact we can do this in late May this year is a bonus. The spring run-off is much lower because the snow pack in the mountains is way below normal
Most of the fish are small, in the 10-13 inch range, some approaching 16 inches.
The drakes are going to be out soon, so we’ll enjoy this before the big bugs pop and the crowds come out.