Waterfowl - ducks, geese and throw in sandhill cranes - have become a hot commodity for young hunters in Texas. Hunter numbers will never challenge those of deer and dove hunters, but it is safe to say that waterfowl hunting is today what quail hunting was 40 years ago.
In the last 10 years, waterfowl hunter numbers in Texas have increased by a third - from about 62,000 to more than 90,000. Much of that can be attributed to long-term stability in North American waterfowl numbers, which is high again this year, but there is also a trend that younger hunters are being drawn to waterfowl as a first choice.
While waterfowl hunting can be expensive to get into considering the cost of decoys, specialized clothing and possibly a boat and dog, it can be cheaper than quail hunting that can require a sizeable and expensive lease and a brace of dogs. Deer hunting has the same drawbacks when considering the cost of a lease, blinds, feeders and corn.
And while quail and deer hunters are restricted to their lease - good or bad - waterfowlers are mobile and can move from one place to another on a lake or around the state if that is what it takes. Some have even begun to expand their horizons, following the migrations southward from Canada to find hunting spots in the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
While the Texas Gulf Coast has typically attracted the most wintering birds and hunters, today’s hunters are just as often looking toward the Texas Panhandle where they are more likely to find big ducks like mallards, geese and sandhill cranes for more variety. That in turn has resulted in more outfitters in the region.
“People have learned what the ducks knew a long time ago, and that is there is abundant fresh water all over the landscape in the form of stock ponds and small private reservoirs,” said Kevin Kraai, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s waterfowl program leader, of the increased hunting in the Panhandle.
While some hunters have adopted a jump-and-run technique for hunting some of the smaller lakes in the regions, outfitters have enough options for more traditional hunts using blinds and decoys.
In fact, Kraai said waterfowl outfitters are showing up across the state.
“Wherever (water and duck numbers) is consistent and reliable, waterfowl hunting clubs, leases and outfitters are always soon to follow. The options folks have to choose from for commercialized hunting throughout interior Texas seems to grow each and every year,” Kraai said.
Based on long-term mid-winter surveys, the Texas coast continues to be a hunter’s best option. It annually winters an estimated 1.5 million ducks or about 25 percent of the ducks migrating through the Central Flyway.
The state’s Oak Woods and Prairies region is second with an estimated 925,000. However, combined the Rolling Plains and High Plains winter an estimated 960,000 ducks, not to mention geese and cranes. Of course those numbers are water dependent. In dry years the counts can be much lower.
The key attraction to waterfowl in the Panhandle is food. The playas and lakes are often surrounded by farmland planted in winter wheat or holding the spillage after a fall harvest of corn and grains.
The Pineywoods, in comparison, has plenty of water, but little in the way of food once acorns are gone. The result is the mid-winter average count in the region is an estimated 118,000.
Divided into three zones for hunting, Texas’ duck season opened for a two-day run Oct. 28-29 in the High Plains Mallard Management Unit of the Panhandle. It reopened Friday and runs through Jan. 28.
The South Zone, which includes the Gulf Coast, opened Saturday through Nov. 26, and again Dec. 9-Jan. 20. The North Zone will be open Nov. 11-26 and Dec. 2-Jan. 28.
Although the three zones are very diverse in their habitat, conditions are good statewide this fall.
“Currently, and potentially surprisingly, we are looking pretty good regarding the upcoming waterfowl season, and that is really the entire state. Good rainfall late this summer and even more recently has conditions in the High Plains playas, Rolling Plains and Oak Prairies stock ponds and reservoirs, and even far eastern Texas habitats in better than average conditions,” Kraai said.
There was concern coming out of the summer about a large portion of the upper Gulf Coast from Rockport to Beaumont because of Hurricane Harvey.
“The Texas coast obviously endured some extreme weather recently and we surprisingly saw decent early teal hunting in many places this past September on the heels of the storm. Habitat conditions were in fair to very good shape across much of the coast just a few weeks after the storm. Recovery of these habitats has been more rapid than many of us envisioned,” Kraai said.
The biologist added that hunters along the coast should benefit from ample food supplies that will attract and hold birds.
“Waterfowl foods are abundant and improving by the day. Much of the rice crop was harvested just before the storm and it too is recovering and many folks are now harvesting the second growth crop, which will be very beneficial to wintering ducks and geese,” Kraai explained.
Other than public reservoirs, there are not a lot of public waters for hunters in Northeast Texas. Kraai suggests one spot to consider would be White Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area (https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=35).
“It has a fair amount of beaver ponds and some managed wetland units that often hold water for those willing to do the work and learn the property. But, when White Oak Creek and the Sulphur River are in flood and out of their banks, there are thousands of acres of flooded river bottom available for people to explore. Ducks arrive like clockwork when flooding begins and search the shallow freshly flooded woods in search for acorns and aquatic invertebrates,” he said.