Tuesday afternoon, the small river bend held big numbers of mallards. The landowner described them as packed in against one another, easily in the many hundreds. But save a few dozen decoys, Kacci Everitt and four friends found the same waters, and the sky above it, empty for most of Wednesday morning.
The few ducks they saw that morning wanted nothing to do with their decoys or calling.
“It’s just been that kind of year,” said Everitt, of Cheney.
“They’ve been different all season,” said Michael Kohler. “It’s been strange.”
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Tom Bidrowski, waterfowl biologist for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, agrees.
“It has been an odd year in a lot of ways,” Bidrowski. “We’ve heard it across the state, throughout the year.”
Sunday is the closure of all seasons for Kansas’ low plains early zone, and the two month first segment of the late zone season, though it will re-open for the last nine days of the month. The southeast zone closes until Saturday, then runs until Jan. 31. No place has the hunting lived up to what was anticipated.
Late-summer reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated some near record flights for most species of ducks expected to migrate to Kansas this fall. Mother Nature has been uncooperative in about all ways possible.
Though heavy rains raised spring and early summer hopes for a great season, late summer and early fall drought dried up a lot of habitat across most of Kansas.
“The hot and dry August really dried us up,” said Karl Grover, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area manager. “We had all that rain… but by late summer it was so dry we didn’t get good areas of food, like millet and smartweed. We sure didn’t have the habitat as good as it was in 2014.”
Nor did most of Kansas get the kinds of massive migrations that duck hunters took advantage of that previous season.
Bidrowski said mild weather conditions to the north had migrations running two weeks late for much of the fall and winter. Grover said the lack of a serious storm to the north hurt, too, by sending birds southward in small numbers.
“We never really had a big push of birds, like most years,” said Grover. “Duck numbers were pretty steady, like up to 25 to 30,000 birds, but we’re used to getting up to 50 to 70,000 ducks here at once.”
The three heavy rain systems that hit since around Thanksgiving then made habitat too much of a good thing and spread ducks far and wide.
Despite the challenges, Bidrowski predicted an average statewide duck harvest. Grover wasn’t quite as positive, saying the success rates for much of the season at Cheyenne Bottoms hunters hovered around only two birds per gun.
“We had some guys who found the right places and they got some limits,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody will remember it as a real Earth-shattering season.”