Michael Pearce

More to duck seasons than just mallards

A later duck season across parts of central Kansas would deny hunters more chances at pintails, and other early migrants.
A later duck season across parts of central Kansas would deny hunters more chances at pintails, and other early migrants. The Wichita Eagle

Sometimes I fear duck seasons are about to end in Kansas. If some had their way, and the seasons got moved several weeks later, we’d just call it mallard season.

First, later seasons have their place. Hunters in about a dozen southeast Kansas counties needed the extra few weeks they’ve gotten in the southeast duck zone for late arriving mallards. At most Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission meetings someone asks for similar seasons over other parts of Kansas. I don’t think that’s a good idea for much of the low plains late zone, which encompasses much of central Kansas. Things are different here compared to southeast Kansas.

Different topography/weather

Comparing duck habitat and fall flights between eastern Kansas and much of central Kansas is like comparing mallards and teal.

Eastern Kansas is mostly a hilly region where water runs into deep rivers and lakes. Such isn’t the case in the wide, Arkansas River lowlands or sandhills regions. Much of the “topographically challenged” area is dotted with thousands of shallow playas that may only be a few feet deep or less. With decent rains anytime from mid-September through mid-November you'll probably see those shallow playas holding thousands of ducks across the region. From about Thanksgiving on those thousands of shallow playas will probably be coated in ice.

A mid-November opening in that area would mean some of the region’s best waters would be iced a week or two into the season at best. I’ve had pasture ponds north of Wichita offer only a few days of hunting the entire month of December because of ice. Many years much of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, one of the top public waterfowling spots in the late zone, also locks up in ice in early December, at the latest.

There is no doubt we often host a lot of mallards during those frigid times in December and January, but those birds are often on sections of rivers where access is nearly impossible for the average hunter to obtain access. Some reservoirs, like Cheney and Marion, may hold a lot of mid-winter mallards but not many hunters have the boats and big decoy spreads needed for such cold weather hunts. The shallower ponds take only a dozen or so decoys and a set of waders.

Different duck dynamics

From eastern Kansas’ big rivers and flooded oak timber to far western Kansas’ seeps, ponds and pools on mostly dry rivers, we live in a state with a great deal of variety when it comes to duck waters. The timing of the fall migrations, and the ducks within them, are about as varied, too.

That’s one of the things I greatly appreciate the many seasons I hunt in all of Kansas duck zones.

Out here on the prairies of central and western Kansas we get a much wider variety of ducks, and many migrate much earlier, than they do in southeast Kansas. Pintails are rare to the east but we get them about every early season hunt out here. We also get more, and earlier, flocks of gadwalls, widgeons, green-winged teal, shovelers, redheads and other species than eastern Kansas.

Many of my favorite hunts have been early in the late zone season when four or five of us shot six or seven species of ducks per hunt. Most of those wouldn’t have happened with a later season opener.

I don’t know if it’s arrogance or ignorance, but there are those who look down at early migrants, thinking it’s not a real duck if it’s not a mallard. Yes, mallards are the most common duck in Kansas, but it’s far from the only duck in the state.

During a break at the June commission meeting in Hays, a commissioner asked if we could even identify ducks in the October seasons or if we were “just shooting brown.” (Interesting question from someone who wasn’t born when I got into serious duck hunting.)

Of course we can tell what we’re decoying and shooting. The birds may not have full breeding plumage but they’re colored enough, and all have different enough looks and flight patterns it’s easy to tell, say, gadwalls from pintails. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t allow a special September teal season if hunters couldn’t identify early fall birds.

It’s obvious many hunters enjoy early autumn action. Thousands of American hunters head to Canada for their September opener, and many go to the Dakotas a few weeks later.. Head up to Cheyenne Bottoms, the McPherson Wetlands or Jamestown Wildlife Area and you will probably find crowds with no shortage of smiles when those public marshes in the low plains early zone open in early to mid-October.

Several times at commission meetings it’s been said the reason Cheyenne Bottoms, in particular, is so busy in October is because it’s the only place that’s open that early. Such talk is from those who’ve never been there in October. People from all corners of Kansas, and dozens of other states, including many where their home seasons are already open, come to central Kansas because the place can be amazing for waterfowl hunters who enjoy all kinds of waterfowl.

Timing conflicts

Another consideration for not moving the late zone season later is it would push more late-October and early November late zone hunters to places like Cheyenne Bottoms and the McPherson Valley Wetlands, which are already crowded that time of the year.

Finally, pushing the late zone season opener back two weeks, to the second Saturday of November, would put it in competition with the holiest of hunting weekends in Kansas - the opening of pheasant and quail seasons. Both upland species thrive most years in central Kansas.

Thousands of hunters enjoy the traditions of both opening weekends. A simultaneous beginning would cut such festivities in half. And think of the business it would deny to local economies where both weekends bring lots of dollars for things like motels and meals.

Kansas is blessed that Wildlife and Parks is allowed to give us 74 days for the low plains duck zone seasons. That’s enough time for those who prefer chasing only mallards and duck hunters who just enjoy hunting ducks.

It shouldn’t be an all or nothing kind of season.