By John Pollmann
While fall is a favorite season for waterfowl hunters in the Dakotas, the spring season, with its giant flocks of migrating ducks and geese returning to their nesting grounds, has to be a close second. It also just happens to be the perfect time to start preparing for another successful season when hunting ramps up again in a few months.
So much of a hunter’s success in the fall boils down to weather and how changing conditions impact the movement of ducks and geese. It is too early to pay much attention to the thermometer, but spring is a good time to start monitoring precipitation amounts and patterns, which will most certainly influence where birds will settle to breed and could affect where they congregate this fall.
So far, this spring has been wet and cold, bringing much-needed precipitation to areas of the Prairie Pothole Region, better known as the “duck factory.” When the snow melts, the runoff will fill the shallow depressions that lend this area its name, attracting large numbers of mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal and more.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will issue the official summary of wetland conditions and breeding duck numbers this summer, but my early prognostication errs on the side of a successful nesting season this spring and early summer. This all means a strong flight of birds this fall, and moreover, because wetland conditions look to be improved here in the Dakotas, we should have more local ducks to hunt in the early weeks of the hunting season. Start monitoring precipitation levels now and continue to keep an eye on which parts of the PPR receive moisture to help guide your early scouting trips in August and early September.
As busy as the spring season is for nesting waterfowl, it is also the start of a hectic stretch for farmers and ranchers across the region. However, now is a good time to pencil out a list of landowners where you’ve hunted in the past and, at the very least, reach out to see how winter treated them. Better yet would be to offer to help with some chores or a project this summer or deliver a package of walleye fillets from your ice-fishing endeavors. Investing time and effort to show appreciation to those landowners who grant permission for hunting is not only a smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.
While you’re at it, take note of what crops are being planted in and around the areas you have permission to hunt. While it’s likely the corn stubble you hunted last year is probably getting drilled with soybeans this spring, that might not be the case. Taking note of the agricultural landscape now will inevitably help you more in the fall when it’s time to find corn, wheat or other fields migrating waterfowl will likely use if they’re in the area.
Now is also the right time to pick up that lanyard of calls and start practicing for the hunting season, and there is no better way to practice than to listen to real birds, which are around in abundance this time of the year.
I was walking my young Lab along the Big Sioux River near my home last month and came across a number of Canada goose pairs grubbing for food in a muddy cornfield adjacent to the recently thawed waters. Every so often another pair of geese would cruise overhead and glide into the field, honking and clucking and moaning the entire way. Should the new arrivals venture too close to birds on the ground, another chorus of goose sounds would erupt, creating a symphony of sounds — the sounds of spring to a waterfowl hunter.
The next day I returned to the same area and brought my calls with me in the hopes of replicating what I heard from the birds. It quickly became a music lesson on rhythm and pitch, and a reminder of what I still don’t know about calling geese.
This is just the beginning of the list of things that a hunter can start to do now at the onset of spring in preparation for fall. Cleaning and re-rigging decoys, upping the retrieving skills that you work on with your dog, recruiting new hunters, spending time on the sporting clays course and more are all solid investments that will pay dividends when fall arrives.
And don’t forget to just get out and enjoy the next month or two as ducks and geese return to the prairie, wearing their best colors of the year and providing a feast for the eyes and the ears. It truly is a special time of the year, second only to when these birds decide to gather in flocks again and begin preparations for their flight south.
About the Author: Waterfowl columnist John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.