Waterfowl Recap: The 2018/2019 Season
One of the more unique aspects of hunting waterfowl is that each year is different, and you never know what you’re going to get. Ducks and geese travel hundreds of miles each year, and their patterns change based on a number of factors. It’s both exciting and frustrating. The anticipation builds throughout the off-season, and you can never predict the type of season you’re going to have until you’re in the midst of it. You can plan and scout, but ultimately the birds have to show up; and you have to take advantage of opportunities, even if they’re limited.
Hunting waterfowl in western Colorado presents its’ own challenges. First, we don’t live in an area that see’s consistent migration throughout the season. We get one, maybe two big migrations a year. A few years ago wave after wave of new birds came to the area and the result was remarkable, but this year was very different. Second, the weather patterns and temperatures can be wildly unpredictable. We rely on cold winters to the north and west, and hope that our temps can remain steady so that when the birds do finally show, they stick around for a while. Sometimes weather to the north triggers a migration, but just as the birds begin to arrive, our weather takes a turn for the worst and pushes the birds further south immediately. Low temperatures can also lead to ice which can be either beneficial or disadvantageous. Third, there are limited areas to hunt in western Colorado, so you always have to contend with other hunters. Sometimes having hunters in the general area can be a plus, but it can also push the birds out of an area rather quickly.
The previous year it seemed as though winter never arrived. There was open water throughout the year, the snow never remained on the ground for more than a week, and it seemed as though every hunt took place under clear skies. This year however was a very different story. We saw winter storms as early as October. Temps remained relatively warm throughout November, it cooled down in December, we got consistent snow, and as the new year approached, harsh winter conditions arrived. The first week of January was brutal. Temps dropped below zero and the majority of days never got above freezing. Entire sections of river froze solid and anybody attempting to hunt open water was out of luck. It was the winter we hadn’t gotten in the previous two years, so we were hopeful. Unfortunately it didn’t produce what we were hoping for, for various reasons.
We essentially have three different waterfowl seasons where we live. We have a brief early goose season in the beginning of September, a first split for geese and ducks in October, and the regular season for waterfowl begins in early November and lasts through the end of January. September is always hot, and the only way you can really hunt geese successfully is to have access to private land where local geese are hanging out throughout the summer. You can have some success at a few lakes nearby, but as soon as they get shot at a few times they completely abandon the area. October is also warm but you have the opportunity to chase local waterfowl and early migrators. There was some weather, but it seemed to push more birds out than it brought in so the first split was rather disappointing. We got a few ducks here and there, but we were just content being back at it. Once the regular season showed up we were hoping temperatures would drop to the north to trigger migrations once the pothole country froze up. It just never happened. We had one hunt where we were able to bag 8 birds, but there were several abysmal hunts that had us looking for other options. Week after week we tried different spots, different setups, but there were hardly any birds in the area for over two months. Other hunters in our area were doing well on local ponds and private fields, but overall it was clearly the worst season that we had experienced in several years. Fortunately, the birds did finally show in mid-January which provided us with a couple of successful hunts to end the season.
We also had to contend with more pressure from other hunters this year. A few years ago a couple of the guys I hunt with purchased a boat and jet drive outboard which provided us access to stretches of river that were previously inaccessible. The first year we hunted out of the boat we saw one group of hunters on two separate occasions: That was it! The next year we had to contend with one other group that went out as frequently as we did, but we were still very isolated from most hunters. That particular group did like to hunt the same exact spot as we do, which had a negative impact, but we didn’t feel overly pressured. This year however was something new. We saw several other boats throughout the season. Our honey hole was overran regularly, and the result of that, combined with a lack of birds overall, meant that any birds in the area were pushed out each week. It was aggravating to say the least, but that’s what it’s like hunting on public land so we just dealt with it. Towards the end of the season however that pressure subsided. The weather took such a turn that a couple of the groups stopped showing up. It also helped that our boat launch completely froze. Lance and I spent hours one morning with a chainsaw and sledgehammers breaking and cutting away at the ice to get the boat in. Any hunter that showed up before we got there probably thought the river was no longer accessible, so they stopped trying. For the final few weeks of the season there was only one other group on the river, so the ducks finally had the opportunity to stick around once they showed up.
Just because a season is relatively challenging doesn’t mean that there aren’t great moments. I’ve had very, very few hunts where I regretted going out, because even hunts that seem completely unsuccessful are still often enjoyable. So it’s good to really reflect on a tough year to remember what went right.
The first highlight of the year came during early goose season. We rarely ever find any success during early goose because we just don’t have the access we need to effectively hunt geese. Sometimes however, it takes just one opportunity to create an awesome memory.
One day in early September Justin and I attempted to hunt a stretch of river that occasionally gets a few geese. Per usual, the hunt was completely unsuccessful. It was hot, we didn’t see a single goose, and the mosquitoes were still out so we spent most of the time trying to stay cool and free of mosquito bites. We left rather early but decided to check out a lake on the way home. We had hunted the lake a few times but don’t find a lot of success there because it’s just challenging to hunt. When we arrived we saw hundreds of ducks lounging on the water which was a sight to behold and something rare for our area. We also spotted a small group of geese near the bank, so we talked for a while from the comfort of my truck, trying to come up with some sort of plan. Ultimately the plan was, “We just have to walk towards them and hope they don’t fly away.” The lake we were hunting sits in the middle of the desert. The water was so low that there was a couple hundred feet of lake bottom between us and the geese. There was no way to hide or sneak up on them, so we just went for it. Neither of us thought it would work, but as we closed in, we started to realize that we were going to have a chance.
The entire situation was a little ridiculous. It was about 90 degrees out so there was no way we were going to make the walk in waders. Justin was in shorts and flip flops and neither of us were wearing camo. We tried to “creep” for a while but eventually realized we couldn’t hide so we continued forward walking upright waiting for the geese to fly. Eventually however we got just within shooting distance as they started to float away from the bank. We both pulled up and let off a shot. At that moment hundreds of ducks picked up off the water and so did all of the geese, except one. As the sky above us erupted we talked it over and both agreed that Justin was the one that hit the downed goose. The goose was 40+ yards into the lake so Justin had to make a choice: Either go back to the truck to get waders, or take off the flip flops and wade into the lake through nasty desert lake mud. He chose the latter and off he went. I stood by waiting to see if he could even get to it without having to swim. He slowly battled the mud and he made his way to the goose in waste high water. He grabbed it by the neck and picked it up out of the water, and immediately started hopping up and down like a giddy little kid. He called out to me and simply yelled, “Dude!” I knew what he was implying but didn’t believe him. I knew he was suggesting that it had a band, but Justin’s a joker and I thought for sure he was messing with me. I called out, “Whatever!” But he continued dancing around in the water despite my doubt and then it hit me. He had actually just shot a banded goose! Some of you reading this may be thinking, “That’s pretty cool, but we do it all the time.” Well we don’t. In fact this was the first band that either of us had ever gotten! I had never even seen one! After he had fought his way back to the bank carrying the big goose, he stood there covered in mud grinning from ear to ear. We had just gotten a banded goose out of a desert mud hole, and it’s something we’ll never forget.
The next two highlights would come a couple months later in late November. First, I went out with some new friends to hunt a lake I wasn’t very familiar with. Overall the day was slow but I was in for a cool surprise. As we sat in the raggedy blind, a single duck appeared suddenly in front of us, just beyond the spread. It came coasting directly at us as we got ready to take the shot. It made a sharp turn when it neared our blind and we raised our guns to fire. I took the first shot and the duck dropped. My buddy’s dog fetched the duck that I believed to be a mallard hen. But when the dog handed off the duck to his owner, he said, “This is not a mallard.” With a yellow bill and a red-ish tone to its feathers, we took to Google. I’d later post it on Instagram, and despite a few different opinions, we believe it to be a Mexican Duck, AKA a Mexican Mallard. I believed that I could name every duck that could be found in our area but I was clearly wrong. I had never even heard of a Mexican Mallard, so it was exciting to check another species off the list.
The second late November highlight came with our first opportunity to get out on the duck boat and Justin was back in town. It was one of the very few hunts Justin was able to be a part of this year since he’s working out of state, so it was perfect that he was able to get out on the boat for its first hunt of the year. You can read the full story here, but I’ll summarize what made this trip special. It was the first ‘Jet Boat’ hunt of the year, it was incredibly foggy, we took advantage of the limited opportunities we had, and we left with enough ducks to feel very successful considering the circumstances. It was our first real chance all year to work the ducks as well. All previous hunts were done on crowded public lands where the ducks do not respond well to calls because they get shot at every 200 yards; so it was nice to actually decoy some birds. We only left with 8 ducks between 4 of us, which seems somewhat unsuccessful, but compared to what came before, and what would come after, it was a really good day.
December was really challenging, and complicated, because I missed a couple weekends to hunt elk. John and Lance got out a couple times, and they managed to bring home some birds, but migrations still never showed. The only type of ducks that showed up were Goldeneyes and Mergansers, both of which we’d prefer not to shoot. Eventually however, we realized that we needed to start actively hunting Goldeneyes if we wanted to pull the trigger at all. So the next highlight is the Goldeneye hunts that we started putting together in January. Once we realized that waiting for mallards and other puddle ducks was a lost cause, we decided to put ourselves in better position to hunt the hundreds of Goldeneyes that fly up and down the river throughout the day. We changed up our areas and setups, and brought out the Goldeneye decoys to determine if we could even get them to decoy. And it worked! Finally we found ourselves consistently shooting on our hunts and it was a blast.
We were also able to pull in a few geese this year. It usually happened in the same unpredictable manner as well. The geese would sit on gravel bars along the river throughout the morning until they would suddenly decide it was time to leave. We spent most of January watching thousands of geese leave the river without giving the slightest bit of attention to our decoys or calls. Once they started to head out they didn’t stop. Every once in a while however, a group would return for the river or a single wouldn’t want to leave, and we’d have an opportunity to put one, two or three down in the spread.
Thankfully, the mallards did eventually show and we capitalized. The first day we realized a migration had made its way to our stretch of river, we were running late and had ducks landing in the spread as we tried to put the boat in its hide. We shot a few ducks early, including a couple of Goldeneyes, but quickly came to the conclusion that the mallards had arrived. We agreed not to shoot any more Goldeneyes because we knew we’d have an opportunity to get two limits of mallards. Pairs and singles showed up regularly and one by one we added to the pile. Unfortunately I was having an off day, and Lance was nearing his limit quickly. I knew I needed to get it together, but after I let out three shots on a group we’d called in, I discovered that my gun had broke. I went to reload shells and found that the metal lifter that guides shells into the action had snapped! I couldn’t believe it! I could still hunt, but I was down to a single shot. Since Lance however, was nearing his limit, he did me a solid and switched guns with me. I was able to get it together and would eventually put the 14th duck in the water. We had also gotten a bonus goose when, to our surprise, one was swimming through the decoys. We’re not sure how it got there, but we’re glad it came home with us. It was the best day of the year, and we’d follow up that effort was a couple more solid hunts.
As the season came to an end, and we prepared to pick up the decoys one last time, we sat and chatted about the season. We could all agree that it was the toughest season that we’d experienced yet since having the duck boat. We were grateful that the ducks finally showed up the last two weeks, but we had multiple days where one, two, or three of us got skunked. The conditions were rough. Low water levels changed the river dramatically and forced us to adapt. We had to find new spots when our areas froze, and we even had to cut our way onto the river. We spent hours breaking ice just to set up a spread, and made trip after trip into the river to keep the ice clear. In the end however, it’s all about the experience, and the experiences you share with your friends.
Defining success can be tricky because it’s just a matter of comparing different hunts and different seasons. We’d love for every season to be like 3 years ago, when there was potential to get a 3 man limit 5 or 6 times. If we compared the two years, this season wasn’t successful; but we don’t feel that way at all. We got our first band, we checked off another species, we navigated the skinny river, we conquered a frozen boat launch, and we managed to fill the straps a few times. Success is about experiencing something new, learning something new, and working to overcome obstacles; and by that definition we achieved it. We can’t wait for next year!
-Team Split River Outdoors