We’d rather be hearing quacks and splashes, but for duck hunters in the South these days, the sound we can’t shake is the ticking clock: With duck season soon winding to a close, it’s largely been a disappointment as drab as gray sky. I haven’t pulled the trigger on a Southern duck in weeks. Part of that is a self-imposed pandemic travel ban. But a lot of it is the fact that the ducks just aren’t here.
And I’m not the only one seeing empty skies over the decoys. While there are bright spots in the South—Texas Panhandle hunters are doing well, and many coastal regions are posting good days—most of us are bleary-eyed and scratching our heads. I checked in with B.C. Rogers, of the gear company Wren & Ivy, who lives and hunts in some of the best green timber in all of Mississippi, to see how things had been going in his neck of the swamp. He whistled low. “We’ve had a few good days, but by and large the ducks have been few and far between,” he said. Rogers scouted two thousand acres one day last week and saw about two hundred ducks. “Normally we’d see three thousand birds,” he said. “But we’ve got some really good weather coming, so this week, weather-wise, could be the best. If the ducks are here.”
That’s one of the cheerier reports I’ve heard. Just this past Monday, I talked to Jerry Holden Jr., director of operations for Ducks Unlimited’s Southern region. “Do we really have to talk about this?” he said with a groan. Turns out he was coming off a duckless bender himself, a stretch longer than any he could recall.
Everyone wants to know why, and Holden and other scientists figure much of the answer is as plain as the jonquil that was recently blooming in my yard. By and large, the lower 48 has been a relatively balmy place. This winter so far is on track to make a top-ten warmest winters ever list. The jet stream has split, so it doesn’t have the juice it needs to drive a good polar vortex or three deep into grits country. Yes, there’s chatter about habitat bottling birds up in the Northern states, and everything from impoundments to a change in corn agriculture have been fingered as possible culprits. But largely the ducks aren’t here because they don’t have to be here, especially mallards and other sought-after big-bodied birds that can hunker down in a day-long snowstorm. The snow and ice line are still hemmed up in Northern latitudes, and the long-term forecasts, sad to say, aren’t a whole lot better.
Teasing out the details of where the ducks are—and aren’t—won’t really happen for months. The first harvest data comes out in June, and that’s when the numbers will show where hunters were most successful, so scientists can begin to put together a framework of reasons for why. “We’re always in real-time looking backward,” Holden explains. “That’s a challenge. But more and more resources and emphasis are being put toward teasing apart what a changing distribution of ducks looks like on a continental basis. Our challenge is to identify the ecological bottlenecks for these ducks and work to widen those bottlenecks.”
For now, Holden says, Southern duck hunters might contemplate a different framework for success that doesn’t rely on limiting out on greenheads, and instead drink the glass-half-full of a changing species composition. There might be fewer mallards in a given season, but more green-winged teal and gadwall. It’s also time to parse the human dimensions of waterfowling. “What does it mean to people’s love of the waterfowl resource when duck populations shift on the landscape?” Holden muses. “We have to help people realize that there’s going to be growing variability in a given hunter’s success, but that doesn’t mean the sky is falling.”
And for duck hunters, what’s most memorable isn’t how the season starts, but how it ends. There’s still time for bitter weather to turn the Southern season around, although long-term forecasts suggest we’d better cross fingers, toes, and both eyes from here on out. Meanwhile, let’s find comfort in knowing that every day in the duck marsh can be an opening day on hope. After all, Holden says, “you can’t be a conservationist or a waterfowler unless you’re an optimist.”
Case in point: The week after duck season ends, Holden heads to Nebraska to pick up a yellow Lab puppy. If it brings any comfort to duck hunters across the South, you won’t find any of his decoys on Craigslist come February.
Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens