What hunters should expect for the upcoming waterfowl hunts

Swans by the tens of thousands pass through Utah on their way to California every year. Photo courtesy of Mike Christensen/UDWR

“It’s a quiet, still morning as you sit near the edge of a lake in your blind. You hear some birds in the distance and turn your head to see several ducks flying in toward you. Your heartbeat quickens, and you slowly raise your shotgun. Waterfowl hunting season is finally here,” wrote Faith Jolley in an email regarding the upcoming waterfowl season.

With the exception of swans (which require a permit from the hunt drawing), the rest of the waterfowl hunts in Utah are open to anyone with a Utah hunting license. However, hunters are also required to have a Harvest Information Program (HIP) number to hunt any waterfowl in Utah, and a federal duck stamp if they are over the age of 15. Hunters can register for a free HIP number on the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website.

Here’s what those planning to hunt ducks, geese or swans this fall can expect, according to Jolley:

Ducks

There are currently an estimated 38.9 million ducks across North America, a slight decline from the estimated 41.2 million in 2018. However, duck populations are doing really well in Utah, due to a high snowpack and spring rains that provided lots of water across the state, said Jolley.

“The high water year created great nesting and brood-rearing conditions for ducks, and we produced a lot of birds this summer,” said Blair Stringham, the DWR assistant wildlife program chief. “Hunters can expect great hunting conditions this year, especially early in the season. Overall, most duck species are well above their long-term average, so hunters can expect to see a lot of birds as they migrate through the state.”

Typically, about 15 duck species can be found in Utah. Details and photos of each species can be found in the Utah Waterfowl 2019-20 Guidebook. This hunting season, there should be a large number of gadwall, cinnamon teal and mallards on Utah marshes. Pintails and scaup numbers are lower this year, and continue to be below the long-term average, so those two species may be less abundant than in previous years, said Jolley.

“Hunters can greatly improve their success during the duck hunt by spending some time scouting before each hunt,” Stringham said. “Learning where and when birds are in a specific location can allow hunters to be where the birds want to be, when they want to be there, and will greatly increase the number of birds they harvest.”

For instance, each duck species uses different types of habitats. Diving ducks, like canvasbacks and redheads, like big, open waterbodies. Puddle ducks, like teal and shovelers, are generally found in shallow water. Mallards can be found in either area, she said.

“Think about the species you are hunting and then look for them in the habitats they want to be in,” Stringham said. “If you aren’t finding the species you are targeting, move around to different areas until you find them.”

Calls are also an effective tool in helping hunters be successful during duck hunts. Most hunters use a traditional duck call that sounds like a mallard hen. Experimenting with other sounds, such as wigeon or pintail whistles, can increase success. Dogs are great at helping hunters retrieve downed birds and will increase your chances of finding ducks that fall in thick cover, said Jolley.

The general-season duck hunt opens in Utah’s northern zone on Oct. 5 and in the southern zone on Oct. 12. The youth hunts open on Saturday, Sept. 21 in the northern zone and on Sept. 28 in the southern zone. Check the Utah Waterfowl Guidebook for the boundaries of the two zones.

Geese

While there aren’t any nationwide population estimates for geese, recent surveys in Utah show that Canada geese numbers decreased a little this year, likely because geese have an earlier nesting season than ducks, which was disrupted by the wet spring this year. However, overall, hunters can expect a good year of goose hunting in Utah.

“Goose numbers in the Pacific Flyway, the north-south flying route for migratory birds in North America, are higher than they’ve ever been, and hunters can expect to see just as many, if not more, geese than they saw last year,” Stringham said.

One of the best ways to be successful during the geese hunts is to use a good call.

“Calling is a very important part of goose hunting,” Stringham said. “Geese are very social birds, so being able to sound like a goose can help hunters harvest more birds.”

Hunters should also note that most light goose hunting takes place on private property. Make sure to get permission from landowners before hunting on their property.

The light geese general season opens on Oct. 25. The dark geese season opens on Oct. 5 in the Northern goose area, the eastern Box Elder goose area, and the Wasatch Front goose area and on Oct. 12 in the southern goose area. The youth hunts open on Saturday, Sept. 21 for the Eastern Box Elder, Northern and Wasatch Front goose areas, and on Sept. 28 for the Southern goose area.

Swans

Tens of thousands of swans move through Utah every fall on their way to their wintering grounds in California. The swan population numbers are currently well above their objective, and hunters can expect to see similar numbers as last year, said Jolley.

“Swans migrate and stop over at the same locations each year,” Stringham said. “Traditional hunting areas, such as the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, will hold swans from the first part of November until the marshes freeze up.”

Hunters should also be aware that swans will leave resting areas to feed in the morning and late afternoon, and throughout the day, as temperatures get colder. So scouting before the hunt can help determine when swans are moving, so hunters know what times of day to hunt, she said.

“Hunting along a swan’s flight path, or in their feeding locations, will increase your odds of bagging a swan,” Stringham said.

Waterfowl Management Areas

There are over 20 Waterfowl Management Areas throughout Utah that are owned and managed by the DWR. Hunters should be aware that the Locomotive Springs WMA is very dry again this year, as it has been for several years. Portions of the Salt Creek WMA were dried this summer, but those areas are filling with water and should be accessible for the upcoming hunts.

The WMAs are in great condition and should have lots of birds when the hunts open. For specific details about the other WMAs, visit the DWR website. The WMAS reopen to the public Thursday, Sept. 19.

Waterfowl Slam

Hunters who would like to add some fun and challenge to their hunt should consider completing the Waterfowl Slam. Hunters earn a slam by completing different requirements, like harvesting a group of species in a certain time period or location. There are currently 10 slams with different levels of difficulty, so hunters can find a variety of “fun, unique challenges,” said Jolley.

Along with trying something new, hunters who complete the slam can also earn colorful, collectable leg bands. The money earned from the slam is used to complete habitat-improvement projects on the different WMAs across the state. You can learn more about the slam on the DWR website.