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Warm weather could make ducks harder to locate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Conventional wisdom dictates that mild winters equal lousy late-season duck and goose hunting.

While that's a good rule of thumb, it isn't always right.

Last winter should have been disastrous. There was almost no snow, and temperatures stayed fairly moderate. The bitterly cold two- or three-week period that usually pushes waves of waterfowl south into West Virginia never happened.

It stands to reason, then, that hunters should have had a really difficult time finding ducks or geese.

They didn't.

"I was kind of surprised when we did our midwinter waterfowl survey," said Steve Wilson, waterfowl project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. "Before we started counting, I figured we wouldn't see many birds at all. The numbers turned out to be down a little, but not a lot. We counted considerably more than I thought we would."

The survey took place in January. Wilson overflew all the areas of the state where waterfowl tend to congregate - along the Ohio, Kanawha, New and Shenandoah rivers and on Tygart and Bluestone lakes.

Waterfowl tend to congregate there in January because that's where most of the unfrozen water is.

Last year, nothing was frozen. Not only did birds not come down from the north, but birds that were already here stayed scattered around the small streams and ponds they normally inhabit.

"Still, we counted more than I thought we would," Wilson said. "I've seen mild years when we didn't count many birds at all, but last year the numbers were decent."

For duck hunters' sake, Wilson is hoping a couple of bitterly cold "Alberta clippers" sweep down out of central Canada and put the Mountain State in a late-December deep freeze.

"That would certainly make it a lot easier on duck and goose hunters," he said. "It would push birds down here from the lowlands around Lake Erie. When all the water gets frozen in those areas, [ducks and geese] tend to head our way. They usually don't come any farther south than they need to get by, and because we almost always have open water along our large rivers, they stop here."

Most of the ducks that move south are mallards and black ducks, but Wilson said other species show up, too - species West Virginians don't often see.

"When the weather is right, it's not unusual to see canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks and gadwalls mixed in with the mallards and blacks," he said.

Ironically, geese don't usually make the trip.

"We don't really get that many migrants," Wilson said. "If you're hunting and seeing geese around here, they probably are from here. The Ohio Valley might get a few, but we'd really have to have an unusual weather situation to get many migrant geese in here. Fortunately, we've always got plenty of resident geese around."

If we get that late-December cold snap, Wilson has some advice for waterfowl hunters who aren't sure where to look.

"If it gets really cold, and if ponds and marshes and small slow streams freeze over, the only open water is the big stuff and water that's moving really fast. Throw a foot of snow over the ground and it really restricts them. They head for big rivers and lakes.

"Once you know where they have to go, it makes for mighty good hunting. If it stays thawed and warm, you'll have to do a lot more scouting to find them."


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