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Many Areas Lack Water Heading in to the Duck Opener
Joe WIlkinson

Duck hunters will find many of their favorite marshes empty for this weekend's early duck season opener, despite soaking rains last week across much of Iowa. A blast of northwest winds and cool temperatures, though, could still push a lot of ducks through in time for weekend shooting.

"We had three inches of rain here, but the ground just soaked it all up," laments Bill Ohde, Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist in the Lake Odessa area of southeast Iowa. "I walked the area Monday and couldn't even tell that some of the creeks had water in them." That outlook isn't much different for much of Iowa; coming off the driest August in years.

Still, if the stars-and the storm clouds-align just right, there could be a lot of activity for the September 20-22 (south zone) and September 20-24 (north zone) early seasons. More rain is forecast for Thursday, into Friday, adding a little water to those not-so-wet wetlands. Northwest winds and morning low temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s should push another flight of early migrating ducks through, for opening weekend. "If temperatures in the Dakotas (also) get close to 30 degrees, I would expect a major, major movement of teal coming through Iowa," forecasts DNR state waterfowl biologist Guy Zenner. "How long they will stay, depends on the habitat here. We won't hold on to nearly as many, as [we would] if we had better habitat."

Last weekend's weather started the push southward. "We had a major shot of teal come through," notes Ohde. "Saturday, there were almost none. Sunday, they were here. By Monday, most were gone (south) already."

"The blue-winged teal are moving in," reports Dennis Proctor, manager of the DNR's Hawkeye Wildlife Area in Johnson County. "We've had 200, 300 mallards here all season. There are wood ducks here, too." With just under three inches of rain, conditions improved, slightly. "The (Coralville) reservoir is up about a foot," says Proctor. "A couple of the ponds with creeks feeding into them came up. Mostly, the rain just soaked in. It's going to be real tough getting a boat out there."

Even Iowa's prairie potholes are dry, heading into the seasons. "I would expect a pretty good opening day. We have a fair number of teal around," anticipates Neil Heiser, DNR wildlife supervisor in northwest Iowa. "The ducks will be concentrated, and so will the hunters. Just the deeper basins have water; and they are about half full. Traditionally, we usually have a good opening day."

As Iowa's early season closes, waterfowlers point to the later split of the duck season (Oct. 11-Dec. 4, north zone and Oct. 18-Dec. 13, south zone). Again, it will come down to late habitat and how long those hardier duck species stick around, long after the teal have gone south.

Most of the ducks that Iowa hunters see are produced on the prairie regions of Canada, the Dakotas and Minnesota. 2003 was another good production year there. "Given the better than average habitat on the Canada prairies and subsequent good production, I expect better numbers of ducks (migrating) than last year," forecasts Zenner. "It should be similar to the late '90s. What it all comes down to is habitat. Obviously, they will fly over at some point. How many hunters see 'up close' will depend on that local habitat." Heading into the opener, Zenner has seen substantially fewer ducks than the past six or seven years.

More fall rain would help. Some of Iowa's wildlife areas can also pump and hold water. "We should be in good shape by the late season," foresees Odessa's Ohde. "We are holding off now, to let the wild millet and sedges finish out their growing season. Then, we can let water in there."

From here, weather fronts and northwest winds hold the cards.




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