The word that best describes the waterfowl hunting this year is inconsistent. Hunters have struggled with a lack of water and bluebird conditions, and a lack of powerful storms has meant fewer northern birds than usual.
Some local waterfowl refuges have been able to pump in water, but others are dry and will remain so until substantial rains arrive.
The Shillapoo and Vancouver Lake state wildlife areas are unusually dry for this time of year, according to WDFW’s Darren Hauswald, the area manager.
“There’s not much water,” said Hauswald. “A lot of places where we typically have water, this year it is just bone dry. So along with that there’s not any ducks either.”
“A few wetlands that have water in them year-round are about the only places to shoot ducks, and that would be on the South Unit of Shillapoo.”
Normally the wildlife area would be able to pump water into the wetlands, but the Columbia River is too low, so wetlands go wanting.
“With the river level being so low we are only able to run our small pump a few hours a day,” said Hauswald.
“We do have a different water system in our Vancouver Lake Unit. Two of the three wetlands have enough water in them that they are huntable.”
Some hunters have targeted Vancouver Lake itself, but even there the lack of water is an issue.
“Quite a few people hunt on the lake, but it is connected to the Columbia, so you have low river levels, and that correlates to low lake levels. If you don’t hit the tide right, if you hit low tide, you are just out there in a mudflat.”
Hauswald said goose hunters target the grain fields, so those hunters are doing better than the duck hunters.
Hunters have found more water at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and there are a few birds around, according to Eric Anderson, the Project Leader for the refuge. He reports that Ridgefield has a solid pumping infrastructure.
“We are probably pumping more than we are accustomed to, because we haven’t had the pumping helped by rainwater,” said Anderson.
“We are having a typical year as far as harvest,” he said. “It’s run from 0.8 to 3.0 birds per hunter, which works out to about 1.5 birds per hunter, which is right about average.”
Hunters found some very good shooting on the Saturday following Thanksgiving.
“We had a big surge the week of Thanksgiving, but I attribute that mostly to the fact that we didn’t hunt on Thanksgiving, so returning to (hunting) on Saturday was a fantastic day.”
The refuge only allows hunting on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and is closed on national holidays.
Anderson said that the hunting for the rest of the season will pivot on weather.
“If we get some inclement weather the numbers could pick up,” he said. “When we get these bluebird days, no wind, no stormy weather, it tends to reflect in the hunting success.”
Anderson warns hunters that the bridge replacement project on the River “S” Unit means there are only short windows of time when the bridge over the Lake River is open to vehicular traffic.
The bridge will be open for early arriving hunters, but it will be open only from noon to one o’clock and after four thirty once the daily work begins.
The bridge will be open all day on Saturday, when no construction takes place. the current phase of construction should end by early January, but construction may continue into April.
Meanwhile, Eric Holman, the wildlife biologist for WDFW’s Region 5, reports that ducks seem to be massing along the lower Columbia River.
Holman has been taking part in surveys of Columbian whitetail deer and shorebirds in the lower river, where he has seen “thousands of ducks,” many more than usual.
“There are thousands of scaup,” said Holman, “but there are also lots of dabblers, mallards, widgeon, and others. More than usual for this time of year.”
He said it might be good for hunters to target the bigger water of the Columbia, or even out at Willapa Bay. The ducks may be using the big river because of a lack of sheetwater and marshes elsewhere, but whatever the reason, the birds are there.
“There’s tens of thousands of ducks,” he added. “It’s a mix, but the most abundant are the scaup, many thousands of those.”
Eric Strand of S2 Outfitters was facing some tough hunting early on but has turned his season around by targeting the lower Columbia.
“This year it was a fairly slow start, due to a lack of water,” he said.
However, the lower Columbia provided what the marshes couldn’t.
“We have been hunting on the main stem of the lower Columbia,” said Strand, “and it’s been very good.”
He reports getting plenty of dabblers in his decoy sets.
“It was primarily widgeon, with some mallards and pintails,” said Strand. “There have been a few teal, too.”
Weather forecasts call for significant rains this week, which could bring better hunting.
If the rains come, “That will help out a ton,” added Strand
Regulations: Duck season will remain open through January 26. In Clark, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum counties goose season is open only on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays through January 12. See the regulations for daily bag limits and other rules.
Guided trips: Eric Strand, S2 Outfitters: (503)750-8271, https://s2outfitters.com/