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News / Sports / Outdoors

Recent rains boost waterfowl hunts in Southwest Washington

Season has been most productive at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

By Terry Otto, Columbian freelance outdoors writer
Published: December 23, 2023, 6:05am
4 Photos
Smallish cackling Canada geese gather at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is within the Northwest Permit Zone for geese, which is managed very carefully so hunters do not accidently kill any dusky Canada geese, which are closed to harvest.
Smallish cackling Canada geese gather at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is within the Northwest Permit Zone for geese, which is managed very carefully so hunters do not accidently kill any dusky Canada geese, which are closed to harvest. (Photos by Terry Otto for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Waterfowl hunters across Southwest Washington have been having a fairly typical year at local refuges and wildlife areas, and with the recent heavy rains a lot of northern birds have moved down.

Depending on the weather through the last month of the hunting season, most hunters can expect the good shooting to continue.

Daren Hauswald of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that Shillapoo Wildlife Area and Vancouver Lake have been hunting just about average, and the rains have improved conditions for hunters.

“The Vancouver Lake bed is completely flooded now,” said Hauswald, “and the agriculture fields that we planted with corn last summer all have water now.”

The good conditions are one of the important pieces of the puzzle, but during the last month of the season it will be the weather that dictates how good the hunting will be. By now most of the birds have been educated, and are wary, but cold weather and storms will make them vulnerable to a good set of decoys in the right spot.

Hunters tend to take a lot of Northern Shovelers at this wildlife area, as well as widgeon, teal, and mallards.

Goose Management Area 2, which includes Clark County as well as Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Pacific, and Grays Harbor counties in southwest Washington, are included in the Northwest Goose Permit Zone.

The permit zone was designed to help the struggling dusky Canada goose, which is endangered, and cannot be taken. To hunt geese in this zone, hunters must take and pass an exam in order to learn how to identify the many subspecies of Canada goose that winter here.

The zone also has special shooting hours when hunters may take geese, although some requirements of the past, which included taking all geese harvested to check stations, have been eliminated.

The lion’s share of the goose harvest taken on the wildlife area are the smaller cackling Canada geese. Most hunters will not shoot the larger Canada goose subspecies for fear of accidently taking a dusky Canada goose. Only the most seasoned waterfowl hunters can tell the dusky’s from the other larger subspecies, so they usually let the larger geese pass.

Both the Shillapoo Wildlife Area and Vancouver Lake are open every day of the week, and hunters do not need to hunt out of specific blinds. These are roaming units, and as long as they stay a safe distance from other hunters, they can hunt where they want.

For more information on the Northwest Permit Zone, you can check the WDFW website at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/01930/wdfw01930.pdf

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge allows waterfowl hunting on about 15 percent of its acreage, although it is far more controlled than Shillapoo and Vancouver Lake.

Here hunters must hunt from blinds, and they must choose those blinds through a lottery system.

Hunters without reservations for the lottery can vie for leftover blinds after the reservation hunters have checked in.

The refuge offers hunting three days of the week, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Josie Finley, the visitor services manager at the refuge, reports that this year’s hunts have been pretty good.

“The hunt season has been very productive this year,” Finley said. “The refuge staff have made improvements to the habitat and hunt blinds in our attempts to provide a quality hunt.”

She noted that the duck species harvested this year included northern shovelers, mallards, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal, wigeon, gadwall, and northern pintail.

Finley said that a few blinds have out-performed the others this year.

“The number of birds harvested often depends on the hunters, but blinds 1A, 16, and 19 have had some of our highest duck numbers this year.”

Good numbers of geese have also been taken on the refuge. Blinds 1A, 15, 18 and 19 have been the highest-producing blinds for geese this year.

As at the Shillapoo wildlife area, hunters at Ridgefield tend to avoid taking any large geese in order to avoid taking an illegal dusky. Finley noted that only a dozen of the larger Canada goose subspecies have been taken this year.

Hunters should also note that the refuge supports a good wintering population of trumpeter and tundra swans, which are large, white birds that could be confused with snow geese. It is illegal to take swans, so hunters should be careful and be sure of their identification before shooting.

Harvests have been about average this year, but success has climbed following the recent heavy rains. Hunter success rates have gone from about two birds per hunter earlier in the season to about 2 1/2.

Hunting success should be good through the rest of the season, as long as the weather cooperates. Storms and colder temperatures will prove helpful.

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According to Finley, most hunters have been happy with their hunts on the refuge this season.

“The refuge has worked hard to be a good partner to our hunt community,” she said. “The Washington Waterfowl Association and the Fallen Outdoors have been amazing partners that have helped us make the hunt what it is today. As a wildlife refuge, we are constantly making improvements to our habitats and the hunters have responded favorably.’

For more information about the Ridgefield NWR hunt, please visit: www.fws.gov/refuge/ridgefield/visit-us/activities/hunting

For those lucky hunters that have access to private property, hunting should also remain good, as long as the weather cooperates. With strong numbers of waterfowl along the Pacific flyway, most hunters can expect to see plenty of locked-wing ducks and geese dropping into their sets in January.

Always check the regulations carefully before hunting.

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Columbian freelance outdoors writer