Many Teche Area outdoorsmen who hunt ducks from the Atchafalaya Basin west below Interstate 10 to Texas probably don’t need an aerial waterfowl population survey to tell them about the near-record-low number of ducks in southwest Louisiana.
A few days before the much-anticipated second split opener Dec. 18 in the West Zone, Jason Olszak, Louisiana’s waterfowl program manager for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and his staff conducted the survey that counted an estimated 874,000 ducks in the region starting Dec. 13.
“Although not a record low for the region, the only time in the last 20 years with fewer birds in this region was 2004 when 842,000 were estimated. Similarly low estimates include 2003 (878,000) and 2018 (886,000),” Olszak wrote in his report released Dec. 17, the day before the second split’s duck hunting began in both the West Zone and East Zone.
A somewhat encouraging sign for this region was that marsh habitat conditions, which were above average before the first split opened Nov. 13, have remained the same but agricultural fields, which had been unseasonably dry, are in better shape with a little more water before mid-November.
Olszak, who replaced veteran waterfowl program manager Larry Reynolds earlier this year, noted less than 2 inches of rain fell in southwest Louisiana since the exceptionally dry November survey was taken starting Nov. 8.
“Though not widespread, evidence of recent rain is seen in most-soil and sheet-water observed in the disked rice fields and pastures,” he wrote.
Any increase in water levels in the northern agricultural area was due largely to the pumping of crawfish ponds where shallow depths and daily disturbance minimize duck use, he reported.
Before the second split, most of the West Zone’s ducks were taking up migratory residence in the marsh between Creole and Pecan Island and in agricultural fields from Bell City to Lake Arthur, where the waterfowl biologists also saw approximately 2,000 snow geese and about 200 white-fronted geese.
Flocks of a few thousand geese were seen south of Gueydan, which also was duly reported between the splits by New Iberia goose hunting guide Jack Cousin. Cousin guides for Sportsman Charters LLC below Gueydan.
Southwest Louisiana’s duck population just before the second split was led by 287,000 gadwalls, following by 165,000 green-winged teal, 152,000 blue-winged teal and 91,000 pintails.
Statewide, the estimated 1.4 million ducks along coastal Louisiana and Catahoula Lake was the lowest count on record for December. Sure, Olszak reported, it was an 8 percent increase from November’s 1.3 million but still 800,000 less than the December 2020 estimate of 2.2 million (minus 41 percent) and 50 percent below the long-term average of 2.6 million. Comparably low December survey counts were in 1982 (1.5 million), 2001 (1.6 million) and 2004 (1.7 million).
Both southwest Louisiana and southeast Louisiana showed drastic dips in the number of ducks Dec. 13-15 with the former down 27 percent and the latter off 68 percent compared to the same period December 2021.
There were more low points statewide, Olszak pointed out. There was an estimated 16,000 mottled ducks (10,000 of them in southwest Louisiana), 2,000 fewer than November, half of last December’s estimate of 32,000 and 74 percent below the long-term average of 62,000. The 36 percent decline in mallards plummeted from last December’s record low of 50,000 to a new December low of 32,000, 27,000 of them in southwest Louisiana.
On the bright side, blue-winged teal numbers were up 82 percent (152,000 of 202,000 in southwest Louisiana) from December 2020 and canvasback were up 80 percent (68,000 of 126,000 on Catahoula Lake) from December 2020.
It isn’t surprising that Olszak noted mixed harvest reports during the first split by duck hunters and goose hunters who were “either extremely pleased or exceptionally disappointed.”
The jury’s still out on the second split.