Today's Featured Article
Northern Iowa's 2003 Waterfowl Season Ends
By Lowell Washburn
Iowa Department of Natural Resources

The annual migration is over, and another north Iowa waterfowl season is history. For duck and goose hunters, the 2003 season offered a roller coaster, mixed bag of empty skies and fantasy hunts.

The year began with high hopes. From mid-western potholes to the sub-arctic tundra, generally favorable spring nesting conditions persisted across the much of the continent. Abundant water and a mild spring resulted in excellent duck and goose production, setting the stage for an excellent fall hunt.

The bad news was that, by the time fall rolled around, the lack of summer rainfall had resulted in extremely poor habitat conditions across much of the state -- particularly in the 35-county prairie pothole region. In north central and northwestern Iowa, overall marsh conditions were the driest since the searing droughts of the mid-1980s.

But in spite of compromised habitat conditions, the early [September] segment of this year's split duck season enjoyed an excellent turnout of both ducks and duck hunters. Although the lack of water may have caused conditions to be a bit more crowded than usual, most hunters enjoyed fair to good success during the early season's opening weekend. Well timed weather fronts allowed hunter success to improve dramatically as a steady stream of newly arriving migrants [blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, pintails, mallards, and shovelers] provided excellent hunting opportunities for the remainder of the September season.

WHEN THE CANADA GOOSE SEASON opened on September 27, hunters encountered good numbers of geese and enjoyed excellent success during the first two weeks of the season.

By mid-October, the state's resident populations of giant Canadas were being bolstered by northern migrants. Among the most obvious of these new arrivals were the thousands of arctic nesting Hutchinson's Canada geese which staged a near two week layover at waterfowl refuges in north central and northwestern Iowa. By mid-month, the first lesser snow and white-fronted geese were also being reported along western Iowa's Missouri River.

IN SHARP CONTRAST TO IOWA'S SEPTEMBER DUCK SEASON, the beginning of the second segment of the split season was best described as "warm, dry, and mostly duckless." Things changed for the better on October 27 as cold, wind, and snow swept across the Dakota plains and northern Minnesota.

On October 28, the winds were arriving in Iowa, and duck hunters were treated to the late season migration they had been waiting for. From the Mississippi to the Missouri, waterfowlers reported thousands of ducks heading south. Although nearly all species of web-foots were on the move, the late October flight was dominated by mallards, widgeon, gadwall, and ring-necked ducks. For many waterfowlers, this migration was the best hunt of the season.

As the wintry weather persisted, a mass exodus from the North Country soon followed. On November 1, tens of thousands of diving ducks [scaup, ring-necks, redhead, and canvasbacks] made their appearance over the state's 'Big Waters'. Joining the invasion were good, though less spectacular, numbers of mallards, buffleheads, and Canada geese.

But although the continued migration was a welcome sight, Iowa hunters were somewhat less thrilled to see large numbers of southbound loons, mergansers, and goldeneye ducks. These hardy species are among the last to leave the northern strongholds. When those birds arrive in Iowa, it means the end of the migration is near.

They were right. By November 6, temperatures were dropping into the teens. In the state's northern counties, even some of the bigger lakes were making ice. By November 8th, the mercury had plummeted to the single digits and most duck hunters had packed it in.

AS IS OFTEN THE CASE with waterfowl hunting, first impressions can be deceiving. This year, quitting early was a big mistake.

In Iowa, the weather warmed up. Better yet, a new winter system moved across the northern third of Minnesota on November 19. Although less severe than its predecessors, the front shook loose the last of the northern hold outs, sending a new wave of late season greenheads, Canada geese, and even a few diving ducks into Iowa.

>From Lake Okoboji to the backwaters of the upper Mississippi, from Otter Creek to Rice Lake to Red Rock Reservoir, the story was the same -- easy limits accompanied by lots and lots of new ducks.

Here at Clear Lake, weather conditions continued to moderate and frozen marshes reopened. The warm up was so dramatic that on November 20, Ross Dirks reported seeing a garter snake basking atop a gopher mound at Spirit Lake. The afternoon temperature that day was 70 degrees.

But this time the warm up would be short lived. On November 23, a full fledged, Big Time winter storm buried most of Minnesota in several inches of heavy snow. Howling, northwest winds arrived in Iowa the next day, dropping wind chills to near 20 below. Although there weren't any garter snakes to be seen, hunters reported that by mid-afternoon scattered flocks of mallard ducks and seemingly endless lines of Canada geese had began crossing the state's northern border. Although the duck flight was short and sweet, the geese continued to arrive by the tens of thousands -- just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Over the long weekend, goose hunters reported excellent success statewide. Goose hunting only improved when much of the state received its first significant snowfall on December 3, ending the 2003 season on an extremely positive note.