By BRENT FRAZEE | THE KANSAS CITY STAR
• SEASON DATES: Archery: Opened Sept. 15-Nov. 15 and Nov. 27-Jan. 15. Firearms: Youth: Nov. 2-3 and Jan. 4-5. Main Season: Nov. 16-26. Antlerless: Nov. 27-Dec. 8. Alternative methods: Dec. 21-31.
• OUTLOOK: Even in an off year, hunters shoot more deer in Missouri than their counterparts do in many other states.
Keep that in mind if it’s a little more difficult to find deer this fall.
The population is down after a severe outbreak of hemorrhagic disease in 2012, the long-term effects of liberal hunting regulations and the drought. But more than ever, the hunting prospects will differ by location.
Because of the patchwork effects of the hemorrhagic disease, hunting prospects could differ drastically even within one county. There still will be pockets of outstanding hunting, and other locations where deer will be difficult to find.
In general, deer populations are declining in northern Missouri and steadily climbing in the Ozarks. Last year was an excellent season in southern Missouri because of a lack of acorns for the deer to feed on. That forced the deer to feed in more wide-open areas where they were more visible.
Hunters probably won’t get that lucky this year. The acorn crop is better, and wildlife officials predict that will keep deer in the deep woods, where they are harder to hunt.
Add it up, and biologists are predicting only fair hunting this fall.
• BEST BETS: Missouri’s balance of power is shifting when it comes to deer hunting.
For decades, northern Missouri was the place to go for both quality and quantity of deer. But that has changed. Deer populations in northern Missouri are declining because of a series of factors. The balance of power has shifted to the Ozarks, where populations are growing.
• SEASON DATES: Archery: Opened Sept. 16-Dec. 31. Firearms: Regular season: Dec. 4-15. Extended whitetail antlerless only (for only Units 7, 8 and 15): Jan. 13-19.
• OUTLOOK: The end of the drought was a good thing for Kansas deer — but maybe not for the people who hunt them.
“The rain we’ve had has added a lot of vegetation; a lot of good escape cover for the deer,” said Lloyd Fox, deer biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “With all that new cover, the deer might be harder for hunters to spot this year.”
Still, the added moisture will be beneficial for deer. Though they fared well through more than two years of drought, the new cover will be welcome during the rut (mating period) this fall.
Fox calls the Kansas deer population “stable,” although pockets of strong deer populations are increasingly fragmented across the state. The big corn-fed bucks that the state is known for are still out there, and that is drawing hunters like never before.
Kansas sold 193,116 deer permits for the 2012-13 season, the third-highest in the state’s history. Those hunters shot 94,000 deer, one of the highest totals in the last five years.
Fox is looking for a slight decrease in harvest this year, but he still anticipates good hunting.
• BEST BETS: One of the biggest attractions of Kansas deer hunting is that big whitetails can be found from end of the state to the other. The eastern one-third of the state has the most timber, but Kansas deer have proven that they can adapt and even thrive in other parts of the state that don’t have nearly as many trees.
• SEASON DATES: North Zone: Nov. 1-Jan. 15. Southeast Zone: Dec. 1-12.
• OUTLOOK: Finally, there is some good news, ever so slight as it might be, for Missouri pheasant hunters.
After a string of dismal hunting seasons, there actually is some hope this year. All three of the northern regions of the state showed increases in bird numbers during surveys by the Department of Conservation.
A relatively mild winter and good conditions during the spring nesting season were the key. Don’t expect anything like the “good old days,” when hunters shot as many as almost 90,000 birds in one season (1990). But hunting should be better than last year, when 6,441 hunters took only 19,748 pheasants.
Habitat loss and weather have been the key factors in the decline.
But when favorable conditions result in good nesting, there still can be upturns in the population.
• BEST BET: More good news for Kansas City-area hunters: Surveys showed increases in pheasant numbers in the northwest region.
• SEASON DATES: Nov. 9-Jan. 31.
• OUTLOOK: How quickly things have changed for Kansas pheasants and the thousands of people who hunt them.
Just two years ago, the birds were plentiful, hunting was great and Kansas was the talk of the nation. Hunters shot almost 900,000 birds in the 2010-11 season, the highest total in the state in 25 years.
Since then…not so good. With the onset of a prolonged drought in 2011, hunters watched their opportunities go up in dust. The hot, dry conditions led to poor nesting and chick survival for three consecutive springs. By last year, the kill dropped to 234,000, the lowest since harvest records were first kept in the late 1950s.
If you’re hoping for a recovery this year…well, you’re an optimist.
Surveys conducted by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism indicate that things might be even worse this year. Pheasant breeding populations dropped 35 percent from 2012 to 2013, resulting in less hens to nest. The lack of spring precipitation resulted in less cover and fewer insects, so nesting success and chick survival was down, too.
The result? Another frustrating hunting season is likely.
• BEST BET: Pockets in the northwest and north-central regions had the highest pheasant numbers in surveys and should produce the best hunting. But even in those regions, bird populations are down.
• SEASON DATES: Nov. 1-Jan. 15.
• OUTLOOK: Finally, there’s some good news for Missouri quail hunters.
Maybe things have finally hit rock bottom. In the 2012-13 season, only 15,078 hunters participated and they shot a record-low 100,894 birds.
But there are signs that the few remaining hunters will enjoy better times this fall. Surveys showed population increases in four regions, including the northwest.
Much of that can be attributed to favorable weather. After a relatively mild winter, good weather during the nesting season helped.
A long-term loss of habitat continues to hamper quail and prevent them from making a major comeback. Gone are days like 1969, when 186,000 hunters shot 3.98 million quail — both records.
But the blips on the chart when favorable weather helps with nesting success are still welcomed by today’s hunters.
• BEST BETS: The regions where surveys found the highest number of quail may come as a surprise to many hunters.
The leader was the Bootheel. The second-best was basically the south-central region. Both areas haven’t been known for good quail hunting, at least not in the last decade. But increased cover and favorable weather have resulted in higher bird numbers.
• SEASON DATES: Nov. 9-Jan. 31.
• OUTLOOK: It’s amazing — maybe depressing would be a better word — how far Kansas quail hunting has dropped in such a short amount of time.
In 2010, 77,407 hunters shot 561,430 quail and was one of the nation’s leaders in harvest. By last year, totals had plummeted to 44,885 hunters who took 199,661 quail. Both of those totals were record lows — and by a lot.
Wildlife biologists blamed a continued loss of habitat and the drought for playing major roles in the decline.
Whether or not there will be a recovery this year remains to be seen. The breeding population going into spring was significantly lower than it was in 2012. But some late nesting efforts by the quail, especially after summer remains improved nesting cover, may have buffered that decline.
Surveys show that quail numbers have rebounded in eastern Kansas over the last two years and parts of the northern Flint Hills have fairly good bird numbers, too.
• BEST BETS: The good news is that the Flint Hills and southeast Kansas should produce fairly good hunting this year. The bad news? Central and western Kansas will have less birds due to the effects of the drought.
• SEASON DATES: North Zone: Oct. 26-Dec. 24. Middle Zone: Nov. 2-Dec. 31. South Zone: Nov. 28-Jan. 26.
• OUTLOOK: A few dreary, rainy days this summer created a sunny outlook for the Missouri duck season.
“Earlier in the summer, we thought it might be tough this fall,” said Andy Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist for the Department of Conservation. “But that rain really turned things around.”
The wet weather put water in managed marshes that badly needed it, flooding moist-soil food and helping crops. As a result, conservation areas such as Bob Brown, Nodaway, Grand Pass and private duck clubs near the Squaw Creek and Swan Lake national wildlife refuges should look particularly inviting to migrating ducks.
The only bad thing: Conservation areas such as Four Rivers and Schell-Osage got too much of a good thing and suffered flooding that drowned moist-soil foods and affected crops.
But the majority of the managed areas are looking good going into the season. With a near-record number of ducks migrating south this fall, Missouri has the habitat to stop ducks.
“We could use some more rain,” Raedeke said. “Some of the rivers that we pump out of are getting low. We’d like to see them a little higher to ensure that we can doing some pumping.
“But we’re a lot better off than we thought we’d be earlier this summer.”
• BEST BETS: The Grand Pass Conservation Area along the Missouri River has emerged as one of the Midwest’s best public hunting spots, consistently hitting peaks of 100,000 ducks or more. But don’t overlook the Bob Brown Conservation Area in northwest Missouri. Because Brown is located close to the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, many ducks trade back and forth between the two wetlands complexes.
• SEASON DATES: Low Plains Early Zone: Opened Oct. 5-Dec. 1 and Dec. 21-Jan. 5. Low Plains Late Zone: Oct. 26-Dec. 29 and Jan. 18-26. Low Plains Southeast Zone: Nov. 2-3 and Nov. 16-Jan. 26. High Plains Zone: Oct. 5-Dec. 2 and Dec. 21-Jan. 26.
• OUTLOOK: Before a shot has been fired in parts of the state, Kansas has already had an outstanding duck season.
The Low Plains Early Zone opened Oct. 5, and outstanding hunting has been reported at the Cheyenne Bottoms and McPherson Valley conservation areas. Both of those spots had been dry until heavy late-summer rains filled pools and instantly changed their fortunes. Both now are brimming with water and food, and early hunting has been excellent.
In fact, McPherson Valley has already set a single-season harvest record (combining the results of the early teal season and the early days of the regular season).
Other parts of Kansas are looking good as well. Tom Bidrowski, waterfowl biologist for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said the Marais des Cygnes, Neosho and Milford wildlife areas all have good water and food conditions. And the upper end of some reservoirs also should look inviting to ducks.
Kansas hunters shot 150,901 ducks last season, a big drop from the 208,056 ducks taken just four years earlier. With any assistance from the weather, this year’s duck season should look more like 2008 than 2012.
• BEST BETS: Without a doubt, Cheyenne Bottoms and McPherson Valley share the prize this year. Both already are proving what a little water can do. Hunting at both spots is underway, and the early season has been excellent.
• SEASON DATES: Oct. 5-13 and Nov. 28-Jan. 31.
• OUTLOOK: It’s hard to predict how Missouri’s Canada-goose hunting will be.
There was discouraging news from southern Manitoba, Minnesota and Iowa, where a late spring had a devastating effect on the giant Canadas that migrate through Missouri. “Nesting was almost a bust,” said Andy Raedeke of the Department of Conservation.
But there was encouraging news regarding the Eastern Prairie Population of geese that also pass through the Show-Me State. They had good nesting success amidst a normal spring.
So where does that leave us? We’ll see.
The last two years have been down for Missouri Canada-goose hunters, with only 39,117 geese taken last season and 33,391 in the 2011-2012 season. Hunters would like to see a year more like 2008, when they shot 81,800 Canadas.
• BEST BETS: The corridor from the Pony Express Conservation Area to Smithville Lake has emerged as one of Missouri’s best Canada-goose hunting spots. The geese have big water that stays open late and plenty of row crops to feed on.
• SEASON DATES: Oct. 26-Nov. 3 and Nov. 6-Feb. 9.
• OUTLOOK: Kansas goose hunters will get more bang for their outings this fall and winter.
Daily bag limits for Canada geese have been raised from three to six, a move that could put more meat in the freezer.
Now if the birds just cooperate and migrate through Kansas at the right time. That happened in 2009, when hunters shot 92,267 Canadas and 2008, when they took 87,067.
Since then, the hunting has been far less predictable or productive, although hunters did shoot 72,204 birds last season,
“We’re not the monster of the flyway when it comes to Canada-goose hunting,” said Tom Bidrowski, waterfowl biologist for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “But we can have some decent hunting when conditions are right.”
• BEST BETS: The Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas can attract hundreds of thousands of geese in the heart of the migration. Private crop fields in between those major wetlands complexes can produce some of the best goose hunting in Mid-America.
• SEASON DATES: Oct. 26-Jan. 31.
• OUTLOOK: Do you want to get in on some great snow-goose hunting in Missouri? Plan a trip in the spring, not the fall.
Missouri is one of the top two or three states in the nation for harvest during the spring Conservation Order season. Snows and blues flock to Missouri by the hundreds of thousands, private crop fields attracted huge flocks of feeding geese and the kill can be close to 200,000.
It’s far less predictable in the fall.
Snow geese tend to ride fronts into Missouri and can concentrate in large numbers in late fall and winter, but they don’t stay as long as they do in the spring.
The hunting tends to be opportunistic. You’d better get out when they’re here.
Last fall and winter, hunters took 8,890 snow geese in Missouri, the highest total in the last five years.
• BEST BET: The private land in northwest Missouri near the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge can provide outstanding field hunting when the snow geese migrate in. A week either side of Thanksgiving is generally a target date for when the snow geese arrive. But don’t expect a long stay. The snows are in a hurry when they are on the way south.
• SEASON DATES: Oct. 26-Nov. 3 and Nov. 6-Feb. 19.
• OUTLOOK: Kansas never has been known as a snow-goose hunting power.
There have been years when decent concentrations of birds will gather at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in the central part of the state. And big reservoirs will occasionally attract large numbers of birds for a short period of time.
But for the most part, Kansas is just a “stopover” spot for the snows as they migrate south.
That is reflected in recent harvest numbers. Kansas hunters took 13,016 snow geese last fall and winter — and that was a good year. The fall harvest was less than 5,000 in both 2010 and 2009.
Like Missouri, the hunting is better in the spring than it is the fall.
• BEST BET: Lovewell Reservoir in north-central Kansas is known for its large concentration of snow geese in the late fall and early winter. The crop fields on farms in the northeast part of the state also can attract birds from Squaw Creek in northwest Missouri when they fly out to feed. Other reservoirs will attract geese, but not on a reliable basis.