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A touch of grey: find the right food sources to exploit booming numbers of gadwall across our flyways.

We could hear them before we could see them, the drake's signature nasal "bank" quack betraying their location in the first minutes of shooting light. They would come from the west across the levy from the Mississippi River. We readied our guns and looked in that direction, watching the black outlines of ducks coasting down the lake and headed our way. Wings locked, the eight ducks slid down toward the water. When they reached the kill zone, we raised our guns in unison and four birds tumbled, all gadwalls.

Mallards may be king and pintails more majestic, but the grey duck has become a favorite target for hunters all across this nation's flyways. One of the more prolific breeders over the long-term average (LTA), gadwall numbers were estimated near 3.6 million in 2012 and 3.3 million in 2013, still 80 percent above the LTA. More and more, gadwall are becoming a part of harvests from coast to coast.

David Harper is fortunate enough to watch the sun rise over the mountains on Idaho's Snake River each fall, and enjoy some of the best waterfowling in the country. The Snake has diverse terrain and attracts a myriad of ducks from goldeneye and redheads to mallards and teal. But one duck in particular has become a regular addition to David's strap, the gadwall.

"There has been a definite increase in populations in this area over the last five years. I can remember shooting a few every now and then, but now they are a part of many hunts," he explained. "Especially in the late season. We will kill at least one on every hunt over water until season's end."

Avery Outdoors Territory Manager Wayne Radcliffe hunts the other side of the country in Maryland. He has witnessed the same increase in the number of greys in his fly way as well. "The numbers of gadwall we are seeing now in the Susquehanna Flats are much higher than I can ever remember," Wayne said. "This area is famous for its Canada goose hunting, but we have large amounts of ducks as well. Mallards, black ducks, pintails, and divers have long been a part of the rich history of the Chesapeake Bay area. Now the gadwall has joined the ranks of the most populous ducks we see here."

Larry Hindman, Waterfowl Project Leader for Maryland DNR agrees. "The tidal impoundments found in the region hold large amounts of vegetation," Hindman said when asked why the numbers have increased in his area. "This vegetation is a favorite food, whether it is native sedges and grasses to aquatic milfoil, the gadwall love it. They will even steal vegetation from coots as they bring it to the surface." Hindman flies the Susquehanna Flats on a regular basis to observe duck and goose numbers. "We definitely have a lot of gadwall this year with the colder temperatures. But we have noticed a significant increase in their numbers in recent years; it seems they are here to stay."

DIXIELAND DELIGHT

Southern states have long been the haunt of the grey duck. Large numbers are harvested in the lower Central and Mississippi Fly ways every season. Joe Gignac runs one of the most unique outfitting services in the country. Cole's Commanders in Stuttgart, Ark. is inspired by Cole Croteau, a young hunter with cystic fibrosis. A portion of all proceeds go to aid families dealing with this disease. Joe and his son Jim hunt flooded timber bordering the famous Bayou Meto refuge. They planted millet in the trees last summer, attracting many species when it flooded in the fall, including many gadwalls.

"Early in the season, which started in late November, we were shooting 80 percent gadwall and only a few mallards in our limits," Joe said. "As the season progressed, we started harvesting a higher mallard percentage with colder temperatures, but we still took gadwall on nearly every hunt. I know they love moist soil grasses and that millet kept them in those woods all season."

Across the Mississippi from Stuttgart lies Tunica County, Miss., home to David Melton's Delta Duck Hunts. His hunters meet every morning at the iconic Blue and White restaurant in Tunica and disperse to a variety of different haunts, from flooded fields to planted converted catfish ponds and flooded woods. All of his parties encounter the gadwall. David keeps detailed harvest records, and examined them over the last five seasons. "Consistently the gadwall is our No. 4 duck in numbers taken," David said. "Only mallards, green-winged teal, and shovelers outnumber the gadwall, so they are a very important species to our hunting success.

"Gadwall are an interesting duck in the fact that they either decoy readily or take a look and ignore your set up altogether. When they are coming in strong limits can be filled quickly."

My own hunting experience with the gadwall supports this. A close friend owns part of a small oxbow lake farther down the Mississippi River from Tunica south of Greenville, Miss. We have hunted there together since 1991 and our bags have almost always consisted entirely of gadwall. They flock to it for the milfoil weed; it covers the bottom on the west end where we hunt. We use gadwall decoys exclusively and when they decide to cup in, they do it with reckless abandon. If they fly by, they are difficult to turn with calling the way a mallard can often be steered back to a spread. The hunting can be feast or famine, all depending on the fickle nature of the grey.

STUCK ON THE PRAIRIE

The gadwall is flourishing, but why? There are multiple factors. I found a great source in retired USFWS biologist Ron Reynolds. Ron's experience with ducks and geese is extensive and he was glad to share his knowledge.

As the former project leader for the USFWS Habitat and Population Evaluation team in Bismarck, N.D., he traveled North America studying waterfowl. "The gadwall is a true prairie pothole species," he explained. "They are probably the most prairie-associated duck we have. Dry conditions will drive other ducks such as pintails and mallards to re-disperse, not so with the gadwall. They will stick it out one way or the other." This allows the gadwall more consistent nesting ecology, Ron explained. "Gadwalls also tend to occupy larger bodies of water than other puddle ducks," he continued. "These larger waters make for better breeding habitat and brood habitat in dry years. While the mallard relies on seasonal potholes, the gadwall will make do with whatever is available at the time."

Mallards and pintails start the nesting process as soon as early April, but gadwalls wait until late May and early June. Nesting cover is much denser, offering more protection to clutches. Gadwalls also lay as many as 11 or 12 eggs, 10 percent more than other ducks.

"Later nests of all species are more successful as a general rule. While this affords less opportunity to re-nest if there is failure, the positives far outweigh the negatives," Ron said. Smaller clutches come from re-nests and the predator demands have changed so the young have a better survival rate."

One factor does make it difficult to establish hard data on gadwall. Biologists rely on banding and gadwalls are uncooperative when it comes to capture. My hunting group in the Mississippi Delta has never taken one and this seems to be the norm.

Beaver Dam Lake just south of Tunica is the wintering home to thousands of gadwall. Mike Boyd of Beaver Dam Hunting Services has been shooting gadwall there since he was a young boy. "Normally our harvest numbers reflect a 60 percent gadwall versus 40 percent mallards taken in a season," Mike said. He then added, "I personally have never kept track of how many I have shot in my lifetime but it would be a large number. I only have one gadwall band and my son has one as well. A banded gadwall is a real trophy."

Why are these ducks so hard to band? Simple, conventional trapping methods do not attract gadwalls. Reynolds was involved with banding projects throughout his career. "Blue-winged teal are the easiest to catch with mallards No. 2. Gadwalls' preference for larger waters makes cannon netting them hard to do," he concluded.

Gadwall are sleek if not glamorous, and they hold a fond place in the hearts of waterfowl hunters. They can turn a slow day around in a hurry, and just as easily snub you. When the wind turns north and the days shorter, let your thoughts turn to whistling wings and the one duck you can count on--the grey.

TOTAL GADWALL POPULATION 1955-2013 Courtesy of USFWS

GADWALL SURVIVAL

* Dry conditions don't force gadwalls to disperse like other dabblers, they stick to the prairie and nest.

* Unlike mallards, gadwalls prefer bigger, more stable waters to raise their brood rather than the seasonal potholes mallards prefer.

* Nesting takes place much later, in May or early June when there's more cover, offering better protection to the egg clutches.

* Hens lay 11 to 12 eggs, 10 percent more than other ducks.

* Gadwalls will also nest on islands and in colonies, which makes it more difficult for predators.
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Author:Gordon, John
Publication:Wildfowl
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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