National Wildlife Refuge System

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Hunting Waterfowl

The sound of a marsh filled with thousands of ducks and geese is part of the natural heritage along the Pacific Flyway. Threatened by development, critical wetland habitat all along the flyway has been protected and restored by the National Wildlife Refuge System. The result is a network of protected wetlands, impoundments and bays that echo with the sounds of tens of thousands of waterfowl each year.

With such plentiful waterfowl habitat, it is no surprise that waterfowling remains an important tradition along the flyway.
In central California, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex is something of a flyway bottleneck. In December and January, more than six million ducks and geese – almost half of Flyway traffic – come to rest on refuge lands and surrounding rice fields. This abundance may help explain why California has more duck hunters than any other state and why they enjoy more success than waterfowlers in other states. Hunting on many California refuges (though not all) is administered by lottery through the California Department of Fish and Game. Please check with refuge offices before planning any hunt.

Washington and Oregon offer both coastal and inland refuges with a variety of duck species. While Idaho is often overlooked in a discussion of Pacific Flyway duck hunting, the state provides some great (and uncrowded) opportunities.

Atlantic Flyway
On the east coast, the Refuge System also has a long tradition of protecting the feeding, resting and nesting areas for waterfowl after commercial hunting, along with the loss of wetlands, took a tremendous toll on ducks and geese in the Atlantic Flyway.

Today, there are numerous waterfowl along the flyway and hunting options are varied. Classic duck hunting for mallard and other puddlers is offered at many refuges. The recent population explosion of resident Canada geese and greater snow geese offers expanded field hunting opportunities at refuges, such as Trustom Pond NWR in Rhode Island and Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware. Specialist waterfowl hunters may focus on brant in the saltwater marshes of Edwin B. Forsyth NWR in New Jersey or eiders at the Petit Manon NWR off the rocky coast of Maine.

Prairie Potholes
Known as the “duck factory,” the prairie potholes of the Dakotas, Nebraska and eastern Montana are some of the most important waterfowl habitat on the continent. The National Wildlife Refuge System protects many of them in both refuges and wetland management districts.

The districts shelter small wetlands called Waterfowl Production Areas. By law, WPAs are open to all state hunting and trapping seasons, unless they are specifically declared ‘closed’. These wetlands have become important destinations for traveling waterfowl hunters, who know just how good the hunting is there. Puddle ducks, diving ducks, Canada geese and snow geese can all be found in tremendous numbers. Some hunters come to this region to pursue tundra swans which are common.

Hunters should note that in South Dakota, drawing a nonresident waterfowl hunting permit can be extremely difficult.

Other Highlights:

  • The Mississippi Flyway offers a good variety for duck hunters, including huge flocks of canvasback and other diving ducks, a healthy Canada goose population and decent numbers of puddle ducks.

  • Southeastern refuges offer incredible opportunities for hunting mallard in flooded timber. This is a cherished tradition for local hunters and a dream hunt for many traveling sportsmen. The sight of mallard setting their wings as they come down through trees is common on many refuges. Depending on migration patterns, the shooting can be some of the best anywhere.
  • In the Southwest, refuges protect important river habitat in often arid areas, including riparian habitat along the Colorado River, forested wetlands in Texas and Oklahoma, and key waterfowl migration resting areas throughout the region. The importance of these pockets of habitat is apparent to any visiting hunter. They serve as magnets for ducks, geese, sandhill cranes and doves – and the hunting can be fantastic.


Last updated: November 21, 2012