Ducks Unlimited Podcast

Host Chris Jennings is joined by Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to talk about habitat in across the state of Texas. With Texas covering such a vast area, and featuring so many types of waterfowl habitat, Kraai explains that there is good habitat is some areas, but many of the traditional hunting areas are still waiting on rain. Hear more about a wrap up on teal season, and expectations for improved habitat as the season progresses.

Creators & Guests

Chris Jennings
Ducks Unlimited Podcast Outdoor Host

What is Ducks Unlimited Podcast?

Ducks Unlimited Podcast is a constant discussion of all things waterfowl; from in-depth hunting tips and tactics, to waterfowl biology, research, science, and habitat updates. The DU Podcast is the go-to resource for waterfowl hunters and conservationists. Ducks Unlimited is the world's leader in wetlands conservation.

Chris Jennings: Hey, everybody, welcome back to the Duck Summit podcast. I'm your host, Chris Jennings. Joining me on the DU podcast once again is Kevin Kraai, the Texas waterfowl program leader. How are you, Kevin?

Kevin Kraai: I'm doing quite well, and yourself?

Chris Jennings: Doing well, doing well. We are on the precipice. We are right up against the opener for our duck season, at least where I hunt in Arkansas. I know you guys in Texas open randomly with the size of the state. There's different openers here and there. I know some of the guys that, that did open, I've heard some pretty good reports and, um, but I wanted to get you on here today. We can just go through Texas. We can talk about what the habitat looks like, what it looked like going into and coming out of teal season, going into the big duck regular season. And then what really we're going to be looking at as duck hunters really hit the ground running probably, you know, after Thanksgiving into December. So, let's go ahead and start with, you know, going into teal season, the habitat that you guys had, because I know we did some migration alerts where we were talking about it's really dry. And I started getting some emails from people up that live where you do in Northern Texas. And we're like, Hey man, it ain't dry. So, uh, Especially from my co-host, uh, Dr. Mike Brazier. He always has to send a corrective email if, uh, if there's anything, and I'm trying to explain to him, like it said, South Texas, man, that's not all of Texas. Uh, but yeah, let's go ahead and kick that off and just kind of wanted to hear how, how teal season was and how the habitat looks going into it.

Kevin Kraai: Yeah. Yeah. Um, the good and the bad of Texas is it's huge. and so yeah it's definitely conditions are typically and once again this year very different from one end of the state to the other and so yeah you know going into September yeah we were we were experiencing extreme to near record drought throughout most of the state of Texas and so literally the only place that really wasn't in that kind of extreme drought condition was The high plains of the Texas panhandle, you know, dominated by Plowell and and that's purely because of a record may for the most part in my house alone, you know, just outside Amarillo we had. just under 25 inches of rain in the month of May alone which you know it was you know beyond record the year prior we had 11 inches of rain the entire year so extreme extreme rain events that we were experiencing up here and and you know for the most part after May you know the you know kind of like everything these days the water faucet cut off and really haven't had any input since but that extreme rain event certainly persisted throughout the summer, even though we lost quite a bit of water. But right now we're probably sitting as good as we have in the last decade for surface water in the high plains. So it's certainly not uniform across the entire high plains, but there's pockets where there's abundant water. The only unfortunate thing about it is that You know, we really don't grow aquatic vegetation up here. You know, once water hits the landscape, this landscape, you know, really needs that dry cycle so that, you know, terrestrial vegetation, emergent vegetation can grow and then hope to get that flooded later in the year. So when that water hit the landscape it really kind of prevented you know the really good duck foods, if you will, the more soul plants from germinating and growing and then getting flooded so. The reality is a lot of the water from landscape up here is just kind of big open receded water with not a lot of vegetation in it. And so it's not, you know, the most ducky looking stuff but things like sand hill cranes and pintails and greenleaf teal they're going to do just fine and the reality of this landscape is those birds are here because we have abundant waste grain with, you know, the core, corn agriculture and Milo and winter wheat and things so. They're really not coming here to get foods out of the plot. They're coming here to have a place to swim so they can go out to field. So we'll see. It's looking pretty good. And as you mentioned, we are open everywhere statewide now for ducks and geese. The high plain zone opened a couple weeks ago. Our south zone opened about a week ago, and then our north zone opened this past weekend. So, you know, we're wide open. The rest of the state going into till season was bad, really bad. But, you know, we have, you know, that phenomenon, if you will, along the Texas coast and our rice belt, where we have very, we're very fortunate to have ducks and duck hunting is big business. It's very, very commercial now, and we have a number of private landowners and hunting clubs That really, really think of it as a business, and they spend a lot of time, money and energy, making sure that there's good habitat on the landscape and. And even in a drought, you know, you know, they're obviously got straws in the ground pumping groundwater, create an amazing habitat. And man, they rolled into teal season with a very, very dry north Texas, a very dry northeast Texas, a very dry east central Texas. For the most part, a very dry flyway all the way up through Kansas and the Dakotas. Until you get to the Dakotas, it was very dry. And so when those Blue Wings left Prairie, Canada, and Dakota, if they didn't stop in the Texas Panhandle, they made it all the way down the Texas coast. And for the most part, the only water on the landscape was that. Artificial water that hunters were pumping up and those individuals had just an absolute spectacular kill season. You know they were literally the only water on the landscape, you know you get really close that coastal zone, you know, a long hot dry summer. Really had all of our marshes near hypersaline, very little aquatic foods. And so those locations where they had that sweet, fresh water was really where the attraction of those birds occurred. And so yeah, I did hear that, you know, kind of a little bit more than normal, some of the reservoirs of Northeast Texas, the upper ends of those things and some of those creeks, had a little bit of a bump in hunting success. You know, that's just a sign of a lack of freshwater on the landscape and a lack of places for teal to go during that migration period. That whole field season is full on migration. Those birds are moving as fast as they can. And so, you know, wherever they can find fresh water, they found it. And I heard some pretty good stories of some of the larger reservoirs in East Texas that had some pretty good days in the upper ends of those lakes, not real shallow water. So yeah, it was a real hit or miss, unfortunately. If you had good water and good habitat, the birds were there in abundance. I'm just fearful, and I know that there's a lot of people that didn't even have a place to go hunting. And if they did, the conditions were so bad that they didn't see a lot of birds. Our public WMAs probably had one of the worst teal seasons we've ever had. And that's, you know, all of our public WMAs along the coast are right against that coastal zone. That area where we we hope to have fresh water, but we just didn't have it this year. Yeah, unfortunately, it was it was pretty bad.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, usually, you know, it seems like I think we've said it the last several years that coastal zone going into the season is super dry. And you guys have gotten lucky with like a tropical storm that would maybe pick up, you know, and you guys pick up some rain. It just didn't happen this year, at least during teal season.

Kevin Kraai: No, just prior to teal season, we had a system move into south Texas. Um, you know, that brush country, you know, typically known for Bob whites and white tails, you know, Corpus, Corpus Christi South. And, um, there's, there's just not a lot of duck hunters out in that landscape. So, um, yeah, it didn't, it didn't hit our really important duck hunting areas, uh, like we, we hope. Uh, and so, yeah, that just didn't occur.

Chris Jennings: Now, leading up to the regular season, you guys have had some water, especially even in that coastal zone, you guys have had some water. How have things improved? We'll start out down there, kind of leading up to foreshadowing and talking about the regular duck season here. I guess not foreshadowing because it's open, but how has that water changed that habitat down there?

Kevin Kraai: Well, we've definitely seen improvements in a couple different places in the state. Like you said, the coastal zone this past weekend, I was down there all last week for some meetings and going on and pretty much starting Thursday on all the way up until yesterday, or maybe even Monday, it has pretty much been raining nonstop. Pretty light, but consistent rain. Improvements, for sure, is all I can say. There's some areas that we saw three, four, five, six inches of rain. Over that multi-day period, that landscape was really dry. Those soils were really, really dry and sucked up a lot of that water. But the important part is, you know, that's the beginning of the healing. You know, you got to start somewhere and getting those soils, you know, saturated such that, you know, they might not all be ponding water right now, but hopefully that next system that really helps. But it did help a little bit. Our coastal WMAs have been open for a couple weeks in that south zone and pretty much every single one of them were turn away hunters because we just simply don't have the spots for people to hunt. Record numbers, some of them 100 plus hunters were saying we don't have anywhere for you to hunt. And so anything helps right now, anything helps right now and I really haven't heard if that greatly improved or improved at all if we added any huntable sites. Since this weekend, we are just only two days removed from it. So hopefully we'll know more here in the next day or two coming into the weekend hunts that hopefully we added a few spots. But that's a really good indicator of how things are. If we're turning away 100 plus hunters on our wildlife management areas, simply because the only water we have is these saline waters. which aren't really good, and so we're not seeing good hunter success right now.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, now I'm just curious, how does that impact the redheads out on the bays, like some of the diving ducks that are hitting out there on Laguna Madre?

Kevin Kraai: Yeah, I was out in the bay system this past weekend with a rod and reel largely in my hand. didn't see a lot of birds didn't see a lot of birds at all and and the impact to them is the proximity of fresh water and so you know they got to visit fresh water at least once if not two times a day to purge those salt of the salt that they're getting out of the seagrasses that they're foraging on and you know if there's not abundant if there's not fresh water nearby they're just not going to be in that area you know that food source is not going to be Useful to them because they have to be able to get to freshwater nearby and so. It was pretty, pretty clear in that mid, mid coast system that I was in that there just wasn't a lot of birds and there wasn't a lot of. And I'm assuming that means there's not a lot of fresh water nearby, but like I said earlier, that deep South Texas is in real close proximity that got that tropical storm in September. They actually received more rain than anybody this weekend, you know, that Corpus Christi Kingsville area going south down to like Baffin all the way. Yeah, absolutely. So that's that's real close proximity. Lower Laguna Madre, Baffin Bay are, you know, the heart of our remaining redhead country and And so I'm real hopeful that that means that there's some new fresh water on the landscape, some of those ponds caught water, and you'll see a direct impact to our redhead population as soon as that, those two things kind of collide, if you will, if you get fresh water nearby. You know, the bay system itself, for the most part, is pretty healthy. In the eyes of a redhead, you know, they're looking for sea grasses and shoal grasses and things like that, and they just need to have that fresh water nearby. So that probably is a huge improvement. from where we were a couple weeks ago for diving ducks in our bay systems, but going up all the way up into the southeast Texas, Orange County, Beaumont, they're still in record drought, still in record, record drought, and that's our highest rainfall counties in the state, north of 60 inches a year. And they're way, way behind right now and didn't get a lot of relief this past weekend at all.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And kind of looking at the forecast there, it looks like there's some rain in the forecast, which is a good thing. Um, I talked to some guys who hunt Southwest Louisiana and, uh, they were, you know, they're dry as a bone out there have been for a little while. I mean, even like you said, you know, some guys didn't even get to hunt teal cause it was so dry. It looks like there's kind of a trough setting up that maybe could pump quite a bit of rain in there, get some precipitation and could help everybody out, so.

Kevin Kraai: Yeah, looking at long-term forecasts, we're looking at, especially southeast and east Texas, we're looking at kind of what you would consider a little bit more normal weather events setting up, you know, decent chances of rain, you know, every other day and stuff like that. So, hopefully, we're seeing a big change and, you know, as far as northeast Texas, you know, Dallas, the Louisiana border. We had a really big rain event, oh man, three weeks ago, where, you know, a significant portion of Dallas and Fort Worth flooded. You know, one good thing about a dry summer for reservoir-type hunters that, you know, dominates our northeast Texas area is that that receded reservoir with a bunch of shoreline exposed is good because that's growing you know, foods and terrestrial plants and weeds and grasses and things that are very important. So with all those reservoirs receded all summer long, you know, the shoreline's pretty fuzzy and has a lot of kilocalories in it right now. And that rain event, it didn't cause any flooding of rivers or anything like that, but it definitely brought up a majority of those reservoirs in East Texas. Just prior to the, the opener. And so, you know, some of them went from 234 feet low to either full or just like a half a low so you know that 234 foot of new water push back into that vegetation, really, really did help our North, North Texas opener, which was this past Saturday. And so, Yeah, that was good. And I've heard some decent reports. If anything, it just gave us more areas, more surface water for hunters to hunt. And so, yeah, that was good. And then that correlated very closely with that big front we had last week. You know, it wasn't hard to attempt by any mean, but most of the state was in, you know, 30s, 40s and 50s, which is the first real good push of cold weather, the cool weather we've had for the year. And so timing couldn't have been better for those two rain events.

Chris Jennings: With that slight cold front, I know it's a much more drastic cold front way further north, but did you hear any reports of noticing some bird movement with that? Yeah, for sure.

Kevin Kraai: Saturday morning, heard some really, really good reports from public land, from RWMAs to public reservoirs. Unfortunately, all too often we're hearing this similar pattern. Of, you know, Saturday morning good Sunday morning was terrible, just completely two different sides of the coin, the number of birds they saw the number of birds harvested. And so it's just that continued issue we're seeing with birds are just less and less willing to deal with the pressure. And they're just intolerant. And so you're just, you know, Saturday morning was great, Sunday morning was terrible. So, you know, they're just needing rest. They're needing, you know, already, just a few days into the season, we're needing new birds. Yeah, that's scary. And so, you know, here we are. Yeah, exactly. You know, here we are looking north, hoping for weather, hoping for rain. The thing that brings birds to East Texas is rain events, it's water. We don't have a bunch of agricultural crops like Kansas and Nebraska and Arkansas has to bring birds there that brings that kilocalorie on the landscape, that energy on the landscape that birds will just go sit in a pond and fly out to a field. Everything that comes to East Texas and Central Texas has to make a living in the water, which it swims. And so it's those rain events that big rain events where we're flooding new habitat where either you have that overbank flood event in our rivers, like sulfur, the red. Sabine, the Trinity, you know, all these very, very important rivers. When they get out of their banks, that's when we get that huge push of ducks that we, you know, are used to in northeast Texas. And because that's when we got new foods on the landscape, new foods exposed to ducks. And until we get that event, you know, we're going to continue to be looking north, hoping something happens, you know, like breeze events further north and things like that. And so that's kind of what we're hoping for now.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And I think, you know, having those pretty much same conversations with, you know, other state agency biologists and, you know, Arkansas is very similar in a sense that as soon as they start getting shot at, they don't stick around for very much longer. So.

Kevin Kraai: No, there's not, there's not places for them to go get away and, you know, relax and hide. A dry year, certainly, especially for those that have water, you see increases in success. But they got to be really, really… They got to walk lightly. They got to tread lightly when it comes to how they're hunting the birds to keep them in the landscape. But if opening day comes along and every little puddle, there's a gun in the blind, that's when you see landscape-level exodus by ducks. They're not tolerated, and so they'll go hide wherever they can hide, stop ponds, or completely leave the landscape for a while. And so if we get those big rain events and there's a ton of habitat on the landscape, that's when you can get a little more aggressive with the hunting and hunt multiple days in a row and see success multiple days in a row. And so yeah, we need rain, we need it bad.

Chris Jennings: I think that's a story all throughout, you know, the South right now, everyone's really needing some rain. You know, one thing I was going to ask you, are you, did you see any geese or hear from anybody reporting any geese, whether it's light geese or specks or even the Canada's up North that kind of trickle in up there. Are you guys starting to see those yet?

Kevin Kraai: Starting, but you know, the Texas goose situation is pretty bleak right now. Yeah. You know, we're, we're sitting on the lowest goose estimates we've ever had. A year removed from that, we're sitting on the lowest harvest estimates for geese we've ever had. We're sitting on a year removed from the lowest number of goose hunters we've ever had. It's largely driven by the things happening on the Texas coast and that historic landscape. With that being said, it is a different story as you move up into the Rolling Plains and the High Plains, where we have big concentrations of white-fronted geese north of Abilene and Knox and Haskell County, and then the Playa Wetlands. the cackling Canada geese that we have up here. They are trickling in. We have marked telemetry, marked birds, both white fronts and cackling geese. They have started trickling into the state and returning to the areas in which they were caught last year. And so that is occurring. Very few birds have been showing up on the Texas coast yet. So, I mean, there's birds. But definitely late, but very few. Some rumors of some enormous concentrations of birds in Kansas right now, especially white-fronted geese. But mechanical geese, they're on time. They're doing their thing in the panhandle. They're showing up. Even some light geese, typically Ross geese in this part of the world, in the panhandle, they're starting to show up. I've been on the phone today with my colleagues in the Dakotas, and they're out spraying weeds right now, the week before Thanksgiving, and it's 65 degrees. So pretty unprecedented warming trend for that part of the world. But looking at long-term forecasts right around Thanksgiving, it looks like things are going to lock up for them as well.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. They had that early cold and locked up pretty good across most of North Dakota. Big blizzard came through there, yeah. Yeah. And everyone's like, oh, we're in business, and then it opened back up. But that's typically how it is. You know, that was kind of the last thing I'll ask you here. You know, last year during the season, I'll be honest, the guys I know who hunt in Texas, there was a lot of grumbling there throughout December. They were still warm. They were still dry. And they're, you know, my phone's blowing up with these guys. They're talking to me, but I'll tell you what, come about January 3rd last year, you got, they got a bunch of rain. And I never got another phone call because those guys did awesome, you know, they finished their season really strong So, you know, is that something that you're kind of hoping for once again, you know for texas?

Kevin Kraai: Well, I hope it comes earlier. Yeah, I hope it comes earlier. Absolutely January 3rd most of the season's over. So yeah, we need those big rain events. It's not just about you know getting the cold weather and ponds and rivers and things north of us it's a big rain event that is so attractive to waterfowl and you'll see huge movements the second that starts happening and not just from the north we're talking about attracting ducks from the east and the west those are the things that we need and and hopefully We can start getting some of that. We need those floods in northeast Texas. We need that entire coastal complex from the bay system all the way into the marshes, into the rice prairies to start getting water on the landscape like immediately to kind of keep us going for this season. Otherwise, I think we're going to be looking at a very frustrating season for many as, you know, we, we move into, I mean, like I said, you know, just a few days into the season, we're already wishing for new ducks and that's, that is not common. And that is not something we'd like to be doing right now.

Chris Jennings: Well, with luck, we'll have our fingers crossed here. I know, um, having that landscape level water is really, um, I know it, you know it, but it's, you know, hard to get across to some listeners even that, you know, that landscape level water is beneficial for everyone and the ducks. So hopefully we'll keep our fingers crossed and you guys will get that. Anything else you want to mention in regards to Texas waterfowl while I got you on here? Not really.

Kevin Kraai: Things are just complicated and moving along and we're gonna keep on trucking and doing some really cool research and continue to mark some of these tackling geese as they get here and finishing up some really cool pintail research. So yeah, there's just a lot of cool stuff going on right now.

Chris Jennings: Awesome. Well, maybe we can get you on here at some point in the next few months, or once you guys wrap up that Pintel research, I'd love to hear about it.

Kevin Kraai: Yep. Yep. Yep. Sounds like a great plan.

Chris Jennings: Cool. All right, Kevin, I appreciate it. Thanks for your time. And we'll probably reach out to you once I'm going to wait. I'm going to watch that weather, wait till you guys just get dumped on with a bunch of rain throughout the whole state. And I'm going to call you and we just want nothing but good news.

Kevin Kraai: Yeah, that's, that's exactly what we're going to do. I'm looking forward to it.

Chris Jennings: All right. Thanks a lot, Kevin. Thank you, Chris. I'd like to thank my guest, Kevin Cry, the Texas waterfowl program leader, for coming on today and just providing a little update right now on what the habitat and hunting looks like across the entire state of Texas. I'd like to thank our producer, Chris Isaac, for putting the show together and getting it out to you. And I'd like to thank you, the listener, for joining me on DU Podcast and supporting wetlands conservation.