Bounty of waterfowl

by BRIAN PEARSON Contributing Writer
| December 1, 2020 1:00 AM

The Snake River has received much acclaim as the go-to public land duck hunting destination in Idaho, but it’s certainly not the only place where hunters have an accessible place to hunt waterfowl. About two-thirds of Fish and Game's Wildlife Management Areas are managed with waterfowl in mind, providing food and resting areas for migrating waterfowl.

Fish and Game has 31 WMAs throughout the state, 20 of which can provide good-to-great waterfowl hunting when conditions are right. These WMAs vary greatly in size and are spread out through five of Fish and Game’s seven regions, including the Panhandle, Southwest, Magic Valley, Southeast, and Upper Snake. Most of them have options for quality walk-in access, and portions can be hunted successfully with limited decoys and without a dog.

WMA waterfowl hunting: The big picture

Waterfowl abundance is generally dependent upon weather patterns, and timing of the fall and winter migrations. Because WMAs are so geographically varied, hunting opportunities differ from region to region, and even between WMAs within a region.

As a general rule, WMAs in the northern and eastern part of the state tend to have shorter windows for waterfowl hunting due to an earlier freeze-up, and most of the hunting takes place prior to Thanksgiving. After that, most waterfowl shift to rivers that don't freeze, or freeze later. Waterfowl congregating in those areas often migrate out when temperatures get frigid and the birds move on to warmer climates inside and beyond Idaho. Waterfowl hunters in the Panhandle and Upper Snake regions should know that grizzly bears are active in the fall during the early part of the waterfowl season, and should take precautions and be "bear aware."

WMAs in southern Idaho tend to have longer windows for waterfowl hunting, and many can be hunted throughout the season, depending on local conditions.

Here is a look at the WMAs available to waterfowl hunters. Follow the links for a more in-depth information about each individual WMA, along with maps and other important information.

Keep in mind that the acreages listed for the Wildlife Management Areas encompass the whole WMA, not just the portions suitable for waterfowl hunting. Wetland areas are typically a fraction of the total acreage, and waterfowl hunting on Fish and Game's WMAs is a popular activity – meaning many of these see high usage during duck season, particularly on weekends and holidays. Don't expect to be alone at any particular WMA, and expect competition from other hunters for prime hunting spots.

Hunters should also keep in mind that much of the waterfowl season overlaps with pheasant season, and many of WMAs are also popular pheasant hunting destinations. Fish and Game stocks pheasants at more than half of the WMAs listed below, and there are special rules for pheasant hunters on those properties, including a 10 a.m. start time for shooting hours.

Duck hunters on these properties will often find less competition, and the best waterfowl hunting, before 10 a.m. If duck hunters are planning on pheasant hunting as well, they need to follow those rules, and also not be in possession of shotgun shells containing lead shot while they are waterfowl hunting.

Before hunters head out, they should check out the current Idaho Migratory Game Bird Seasons and Rules brochure and remember that they are required to possess/use:

  • A valid Idaho hunting license or hunting passport
  • Migratory Bird (HIP) Permit
  • Federal Migratory Bird (Duck) Stamp for all hunters 16 years or older
  • Nontoxic shot

Panhandle Region

• Boundary-Smith Creek WMA — 2,072 acres

Boundary-Smith Creek WMA hugs the Canadian border in the northernmost part of Idaho.

Boundary-Smith Creek WMA scenic 2018

Restored wetlands and floodplain habitats support a broad range of wildlife, and provides both shallow and deep-water habitats necessary for dabbling and diving ducks. Up to 6,000 migrating waterfowl visit this WMA each spring and fall. Hunting here can be quite good until things freeze, usually around Thanksgiving.

• McArthur Lake WMA — 1,891 acres

The WMA sits at the narrowest point of the valley between the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountain ranges.

McArthur Lake is one of the oldest WMAs to specifically protect and enhance waterfowl habitat. It provides breeding and nesting habitat for 17 waterfowl species. During the spring and fall migrations, large numbers of ducks, geese, tundra swans, and shorebirds use McArthur Lake as a stopover and resting location. As with Boundary-Smith Creek WMA, hunting can be very good until the lake freezes up, usually in mid-November.

• Pend Oreille WMA — 7,432 acres

The WMA consists of 25 parcels of land scattered along the edges of Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River, Pack River, Clark Fork Delta, Priest River and additional nearby waters.

The parcels range from 2 acres to 1,729 acres. Pend Oreille WMA properties provide habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl. Sites that typically support thousands of waterfowl during migration include Morton Slough, Oden Bay, the Pack River Delta, Denton Slough and the Clark Fork River Delta.

The greatest waterfowl use of the WMA occurs in the fall. Maximum waterfowl counts usually occur in November and December. Waterfowl numbers have been as high as 60,000 ducks, 15,000 Canada geese, and 2,000 tundra swans. Diving ducks are especially numerous on the deeper bays, primarily redheads, scaup, and ring-necked ducks. A large portion of the Pacific Flyway’s redhead duck population winters on Lake Pend Oreille, and redhead counts have reached 20,000 ducks.

Hunting can be excellent for ducks and geese early in the season before Lake Pend Oreille is drawn down to its winter levels. The drawdown typically starts in October and the lake reaches winter pool levels by mid-November. As the lake is lowered, near-shore access areas are dewatered, mudflats appear, and hunting becomes more difficult.

• Coeur d’Alene River WMA — 8,638 acres

This WMA is largely a mix of wetland habitats and small lakes, composed of a collection of land parcels along the river between Harrison and Cataldo. Additional parcels are scattered around the lake and along the St. Joe and St. Maries rivers.

Thousands of birds, including tundra swans, descend on its waters to rest and feed during their seasonal migrations. A significant portion of the waterfowl hunting in northern Idaho occurs on the WMA each fall.

Hunting is excellent for ducks early in the season. If the weather is mild, good hunting for ducks and Canada geese continues through November. Migrating mallards stop at areas with wild rice, utilizing it as a principal food source.

Brian Pearson is a public information specialist for Idaho Department of Fish & Game.