TOWNSEND, Mont. If you can find lakes that haven't dried up or frozen, you should find great numbers of waterfowl this month in Montana. But be prepared to adjust your strategy to capitalize on rapidly changing conditions, because water at least in its liquid form will be an increasingly scarce commodity.
Drought conditions are a double whammy for Montana water-fowlers.
The most obvious effect is fewer birds in the sky because of the reduction in springtime nesting habitat. But a less appreciated effect is that a substantial portion of the fall waterfowl flight may keep on going because there isn't enough suitable water on which to land and loaf.
You can't change the numbers of birds in the sky, or where and when they migrate. But you can be prepared for a number of options by hunting larger water bodies with a variety of habitats.
Here are four of the most consistent spots in Montana to hunt ducks and geese during a season of uncertainty.
Ninepipes Wildlife Management Area
One of the most consistent waterfowl spots in the state, this 3,100-acre public marsh located in the heart of the Mission Valley produces plenty of ducks and geese but is also a major stop-over spot for Pacific Flyway birds.
This spring's goose production was good while duck numbers were a little off the long-term average, says John Grant, manager of the WMA for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (406-752-5500).
The best way to hunt Ninepipes is to show up early at the area headquarters, located just off U.S. Highway 93 near Pablo (turn west on Highway 212), and enter a lottery for one of the designated blinds on the northeast shoreline of Ninepipes Lake.
Much of the southwest shoreline is closed to hunting, so the blinds are designed to spread out hunting pressure and ensure that most hunters at least have opportunities to shoot.
You'll see a mix of northern puddlers orange-legged mallards, pintails and some hardy teal as well as fast-flying divers, including redheads, shovelers and canvasbacks. And the Canada goose hunting can be exceptional, especially on cold, foggy days that keep honkers close to the deck.
There's some decent pass shooting for both ducks and geese here, or on un-crowded weekdays you can jump the huntable shoreline. But for the best success bring a couple dozen decoys and work birds returning to the lake from feeding on adjacent fields.
Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
You first need to hear two caveats before you scream down to the Idaho border to hunt this sprawling network of big and small lakes plus classic high-valley wetlands. The first is that everything may be frozen by the time you arrive. The second is that the gravel roads into this remote refuge may be drifted shut.
Especially during the transitional weeks of November, when the still water starts freezing, the moving water of the streams can be a waterfowl magnet. But because conditions can change so rapidly in this valley at the base of the Centennial Range, you need to call ahead (406-276-3536) before you plan a long hunting trip.
Get here by driving Interstate 15 to Monida, then turn east 28 miles to the refuge headquarters. You can also get here from Idaho's Henrys Lake, but that route is more treacherous in winter weather.
A final caution about Red Rocks: You may encounter endangered trumpeter swans here. Steer clear of any place these huge birds are using because the refuge is one of their few sanctuaries.
Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area
This big lake between Helena and Townsend is so large and wind-whipped that it's one of the last places in western Montana to freeze up. That means it often hosts some big numbers of ducks and geese that were displaced from smaller waters when the perennial early November cold snap hits.
Add the moving-water habitat of the Missouri River below Canyon Ferry Dam and the lake attracts plenty of birds well into December most years.
The best places to experience a variety of shooting opportunities is on Canyon Ferry's south end. A series of four ponds created to hold water during dry years provide good opportunities for small and large decoy spreads.
Plus the upper Missouri River at the head of the lake offers good hunting opportunities for pass shooters or jump shooters.
Though the dikes are just a fraction the size of the main lake, they're big enough to require a decent boat, and the best hunting is over big blocks of diver decoys in the open water of the protected dikes.
Redheads, canvasbacks, shovelers and teal all work the decoys, and in the quiet water on the lee sides of islands in the dikes you'll find mallards, pintails and wigeon.
Get to Canyon Ferry's south-end dikes by turning at the bear-head logo on U.S. Highway 287 just south of The Silos Inn. Or reach the east-shore dikes by driving State Highway 287 out of Townsend.
The east-shore access isn't well marked, but if you get to Goose Bay, turn back and look for gravel roads that dead-end at the lake.
For more, call FWP's Region 3 office (406-994-4042) in Bozeman.
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
This waterfowl spot in northeastern Montana features good opportunities to shoot over big-water decoy spreads, pass shoot ducks, geese and even tundra swans as they leave and return to the refuge, and to jump birds off smaller ponds and reedy shorelines.
You must sign in before hunting the refuge, and you should pick up a map that illustrates the large closed area on the property's eastern two-thirds. The roster allows refuge managers to track hunters and harvest.
Last year by far the most bagged bird was mallards, says refuge specialist Kathy Tribby (406-654-2863), followed by green-winged teal, shoveler, wigeon and gadwall. The previous year, teal led the harvest, followed by wigeon and gadwall.
Bowdoin, located east of Malta and south of U.S. Highway 2, is also a good spot for tundra swans, and most water fowlers end up chasing pheasants and sharptail grouse in addition to web-footed birds.
Boats are useful on the big lake, but the level is so low this year that larger craft can be neither launched nor operated, says Tribby.
The low level may also hasten freeze-up, so call the refuge office before making a long drive here.
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