According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 989,500 active waterfowl hunters in the 2019-2020 season, bagging just under 10 million ducks and 2.69 million geese. For the last 70 years, wildlife managers have segmented North America into four distinct flyways. As we set out to find the best waterfowl hunting states for 2021, we considered what wingshooters wanted most, which was access, diversity, and strong populations of migratory birds.
Part of waterfowl hunting is having a network of flyways that breaks up the country into four distinct sections. Understanding the purpose and description of these four flyways gives us a pattern for knowing what kinds of birds can be expected (and hunted) and knowing where they are going and when. Ducks and geese follow these pathways from their breeding grounds to wintering areas each year.
Here’s a rundown of the migratory flyways:
This flyway stretches more than 3,000 miles from the coast of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico and has exceptional public hunting opportunities for divers, dabblers, and geese. Though it is the most densely populated of the four flyways, there are still great spots to find birds in flight on cool mornings.
Covering every mile between northern Minnesota and the wetlands of Louisiana, the Mississippi flyway is a storied corridor through which most migratory and other birds fly in the U.S. At 2,300 miles long, covering 1.5 million square miles, and anchored by the mighty Mississippi River itself, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to hit bag limits hunting states along this flyway.
This flyway follows the Great Plains from the Canadian prairies to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the flyway that some stellar states fall under, such as Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and Texas. If you’re looking for diversity of species, this is their highway of a flyway.
At least a billion birds from 350 different species fly along the Pacific flyway each year, which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. Hunting anywhere along here will give you access to a lot of different waterfowl and hunting conditions, from Washington state widgeons to California pintails.
The Best States for Waterfowl Hunting
Check out this year’s list, with insights and epic hunts provided by onX staff and Ambassadors. Did your home state make the list?
- Arkansas: Best State for Flooded Timber Duck Hunts
- Kansas: Best State for Geese and Ducks
- Maryland: Best State for Sea Ducks
- Texas: Best State for Sandhill Crane Hunting
- North Dakota: Best State for a DIY Hunt
- California: Best State for Hunting Pintails
- Washington: Best State for a Scenic Hunt
- Oklahoma: Best Up-and-Coming Waterfowl State
- Missouri: Best Mid-Migration State
- Minnesota: Best State for Divers
- (BONUS) Louisiana: Best Cast and Blast State
Arkansas: Best State for Hunting Flooded Timber Duck
About 55 miles east of Little Rock is a town called Stuttgart, Arkansas. Stuttgart is affectionately defended as the “Duck Capital of the World.” Millions of duck hunters, from rocker Ted Nugent to Nash Buckingham, who carried “Bo Whoop” by his side, have hunted waterfowl in the state.
To back up the claim that the Natural State is a waterfowl mecca, it has one of the highest duck hunting success rates with nearly 1.1 million ducks harvested every year at the rate of 16.6 ducks per hunter. Many of these ducks and hunters find themselves in flooded timberlands in the early mornings of the season. The thrill of finding backwaters or a good hole with a break in the canopy puts Arkansas on our must-hunt list for waterfowl.
“It’s all about the big groups of mallards coming into the timber. It’s one of the most unique scenes in waterfowling and no place offers that opportunity like Arkansas. We have tons of public land scattered all over the state, and lots of guide services, so there is something for everybody who wants to chase mallards in the timber.” – Jake Maxwell, Chasing Green
Take a closer look at Arkansas:
- onX Arkansas Waterfowl Hunting
- Arkansas Waterfowl Regulations
Kansas: Best State for Hunting Ducks and Geese
Ready for a mixed-bag hunt of epic proportions? The Sunflower State is a prime destination for finding ducks and geese moving south. It’s especially noted for hunting mallards on private and public lands, most of which are specifically managed to attract them.
About 175,000 ducks are harvested in Kansas annually, with a hunter success rate of 11.3 ducks per hunter in a season.
Central in the Central flyway, this state has healthy populations of different geese, including cackling, Canada, small Canada, snow, white-fronted, specklebelly, and others. So for fancy-feathered geese or speedy canvasbacks, get ready to go big before going home here.
“Kansas is a phenomenal waterfowl state for two reasons. The first is that we have a ton of agriculture and are able to hold birds here all winter long. The second is the fact we are in the middle of the country so we get cold enough for birds to push down to us, but not cold enough for them to head further south. These two pieces line up to create the perfect storm for waterfowlers.” – Ben Webster, Big Kansas Outdoors
Take a closer look at Kansas:
- onX Kansas Waterfowl Hunting
- Kansas Waterfowl Regulations
Maryland: Best State for Hunting Sea Ducks
Receiving an “A” from Realtree’s Duck Hunting Nation, Maryland is the best state for hunting sea ducks. The Free State’s rich and long history with waterfowl hunting is not lost on the modern shotgunner. From the fabled Chesapeake region and the Susquehanna Flats, Maryland passed its first laws governing waterfowl back in 1833.
Many come to Maryland because the Canada goose hunting can be unparalleled, but going after sea ducks is what draws a sizable contingent of almost 27,000 waterfowlers Maryland hosts each season. Although there’s no hunting on Sundays here, you’ll still have six days to go after eiders, scoters, and long-tailed ducks.
Take a closer look at Maryland:
- onX Maryland Waterfowl Hunting
- Maryland Waterfowl Regulations
Texas: Best State for Hunting Sandhill Crane
And now for something completely different, we turn to Texas. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas, and it’s true for the waterfowl hunter too. Texas has been a go-to for sandhill cranes, even as it’s often overshadowed by the excellent dove and duck hunting in the Lone Star State. But many argue that sandhill cranes are a better-tasting alternative, and weighing at 18 pounds each, there’s more meat to go around.
Most of the state is open to hunting sandhill cranes, except for eastern Texas and a small parcel along the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, Texas is about 96 percent private land, so you’ll likely need to knock on some doors to get permission to hunt, but there’s no shortage of opportunities to call in your first crane or two (bag limits are between 2-3 a day).
Take a closer look at Texas:
- onX Texas Waterfowl Hunting
- Texas Waterfowl Regulations
- Texas Sandhill Crane Hunting Regulations
North Dakota: Best State for a DIY Hunt
North Dakota, even though it experienced its third-driest period on record this year, remains a real “North Star” that deservedly guides hunters to their duck hunting destiny. It’s our pick for the best state for a DIY hunt simply because out-of-state hunters can buy over-the-counter licenses, the state’s great access through the PLOTS program (Private Land Open To Sportsmen), and the grass, water, and grain that ducks and geese love.
If you hunt the Sioux State once, you’ll want to go back. Hunters are harvesting over 470,000 ducks and nearly 160,000 geese every season. The hunter success ratio sits around 13.3 ducks per licensed hunter. We like those odds.
“North Dakota is a great state to freelance waterfowl hunt in because of the unposted land law. Use onX Hunt when scouting waterfowl to find landowner names of posted or electronically posted land. Get permission that way, or if it isn’t posted, you can legally hunt. North Dakota is part of the duck factory, and it’s located just south of other prime waterfowl nesting habitats. So if it wasn’t made in North Dakota, there’s a good chance it’ll fly through sometime in its migration.” – Cory Loeffler, DRC Call Co.
Take a closer look at North Dakota:
- onX North Dakota Waterfowl Hunting
- North Dakota Waterfowl Regulations
California: Best State for Hunting Pintails
California has its own rich heritage related to waterfowl. In 1908, President Roosevelt established the first waterfowl refuge in North America, naming it the Lower Klamath NWR. Since then the Golden State has played an integral role in the migration of billions of birds along the Pacific flyway.
For hunters, who harvest over a million ducks a year at a success rate of over 20 ducks per hunter, California is for dreamin’ big about the elusive pintails. These elegant, long-necked ducks continue to have storied ups and downs in their recovery in California, but for now there are healthy, huntable populations and hunters were able to harvest as many as 138,000 pintails in 2018. If you want to pursue pintails, California is the place to get to in 2021.
“California is an understated waterfowl destination. As far as ducks and geese go, it really is a not-so-hidden gem. California winters a huge population of geese and ducks, and through the season a variety of waterfowl visit the Pacific flyway’s wetlands, rivers, and agricultural fields. With a long hunting season, a diverse and robust bird population, as well as a number of different types of hunts available across the state, California should be on any waterfowlers destination list.” – Corey Mulhair, Split Reed
Take a closer look at California:
- onX California Waterfowl Hunting
- California Waterfowl Regulations
Washington: Best State for a Scenic Hunt
The Evergreen State has a lot to please the eye. Washington has seven distinct physiographic regions, from the rocky Pacific coastline and volcanic peaks of the Cascades to the green fields of the Columbia Basin, and equal to these gorgeous landscapes is an abundance of ducks and geese to complement the skyline.
We pick Washington state as the best state for a scenic waterfowl hunt, and that can be based on geography alone. But one other beautiful fact that sets this state apart from the rest is it’s the only state in the lower 48 where a hunter can harvest a harlequin duck, arguably the most spectacular species of waterfowl in North America.
For hunter success rates it’s the second-best on our entire list at 15.2 ducks and 5.5 geese harvested per person. Hard to argue against Washington when it comes to waterfowl hunting.
“I’ve been fortunate to hunt all over North America, and as quality waterfowling states go Washington definitely sits close to the top of my list. From big groups of itty-bitty, football-sized cacklers to some of the best mallard hunting in the lower 48, Washington state holds its own as a destination for duck and goose hunters from all over. The variety of hunting scenarios makes Washington a very exciting place to be a waterfowler. Whether it’s hunting over habitat, cropland, or off the coast, Washington is absolutely worth a visit if you’re a duck and goose hunter. – Nick Costas, Split Reed
Take a closer look at Washington:
- onX Washington Waterfowl Hunting
- Washington Waterfowl Regulations
Oklahoma: Best Up-and-Coming Waterfowl Hunting State
Everyone wants to know the sleeper hit of the season, and this year we’re all in on Oklahoma as the best up-and-coming state for waterfowl hunting. The Sooner State should be on your bucket list sooner than later because a lot of ducks are being retrieved, especially on public lands.
Oklahoma offers more than a million publicly accessible acres to explore. Spread that over WMAs, wetland developmental areas, and 27 properties under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lakes and related lands, and you start painting a picture of a great duck hunting destination.
Take a closer look at Oklahoma:
- onX Oklahoma Waterfowl Hunting
- Oklahoma Waterfowl Regulations
Missouri: Best Mid-Migration State
The Show-Me State has something to show you. It lands as the best place to hunt waterfowl mid-migration. Why? Because two major river systems—the Mississippi and the Missouri—bring ducks and geese into the state right when waterfowl season can get a little wonky.
Mid-season can be tough hunting at times because ducks and geese are starting to get savvy to decoys and calls, or they have simply moved on from where you had seen them days earlier. While Missouri is good for waterfowl all season long, it’s definitely the state you want to be in when other places just aren’t producing. Missouri is so good, in fact, that over 273,000 ducks were harvested in the 2019-20 season, with just over 10 ducks going to each licensed hunter. Access is also good in Missouri, especially with the state’s “Managed Hunts” program.
Take a closer look at Missouri:
- onX Missouri Waterfowl Hunting
- Missouri Waterfowl Regulations
Minnesota: Best State for Divers
Let’s dive right in and say it: Minnesota is the best state to hunt diver ducks. That’s an easy fact to back up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Minnesota’s long list of diving ducks include the canvasback, redhead, ringneck (or ringbill), scaup (or bluebill), goldeneye, bufflehead, merganser and the ruddy duck. There is an abundance of publicly accessible water to get into a diver shoot, from the thousands of lakes dotting Northern Minnesota to the famed Mississippi River. If that’s not an ample list of feathered targets and places to hunt them, what else is?
We like Minnesota because it offers excellent hunting opportunities, but we also applaud the state’s historical role in helping bring back the giant Canada goose from extinction. Rochester, Minnesota, was famed for its goose hunting and was considered the last stronghold for the species on the brink of extinction. Today, there’s viable populations all around.
Take a closer look at Minnesota:
- onX Minnesota Waterfowl Hunting
- Minnesota Waterfowl Regulations
(BONUS) Louisiana: Best Cast and Blast State
We couldn’t let one state get away without an honorable mention. The Pelican State has 8,000 square miles of water. Many believe the state was essentially designed for ducks. That’s why it stands out for us as the best state for a cast-and-blast adventure. From coastal marshes to flooded grain fields and flooded timber, you can hunt a hundred different ways and catch fish along the way.
Over 570,000 ducks are harvested annually, with just over 50,000 licensed waterfowl hunters going after them. There’s no shortage of public lands available, so access isn’t going to be the challenge. Deciding whether you want to fish more or shoot more might be the only hard decision you’ll have to make down here.
Take a closer look at Louisiana:
- onX Louisiana Waterfowl Hunting
- Louisiana Waterfowl Regulations
The Federal Duck Stamp
Waterfowl hunters participate in a unique program that is monitored and managed through the Federal Waterfowl Stamp (aka. Duck Stamp). This program funds bird habitat conservation and protects the sport for future generations. Every waterfowl hunter 16 and older must purchase a Duck Stamp, but anyone can buy these and support conservation efforts. 98 percent of the purchase price goes directly to help acquire and protect wetland habitats and purchase conservation easements for the National Wildlife Refuge System. The stamp costs $25 and is available for purchase at many places, including your local post office, sporting goods store, some National Wildlife Refuges, and at https://www.duckstamp.com.