Michigan's Duck Hunting Forecast

Michigan's Duck Hunting Forecast

Waterfowl hunting has been poor the last two seasons in our state. Therefore, that should mean ducks will be everywhere this year, right? Actually, it depends on several factors.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

It was probably 15 years ago that I borrowed a bow from a friend of mine, thinking that I might get into bowhunting. Three years later, I still hadn't gotten any arrows. I found that there were too many other things to do in the fall. Fishing is great then. And I love upland bird hunting. Waterfowling is in my blood. Besides, I have two Labradors that I train and feed all year, so I want to spend as many days in the field in the fall as I can. But waterfowling in Michigan has been so poor the last few seasons that last year I got a bow again. And this time I got arrows, too.

"We can say with relative certainty that last year was not the best year overall in the flyway and we hope the 2005 season is an improvement," said Department of Natural Resources acting Waterfowl/Wetlands Division specialist Rex Ainslie.

Local conditions are particularly important in Michigan because the state relies so heavily on birds produced in the Great Lakes region. Fifty-four percent of the mallards killed in Michigan are produced in the region, as well as a large percentage of the wood ducks and teal. Without local birds, Michigan waterfowl hunting suffers.

One place that does see a big influx of migratory birds, particularly diving ducks, is Lake St. Clair.

"The weather (in 2004) started out very mild, but got a little better as the season went on," said wildlife biologist Ernie Kafcas, who works out of the Mt. Clemens Fisheries Research Station. "A good pattern for bluebills set up from late October on. Cans and redheads were there, but not available to hunters."

Kafcas said that the distribution of divers like redheads and canvasbacks has changed due to pressure and habitat. Where there once were one or two layout rigs on Lake St. Clair, there are now a dozen. Fishing on the lake in the fall has also gotten more popular, and birds are getting continually harassed wherever they go. Eventually, they find sanctuary in the middle of the lake where anglers and hunters don't bother them.

Another thing they can find there is food. A clearer, cleaner Lake St. Clair has resulted in vegetation growing in places where it never grew before -- like in the middle of the lake. Diving ducks now have everything they need -- food and refuge -- in the middle of the lake, and they have no reason to leave. "We're finding more and more of the diving ducks using the center of the lake during duck season," said Kafcas. Kafcas said that even the wintering patterns of divers, like cans, changed in 2004. "We saw a lot more birds wintering on the lake and less on the Detroit River."

Hunters saw fewer ducks in 2004 across the board at popular southeast Michigan waterfowling destinations like Pointe Mouillee, St. Clair Flats, St. John's Marsh and Harsens Island.

"The opener was one of the quietest in the last 10 years," claimed Kafcas. "Overall, dabbler hunting in the natural marshes was fair to poor. There were fewer mallards and green-winged teal, an average number of wood ducks, and fewer pintails and black ducks. We had good crops at the managed area, but duck numbers were down at Harsens Island, and it was reflected in the kill. Managed hunting at Harsens Island was 30 percent below average."

The lone bright spot in southeast Michigan last season was Lake St. Clair.

"Lake-hunting was average to above average from late October through Nov. 20," said Kafcas. "Hunter bags consisted primarily of scaup and buffleheads, with few redheads and even fewer canvasbacks harvested. There were good black and white duck numbers in November."

Because Lake St. Clair's diver hunting is dependent on migrating birds, habitat conditions and reproduction on the prairies of the north-central U.S. and Canada are extremely important. Initial spring habitat conditions in Manitoba and northern Ontario were reported to be good to very good. Returning breeders found good conditions across most of Saskatchewan, with the exception being the southern portion of the providence. According to Ducks Unlimited, "Across the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region, wetland and upland habitats are generally in fair to poor shape. However, scattered pockets of good and excellent habitat remain in northern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and northern Iowa." Provided we had a normal nesting season, it looks like good news for Lake St. Clair hunters who rely on the prairies to produce good numbers of divers.

For more information on hunting in southeast Michigan, contact the DNR's Southeast Management Unit at (734) 953-0241.

Besides Lake St. Clair, the marshes and managed waterfowl areas surrounding Saginaw Bay are the most important staging areas for migrating waterfowl and waterfowl hunters in Michigan. Up to 25 percent of the total hunting effort takes place at the managed areas surrounding Saginaw Bay, and a similar proportion of the harvest. Waterfowl hunting in and around the bay in 2004 brought mixed results.

"Overall, the hunting was poor," said wildlife biologist Barb Avers. "Hunting at Nayanquing Point and Shiawassee was very poor. Hunters at Fish Point enjoyed fair hunting in October, but success fell off dramatically in November."

One good thing for Saginaw Bay waterfowlers was that water levels were up. The increase in water levels made flooding the managed hunting zones easier and provided good hunting conditions. Areas around the bay had excellent food and habitat conditions, but few ducks. One bright spot was diving ducks on the bay. "Hunters reported fairly good diver hunting on the bay," said Avers.

Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area is located three miles north of Linwood and encompasses more than 1,400 acres. Nayanquing Point is one of the more popular WMAs around Saginaw Bay. The 2004 waterfowl season was the third worst in terms of ducks harvested in the 28 seasons of managed hunting at Nayanquing Point. The first 30 days of the season showed 2,717 ducks harvested in 2,572 hunter trips, an average of 1.05 ducks per trip. The month of November was very poor, with only 697 ducks shot in 1,206 hunter trips. The totals for the season were 3,208 ducks killed in 3,361 hunter trips. Some 1,967 of the ducks harvested, or 61 percent, were mallards. The five-year average for duck harvest at Nayanquing Point was 3,838 ducks.

For more information on hunting at Nayanquing Point, contact the wildlife management area office at (989) 697-5101.

Fish Point Wildlife Area is a 2,477-acre public hunting area located thre

e miles northwest of Unionville on Saginaw Bay's east side. About 1,200 acres of the area is diked wetland, which is planted with crops and flooded to attract waterfowl. Another 720 acres are maintained as a permanent marsh and acts as a refuge for waterfowl. Permits are required for 77 hunting zones, most of which are standing corn, and another five blinds are in three permanent marshes. Two other scramble zones can accommodate an additional 20 hunters. Again, one bright spot around the bay was the water levels.

"Saginaw Bay water levels averaged 8 inches higher in 2004," claimed wildlife biologist Tim Gierman. "Mild weather through the fall produced slow hunting, particularly in late November and into December. Somewhat surprisingly, there appeared to be a similar number of ducks using the refuge throughout the waterfowl season. The number fluctuated around 10,000 ducks. The number of ducks using the refuge has declined slightly each of the past five years."

Some 8,158 hunter trips were logged at Fish Point during the 2004 season, slightly above the five-year average of 7,827. The harvest of 7,007 ducks was slightly below the five-year average of 7,124. Hunters averaged 0.86 ducks per hunter in 2004. Some 68 percent of the birds harvested at Fish Point in 2004 were mallards. The second most common bird was green-winged teal.

Regarding daily use and harvest at Fish Point during the 2004 season Gierman said, "Food and cover were abundant on the entire area this year. Flooding also progressed a bit faster than in the previous few years. Harvest and hunter use were very intense in October. Success rates decreased severely in November and December, even though there was roughly the same number of birds using the refuge. This occurs every year when waterfowl start using private fields and feeding at night. The hunting public expressed many concerns later in the season regarding duck migrations and fewer numbers of ducks seen."

For information on hunting at Fish Point Wildlife Area, contact the WMA office at (989) 674-2511 or log on to the DNR's Web site at

www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Shiawassee River State Game Area encompasses some 9,758 acres of flooded croplands, marsh and flooded woods that attracts thousands of migrating waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. The area is located about 10 miles southwest of Saginaw and is extremely popular with hunters from the Tri-Cities area, Lansing and Detroit. Traditionally, SRSGA provides some of the better waterfowl hunting opportunities in our state.

Heavy spring rains in May devastated crop planting plans at SRSGA in 2004. Without crops to attract waterfowl and cover for hunters to hide in, the hunting suffered. The area received 282 percent of the average rainfall for May. As of mid-June, many of the fields at Shiawassee still had 3 feet of water in them. Fields that were normally planted with corn were planted with soybeans, buckwheat, millet or nothing at all. Word spread quickly about the poor conditions at Shiawassee in 2004. Hunters logged 6,052 trips in 2004 compared to 8,198 trips in 2003. The duck harvest plummeted from 10,770 birds in 2003 to only 6,216 ducks in 2004.

Fortunately, as of mid-May 2005, weather conditions have been much more cooperative. There was adequate moisture to maintain water levels at the state game area, but not too much rain to prevent crop planting at SRSGA. With a little luck, waterfowl hunting should return to normal at Shiawassee in 2005.

For more information on waterfowl hunting opportunities at Shiawassee River State Game Area, contact the DNR St. Charles field office at (989) 865-6211.

Waterfowling success in mid-Michigan depends at lot on precipitation to fill the small ponds, lakes and rivers where waterfowling opportunities exist in this part of the state. Unfortunately, the area received too much rain in the spring, which hurt nesting success and crop planting at Maple River State Game Area north of Lansing. Extremely dry conditions throughout the summer and early fall left potholes dry and river systems at very low levels, which limited waterfowling opportunities. According to DNR personnel and conservation officers, opening day at Maple River produced the poorest hunting in 17 years of bag checks due in part to the low water and lack of crops.

Hunting across much of mid-Michigan was similar.

"There were lots of wood ducks," said Citizens Waterfowl Advisory Committee member Mike Abson of Belding. "A lot of people are asking why we can't have the limit on wood ducks raised to three. Overall though I got the impression that duck numbers were down in general and hunting sucked."

"The very dry and warm September left rivers and wetlands on the west side of the state in poor condition, and they never recovered," offered wildlife biologist Nik Kalejs. "If not for wood ducks, there wouldn't have been very many ducks shot on opening day.

"The total duck harvest declined at the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant from 344 in 2003 to 214 in 2004," continued Kalejs. Kalejs said this was largely due to the reduced season length. Hunting on MWWTP didn't begin until Oct. 26, 2004. Although peak duck numbers at the MWWTP in 2004 showed a significant increase over 2003 (13,500 versus 11,000) the increase was due to an unusually large number of ruddy ducks using the area. Overall, Kalejs said, "The small increases in rainfall were not enough to adequately recharge the lower Muskegon River wetlands or build up significant waterfowl use."

For more information on opening dates and hunting opportunities on the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant, contact the management unit at (231) 788-5055.

The eastern U.P. is a waterfowling mecca and sees significant use by local and downstate hunters who take advantage of Michigan's split waterfowl season. As a result, opening-day competition is usually intense at places like Munuscong Bay, Potagannissing Bay, Drummond Island and other popular waterfowling areas. Hunting can be feast or famine.

"Last year the hunting in the eastern U.P. sucked like most other places," said wildlife biologist and avid waterfowler Rex Ainslie. "There were good numbers of ringnecks around on opening day and hunting was generally good, but hit or miss after that." Ainslie said that warm, mild weather during much of the early season and low water conditions hurt hunting.

Ainslie did report that conditions in 2005 seem to be much improved. "I'm seeing ducks in almost every pond," he said in early summer.

Avid waterfowler Jim Bias didn't mince words when asked about the hunting near Drummond Island last season. "Drummond Island was terrible!" he said. "The number of ducks seemed to be down, although there was some improvement late in the season. Bluebills were down tremendously, and there seemed to be a big increase in the number of diver hunters."

Roland Bell of the Michigan Duck Hunters Association said that statewide the hunting was poor in 2004. "I heard a lot of hunters asking, 'Where are all the ducks?' " said Roland.

Wat

erfowling hunting success in Michigan during 2005-2006 will depend on a number of factors. Nesting success is critical because waterfowl hunting in the state relies so heavily on locally reproduced birds. As of this writing, spring nesting conditions were good and there seemed to be an abundance of wetlands and ponds.

Another big variable is weather. Ideally, fall north winds and blustery conditions bring in migrant birds after the local ducks have wised up and head south. But that's up to Mother Nature, and we all know how difficult the weather is to predict. Given the poor hunting Michigan waterfowlers have experienced over the past two seasons, I'm hedging my bet this year. If the ducks don't show up, I plan on spending a lot more time in a tree stand this fall with my bow. And now I've got the arrows!

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