Minnesota's Duck Hunting Forecast

Minnesota's Duck Hunting Forecast

If you have a love for duck hunting, your heart was probably busted up like a clay pigeon last fall. Maybe you'll be able to make amends this season.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

Paul Sawyer is one of those modern duck hunters who prefer to move from location to location and follow the migration rather than sit in one place waiting for the ducks to come to him. But as modern as he may be, Sawyer still loves tradition, and he was very dismayed last year when his favorite locations yielded very few ducks compared to years past.

Some of the words Sawyer used to describe the current duck hunting situation in Minnesota are not suitable for print in this magazine, though when cleaned up, his personal forecast is fair to crappy.

"I've been privileged enough to travel all around the world to duck hunt, so I don't know if my expectations have changed that much, but it just seems to me that there are less ducks out there," Sawyer said.

Sawyer is the president of Knock'm Down Productions, which recently released its first waterfowling video with considerable critical acclaim. The video titled "Stranglehold" highlights the life of the traveling waterfowl hunter and shows him and the rest of the crew waterfowl hunting all over the country. Even as an accomplished and experienced duck hunter, Sawyer still waxes nostalgically for his days as a kid in the swamps of Carlos Avery.

"I remember hunting with my Dad and it being awesome with a sky full of ducks," he recounted. "We didn't always get our limit of three but we were never skunked, which seems to happen more and more now in Minnesota."

Sawyer spent his 2004 opening weekend in south-central Minnesota near Owatonna on a familiar location where he traditionally had good opening-day wood duck and teal action.

"This spot was so good in the past that two of our guys slept there overnight camped out in their waders to make sure nobody took the spot," said Sawyer. "Imagine our disappointment when we only ended up with half a dozen ducks all day."

What strikes him most about that hunt was the total lack of ducks in the area.

"To not even have the wood ducks whizzing around was goofy, though we had a nice time sitting in the weeds," he said.

His next duck hunt was at the end of October on Thief Lake in northwest Minnesota going after ringnecks.

"A lot of people don't know it, but divers are calendar migrators, and if you get to them on the five days they are going, you'll do just fine," Sawyer said. He and the rest of the video team hunted Leech Lake for divers in mid-November chasing goldeneyes and ringnecks for two weeks with some luck, including the occasional bluebill, which were far and few between.

Sawyer and many other Minnesota duck hunters have a chip on their shoulders right now, and rightly so. A lackluster 2004 season led to a public outcry that culminated in a very well attended "Rally for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water" back in April. Over 5,000 people attended the rally to help raise awareness and express their support for better management of the state's wetlands and duck population.

Unfortunately, it didn't translate to a great deal of accomplishment in the state Legislature. Still, many observers are optimistic that change is forthcoming.

"The rally was a great thing, and I was pleased to see all that energy and attention because public outcry will make things change for the better," said Jeff Lawrence, wetland wildlife group leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The goal of the rally was to spur action to reverse the long-term decline in Minnesota's duck populations, wetland habitats and waterways. Energy was high at the rally, and a lot of people made some bold promises, but only time will tell if those words will translate to more ducks in the sky in seasons to come. Either way, the chances are that the migration of 2005 could be one of the smallest of all time.

All that needs to be swept aside for now. The Oct. 1 duck opener is here. Duck hunters are going to have to swallow the fact that they will most likely see fewer birds than they can remember, and they will have to work harder than they can remember to locate those ducks.

One solution is to avoid the duck blind this season, but for Sawyer and others, that is an impossible alternative. The cold bite in the air, cutting rain, leaky waders, whining dog and smell of the marsh or field is just too good to miss no matter how many ducks may make a visit to the decoys. Knock that chip off our shoulder and focus on the job at hand. There might be less of them, but there still are ducks to be had out there!

Some of the only good news for duck hunters is the Saturday, Oct. 1 opening day for the hunt. Waterfowl opinion surveys conducted by the DNR revealed that hunters prefer an earlier time period.

CHECKING THE NUMBERS

In 2003, Minnesota duck hunters harvested 884,000 birds, down from 944,000 in 2002. The mallard harvest rose but the blue-winged teal, bluebill and ring-necked duck harvests each declined that year.

The number of midcontinent mallards in 2004 was 8.36 million, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) once again offered the 60-day season with a six-duck limit. Information on the harvest numbers from 2004 as well as the specific survey information for 2005 have been released by the USFWS and can be found online at www.fws.gov or at

www.dnr.state.mn.us.

"The 2004 season got off to a good beginning with a flurry of activity but we didn't get a lot of birds coming back into the area, which is a function of poor wetlands in the Dakotas and prairie Canada," said Rex Johnson, leader of the habitat and population evaluation team for the USFWS regional office in Fergus Falls.

Johnson said Minnesota's wetland conditions were particularly good in 2004 but there were a small number of birds and good habitat, thus making them hard for hunters to locate.

"I know some people who had excellent seasons, but by and large, people had a tough time finding birds," he said.

Johnson was able to get out himself last year and shot his standard 20 to 25 birds, though he admits he was unable to hunt as much as he used to or would like to.

"I think the key to killing waterfowl in a state like Minnesota is by really putting in the effort by scouting,

knocking on doors, asking for permission and finding those wetlands where the ducks are holding," Johnson said.

Lawrence said the tough season was partially due to habitat issues and other things that have accumulated over the last 100 years. The other part of the problem was less than ideal weather conditions. He expects the 2005 harvest to be down but does not think it will be a record low.

"It was a tough season in the Mississippi Flyway last season north to south, though some areas like Missouri had good duck hunting seasons last year," said John Devney, senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl. He agrees that the downward trend will continue this year but urged duck hunters to check the USFWS data released this past summer.

"That is the best data available and is pretty widely regarded as the best wildlife survey done in the world," he said.

One of the folks out collecting data is Steve Cordts, a Minnesota DNR waterfowl staff specialist. He said a major frustration of his is that the numbers that are released over the summer are based on reports completed in mid-May.

"There's a big gap of time between then and October, and local habitat conditions can change, as can duck numbers," he said.

The weather is also an ever-changing difficult-to-predict factor as well.

"Our mallards and blue-winged teal are the more abundant, but teal are such an early migrant that they could go before the opener if there are a few September cold snaps," Cordts said.


The report is based on field observations by area wildlife biologists and managers, and is usually posted Thursday afternoon each week. Cordts even takes to the air himself to do a weekly count when the weather allows it. The report offers a very area-specific report regarding the condition of the habitat, weather conditions, migrations/observations and hunter activity/success.
 

Cordts was able to get out last year and admittedly did all right, though he said it wasn't a great year.

"I got lucky in a few places by hunting some non-traditional areas I hadn't hunted before," he said.

He said he understands hunters' frustrations and realizes that most hunters had lackluster seasons, but reminded folks that those who did well are probably keeping their mouths quiet to avoid alerting others to their choice areas.

"You probably are not going to find very many birds on the same lake or wildlife area you've hunted for the last 30 years," Cordts said.

Sawyer echoed those comments about being versatile and willing to move around. He also encouraged hunters to consider going after divers more than puddle ducks.

"If your mainstay is greenheads, woodies and teal like most of us, you should try switching to blind-hunting for divers because that's the best we have right now in Minnesota," Sawyer said.

Moving around is easy to say, but Sawyer said his experience with this in Minnesota is tougher than in other locations.

"We have 125,000 duck hunters in this state with very limited resources, and most landowners seem to have a grandson, neighbor or buddy who hunts on their land. Finding a place can be difficult but still worthwhile," Sawyer said.

ONLINE HUNTING

Cordts said he will once again compile and post a weekly Minnesota Waterfowl Migration and Hunting Report on the DNR's Web site. The report is based on field observations by area wildlife biologists and managers, and is usually posted Thursday afternoon each week. Cordts even takes to the air himself to do a weekly count when the weather allows it. The report offers a very area-specific report regarding the condition of the habitat, weather conditions, migrations/observations and hunter activity/success. It can be found at

www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/waterfowl.

"I'd encourage hunters to take a look through it because it can give them a good feel for how things are going at the time," he said.

Another very effective online tool for duck hunters can be found at

www.waterfowler.com. The site offers a GIS real-time migration mapping system that features reports provided by over 100,000 waterfowlers. Anybody can file a report as long as they pledge to be accurate and provide regular information.

Hunters who access www.waterfowler.com can choose from six different maps and read the specifics of each report. The map averages the input from all participants and updates every 15 minutes. The map is purged of data at midnight each night. Sawyer said he highly recommends www.waterfowler.com as a comprehensive clearinghouse of information.

Lawrence agreed but was a bit more reserved in his recommendation.

"Some of their information is more current than what we are doing but you still need to interpret it with some caution," said Lawrence. He said hunters should keep in mind the information posted is done by individuals and not agencies that have more accountability. "It is still a very useful tool, just as long as you remember that those who are doing very well probably aren't going to post it right away," he added.

One of the problems with both of those Web sites is they tell you what happened, not what is going to happen. Careful observers can interpret what's going to happen, but the best tools are found at www.weather.com or at

www.weather.gov. Watching the weather for wind direction and movements of fronts are keys to duck hunting.

Sawyer said mallards will stay as long as they can drink, and that a really deep snow actually hurts more than super-cold conditions. "In the northeastern portion you can hunt warm-water sloughs no matter how cold it is because the greenheads have enough food and water," he said.

STAY ETHICAL & LEGAL

Shooting a banded duck is quite a privilege, but it requires some follow-up work by the hunter, including calling 1-800-327-BAND or going online to

www.pwrc.usgs.goc/bbl. An operator will ask for the band number, how, when and where the bird was recovered. In return, not only do you get to keep the band, you will receive a Certificate of Appreciation with information about the bird. Doing so also helps duck managers because they can determine harvest rates, populations, and health and migration patterns.

Resident waterfowl hunters over age 16 must have a valid Minnesota Waterfowl Stamp signed across the face, a valid federal Migratory Bir

d Hunting Conservation Stamp signed in ink across the face, proof of Minnesota HIP registration and an eligible license such as a small-game license. Check the regulations for prices and information on HIP certification.

Some of the more common violations include having more than three shells in the shotgun at one time, possessing toxic shot, having an overlimit of an individual species, improper licensing and wanton waste. To avoid the last one, waterfowlers need to make sure their shotgun has been properly patterned, that they are taking shots within range, and that they make an effort to retrieve all downed waterfowl. One of the ways to help protect the population of ducks is to avoid wanton waste. Studies with trained observers reveal that hunters wound and lose as much as 30 percent of the birds they shoot at. Translate that to the number of hunters on the continent and you end up losing 3 million ducks each year.

A good hunter always reads the regulations each season, and this is especially true for duck hunters who have some of the most rapidly changing regulations out there. Be sure to pick up or download a copy of the DNR's 2005 Waterfowl Hunting Regulations booklet.

Happy hunting!

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