Wisconsin's Duck Hunting Forecast

Wisconsin's Duck Hunting Forecast

Hunting for ducks in our state hasn't been up to par the last few years. But if everything comes together just right, 2005 could turn out to be a decent season -- especially if you stay ahead of the game!

Dan Dattilo prepares for the drive home after a successful day on the Mississippi River.
Photo by Dan Small

Most hunters give little thought to ducks until the hunting season rolls around, but the quality of the hunt depends on what happened during the critical six months before the first gunshots echo in the marshes.

Most of the ducks harvested each fall were hatched that same year. State and federal biologists spend the spring and summer estimating populations of breeding ducks, monitoring brood success and then predicting fall flights from those figures. The season length, opening date and bag limit have all been determined by the time you read this, but getting there is a long, involved process.

LAST HUNTING SEASON

As of this writing, harvest estimates were available for 2003, but 2004 results were not yet tallied. Anecdotal reports, however, indicated that hunters across our state were not satisfied with their hunt.

"Last fall, it was pretty quiet across the north," said Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bruce Bacon of Mercer. "Conditions were dry, and some people thought it was a bad season. From what I heard and saw, hunting was slow."

DNR migratory game-bird ecologist Kent Van Horn heard the same complaints in southern Wisconsin, where he said there were plenty of ducks but many were inaccessible to hunters.

"Most hunters I talked to were not happy last fall," Van Horn said. "We had a warm fall. Local birds know where they want to be and don't move around much under those conditions. If they don't get moved around by weather, then there aren't a lot of birds to shoot at."

Van Horn reported seeing ducks on roadside ponds, where they know they are safe from hunters, frequently last fall. Hunters who went to large public hunting areas after opening weekend, however, found them practically devoid of ducks.

I hunted in the annual Crex Invitational Waterfowl Hunt in Burnett County again last October. This invitational event, organized by retired DNR research biologist Jim Evrard of Grantsburg, takes place on the Monday and Tuesday following opening weekend. Mild, calm weather greeted our group, and 17 hunters bagged a total of 21 ducks and two Canada geese in a day and a half of hunting. In 2003, 20 hunters bagged 32 ducks. In 2001 and 2002, 21 hunters bagged 53 and 52 ducks, respectively. This is one small group of hunters, but our experience serves as an index of hunting success in the northwestern part of the state.

Last year's bag was made up mainly of drake mallards, with four ring-necked ducks, two hen mallards and one each of blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and wigeon. Unlike some past years when we had major flowages to ourselves, there were other hunters to contend with at practically every spot we hunted. Still, that was a meager bag for a group of seasoned waterfowlers.

Interference from other hunters is something more and more duck hunters are reporting, according to Van Horn. He attended the Wisconsin Waterfowl Hunters Conference in March, organized by several waterfowl conservation groups, where he conducted a public input session and solicited responses to a series of questions regarding hunting opportunities. Hunters who answered his questionnaire expressed more dissatisfaction with the behavior of other hunters than with the availability of ducks.

"Most of those who talked about a negative hunting experience said things like, 'Other hunters were too close to me,' or 'Pressure was too intense and the birds were burned out,' " said Van Horn. "That should raise our eyebrows. The question becomes one of managing people, not managing ducks."

Van Horn has launched an ambitious process to develop a strategic plan for managing waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. A migratory game-bird committee, with representatives from state and federal agencies and waterfowl groups, was formed last winter. In addition to hunter opportunity and experience, participants at the March Waterfowl Hunters Conference were asked to provide input on regulations, recruitment and retention of hunters, public and private land management, and funding and licenses. What they came up with can be viewed at

www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/uppermiss/index.html.

Public open houses were scheduled around the state during the week of June 6 to seek additional information from waterfowl hunters on issues, desires and strategies for waterfowl management. Van Horn planned to introduce some new ideas to hunters at these meetings, including some managed hunts, similar to those conducted in other states but never used here in Wisconsin.

"On balance, we are producing ducks and making new habitat," Van Horn said. "But hunters are still saying, 'I'm not coming home with birds in the bag.' One of the issues we need to look at is hunter pressure. With managed hunts on certain wildlife areas, we might be able to improve the quality of the hunt and allow people to see and shoot at more ducks."

Van Horn will mail surveys to a random selection of several thousand waterfowl hunters after this season, then use all the information gathered to draft a strategic plan that will be presented at next year's Waterfowl Hunters Conference, then revised and presented for public review. A final draft will then be presented to the Natural Resources Board by next summer.

Managing ducks and duck hunters is especially challenging because hunters in different parts of the state want different things.

"We have about 75,000 very enthusiastic waterfowl hunters in Wisconsin," Van Horn said. "But they have very different interests. Those who hunt northern marshes want a different season framework from those who hunt southern marshes, and those who hunt canvasbacks on the Mississippi differ from those who hunt scaup on Green Bay."

During the 2003 season, Wisconsin hunters bagged an estimated 677,400 ducks, up from 529,000 in 2002. Of those, mallards led the list with 252,042 in the bag, followed by wood ducks with 123,965. Green-winged teal were next with 75,201, followed by buffleheads with 38,188 and blue-winged teal with 32,313. About 70,000 duck hunters spent an estimated 468,200 hunter days afield in 2003 and 462,800 in 2002. For a downloadable report of the 2004 harvest, you can log on to

www.fws.gov. For current information on conditions in the prairies, log on to Ducks Un

limited's Web site at

www.ducks.org.

SPRING SURVEY

Each spring, biologists survey habitat and count waterfowl as part of a survey conducted throughout North America. The Wisconsin survey is conducted on 66 east-west transects throughout our state. The transects are 30 miles long and 1/4-mile wide. Aerial crews of two observers and a pilot fly each transect once, and ground crews of two observers check segments of most of the flown transects within the next day or two. The survey -- conducted annually since 1973 -- has provided long-term data used to estimate duck populations and to set seasons and bag limits.

Survey results separate mallards, blue-winged teal, wood ducks and Canada geese. All other ducks observed are pooled into a category of "other ducks." In 2004, for the first time since the survey began, wood duck numbers had increased to the point where they could be separated from the "other duck" pool. This means that the spring survey can now provide independent breeding population estimates for the three duck species produced in the state that constitute the majority of Wisconsin's fall harvest.

This year's survey data was done but still in raw form as of this writing. Allison Oberc, assistant migratory game-bird ecologist who gathers reports from the field biologists, said her impression from looking at the raw data was that nesting pairs were down from last year. The observers I spoke with all concurred that conditions were very dry this past spring, which is not the way you want to start a duck-nesting season.

Bruce Bacon and Chris Cold flew the northern half of the state May 9-12 with retired DNR pilot Larry Waskow, who returned as a limited-term employee to pilot the plane for the 18th year. Some of the federal pilots have flown the same transects for 30 years, Bacon said, which assures consistency in the routes.

"There were fewer temporary wetlands this year," Bacon said. "They are important as pairing ponds, and they provide invertebrates that help fatten up both drakes and hens. Marshes in some of the bigger complexes, like Crex Meadows, were also drier this year."

Bacon said there was plenty of snow in the north, but when it melted, it soaked into the ground, so some basins that would normally fill up did not do so. Even so, mallard numbers looked to be about average, he said.

"In a normal year, we'll see more migrants like goldeneyes and buffleheads, which nest farther north," Bacon said. "But this year we didn't see many of them."

DNR wildlife biologist Tom Bahti -- who has participated in the ground-truthing portion of the spring surveys in Manitowoc, Brown and Outagamie counties for the past 26 years -- said conditions were drier than normal this year in the northeast.

DNR wildlife technician Carrie Milestone, stationed at Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock, flew the southern route for the sixth year, with Waskow as pilot and Brian Glenzinski as her co-observer. She reported seeing fewer temporary wetlands, too.

"Duck numbers seemed about average," Milestone said. "We also saw more paired teal this year than last."

Van Horn reports that the prairie states -- the Dakotas and northern Minnesota -- were also dry this spring, but that conditions were a little better in the prairie provinces of Canada. He warned hunters not to put too much stock in western or northern ducks, however, because more than half of the harvest in Wisconsin is made up of ducks produced in our state or nearby. Local mallard numbers have doubled over the past 30 years, he points out, but blue-winged teal numbers have declined by about 60 percent over that same period.

Over the long term, total duck numbers have increased, led by mallards and wood ducks. Population estimates are most valuable when viewed over several years as an indicator of population trends rather than viewing them as exact measures of population on a year-to-year basis. The 2004 population estimate for total ducks was 651,493, which was 58 percent higher than the long-term mean and 22 percent higher than 2003. The mallard population estimate of 229,174 was 32 percent higher than the long-term mean and 12 percent lower than 2003. The survey caught blue-winged teal in migration, which means most of the birds counted were in large groups that were heading farther north. The estimate of 81 percent above the long-term mean and 137 percent above the 2003 estimate was not an accurate indication of local teal numbers. Wood ducks came in at 114,550, or 69 percent of the long-term mean and 4 percent above 2003.

DUCK NEST RESEARCH

DNR research biologist Ron Gatti conducts surveys designed to measure duck productivity and nesting success. Gatti is currently evaluating the comparative productivity of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land and public grasslands. This spring, his crew counted mallard and blue-winged teal nests on 2,200 acres in southeastern Columbia County on six public properties and 30 private parcels in CRP. Gatti said it appears CRP is more productive than public grasslands, but he needs another year of data before he can be sure.

"This is the heart of the duck abundance range in Wisconsin," Gatti said. "We want to find out if CRP is helping the ducks in their primary range."

Gatti points out that budget cuts and the shifting of DNR focus to combating chronic wasting disease have resulted in less management on public grasslands. Managers have not been able to spend as much time fighting the encroachment of woody vegetation with burning and cutting.

"We're finding fewer duck nests this year, perhaps because there are more saplings," Gatti said. "Fields that are clear of trees have good numbers of duck nests, however."

Gatti is currently working to raise funds for a three-year radio-telemetry study to begin in 2006 designed to determine why blue-winged teal numbers are declining in Wisconsin and not elsewhere. Blue-wings were the most abundant breeding duck in the state as recently as 30 years ago, but their numbers have declined steadily over that period. Gatti has secured federal funding, but there is no state money available for required matching grants, so he has appealed for funds to groups like Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, Safari Club International and "every little waterfowl group and club" he can find. The DNR's Website has a page that describes the proposed study at

www.dnr.wi.gov/

FALL HUNTING PROSPECTS

Kent Van Horn has a few thoughts about duck hunting. Duck hunter numbers have been stable for the past 25 years, he points out, but today's hunters face different challenges than waterfowlers of a generation ago.

"Because there are so many other things going on in our lives, I think people aren't scouting and spending time 'out there' as they did in past years," Van Horn said. "When they go to hunt, they go to a large, established area that concentrates hunters instead of going to smaller out-of-the-way places where there might be more ducks."

If you want good duck hunting, Van Horn said, you must pay attention to three variables: water, scouting and weather.

"Fall water is critical to keeping ducks around," he pointed out. "And the right weather will move new ducks down from the north. The people who have the time and make the effort to scout will find ducks. Some years it's easier, and some years it's harder."

Extrapolating from Van Horn's remarks, the wise hunter will scout out hidden marshes, potholes and backwaters that other hunters either ignore or don't know about. These places are often located quite close to heavily hunted public hunting grounds, but they act as havens for ducks once the shooting starts. If you can locate them and hunt them with discretion, you should be able to stay "in the game" throughout the season.

So it was on the Mississippi River last year and in recent years for hunters who shied away from the pressured spots and sought out backwaters that held birds. So it was on Lake Michigan for layout hunters who worked divers in feeding areas and left them alone on roosting grounds. So it was for hunters who floated meandering rivers that skirted the big marshes. So it can be for you, too, if you take the time to find new places -- or rediscover forgotten old favorites!

(Editor's note: The author's video, Field to Feast, Waterfowl contains information on duck and goose hunting, field dressing and several delicious recipes. Order online at

www.dansmalloutdoors.com, or send $19.95, plus $4.50 shipping, to Outdoor Videos, Dept. GF 10, P.O. Box 433, Grafton, WI 53024. Wisconsin residents should add 5 percent state and appropriate county sales tax where required).

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