By Jerry Pabst
Preparation is always the key to completion of a successful project. In this case, my challenge is to provide waterfowl hunters with information designed to help them plan, and enjoy, a bountiful 2004 duck hunting season in Illinois.
In preparation for this article I have gathered all the materials vital to such an undertaking. Let me take stock of my writing aids: tea leaves, tarot cards, ouija board, astrological charts and the private cell phone numbers of Jean Dixon and Irene Hughes, noted ESP practitioners. Just to cover all the bases, I am writing this piece on a day when my wife is in residence, in case at some point I bump a stump. You see, I married “Miss Right,” and only later learned her first name was “Always.” Just kidding, Honey. And, away we go.
Duck hunting forecasts must, necessarily, anticipate the population of the birds expected to drain down the four North American flyways. In this case, we are mainly concerned with the Mississippi Valley Flyway, in which Illinois is centrally located. Most hunters assume migrating ducks flow south into the Land of Lincoln from breeding grounds in Ontario, through Wisconsin and then into Illinois. Well, it really doesn’t work that way. Actually, what happens each spring, summer and fall in the Central Flyway to the west is the determining factor in whatever success we enjoy here in the Midwest.
The “Great Duck Factory” of this continent lies in the prairies of Saskatchewan, the Dakotas and to a lesser degree, Minnesota. It is there that most of the quackers do their spring thing, and from there each year’s migration stems.
A perfect example of the importance ducks flowing out of the duck factory play in Illinois’ fall hunt occurred in 2002. There were plenty of ducks, according to estimates by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologists, but most of them never reached Illinois, and we had a bust of a season. The culprit in this instance was the wind – the northeast wind to be exact. All through the fall, heavy northeast winds buffeted the region, and quite simply held the ducks west of the Mississippi River. The main migration bypassed Illinois, ruining what had promised to be a productive season.
Under question now are the population estimates concocted each August by the USFWS waterfowl managers. These estimates not only raise hunters’ expectations, but they strongly influence the season lengths and daily bag limits set by USFWS, under the Adaptive Harvest Strategy (AHS) system. AHS sets benchmarks for the populations of the various duck species and the total duck population. If the estimated total population exceeds the highest benchmark, as is did in 2003, liberal season lengths and bag limits – 60 days/six birds – are the result. Should the population drop below the highest mark, yet remain above the lowest mark, moderate season/bag limits – 45 days/five ducks – are implemented. In years when duck production seriously lags, and the estimate of population dips below the lowest benchmark, a conservative set of regulations goes into effect – 30 days/four birds.
Judging the population of each species enables the biologists to protect depleted types of ducks with regulations similar to those now in effect for pintails, canvasbacks, redheads, some teal and bluebills. As years go by, species that recover to suitable abundance will be given less protection, while others experiencing a serious drop in numbers may be helped by restrictive hunting regulations.
It is obvious the part accuracy plays when USFWS managers assess the duck population. A mistake on the side of caution – whereby modified or conservative season lengths and bag limits are implemented, when in fact the true population would support liberal regulations – shortchanges the hunters but does no harm to the resource. Conversely, inadvertent overestimation of the waterfowl population – leading to liberal season regulations – could work to the detriment of the resource.
It must, in fairness to the USFWS waterfowl biologists, be pointed out that counting wild ducks or geese across huge, remote breeding grounds in southern Canada and the Dakotas is an inexact science. Factors that influence this equation are weather, availability of nesting ponds, availability of cover around the nesting sites, number of ducks returning to breed, predation, and last – but not least – financing of the research.
On-the-ground observation is possible to some extent, and weather can be recorded with certainty. But pond availability, available nesting cover and number of ducks attempting to nest are best assessed by aerial observation, and financing plays a critical role in that. Just as our spending must be restricted by our ability to pay the bills, so too must USFWS managers keep their expenses within the constraints of the annual budget allotted to them by the U.S. Congress. Flying airplanes on transects all over the Dakotas, Minnesota and Saskatchewan is expensive. And should visibility deteriorate or weather force the plane back to base and interrupt a flight, well, that is just too bad, and there may not be money in the budget to do it over again. For that reason the biologists are forced to make decisions based on whatever information they were able to glean. Sometimes that’s more, sometimes less. As I said, it is an inexact science.
Rob Olson of Delta Waterfowl’s Bismarck, North Dakota, office knew the biologists had become overly optimistic when a late-winter blizzard dumped 14 inches of wet snow on the dried-up nesting ponds of the Dakotas. At that point, the ponds filled, things looked rosy and the biologists predicted soaring duck populations. Reports of this good fortune cheered hunters across the Midwest, but Olson knew better.
He knew these ponds were shallow, many no more than a few feet deep, and should the long-term drought that had dried them up continue, they would soon be empty again. He also knew the storm had not materially changed the pond count in prairie Canada where most of the nesting occurs. He also knew because of a mild winter and dry spring, many ranchers had already ploughed around the edges of the ponds, destroying any possibility of adequate nesting cover and leaving duck broods in peril of predation from critters.
Further, Olson states that even after the spring blizzard, pond counts were only 5 percent above the long-term average, and by July, pond count in Canada had dropped 16 percent below long-term average.
Bottom line, it appears that the predicted bountiful fall flight of 2003 never happened because the large population of ducks expected did not exist. There were reports that due to mild weather, many ducks wintered in northern states and did not move down the flyway. That
is true, but long-term records show this happens every year. Good hunting in other states occurs when there are enough ducks to go around, in spite of the fact that not all the ducks follow the same route.
Olson maintains there simply were not enough ducks. He backs up this assertion with these facts. During the winter of 2003-04, 50,000 mallards never left South Dakota, but long-term, an average of 172,000 mallards do that. Back in 1999, 154,000 mallards wintered in South Dakota, and in 1997, 530,000 mallards stayed home. Yet states farther down the flyway experienced excellent hunting, because there were plenty of ducks to go around.
“The big fall flight of 2003 did not shortstop,” claims Olson. “It simply didn’t exist in the numbers hunters were led to believe.”
The reasons for declining duck populations, Olson points out, are the loss of grasslands, the fact that wetlands are under siege, and predation, which continues to take a huge bite out of production.
For more information on Delta Waterfowl research, contact Rob Olson at 1-888-987-3695, or visit their Web site at www.deltawaterfowl.org.
At winter’s end, habitat conditions across most of Canada’s critical breeding grounds were good, with normal or better precipitation. If this trend continues, the ducks should find adequate nesting sites.
So, for the most part, duck hunting in Illinois was, at best, spotty last year. Success ranged from decent to indecent, actually. In preparation for this article I queried many duck chasers from one end of Illinois to the other. Some reported little success, but most said they had a few good spurts of hunting, mixed with plenty of empty skies. As I said, spotty.
Duck hunting opened in the North Zone in mid-October, with mostly local ducks in the area. Hunters in the Mississippi River sloughs fared pretty well, while those hunkered in blinds along the Illinois River were mostly working on their tans. This represents a reversal in fortune, since the Illinois River traditionally holds three times as many ducks as does its big brother to the west.
The first big push of birds into Illinois occurred during the first week of December. The birds poured into northern Illinois in advance of severe cold fronts and storms slamming into the Great Plains and Minnesota. Some local hunters in northeast counties reported their best duck hunting in years. It was great while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. Within five days, most of the newcomers had pulled out for southern climes. Weather in the North Zone from mid-November to mid-January remained above normal, with below average moisture in both snow and river soil.
Illinois River duck populations in the Central Zone were 21 percent below average, while the Mississippi River held 16 percent fewer ducks than usual. Freeze-up through the state occurred at relatively normal dates.
In a major snafu, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources honchos – in response to requests from South Zone hunting clubs – opened the duck season later than usual. These clubs, which once concentrated on Canada geese, now are focusing on duck hunting as a way to adjust to the altered state of the goose migration, which finds most of the honkers wintering in the state’s northern tier of counties. Since many ducks are in southern Illinois in early and mid-January, the club operators wanted to be able to offer late-season duck hunts to their customers. Good idea.
So, the DNR bumped the South Zone’s opening date back to allow hunting further into January. But apparently duck managers don’t hunt deer – opening of the South Zone duck season now coincided with the first segment of Illinois’ firearm deer hunt. With many duck hunters, guides and even club owners in the deer woods, the duck opener was sort of lost in the shuffle. No doubt that oversight will be rectified this year.
Some southern Illinois waterfowl clubs are producing eye-popping duck statistics. Colin Cain’s Little Grassy Club, located at the north end of the Union County refuge, bagged over 2,300 ducks last season, and Brown’s Hunting Club, just across Route 3 from Cain’s, also did very well. The Alexander Hunting Club on the north end of the Horseshoe Lake Refuge did very well on ducks, as did Steve Han’s Crab Orchard Hunting Club near Crab Orchard Refuge. As of this writing the final statistics of the South Zone clubs’ duck kill are not available, but many are now targeting ducks, as well as geese, with impressive results.
Many hunters have written off the Southern Illinois Quota Zone as a place that used to be a good area to hunt geese. I can’t argue with that assessment, but I wouldn’t write off the hunting opportunities remaining there. As the ducks flee the frozen ponds and rivers of northern Illinois, they pour into the same refuges that once held hundreds of thousands of Canada geese. Find a club that is now managing at least part of its land for ducks by flooding fields and planting duck-friendly crops, and you can combine some hot duck action with the ever-present chance to bag a few big honkers. For information on the Crab Orchard Refuge area, including clubs, motels, and more, call 1-800-GEESE99.
Most of the commercial goose clubs in the North Zone also offer pretty good duck hunting, both over water and in harvested grain fields. Of course, along with the ducks come outstanding hunts for giant Canada geese. Call around and tell the club operator what type of hunt you are interested in, and chances are, he will be able to suit your needs.
Some of the established clubs in the Northern Quota Zone are: Porter’s Goose Club, (847) 639-8590; Ultimate Waterfowlers, (847) 487-9603; Bob Rosa’s Guide Service, (815) 338-8093; and Brestal’s Waterfowl Adventures, (815) 264-3810. All these clubs offer some pretty good duck hunting close to home. I once enjoyed a duck hunt with Harold Brestal that was as good as any I have had in North Dakota’s duck factory. Every day is different, of course, but there are some great hunting opportunities tucked in among northern Illinois’ bedroom communities.
Central Zone hunters should look to commercial goose clubs to learn if they also offer productive duck hunting. Two that come to mind are the South Wilmington Hunt Club near Braidwood Lake, (815) 237-2556, and Tampico Gun Club, located between a pair of cooling lakes in the Illinois River bottoms, (309) 668-3150.
The state’s 26 public hunting areas fared well in 2003, on average. The 73,162 ducks shot represented a 438 percent increase over 2002, and the 1.01 duck/hunter success ratio was about average. Some of the heavy hitters among the state sites in Region 1 were Anderson Lake, 3,844 ducks; Woodford FWA, 3,952; and Rice Lake, 4,817. Hunters in Region 2 took home 2,543 ducks from Mazonia/Braidwood lakes. In Region 3, Lake Shelbyville produced 799 birds for 486 hunters. Farther south, public hunting in Region 4 went well: Batchtown, 4,419; Calhoun Point, 2,597; Glades, 3,001; Godar-Diamond, 4,196; Horsehoe Lake (Madison County), 2,273; Kaskaskia-Sanganois, 7,202; Sangchris, 1,235; and Stump Lake, 3,984. In Region 5 in southern Illinois, duck hunters scored very well, with Carlyle Lake hunters killing 12,890 ducks while Rend Lake had 7,445.
The Illinois DNR does not maintain a Web site or phone line listing information on duck hunting within our state. However, you can go to their Web site at www.dnr.state.il.us and click on “Hunting.” There you will find site-specific information on all the public hunting areas, as well as phone numbers you can use to contact site personnel to find out how many ducks are using the area and how the hunting has been.
Ongoing monitoring of the use of rotating-wing duck decoys seems to indicate that their effectiveness, although undeniable, poses no great threat to the resource. When first introduced, many waterfowl managers fretted that the newfangled contraption would violate the principle of fair chase and lead to the demise of the species. Well, of course nothing like that happened, and as was suspected, as more of the spinners went into use nationwide, the ducks began to recognize them for what they were.
Most hard-core duck hunters will tell you that the spinners are most effective early in the season when they fool gullible young birds, but as the season progresses, the spinners lose their magic somewhat. In some instances hunters report better success with traditional decoy spreads later in the season.
So after all, it seems the most accurate duck forecast is: if we have a lot of ducks, and they come into Illinois, we’ll have good hunting. If ducks are scarce, or easterly winds push them away from Illinois, hunting will be tough. Either way, they will still call it hunting, not shooting, and it certainly beats working.
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