Our state's waterfowlers enjoyed a good season in 2006, and this year should be even better. (October 2007)
Michigan hunters who put in a little extra effort can find good shooting for wood ducks.
There's a silver lining in every cloud. While Michigan waterfowlers and biologists have been lamenting the low water conditions across the Great Lakes the last decade, there were some positives about having less water.
Lower water levels allowed vegetation to grow and habitat conditions to improve drastically. Cattails and other native plants have flourished with the lower water levels, and as a result have created habitat where there once was none or there hasn't been any for years. Marshes rejuvenated, recharged and expanded, and now that water levels are on the increase, duck numbers have responded -- especially mallards. Michigan waterfowlers enjoyed a good season in 2006, and early indications are that this year should be even better.
"Early indications from the spring waterfowl survey are encouraging," said Rose Lake Wildlife Research Station research biologist Dave Luukkonen. "Mallards showed an increase this spring to 293,000 birds, up from 208,000 in 2006. The last time we had similar numbers was back in 2003. Typically, spring mallard populations track water levels and lag behind by a year. Mallard numbers are now at the level we would expect, given the current water conditions. The last time we had good water conditions was in 1998, and we saw a large increase in mallard numbers then, too."
Most of the increase in mallard numbers was observed in southern Michigan where the majority of our state's mallards nest. During a typical year, more than 50 percent of the mallards killed by our state's hunters are ducks from the Great Lakes Region -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and southern Ontario.
However, Luukkonen cautioned that the increase in mallard numbers may not be as substantial as one may think.
"Last year's survey was very late," he said. "The leaves were already out in the Upper Peninsula, so that might have accounted somewhat for the lower numbers."
Figures would indicate that there were more mallards around in 2006 than the spring count suggested. Federal harvest estimates indicate that Michigan hunters killed more than 135,000 mallards of the 284,000 ducks harvested in Michigan. Wood ducks were the second-most common in the bag at 32,000, and green-winged teal were third.
In this year's spring survey, wood ducks were up slightly in the southern Lower Peninsula, down in the northern Lower Peninsula and up in the U.P. Luukkonen cautioned that trends or estimates are very hard to predict with wood ducks. Wood ducks often inhabit small out-of-the-way ponds, so they can be difficult to spot and count. Because of this, biologists use what is called a "visibility correction factor" to account for birds they can't see and to provide more accurate counts of waterfowl abundance.
One oddity in the spring survey this year was a large population estimate for ring-necked ducks, which numbered more than 107,000 for the entire state. Researchers try to conduct the surveys just before leaf-out when the visibility is best, and after migratory birds have moved through. Apparently, there were quite a few ringnecks that hadn't made their way north yet. This year, the survey took place in mid- to late April in the southern Lower Peninsula and in early May in the U.P.
Overall, Michigan waterfowlers enjoyed better hunting in 2006 than in previous years. "I heard it was a very good season in 2006, particularly on the managed areas," Luukkonen said.
The marshes and managed areas around Saginaw Bay are popular with waterfowlers from Bay City, Saginaw, Midland, Flint and venues across the state. After several sub-par years in a row, waterfowlers on Saginaw Bay enjoyed good hunting in 2006. More than 25 percent of the waterfowl harvest and hunting effort takes place at the managed waterfowl areas.
"All of the managed areas reported duck harvests higher than the last two years and above the five-year average," stated wildlife biologist Barb Avers, who works out of the St. Charles field office. "Mallards again dominated the harvest. At Nayanquing Point, mallard harvest was back up over 2,000 for the first time since 2002. Both Shiawassee and Fish Point reported higher refuge counts throughout the season as compared to the last few years."
Low water levels continue to hamper operations at the managed areas, according to Avers. "The very low Lake Huron water levels again hindered pumping activities on Saginaw Bay," Avers said. "Fish Point and Nayanquing Point didn't have some fields flooded until the third week of the season due to pumping problems."
The 2,477-acre Fish Point Wildlife Area is located three miles northwest of Unionville and is very popular with hunters. The habitat there consists of marshlands and flooded croplands that attract thousands of waterfowl in the fall. In recent years, weather extremes have limited crop production and cover at the managed areas.
"Spring and summer weather proved to be almost perfect," Fish Point wildlife biologist Tim Gierman said about the 2006 season. "The corn crop was planted by mid-May and buckwheat by mid-June. These crops produced good food and cover everywhere except the north field."
With ample food and cover, hunting was excellent at Fish Point in 2006, and early indications are that planting was on schedule this year. But weather is always a factor in waterfowling success.
"The month of October had a series of northerly storm systems that produced excellent hunting," Gierman said. "As the season progressed into November, the weather got milder and there were only a few days of good duck hunting the rest of the season."
Population estimates showed upward of 20,000 ducks using the Fish Point refuge from Oct. 16-27. Fish Point waterfowlers logged 7,447 hunter trips, up from 6,285 in 2005, and killed 8,624 ducks compared with 5,297 in 2005. The ducks per hunter average of 1.16 was the best in the last five years. The 2006 harvest was slightly better than the five-year average of 7,360. Mallards made up 56 percent of the kill, accounting for 4,868 birds. Green-winged teal and black ducks were the second and third most commonly harvested birds.
Even with a December closing, waters remained open throughout the season, and good numbers of divers remained through November on popular venues like Portage, Manistee, Hamlin and Pere Marquette lakes.
In giving an overview of the season at Fish Point, Gierman said, "Food and cover were abundant everywhere except zones 20-32. This, combined with perfect weather in October, made for good hunter success. Opening one week earlier and no ice forming late in the year also helped push up success and harvest numbers. Throughout November, hunter success decreased and greater numbers of birds fed in private fields. A bit of snowy weather in December caused things to pick up some at the very end."
For information on waterfowl hunting opportunities at Fish Point Wildlife Area, call (989) 674-2511.
Located three miles north of Linwood, Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area has been offering managed waterfowl hunting for 31 years. The area is extremely popular with hunters from the Tri-Cities area. The area encompasses 1,505 acres of diked agricultural units, marsh and uplands. Like other managed waterfowl units, Nayanquing Point had great crop production and cover in 2006, higher duck numbers and harvest, and better than average hunting.
"Mallards began staging the first week in October after the Middle Zone waterfowl season opened, and peaked at the Oct. 13 refuge count (4,800)," said Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area manager Don Avers. "The most ducks observed was the Oct. 22 refuge count (7,950), with good numbers of widgeon, mallards and green-winged teal in the area. The largest noticeable migration of ducks and swans into and out of the Saginaw Bay area was during a nine-day period from Oct. 27 to Nov. 4."
Overall, hunters logged 3,259 trips and killed 3,685 ducks, which is slightly above the five-year average at Nayanquing. Avers pointed out that hunting success was much better during the first half of the season. During the first 30 days of the season at Nayanquing, hunters dropped 2,700 ducks in 2,154 trips. The last 30 days of the season produced only 974 ducks for 1,097 days of hunting. Obviously, the harvest figures were indicative of the great waterfowling weather and bird numbers during the early season and unusually mild conditions in November and early December.
According to Nayanquing's Avers, "Mallards dominated the harvest with 58 percent of the total kill. Mallard harvest was back up over 2,000 for the first time since 2002. Shovelers were down significantly from a 30-year high of 125 in 2005 to 24 in 2006. A 30-year record low number of only 27 blue-winged teal were shot in 2006. Widgeon numbers were up significantly to 156, the highest number since 1988."
For more information on hunting opportunities at Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area, call (989) 697-5101.
The 9,758-acre Shiawassee River State Game Area 10 miles southwest of Saginaw continued to be one of the most popular managed waterfowl areas in the state in 2006. Unlike other managed areas, which enjoyed near-perfect growing conditions, SRSGA didn't fare quite as well. "Last year proved to be a trying year at Shiawassee," lamented Victor Weigold, area wildlife technician. Crops failed or flooded, dikes broke and pumps were a major headache at Shiawassee last year. However, in spite of the problems, hunters enjoyed a good season, and the prospects for 2007 are much better.
"The refuge appeared to hold good numbers of mallards prior to the flooding of the cropped units," Weigold said. "As flooding began in preparation for the waterfowl season, the number of waterfowl using the area increased. It was estimated that 15,000 waterfowl were using the SRSGA just prior to opening day (the greatest number of birds observed on the area in a few years). At times, birds using the entire area probably peaked at between 15,000 and 20,000."
Higher bird numbers translated into better hunting success. Duck harvest at SRSGA in 2006 reached 10,594 compared with 7,480 in 2005. Hunters logged slightly more trips in 2006 (7,312) compared with 2005 (6,613). The duck kill per hunter per trip last season of 1.44 was the highest in the last five seasons.
"The hunting conditions at SRSGA were good during the 2006 season," Weigold said. "Overall, the crops were good despite a few spots with poor cover for concealing hunters. The water levels in the different zones were adequate for most of the season. Numerous hunters reported that the season was one of the best -- if not the best -- that they had experienced."
For information on the Shiawassee River State Game Area, call (989) 865-6211.
Hunting success on the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant depends on weather and moisture like everywhere else.
"Duck numbers were less concentrated due to improved water conditions on the Kalamazoo, Grand and Muskegon river systems," biologist Nic Kalejs said. "As a result, MWWTP duck survey numbers fell by about 50 percent. Good numbers of woodies were using the Ottawa Marsh system and the Muskegon River bottoms. Duck use was also up on the Allegan Farm Unit. Mild December weather kept the ducks more dispersed than usual. Overall, duck numbers were noticeably above the 2005 levels."
For information on waterfowling opportunities at the MWWTP and nearby, call the Muskegon State Game Area at (231) 788-5055.
Hunters who freelance on the marshes, drowned river mouths and impoundments found in western Michigan found decent hunting last year.
"There seemed to be a few more birds around," avid waterfowler Mike Smith said. "There was a lot of different kinds of ducks around at different times of the year, too. Heck, we shot a couple of bluebills on opening day!"
Smith said local mallard numbers appeared to be lower than in previous years, and concentrations of flight mallards never seemed to materialize while the season was open. Higher than normal numbers of widgeon, gadwalls and teal helped pick up some of the slack. Even with a December closing, waters remained open throughout the season, and good numbers of divers remained through November on popular venues like Portage, Manistee, Hamlin and Pere Marquette lakes. With Great Lakes water levels up slightly over previous years, hunters found access slightly easier, and plenty of cover.
Waterfowlers had mixed results in southeastern Michigan's waterfowling meccas.
"Pre-season staging activity on the St. Clair Flats Wildlife Area was average, but slightly better than in 2005, with good numbers of mallards and green-winged teal and fewer wood ducks," said Mt. Clemens Fisheries Research Station wildlife biologist Ernie Kafcas. "Good steady migration activity was recorded in October and early November. Mallards trickled down from early October into early November, with peak numbers recorded in early November." Overall, Kafcas characterized the hunting as "an average opener that was slightly better than last season."
On Lake St. Clair, there were plenty of birds, but they were difficult to hunt.
"Diver distribution was quite a bit different from 2005, with a very inconsistent U.S. water distribution pattern," Kafcas observed. "Except for about a 10-day period in late October to early November, divers were largely absent from the Anchor
Bay region. Large late-season rafts seemed to form earlier and were visible well offshore. Overall, bluebill, redhead and canvasback numbers were down from last season. Bufflehead harvest was up dramatically from 2005 and was a large portion of the bag."
Kafcas said the buildup of waterfowl was in full swing by the latter part of October. Good numbers of redheads -- down from 2005 -- and canvasbacks -- up from 2005 -- started showing up in late October, with peak diver numbers recorded in mid-November. Bluebill numbers were down from 2005. Buffleheads appeared on the lake earlier than usual and excellent numbers were recorded from late October through Thanksgiving.
Hunters on Harsens Island Managed Waterfowl Area enjoyed a great season in 2006.
"October was a very good month," Kafcas said. "The opening was average; however, the remainder of October was above average. Duck harvest was highest in October and early November, and the last three days of the season. Harvest figures were the second highest recorded (14,191), with more pintails, widgeon, gadwalls and green-winged teal." Although the number of migratory ducks was lower than normal, peak numbers topped 35,000 on Nov. 8.
For information on waterfowling opportunities in southeast Michigan, call (586) 465-4771.
A combination of milder weather and less competition made for good hunting in the eastern U.P.
"I had no complaints," said Citizens Waterfowl Advisory Committee member James Bailey, who hunts near his Drummond Island home. "Opening the northern and middle zones at the same time is a good thing." Bailey said hunting pressure was manageable with the combined opener and kept the birds around a little longer. "We had some good diver hunting later in the season. There were a lot of buffleheads, goldeneyes and oldsquaws."
Bailey said reports from other hunters were good.
"I heard there were quite a few ringnecks on Munuscong when the season opened," he said. "There was excellent hunting on Lake George on the St. Marys all season long."
* * *
What will the 2007 duck season hold? Early indications are that it will be even better than 2006.