Michigan's 2008 Waterfowl Outlook

Michigan's 2008 Waterfowl Outlook

Joe Robinson, a waterfowl specialist for the Michigan DNR and an avid hunter, believes 2008 could shape up to be one of the best waterfowl seasons in history. (October 2008)

Joe Robinson (center) and friends wait for birds during the annual youth duck hunt.
Photo by Tracy Breen.

Waterfowl hunting in Michigan hasn't been very successful recently. There are several factors that contribute to the success or failure of a waterfowl season.

Many hunters love to blame a poor duck season on the DNR because they are the ones who control the waterfowl season dates. Many hunters believe the season should open later in the year because warm fall weather has decreased the success of the first few weeks of hunting season.

The spring hatch also influences the season. When water levels are high, mallards, wood ducks and blue-winged teal have plenty of places to build nests and raise a brood. However, when water levels are down, finding good nesting habitats can be difficult, which makes it tough for waterfowl to escape from nest robbers like raccoons.

The number of hunters hunting also plays a role. The more hunters there are, the tougher the hunting can be, especially when bird numbers are down. Even though hunting hasn't been the best, hunters are still out in force. The 2006 waterfowl survey indicated that more than 50,000 hunters pursued waterfowl, pumping $21.7 million into the Michigan economy. Therefore, even though many are dissatisfied with waterfowl hunting in Michigan, they are still hunting and trying to bag a few birds.

In the fall, there are few places in Michigan where the skies are black with ducks like they were decades ago, but Joe Robinson, a waterfowl specialist for the Michigan DNR, believes 2008 could shape up to be one of the best waterfowl seasons in history. Robinson is a biologist and an avid waterfowl hunter. He enjoys the sound of whistling wings in the fall. Every spring, he can be found peering from the window of a small plane flying at treetop level counting waterfowl. He believes that what he saw this spring should result in a great waterfowl season.

"We had a lot of snow in the winter and a fair amount of spring rain," he explained. "These two factors together result in a good spring hatch because there is a lot of water. While flying over key areas, we saw water and waterfowl in areas that have been dry for years. Lots of places that were previously dry had small potholes of water that are perfect for nesting habitat."

The 2007 waterfowl surveys aren't available yet, but Robinson believes he saw better duck numbers than four or five years ago and he expects the numbers to rise.

"I have talked to many duck hunters, and although some believe the hunting could be better, many thought 2007 was a pretty good year for waterfowl hunting. Hunters who invested their time harvested many ducks and it should continue to improve," Robinson explained.

Muskegon hunter Dave Utzinger enjoyed last year's hunting. Many of the local lakes and potholes held a decent amount of water and provided good hunting opportunities.

"The weather has been fairly warm the last few years, which doesn't always help hunting, but as the season progressed, the hunting seemed to pick up," he said. "It was a much better year for ducks and divers. We saw more large rafts of divers in the late season. They can be tough to hunt, but when it works out, they can provide lots of shooting opportunities."

According to Robinson, mallard numbers have been down the last few years.

"Mallard numbers have been down, but our spring survey showed mallard numbers are on the rise," he said. "We don't have all of our data in yet, but in my opinion, mallard numbers are climbing."

Wood ducks are another species that waterfowl hunters enjoy hunting. They are pretty and plentiful most years. This year should be great for harvesting wood ducks. In fact, the numbers are so good that Robinson believes they may have to increase the bag limit.

"I think many things have helped contribute to the increase of wood ducks. Having lots of water and flooded timber has helped. A lot of marshes and wooded areas near marshes and wetlands are growing up, which is perfect habitat for wood ducks. Building and placing wood duck boxes around marshes and ponds is something many waterfowl hunters and school age kids like to do. When there is an abundance of water and an abundance of places for them to nest, wood ducks are going to thrive. Since wood duck numbers are so high, we are considering increasing the daily bag limit on wood ducks to three," Robinson noted.

The blue-winged teal is another favorite of Michigan duck hunters. Increased water conditions have improved blue-winged teal numbers and 2008 could be a great year for them as well.

"We have seen an increase in the number of blue-winged teal around this year, but we never know what numbers will be harvested," Robinson said. "For several years, warm temperatures in the early season produced high harvest numbers. When it is cold, the numbers are lower because the ducks head south quickly. When the weather is warm during the youth hunt, the kids can have a blast harvesting a lot of blue-winged teal. They are often very abundant during the youth hunt and probably will be this fall."

Diver ducks aren't hunted as much as mallards and wood ducks, but chasing divers can be very enjoyable, and like other duck species, diver numbers are also on the rise.

"We saw an increase in bufflehead numbers last year," Robinson said. "It looks like we will see more buffleheads this year. Buffleheads are often very plentiful and were once the second-most harvested duck in Michigan. Canvasback numbers are also up. Last year, we saw an increase in the daily bag limit from one bird to two birds, which is an encouraging sign."

With duck numbers on the rise, hunters should be happy with what they see in marshes and waterways this fall. Robinson believes waterfowl hunters may have to work for birds and encounter hunters, but says that some of the best places to hunt ducks are often overlooked and underutilized.

"In Michigan, we have some great wildlife management areas, wildlife refuges and state game areas that hold a lot of ducks, especially when water levels are up. Many of these areas don't get hunted very much," Robinson commented.

Robinson believes the Muskegon State Game Area and Muskegon Wastewater will provide great waterfowl hunting for the 2008 season.

"I alw

ays hear duck hunters talk about hunting in places like Arkansas where the flooded timber offers some of the greatest waterfowl hunting there is," he said. "Of course, that is true, but we have some great flooded timber in Muskegon that will offer some great hunting. The Muskegon River runs through much of the state game area and there are lots of small pockets of water that can provide hunters with good shooting. Hunters will often be alone. In the flooded timber, it doesn't take long to get a couple of mallards and a limit of wood ducks."

Utzinger said that with a little work, any hunter should be able to experience good duck hunting in the Muskegon State Game Area in the 2008 waterfowl season.

"Last year, the water was higher than previous years. I found a lot of flooded timber that provided great hunting," he said. "Many of these areas required a hike, but after I returned to the woods off the road, I had the timber to myself. It is not uncommon to locate small potholes that haven't been hunted in years. I can always count on bagging a few birds in the state game area."

To locate prime honeyholes that others overlook, Utzinger regularly utilizes aerial photos and a GPS.

"I get online and use Web sites that offer free aerial photos for the area I am hunting in. After I locate the area on the photo, I zoom in and locate good places to hunt. I use a GPS on these hunts to ensure that I don't get lost, but I can find great hunting without traveling far from home. I agree with Robinson. Lots of winter snow and spring rain should make the Muskegon State Game Area even better than it has been," he added.

To access the area, hunters should park at public access points located on East River Road or Maple Island Road.

Down the road from the State Game Area is the Muskegon Wastewater, which allows duck hunting on a limited basis. To hunt the Wastewater, hunters must participate in an early-morning drawing. According to Utzinger, opening day is the only busy day. After that, there aren't many hunters around.

"The 2007 season at the Wastewater was great. There were only a handful of hunters after opening day that showed up for the drawing and many of them were goose hunters," he said. "My friends and I hunted ducks, so we had pretty good fields to hunt and experienced great success."

For more information about duck hunting at the Muskegon State Game Area or Muskegon Wastewater, call (231) 788-5055.

Hunters should also consider the Shiawassee State Game Area. According to Robinson, it may offer some of the best hunting in the state this season.

"On opening weekend, the Shiawassee State Game Area is fairly busy," he said. "Weekends can be busy in the beginning of the season, but after the first few weeks, the hunting slows down. Many hunters like the drawing system, and it's worth waiting around for because it produces more ducks per hunter than almost any other state game area. I don't expect that to change for the 2008 season."

Those that don't want to participate in the drawing should consider some nearby public land.

"The entire area around Shiawassee should provide great waterfowl hunting this fall," Robinson said. "It often goes unnoticed by hunters. The entire area has everything waterfowl are looking for -- food, water and plenty of places to escape from pressure."

For more information, contact the Shiawassee State Game Area at (989) 865-6211.

Robinson also suggests the Erie State Game Area located in Monroe County in southern Michigan.

"This state game area is made up of 2,600 acres of marsh and should be a great place to hunt waterfowl from boats. There are private hunt clubs nearby that receive a lot of hunting pressure on the weekends. During the week is a great time to hunt outside the private hunting clubs."

For more information, contact the Pointe Mouille field office at (734) 379-9692.

Hunters who want an out-of-the-way place to harvest puddle ducks should consider the Somerset State Game Area in Hillsdale County.

"This place is tucked away and often overlooked by hunters. It's a great place to throw out six or 12 decoys and harvest a few birds."

For more information, contact the Waterloo Wildlife Office at (517) 522-4097.

Since recent Michigan autumns have been very warm, flight ducks haven't always arrived as quickly as many waterfowlers would prefer. Nothing ruins hope for a good day of duck hunting like T-shirt weather does. Robinson and Utzinger agree that serious duck hunters find the late season is often the best time to hunt. Hunters have a better chance of seeing flight birds and divers from the north and will likely encounter fewer hunters.

"For some reason, many hunters focus their efforts on opening weekend and don't hunt much after that," Utzinger said. "With the weather being the way it has been recently, some of my best hunting occurred toward the tail end of the season when most hunters are sitting in a deer stand."

Robinson said with water levels being up this year and duck numbers on the rise, hunting should be good this fall.

"Waterfowl hunting success often depends on weather conditions. If it isn't a cold fall, hunters won't see as many northern birds as they would if there was a lot of cold air coming from the north," he said. "The later into the season, the better chance hunters have of encountering large numbers of flight birds."

Michigan has offered a two-day late season the last several years. Some years when most lakes are frozen over by early January, hunters can harvest ducks by cutting a hole in frozen lakes and hunting next to the hole. Hunters can harvest a few local mallards during this late-season hunt when it's not as cold. Either way, hunting during the late part of the regular season or the two-day late season will give hunters a better chance of harvesting plenty of ducks instead of sitting at home on the couch.

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