Michigan Duck & Goose Hunting Forecast

Michigan Duck & Goose Hunting Forecast

While mallard numbers may be down this fall, the geese are still plentiful. You can enjoy some fine days afield if you know where to go. We'll tell you.

By Mike Gnatkowski

Michigan's waterfowl hunting basically goes the way local mallard and resident giant Canada goose populations go.

As much as 85 percent of the ducks harvested in Michigan originate in our state and the neighboring providence of Ontario. Michigan's goose harvest relies heavily on homegrown Canada geese. After decades of an increasing population of resident giant Canada geese the population seems to have stabilized at about 250,000 breeding geese. The population provides more than enough geese to produce excellent hunting for Michigan goose hunting fanatics.

The same cannot be said for Michigan mallards. While mallards account for nearly 50 percent of the waterfowl harvest in Michigan, their numbers have been on a gradual decline. Michigan breeding-waterfowl surveys have revealed a decline in mallard numbers each year since 1998. Just between 1998 and 2002 a decline of 35 percent, from 445,000 to 291,000 mallards, has been observed. And while hunters enjoyed longer seasons and an abundance of birds during the 1990s, that is all about to change.

"We had a slightly better season last year than we have the last few years," claimed Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist Greg Soulliere, "but there are definitely fewer ducks now than there were in the 1990s."

For Michigan hunters, the fact that mallard numbers are 40 percent below what they were less than a decade ago is disturbing. Soulliere said that while there are a number of factors that affect mallard numbers, harvest by hunting is one of the biggest.

"We're trying to learn more about the influence of hunting on bird populations," said Soulliere, "but the fact is that mallards are subjected to 25 to 30 percent mortality due to hunting."

Take a couple of youngsters waterfowl hunting this fall to get them hooked on the sport. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Other factors, such as lower water levels and the drought conditions that have gripped the prairie pothole region, undoubtedly are responsible for the decline in the overall waterfowl population. Some of the increase in mallard mortality is due to the longer seasons Michigan waterfowlers have enjoyed since 1997. The 2001 and 2002 mallard population estimates were the lowest since the spring survey has been conducted in Michigan.

"The mid-continent population of mallards determines the hunting seasons from Alaska to Michigan and Ohio," noted Soulliere. "Even though Michigan is in the far eastern portion of the mid-continent zone, mallard populations across the prairies are used to set waterfowl seasons and bag limits. Basically, it's how many mallards there are and how many ponds are being used that determine how the seasons are set."

With the Great Lakes mallard population in a long-term decline and breeding mallards absent from many ponds in the region, the 2003 season is likely to reflect the decline.

"I think we're probably looking at a 30- or 45-day season," said Soulliere as this was being prepared, before season dates had been established.

Bag limits are likely to be lower, too. Michigan has been doing its part in recent years by only allowing one hen mallard in the daily bag limit instead of the two offered by federal regulations.

A three-year Great Lakes mallard study being undertaken by Ducks Unlimited and natural resource agencies surrounding the Great Lakes hopefully will provide some answers as to why mallard populations continue to decline. The study, being headed up by DU biologist Becky Walling and graduate student Brandon Reishus in Michigan, involves three study sites - one in Mecosta County near the Haymarsh State Game Area, one in northeast Ohio and one near Hudson, Wis.

The biologists at the study sites are to each capture 60 mallard hens that will be implanted with transmitters that will help them locate nests to determine habitat use, nest success and predation. Initial findings have been surprising. "Nesting success is better than we expected," claimed Reishus. They hope to determine what level of production is necessary to sustain the Great Lakes mallard population while taking into account factors such as brood success, nesting success, hen survival and the lack of effort by hens to re-nest. Walling said that just 30 years ago the mallard population was made up of a ratio of two juvenile birds to every adult duck. The ratio has now dropped to 1.5:1. Why isn't clear. Hopefully, this study can provide some answers.

Michigan's resident population of giant Canada geese continues to be a bright spot.

"The last few years the spring breeding population of giant Canada geese has been right around 200,000 to 250,000 birds," said Soulliere. "The population seems to be leveling off after decades of increase. Part of that is due to the fact that since 1997-98 we've seen an increase in the number of goose hunters from 35,000 to 50,000 and they've become more efficient at harvesting geese."

Soulliere added that Michigan has been able to tailor goose seasons to better target populations of giant Canadas.

"By focusing on Michigan's giant Canadas we've been able to maximize the season days," declared Soulliere. "We still overharvest migratory geese according to the federal guidelines, but there are still enough resident geese to provide excellent hunting."

Soulliere said that there are still areas that are off-limits to hunting, like southeast Michigan's Oakland County, that have burgeoning populations of geese. In a strange twist, alternative controls to limit goose populations have led to increased hunting opportunities. Volunteers have been shaking or oiling eggs so they don't hatch. Once the geese realize that the nest is unsuccessful they begin a molt migration that takes them to James Bay for the summer and they return in mid-September. Geese that would normally stay within the friendly confines of Oakland County are then subject to hunting during their migration. Geese that don't migrate exhibit a 95 percent survival rate vs. a 75 percent survival rate for those that migrate. Hunters remove many of those geese from the population.

Just about any farm pond, inland lake or river can be a haven for giant Canada geese. Hotspots for hunting geese abound, especially during the September early goose season and to a lesser extent during the late goose season that begins in January. With continued high populations of resident geese, hunters can look forward to excellent hunting during the Sept. 1-15 early season in the Lower Peninsula and the Sept. 1-10 season in the Uppe

r Peninsula. Success during the regular late September to early October regular goose season is likely to be highly variable. Waterfowlers who concentrate on molt migrants and resident geese are likely to enjoy the best success. Harvest during the January/February late season is very weather-dependent.

"The managed areas account for about 10 percent of the hunting effort across the state and about 10 percent of the harvest," claimed Soulliere.

"The water levels have been a real problem at the managed areas around Saginaw Bay in recent years," noted wildlife biologist Barb Lercel, who works out of the DNR's St. Charles field office. "It's been difficult to flood the managed areas, but last season we got a break with some favorable winds and things went fairly well."

Lercel lamented that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is predicting that lake levels may reach record low levels this year. As of early May, too much water might be the problem. Heavy spring rains have saturated the fields surrounding Saginaw Bay, which might make it difficult to plant food crops and cover.

Lercel said that wildlife personnel were in the process of flying spring breeding survey routes in early May. Lercel said she saw no reason why waterfowl populations shouldn't be comparable to last year and that water levels seemed to be improved around the bay.

Overall, waterfowlers enjoyed a good season at the managed areas around Saginaw Bay in 2002.

"The season started out at a record pace," stated Lercel. "We had great hunting in October. Hunting slowed dramatically toward the end of the season when things froze up."

Shiawassee State Game Area had 6,693 hunter-days during the 2002 season, which resulted in a harvest of 9,496 ducks (down slightly from 9,714 in 2001) and 727 geese. Hunters harvested 7,800 ducks at Fish Point Wildlife Area last season, up substantially from the 5,146 recorded in 2001. Fish Point fell well short of its goose quota again last season, when only 653 Canada geese were harvested. Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area bounced back from one of the worst years on record in 2001, when hunters bagged only 3,444 ducks compared to the 5,233 in 2002. Hunters logged 3,322 days in the field at Nayanquing. Only 14 geese were shot last year at the wildlife area.

In general, goose hunting was fair to poor at most of the four goose management units. Recorded harvests at all GMUs were below quota. Harvest totals (and quotas) were 1,471 (2,000) for Saginaw County, 653 (750) for Tuscola/Huron, 1,225 (1,400) for Allegan, and 338 (450) for Muskegon. Geese have been less concentrated in the GMUs in recent years. Where geese find ample food and water, the whole state acts as a refuge once the regular goose season closes.

Several of the managed areas have reserved hunts on the opening weekend of the season and require pre-registration. Hunters can apply for opening-weekend reservations Aug. 1-28 at license agents. Daily drawings are held each morning and afternoon after opening weekend. A $4 daily fee is charged to hunt at the managed areas and daily permits can be purchased at the draw offices. Annual permits can be purchased for $13 at local license dealers. Contact the DNR's Wildlife Division at (517) 373-1263 for maps of specific management areas or contact them on the Web at www.michigan.gov/dnr. Contact numbers for individual management area offices are also printed in the Michigan Waterfowl Hunting Guide.

If you want to try hunting at one of the managed areas surrounding Saginaw Bay, contact the Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-888-229-8696 or on the Web at www.tourbaycitymi.org for information on amenities and accommodations in the area.

The drowned river-mouth lakes, marshes and larger inland lakes in west Michigan usually produce some consistent waterfowling. That wasn't the case in 2002.

"I think the later opener helped with regards to hunting pressure," said avid waterfowler Scott Smith, "but we didn't see the numbers of wood ducks and teal that we normally see in the early season. We did have some great shooting in the farm fields and ponds for mallards. Once the ponds froze, though, they were gone."

Many hunters felt that opening the Middle Zone up to three weeks later than in past years resulted in many early migrating species like blue-winged teal, shovelers and wood ducks moving south before the season opened. A more normal fall caused lakes to freeze up in late November. Diver hunting was a bust as the birds streamed south ahead of bitter cold fronts well before the season ended. For all practical purposes, hunters in the Middle Zone only got to hunt 45 days during the season.

Generally, west Michigan hunters will find decent shooting on drowned river-mouth lakes and marshes at places like Manistee, Pere Marquette, White and Muskegon lakes. Large inland lakes, like Mason County's Hamlin Lake, also provide good sport, particularly for divers. For more details on waterfowling opportunities in west Michigan, contact the Northwest Management Unit in Cadillac at (231) 775-9727. For more details on waterfowling in general, contact the Michigan Duck Hunters Association at (866) 553-DUCK or visit their Web site: www.midha.org.

Wildlife biologist Rex Ainslie echoed what most hunters found in the eastern U.P. last season.

"Personally, I had a pretty good season," said Ainslie. "There seemed to be a lot of birds around. After the opening weekend zoo it got pretty slow, but later in the season things really picked up."

Ainslie said he found some exceptional mixed-bag hunting on Munuscong Bay once the crowds left.

"We saw a lot of ringnecks, redheads, green-winged teal and mallards and an unusual number of black ducks," observed Ainslie. "Normally we'd bag three or four, sometimes five different species. The variety made it fun."

Ainslie said that good numbers of divers showed up in late October. Early season found plenty of local birds around, and decent amounts of water. Overall, Ainslie characterized the 2002 season in the eastern U.P. as average.

"Munuscong Bay is the focal point for waterfowling up here," said Ainslie, "but there is a lot of shoreline along the Great Lakes that is open to hunting and we're acquiring more every year."

Ainslie said the entire shoreline from St. Ignace to De Tour is prime waterfowl habitat and offers excellent freelance opportunities. Famous waterfowling destinations like Potagannissing Bay, Drummond Island, St. Martin Bay and the Les Cheneaux Islands still produce good shooting at times.

"Waiska Bay near Brimley at times is very good," suggested Ainslie. "It's open to north winds, which tend to move the birds."

There are hundreds of small lakes and beaver ponds that are havens for waterfowl, too.

"Once the birds get pressured they just move inland to some of the smaller inland lakes and ponds," said Ainslie. "Waterfowlers will

ing to do their homework can find some great hunting."

For more details on waterfowling destinations in the eastern U.P., contact the Eastern U.P. Management Unit at (906) 293-5131. For information on lodging, accommodations and resorts that cater to hunters, contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3301 or on the Web at www.saultstemarie.com.

"Geese have been the big thing in recent years," said wildlife biologist Craig Albright, who works out of the Escanaba field office. "The geese nest right along the Lake Michigan shoreline or on the small lakes and beaver ponds in the area. Both the early and regular season can be especially good if you can get permission to hunt some of the farms farther inland."

Like most places, the number of resident giant Canadas has been expanding across the central and western U.P. One area that draws both migratory and resident geese is the Baraga Plains near Baraga. Expansive rye fields there draw birds that roost on the sloughs of the Sturgeon River. The area sees little hunting pressure and can produce hot action.

"We just don't see a tremendous number of ducks," admitted Craig Albright. "We're not really in any migration route or flyway, but there is some decent shooting in places like the Portage Marsh, on the impoundments of the Escanaba and Menominee rivers, and other places."

Albright said some of the best shooting is right after the season opens, when wood ducks and ringnecks are the most plentiful. Several of the other larger impoundments in the western U.P., like Michigammee, Peavy and others, offer decent shooting at times for both puddlers and divers, and little competition.

Rivers in the central and western U.P. can provide excellent float-hunting opportunities. Water levels in the fall often determine how successful it can be.

For more information on waterfowling opportunities in the western U.P., contact the Western Upper Peninsula Management Unit in Crystal Falls at (906) 875-6622.

Get those decoys painted and start working with your retriever. Waterfowl season is just around the corner. Expect to see fewer mallards, lower limits and shorter seasons this fall, but at least you still get to go enjoy a day afield.

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