Michigan's Duck & Goose Forecast

Michigan's Duck & Goose Forecast

Waterfowl hunting in our state the last few years was a lot like going on a blind date — you never knew what would show up. But there is hope on the horizon for this fall.

There are a lot of isolated places in the U.P. where hunters will find exceptional hunting and uncrowded conditions. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

By Mike Gnatkowski

Waterfowl hunting in Michigan the last few falls has been like going on a blind date. There's a lot of anticipation, eagerness and excitement beforehand, but when the big day finally arrives, it's usually a major letdown. The 2003-2004 waterfowl season wasn't much different, particularly for ducks.

Part of the problem is that waterfowl surveys and forecasts are based on the mid-continent waterfowl populations and pothole counts. Michigan waterfowl hunters tend to get all excited when they hear that the number of potholes are up in the prairies and breeding waterfowl numbers are sky-high, and the fall flight should be exceptional. It's like expecting to rendezvous with a gorgeous supermodel on your blind date, and you end up meeting her ugly stepsister. Michigan's waterfowl seasons in recent years, and often blind dates, just haven't lived up to everyone's expectations.

"My personal observations," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources wetlands specialist Greg Soulliere, "is that I'm seeing a noticeable increase in the number of local ducks. Now the local perspective sometimes doesn't jive with the state surveys, but I think there's reason to believe that there will be a few more ducks around this fall. But the surveys will tell us more."

Biologists were conducting their annual spring breeding surveys as this was being written, and ample snow this past winter combined with an exceptionally wet spring are reasons for guarded optimism.

Declining numbers of Michigan's No. 1 duck species - mallards - continue to be a major concern.

"Prior to 1998, we were experiencing an average of 2 percent annual increase in the mallard population based on results of our spring waterfowl survey," said Soulliere. "Since then we have seen an average decline of 13 percent in the mallard population every year."

Researchers are trying to find out whether the mallard decline is a result of poor recruitment, hunting mortality or a combination of factors. In 1998, biologists estimated that there were 567,000 breeding mallards in Michigan. That number slipped to 294,000 mallards during the 2003 spring survey.

Hunting mortality is a major contributing factor in the mallard decline.

"The fact is that mallards from Michigan are subjected to a 30 percent mortality rate," claimed Soulliere. "Michigan's mallard harvest rate is three times that of birds raised in the mid-continent prairie."

It is theorized that one of the big factors in mallard mortality in Michigan is the fact the hunters have enjoyed longer seasons in recent years, and higher harvests are a result. Michigan waterfowlers have enjoyed a 60-day season since 1997. Coincidentally, that was right about the time when mallard populations in Michigan started their precipitous decline.

Michigan also adopted season guidelines in recent years that allowed for multiple opening days. "Opening days are important," said Soulliere. "A lot of the mallard harvest occurs on opening day, and when you have multiple opening days and longer seasons, mallard harvest is going to increase."

The vast majority of mallards that Michigan hunters see pass in front of their guns are home-grown within our state or in the neighboring province of Ontario. Because of this, Michigan doesn't normally experience the "boom or bust" populations that are often common in the prairie states.

One bright spot for Michigan waterfowlers is Canada geese. Michigan's Canada goose harvest is made up of three separate populations. Approximately 70 percent of the harvest is made up of resident giant Canada geese. Another 30 percent come from the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP), and the remainder of the birds harvested come from the James Bay Population (JBP).

"We're very close to our population goals for the resident giant Canada geese," said Soulliere. "The population now stands at right around 200,000 to 250,000 birds. The early and late seasons have done a good job in controlling the number of resident giant Canada geese. Our goal in recent seasons has been to provide some overlap between the duck and goose seasons."

Soulliere said that Michigan typically harvests in excess of 100,000 Canadas, and that figure will probably be higher for 2003 because of expanded opportunities for migratory MVP geese. Michigan typically ranks in the top five or six states in terms of Canada goose harvest. The majority of the MVP population migrates through the Upper Peninsula and down the western half of Michigan. Hunters last year were offered a regular season that went from Sept. 20 through Oct. 12 and from Dec. 13 to Dec. 19. The increased hunting opportunities in the MVP Unit were a big hit with Michigan waterfowlers. Hopes are that the same type of season will be offered this year. For more information on licenses and waterfowl stamp requirements, hunting rules, managed waterfowl areas, hunting zones and dates, go to the DNR Web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Most Michiganders don't associate the western U.P. with waterfowl hunting. Granted, the area is more famous for big bucks and grouse, but you can find some pretty decent waterfowling if you look for it.

"There are about a dozen or so wildlife floodings that are maintained for waterfowl that produce some pretty good hunting," said wildlife biologist Bob Doepker. Doepker mentioned the Hancock Creek Flooding, Blomgren's Marsh, the Net River Flooding in Baraga County and the Walton River Flooding in Menominee County that includes Hayward and North lakes. There are plenty of others. For more information, contact the DNR's Marquette field office at (906) 228-6561.

Doepker said waterfowlers will find great sport and little competition by concentrating on small- to moderate-sized streams for jump-shooting. "There are a lot of beaver ponds and streams that guys walk to and jump-shoot," said Doepker. "They're particularly good early in the season when there's wood ducks around."

About the only way to find these out-of-the-way places is to pull out your county maps and GPS and to go scouting. There are also some excellent float-hunting opportunities in the region on some of the bigger rivers, like the Sturgeon and Manistique.

"Canada geese are probably the most underutilized opportunity for waterfowling in this area," suggested Doepker. Doepker s

aid there are a lot of resident giant Canada geese and migratory birds that flock into harvested fields. "There's a limited amount of agriculture, so when you find a good field, it can be a real bonanza." Finding the fields takes time and a courteous request, but Doepker said that most of the time polite hunters can get permission. One famous venue for field hunting is the Baraga Plains in Baraga County. For information, contact the Western Upper Management Unit of the DNR in Crystal Falls at (906) 875-6622. For information on lodging and amenities, contact the Western Upper Peninsula Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 932-4850 or online at www.westernup.com.

"The central U.P. is not on a major flyway," said wildlife biologist Craig Albright, "but we have a lot of Great Lakes shoreline that provides some pretty good shooting at times."

Albright said that lower water levels in recent years have made for better hunting as vegetation has grown up in places that were once underwater. The new habitat is good for ducks and hunters. Albright said that for some reason the abundance of habitat has really benefited teal numbers. Albright said that anywhere along the Lake Michigan shoreline between Escanaba to Menominee where new vegetation is emerging can be a hotspot. Pay particular attention to where rivers and streams enter the big lake. Sediment entering the lake there promotes the growth of vegetation. Places like the head of Little Bay de Noc where several rivers dump into the bay can be very good for a mixed bag of puddlers and divers. Try off the mouths of the Days, Whitefish, Ford and Cedar rivers. Albright said that many hunters just pull into a clump of cattails and do very well. The Portage Marsh, though very popular, typically produces some good early-season shooting for a mixed bag of ducks.

"The giant Canada goose hunting has been great in recent years," offered Albright. "The geese are nesting on the shorelines, beaver ponds, just about everywhere. The early season has been particularly good." Albright said a key to scoring in the early season is to locate early-harvested wheat and barley fields, which are a big draw. Those who take the time to scout and get permission can enjoy some great field shooting just off the big lake.

Albright said that there was plenty of water this spring, and with the abundance of new habitat for breeding, he expects to see increased numbers of birds come opening day. For more information, contact the Escanaba field office of the DNR at (906) 786-2351. For information on lodging and other amenities, contact the Delta County Tourism & Convention Bureau at (906) 786-2192 or online at www.deltami.org.

The eastern U.P. is a waterfowling mecca, with famous venues like Potagannissing Bay, Munuscong Bay, Drummond Island, St. Martin Bay and the Les Cheneaux Islands. The area draws its fair share of waterfowl and hunters.

"Last season started out fairly quiet, but wound up being pretty good," said wildlife biologist Rex Ainslie, who works out of the Sault Ste. Marie office of the DNR. "I was amazed at the variety of species of birds we saw. We didn't see any mallards until late in the season, but the hunting remained good right up until deer season."

Munuscong Bay and its surrounding marshes are famous for their big flight of ring-necked ducks and a lot of opening-weekend hunters. "We had good flights of ringnecks," said Ainslie. Once the opening-day hoopla died down, the ducks resumed their normal patterns and hunters enjoyed good shooting. Pressure often drives ducks inland, and hunters willing to do a little scouting and legwork can find some secluded honeyholes. There are many lakes and beaver ponds that become duck havens.

Ainslie said that the low water levels have been a godsend. "What fantastic habitat has been created," echoed Ainslie. "When the water levels return, the habitat should be excellent. The lower water levels have made access difficult, but in the long run, it's going to be a good thing."

Like most places, hunting for giant Canada geese is excellent in the eastern U.P. "Goose hunting has been outstanding in the hayfields," said Ainslie. "You need to scout. The same fields aren't good every year, so you need to get out and contact the farmers to get permission to hunt. Most of them are pretty cooperative."

For more information, contact the Sault Ste. Marie field office at (906) 635-5281. For information on facilities, contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3301 or online at www.saultstemarie.com.

The managed waterfowl areas surrounding Saginaw Bay account for approximately 10 percent of the hunting effort around our state and about 10 percent of the harvest. According to wildlife biologist Barb Lercel, hunters had mixed results at the managed areas in 2003. "I would say overall we did really well," declared Lercel. "We had some weather that moved in some major migrations of birds at the right time. Things froze up early, especially at Nayanquing, but it was a good season."

Hunters harvested 9,878 ducks at Shiawassee River State Game Area in 2003, compared to 9,670 in 2002. Some 8,198 hunter trips were logged, with most of those hunters traveling from Lansing, Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, Bay City and Detroit. For the fifth consecutive year the goose quota of 2,000 birds was not met for the Saginaw County GMU. Hunters bagged 781 Canada geese at the SRSGA. Low water levels continued to be a problem, which resulted in refuge marshes remaining dry, and caused difficulties flooding fields.

Fish Point hunters killed 8,787 ducks in 2003, which was above the five-year average. Some 5,435 of the birds harvested, or 62 percent, were mallards. The second most common bird in the harvest at Fish Point was the green-winged teal. Hunter trips totaled 7,705 in 2003, which was up from 7,217 in 2002. In direct contrast to the excellent duck hunting at Fish Point, the goose harvest was 9 percent below the five-year average. During 2003, 602 geese were killed, far short of the 750 quota for the area.

"The geese just don't seem to be using the refuge like they used to," said Lercel. "Many times they just roost on the bay and then fly out to the farm fields to feed."

According to refuge manager Don Avers, "The 2003 Canada goose season at Nayanquing Point was a major disappointment." Only 34 hunters participated in the Sept. 1-15 early goose season and the Sept. 20 to Oct. 12 hunt periods. A total of only 35 geese were taken. Duck hunters didn't fare much better at Nayanquing. The 2003 season was the third worst in terms of ducks harvested in the 27 years of managed hunting at Nayanquing Point. Totals for the season were a dismal 3,328 ducks for 3,292 hunter trips.

After an experimental three-year early-goose season in the Saginaw and Huron/Tuscola GMU, there is a proposal to make it a permanent season. Hunting would be allowed from Sept. 1-10 with a five-goose limit.

Low water levels have plagued the managed waterfowl areas the last few years. That might change in 2004. "The rains we've had this spring have delayed farming significantly," claimed Lercel. "We got three or four inches of rain in early May and there was standing water in the fields."

For information on reserved hunts, drawing times and hunting opportunities at the Saginaw Bay managed waterfowl areas, contact the St. Charles field office at (989) 865-6211. Visitors to the Saginaw Bay area can get information on lodging and amenities by contacting the Bay City Convention & Visitor Bureau at 1-800-852-4242 or online at www.tourbaycity.org.

The St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area (SCFWA) is located on the southern tip of St. Clair County. The SCFWA is made up of the Harsens Island unit, the St. Johns Marsh unit and Dickinson Island. The area is very popular with downstate hunters.

"I would say we had an average season at Harsens Island last year," offered wildlife biologist Ernie Kafcas, who works out of the Mt. Clemens Fisheries Research Station. "We harvested over 10,000 ducks, and hunter trips were on par with 2002. Like other places, we're not seeing as many mallards as in past years. Surprisingly, green-winged teal were the second most common birds harvested last year. Usually it's the black duck."

There were 7,747 hunter trips at Harsens Island last year and a harvest of 10,106 birds. Cool, wet spring weather and a dry summer made crop and cover conditions poor at Harsens Island during the 2003 season. Low water levels continued to hurt hunting opportunities in the St. Johns Marsh.

With increased bag limits and longer seasons in recent years, more and more waterfowlers are investing in rigs to hunt the open waters of Lake St. Clair. "The increased bag limit with the news of the thousands of divers on Lake St. Clair has renewed duck hunting interest," said Kafcas. "Recreational boating pressure and hunting pressure appears to have an impact on waterfowl distribution patterns and potential hunting opportunities. The Anchor Bay region of the lake saw very little diver activity, with smaller rafts of mostly scaup situated well offshore for most of the season. Consistent canvasback and redhead usage of shoreline in U.S. waters wasn't observed until the first week in December."

Kafcas said that the best lake hunting success was again during the latter part of October and the first 12 days of November. "Overall, hunting in the open waters of the lake was at best average, with hunting in the marshes of the SCFWA once again being below average," said Kafcas. With increased amounts of water this spring, look for hunting to improve on the St. Johns Marsh this season. Increased hunting pressure and movements of divers to the sanctuary of the middle of Lake St. Clair will continue to affect hunting success there.

For more information on waterfowling in southeast Michigan, contact the Southeast Management Unit of the DNR at (734) 953-0241.

Increased water levels combined with a good nesting season should result in better hunting for Michigan waterfowlers in 2004.

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