Michigan's Waterfowling Forecast

Michigan's Waterfowling Forecast

If the weather cooperates, we should have a pretty good year of duck and goose hunting. Here are some options for you to consider.

With record waterfowl numbers and the longest seasons in decades, you would think that Michigan duck and goose hunters would have enjoyed some spectacular hunting over the past few years.

There have been glimpses and flickers of the type of waterfowling that hunters dream of, but for the most part, waterfowling in Michigan the last few years, including 2001, has not lived up to expectations. Low water levels, mild weather conditions and migrations that never materialized have duck and goose hunting fans wondering: Where are all the birds?

The truth is that in spite of the ups and downs of duck production in the prairies and southern Canada, overall duck numbers have little bearing on Michigan duck populations. The majority of birds that Michigan waterfowlers harvest each year are locally raised, especially with birds like mallards and wood ducks, which make up the bulk of the harvest in Michigan. The exception is diving ducks, which filter through Michigan on their southern migration from the prairies and boreal forests of Ontario and Manitoba.

The one time when exceptional numbers of migrating birds pass through the state is when weather forces the "Great Passage," and in recent years the migrations have been more of a trickle.

"There is no inventory of waterfowl production in Michigan so the number of local ducks produced is hard to predict," said Department of Natural Resources wetlands specialist Greg Soulliere. The majority of Michigan's homegrown mallards and woodies are produced on backyard ponds, floodings and marshes. Soulliere indicated that more than half of the ducks harvested in Michigan are mallards, and their numbers have been on the decline in recent years.

"We saw a gradual increase in mallard numbers around the Great Lakes prior to 1995-96," claimed Soulliere. "Their numbers peaked at around 450,000 birds. Last year we estimated the population to be around 290,000." Soulliere said that the decline in mallard numbers in Michigan has coincided with the longer hunting seasons that waterfowlers have enjoyed in recent years.

Photo by Michael Mauro

"There's little doubt that hunting has had an impact on mallard populations," said Soulliere. He also noted that poor production in '98-'99 and low water conditions may have also contributed to the decline. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, biologists even chose to further limit mallard harvest in Michigan the last few years by opting for a limit of one female mallard vs. the two hen mallards that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed Great Lakes states. More restrictions may be necessary.

"There's talk of a 45-day season," reported Soulliere. "We've had a 60-day season for several years now and it may be time to make some changes. It's unlikely that Michigan would opt for a shorter season than the feds allow." But the fact is that the way local mallard population goes is the way Michigan waterfowling goes.

Local wood duck production has been a bright spot.

"Wood ducks have been on a long-term increase," said Soulliere. "The nesting habitat available for wood ducks has been on the increase and their population has risen dramatically."

Unfortunately, wood duck harvest in Michigan has remained about the same. Wood ducks are early migrants and during some years they are gone before the season opens. The same can be said for blue-winged teal. Their numbers have been steadily increasing, but Michigan waterfowlers don't have the opportunity to shoot very many.

Soulliere said that Michigan's local giant Canada goose population continues to expand.

"Michigan's giant Canada goose population provides an incredible opportunity for waterfowlers," said Soulliere. "The 2002 season will probably mark the first time in Michigan that the Canada goose harvest will likely surpass the mallard harvest."

The Michigan goose harvest is likely to be between 150,000 and 200,000 birds. Of that number, about half the geese are harvested during the early season in September. Approximately 10 percent are killed during the late January-February season, with the balance of the harvest during the regular goose season. Opportunities for migrant geese have been severely limited in recent years due to low numbers of birds in the Mississippi Valley Flyway and James Bay population that migrate through Michigan. Hunters have relied heavily on the local giant Canada goose population to provide sport.

The early September goose season runs Sept. 1-15 in the Lower Peninsula and Sept. 1-10 in the Upper Peninsula. Hotspots can be near golf courses, area lakes, harvested fields and just about anywhere else a resident flock of geese has set up house. Flocks tend to be made up of small family groups, and hunters can get away with just a few dozen decoys during the early season. The geese like to graze on grass or aquatic vegetation, but newly harvested wheat or barley fields are a magnet during the early hunt. Find one and get permission and you're almost guaranteed a great hunt.

Michigan's abbreviated regular season can provide some great shooting.

"Our local giant Canadas undergo a molt migration," Soulliere says. "The molt migration involves non-breeding birds and unsuccessful nesters." These geese fly north late in the spring or early summer to join breeding geese in northern Ontario. They return in mid to late September. Usually this migration coincides with Michigan's regular goose season, providing a fresh supply of new targets. Southeast Michigan waterfowlers also enjoyed a December season last year that ran Dec. 15-23 and targeted southern James Bay geese.

Hunting during Michigan's late goose season is different. The season is restricted to the state's South Zone, extending south of M-20 and excludes Michigan's goose management units. Success depends on weather and requires better calling and more decoys to fool these battle-wise birds. Too much snow and cold weather forces the geese to leave the state. Food and open water for roosting are priorities for these birds, and hunters who scout to find concentrations of geese will have the most success.

The first crack that waterfowlers get at Michigan ducks is during the annual Youth Waterfowl Weekend. Young hunters between 12 and 15 years of age are allowed to hunt during late September prior to the opening of the regular duck season. An adult or guardian must accompany youths. Adults are not allowed to hunt except for early-season Canada geese. Limits and restrictions are the same as during the regular season. It is a great opportunity to g

et kids interested in waterfowl hunting before the ducks have wised up, and to practice your calling and give the retriever some exercise.

Last year during the youth hunt, Kevin Pomorski joined my son, Matt, and me for an early-season hunt. The marsh we hunted is typically jammed with hunters on the opening day of the regular duck season, but we had the place all to ourselves for the special hunt. A steady stream of wood ducks kept the kids busy, and before long the boys had their limit of woodies plus a few bonus mallards and a widgeon. It was great fun. I think I enjoyed it as much as the young hunters.

Michigan's western Upper Peninsula offers waterfowlers some unique hunting opportunities: classic Great Lakes marshes, flooded timber hunting on impoundments, natural lakes, beaver ponds and great float-hunting on several rivers. But few hunters really take advantage of the hunting.

"People around here just aren't that interested in waterfowl," said DNR Crystal Falls wildlife biologist Doug Wagner. "Our hunting up here is pretty short-lived. One good cold front and the birds are gone." But the hunting can be surprisingly good while it lasts.

Wagner indicated that some of the better western U.P. waterfowling venues include the Baraga sloughs of the Sturgeon River. Wagner said that several of the large impoundments, like Michigamme and Peavy, host good numbers of migrating diving ducks. The ducks aren't there long, but when it's good, it can be very good.

"The marshes around Green Bay and the Bays de Noc provide some pretty decent hunting, too," added Wagner. Wagner pointed out that the western U.P. has an abundance of small beaver ponds and floodings that are ideal for jump-shooting.

Like most places in Michigan, there's an abundance of local Canadas in the western U.P.

"The early season can provide some good hunting if you can find the farm fields and the agricultural areas that the geese are using," advised Wagner. Wagner said that the geese use the impoundments that are common in the region to rest on and then fly out to the fields to feed. "The area referred to as the 'Baraga Plains' offers pretty good goose hunting," suggested Wagner. Another hotspot is in the Iron River area.

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

While waterfowling doesn't draw a lot of attention in the western U.P., the same can't be said for the eastern U.P. Hallowed waterfowling destinations like Potagannissing Bay, St. Martin Bay, the Les Cheneaux Islands and Munuscong Bay are synonymous with Michigan waterfowling.

The hunting at these legendary venues has suffered in recent years from hunting pressure. Traditionally, the area hosts huge numbers of ringnecks fresh from the wilds of Canada. A potpourri of diving ducks and puddle ducks usually adds to the mix. With the season opening in the U.P. at the same time as the northern Lower Peninsula, hunters in the eastern U.P. have been seeing less hunting pressure than in recent years and hunting success has improved. Shallow-draft boats equipped with blinds are probably the best way to stay mobile and follow the flight paths of trading birds. Use caution. This is big water, and Michigan's fall weather can change quickly.

For more information on eastern U.P. waterfowling destinations, contact the Eastern U.P. Management Unit at (906) 293-5131.

The water of Saginaw Bay offers Michigan waterfowlers plenty of variety. Freelancers can hunt the open water and marshes of the bay for a hodgepodge of divers and puddle ducks, or they can frequent one of several managed waterfowl areas that surround the bay. Traditionally, the managed areas see in excess of 10 percent of the waterfowling effort in Michigan and an equal proportion of the harvest. Information on hunting Saginaw Bay and other Michigan waterfowling destinations can be had by contacting the Michigan Duck Hunters Association at (866) 553-DUCK or through their Web site: www.midha.org.

Wildlife biologist Barb Lercel, who oversees the managed areas near Saginaw Bay, said planting of crops was progressing well as of June.

"Planting was delayed at most of the managed areas by two weeks because of the wet spring weather, but we've managed to get most of the crops in at Fish Point and Nayanquing," declared Lercel. Lercel said that higher water levels around the bay have biologists optimistic about the upcoming season. "We're in pretty good shape," she said. "The wetlands are in good shape and local waterfowl production should be good." Lercel said that higher water levels (Saginaw Bay is up some 4 to 6 inches) should help refuge managers flood croplands and maintain marshes once hunting season arrives.

The Saginaw Bay managed areas produced mixed hunting success in 2001.

"I would have to say that Shiawassee State Game Area had an average to a little above average season last year," said Lercel. "Fish Point and Nayanquing were definitely below average." She added that hunters enjoyed outstanding gunning during October when blustery weather resulted in excellent hunting conditions and a big influx of new birds. November was a bust. The weather turned warm and the waterfowl migration stopped. Overall during the 2001 season, hunters harvested 9,610 ducks and 637 geese at Shiawassee, 5,146 ducks and 363 geese at Fish Point, and 3,444 ducks and 63 geese at Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area, near Linwood.

"Goose hunting was not very good, especially at Fish Point," said Lercel. "I think the geese are getting smarter. They are feeding more on private lands and then rest in the refuge." The Tuscola/Huron GMU fell far short of its quota of 750 geese. Hunters at Shiawassee and Nayanquing also suffered through a disappointing goose season.

Several of the managed areas have daily drawings at area check stations. A $4 or $13 annual permit fee is charged for use of the areas. The annual $13 permit is accepted at all state areas, and permits may be purchased at check stations. Some early-season hunts are by reservation only. Hunters may apply for reservations Aug. 1-28 at license agents. Managed areas also have special rules regarding shell limits, shot size, hunting party size, etc. Maps of managed areas and lists of special rules are available at check stations or by contacting the DNR's Wildlife Division at (517) 373-1263. Additional information is also available on the Web site, located at www.dnr.state.mi.us. Contact numbers for individual managed waterfowl areas are also printed in the Michigan Waterfowl Hunting Guide.

Hunters who frequented Harsens Island State Game Area and the St. Clair Flats experienced some great hunting in 2001.

"It was a very good season," noted wildlife biologist Ernie Kafcas. "2001 was the second-highest harvest on record at Harsens, but part of that was because of the 60-day season we enjoyed. It was a weird season, though. Hunting in October was good, but hunting slowed considerably in November."

Kafcas said that refuge managers were right on schedule with crop planting this spring at Harsens, and barring an unusually wet spring, he expected there to be good cover and plenty of food for migrating ducks this fall.

Kafcas said that diving duck hunters on Lake St. Clair endured a frustrating season.

"Diver hunting was not very good," lamented Kafcas, "but that wasn't because there weren't any birds around. The mild weather had them rafted up in the middle of the lake and there was a lot of fishing activity because of the mild conditions." Kafcas added that water levels on Lake St. Clair are up some, which should aid hunters in getting to their favorite locations. They should also find better cover and hunting conditions when they get there due to the re-vegetation that has taken place during this prolonged period of low water.

What's the prognosis for Michigan's 2002 waterfowl season? Kafcas said that it depends on three things, "Weather, weather and weather!"

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