Our Late-Season Waterfowling

Minnesota duck and goose hunters who don't quit until the seasons are over are a hardy bunch, and their efforts are well rewarded.

By Noel Vick

As duck hunters, if we listened to every word and doomsday forecast that came from the lips of the experts, well, we'd never again toss decoys in the darkness, share a son's or daughter's first-ever knockdown, hear the buzzing of hundreds of invisible wings or sit on the porch of the cabin with a beverage after the day's ducks have been plucked and cleaned.

It's true that duck hunting in Minnesota pales in comparison to the heydays. Guns don't blaze like they used to, even compared to periods as near as the 1970s and early '80s. Vital habitat has been lost to everything from self-centered farming practices to the insatiable greed of developers. And that's just here in the North Star State. Farther north, in those places rarely seen but widely reported about, like Canada's tundra, bluebill and pintail populations have collapsed, and canvasbacks and redheads struggle to leave the breeding grounds with two new ducks for every pair that arrived.

Extrapolating on the grimness of it all, in the hallowed prairie pothole region, fractured plates of mud rest where waterfowl once swam and procreated. Late-breaking rains, however, did replenish a number of puddles in the nick of time for nesting.

That most recent nugget of good news inaugurates a string of upsides, hopefully, foreshadowing the future. Blue-winged and green-winged teal numbers are up. Although that cognizance won't improve your late-season hunting because those birds have already flown south, it casts a positive ray and might get you thinking about hitting the sloughs early next season. Likewise, wood duck numbers are in uncharted territory. Our beloved mallards, too, are keeping pace with inflation. Late season introduces a bevy of greenhead opportunities.

From the diver camps, ringnecks have essentially replaced the bluebills in volume, although not in the hearts and minds of hunters. Let ringnecks into your life and you'll likely get over the dearth of bluebills - at least until there's a bluebill recovery. Pencil in a flock of goldeneyes, buffleheads and hooded mergansers, and hope still floats. According to my visual scouting analyses over the past three seasons, I'd say each of the aforementioned is on the upgrade.

Finally, there's the often-overlooked goose. Giant Canada geese are waterfowl, too. Sure, they eat Wonder Bread, lounge on the 18th green and litter the dock with stool samples. Those character flaws, however, don't alter the fact that "dark geese" are abundant, tasty when grilled slowly over real charcoal, and make for an awesome target when called into BBB range.

Heck, with volume in mind, why not capitalize on the situation. Move geese to the front of the line. Statistically, Department of Natural Resources goose specialist Steve Maxon can't argue either. "Populations are up," he said. Statewide, the giant Canada goose population is estimated at 375,000. The metro area alone harbors 20,000 birds.

Adaptability and hardiness are what put giant Canada geese on the map. Their capacity to adapt to boundless environmental conditions has opened their range. Inversely, a need for precise surroundings and breeding habitat has impeded other species, like the divers. Seemingly, geese fare as well on urban lakes as they do on remote wild rice sloughs.

Hardiness means longevity. That is longevity in terms of hanging around late into the fall, perhaps winter. Freezing rain buffered by a cruel wind sends just about everything packing. Not geese, however. Some will blow, but you almost need webbed-foot freezing ice before a goose knows it's a snowbird.

Goldeneyes usually provide some good late-season hunting in Minnesota. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

That said, there is a hierarchy of hotbeds. All goose haunts aren't created equal. Maxon said west-central Minnesota is the premier goose hunting region. On a mental map he swaths an area that includes Appleton, Fergus Falls and Glenwood. That's goose-shooting nirvana. Ideal terrain is largely to credit, too. Maxon says there is less drainage and more breeding habitat. Rolling hills protect and promote lowland potholes. And, once birds are old enough to dig into grains and seeds, there's plenty to go around. A litany of rivers, streams and sizable bodies of water help secure shooting opportunities.

Next in line is central Minnesota, including the likes of Hutchinson, St. Cloud and even Cambridge to the east, according to Maxon. Again, water is copious, and the lakes and ponds are less susceptible to parchedness due to the undulating lay of the land.

As far as sleeper cells go, Maxon suggests probing forested country to the north and northeast. Geese have expanded their range through most of Minnesota, including wooded lakes and rivers where they're far less pressured by hunters. Pairs and modest flocks inhabit virtually every lake and pond heading north. But with math and magnitude in mind, you might want to earmark some of the larger tracts, such as Leech Lake, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnibigoshish and Cass Lake.

Goose hunting ordinarily remains strong through the end of the conventional season. As long as there's food and open water available, resident birds will linger, joined by replacement troops from the north. Some of the newcomers are Eastern Prairie Population (EPP) geese descending from northern Manitoba. Trouble is that the EPP birds are in trouble. Production is way down. Consequently, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) might cancel the hallowed December goose hunt in specified parts of western Minnesota. Check the Minnesota DNR Web site for up-to-date regulations and restrictions at www.dnr.state.mn.us.

Our special early and late hunts were designed to crop and control an exploding population of resident giant Canada geese. And, as a byproduct, they provide us with another fix of gunning. In the real world, on a real field or lake, it's generally possible to tell the difference between an EPP bird and a commoner. First off, EPP birds seldom cut very deeply into the state, sticking to the western parts. Secondly, they don't arrive until the season gets cranking, after getting blown out of Canada. Lastly, they're dinky by comparison. According to Maxon, the average EPP goose goes 6 to 9 pounds. This is in contrast to a giant Canada goose that averages 9 to 12 pounds. And that 14-pound goose you bagged last November might have been 20 years old!

Late-season ducking is all about timing. Timing the weather. Timing the flights. And timing your schedule. The average waterfowler opens with a bang. The group - the usual suspects - convenes at the same lake, farm pond or flowage every season. The stately shoreline point or windless backwater is pre-determined. You've been going there for years - your Grandpa hunted

there. Hunting neighbors know where you set up, too. They've ordained and frequent other spots, respecting your space. Collectively, each and every one trusts there won't be any spoilers, either. A newbie is someone who doesn't know the spot's tradition, or worse yet, refuses to honor it. It only takes one ignorant hunter to ruin the day for everyone.

Fortunately for our gang, only the scheduled cast gathered, including the ducks. At noon, gunfire erupted followed by the tranquil wake of a triumphant retriever returning to the blind. It goes on like this for the entire weekend. Easy ducks. In fact, there's only a marginal letdown during the season's second week. No sitting ducks, but they would still decoy. But as it has in the past, the third week introduces a change. There are far fewer ducks overall, and those that do emerge are skittish, clipping the horizon line and evidently repelled by the decoys.

It goes on like this. The middle parts of October are a bust. Local birds are departed or gun-shy, and the northern troops are yet to arrive. By this time, frustration and impending disinterest have kept the dog kenneled and decoys bagged. Sitting in a tree stand, eating Snickers and watching obnoxious squirrels is starting to sound good. Is the rifle sighted in yet?

That's the turning point, time to catch yourself and not fall into the dark hole - the poor me syndrome. You're on the cusp of the year's best waterfowling, the late flight. Massive squadrons of full-figured dabblers and divers penetrating our state. No, they don't stream downward on a fixed schedule, either. It'll take some doing to get 'em.

DNR waterfowl staff specialist Steve Cordts knows what it takes. He tracks ducks for a living. From the cockpit of an airplane, Cordts soars atop known and probable waterfowl habitat doing headcounts. In the fall, Cordts flies high and conducts weekly surveys. His tabulations are complemented by ground counts, and the results are posted on the DNR Web site. Said reports provide duck numbers by species, habitat conditions and historical comparisons. Cordts says that a hunter can eliminate unproductive zones and learn about new, viable territory by simply tracking the site.

The spring surveys, which occupy most of May, are designed to calculate the health of our resident breeding population. Resident ducks comprise the majority of birds killed each year, including those taken late in the season, so nesting numbers are always relevant.

The aerial surveys have been conducted for 30 years, and they sample approximately 40 percent of our state - the finest breeding locations. And overall, the 2004 survey revealed a stable duck population. Cordts said that mallards were up, numbering some 375,000 birds. In fact, Minnesota's mallard population has floated above the 300,000 mark in nine of the past 10 years. Blue-winged teal, although a memory by late season, are surging as well, numbering somewhere around 350,000. Wood ducks, ringnecks and gadwalls get lumped into a collection that numbers 280,000, which is up from 2003.

The duck hunting world revolves around mallards, but the most interesting species as it relates to middle- and late-season shooting might be the ringneck. They're a bit of an enigma so far as computing goes, but one thing's for sure, I'm seeing more and more of them on the ponds. Cordts says ringnecks are difficult to count because they nest in wooded sections in Ontario and Manitoba, therefore shrouding themselves from aerial surveys. However, Cordts and his associates have noticed an upsurge in ringneck activity on the refuges during hunting season, especially to the east.

The late-season mallard is another story. Show a greenhead a picked cornfield and open water out west or south, and you have a long-term guest. Western Minnesota swells with mallards. Residents merge with migratory relatives as they converge on freshly cut cornfields for as long as there's water to land in afterward. The key is finding a stubble field in proximity of open water, be it a river or lake that's not quite ready to freeze. Odds are you'll spy a few geese while you're at it, too.

Mallards, ringnecks and geese are no doubt welcomed at the blind. But what really trips the dedicated late-season waterfowler is a swarm of divers. Bluebills are unquestionably the most coveted and abundant species of diver, but their numbers are slipping. Cordts says many theories exist as to why, but none involve excessive harvest. Research goes on in the boreal forests of northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to find a solution.

On the upside, numbers of buffleheads, goldeneyes and hooded mergansers - late-arriving divers - are steady to rising. Cordts says that each is a "cavity nester," meaning they nest in trees, making them hard to count. But bags from hunters seem to substantiate that their numbers are good.

The continental canvasback population is sound - 500,000 to 600,000 birds - but unfortunately, pintail numbers continue to tumble. Cordts says that the current population of pintails is 40 percent below the long-term average. Their physical state, like bluebills, is currently under investigation.

Those are the players. Now where to go? Personally, I'm a big-water boy. Give me a bag of freshly repainted decoys bobbing off an island on a lake like Leech and I'm happy, no matter the weather. Bigger is usually better the later the season gets. The small stuff ices over, and all that's left is big and deep lakes or flowing rivers.

So finding something that's open is a starting point, but not the endgame. Late-holding residents and migratory divers need serious sustenance to endure the cold and fortify for farther travel. Cordts says to find bodies of water with tons of mollusks - shelled critters - and other freshwater invertebrates. Thriving underwater greens and fields of wild rice are other clues to the whereabouts of birds.

As said earlier, north-central Minnesota's Leech Lake is a must-stop outpost for divers. Expert Brian Brosdahl suggests setting up shop in Boy Bay, Sucker Bay, Waboose Bay, Walker Bay Narrows or Steamboat Bay. Neighboring Lake Winnibigoshish offers more than walleyes and perch, too. It's a legitimate diver destination. Brosdahl recommends scouting Third River Flowage and attached Sugar Lake and Cutfoot Sioux Lake. While in the neighborhood, you might as well explore the Cass Lake area. According to Brosdahl, late divers frequent Buck Lake, Kitchie Lake, and Little and Big Rice lakes.

Other home runs in the region are Puposky Lake north of Bemidji, Bowstring Lake, Squaw Lake, Boy River, Lake Inguadonna, and multiple stops along the Mississippi River.

To Brosdahl's list, add the lower reaches of the Mississippi River. From Hastings on down to the Iowa border lie endless sections of huntable water, many of which attract migrating birds. Cordts, in fact, noted that late-season hunters fared exceptionally well along the river in 2003.

Besides the Mississippi, Cordts likes your chances on Swan Lake near New Ulm and Heron Lake near Worthington. Both are known for holding birds until the bitter end.

Over and above having a legitimate spot, it's all about timing. Weeks

can go by with flightless skies if summer rekindles. Watch the weather, specifically the Canadian weather. Web sites like www.weatherunderground.com let you dial in the future. Know when they're coming and where to go. Just dress for the conditions and you'll start caring less about deer hunting again.

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