What's Up With Ducks?

What's Up With Ducks?

Waterfowl season's on approach, so now's the time to start planning winter duck hunts. Here's what you need to know to prepare for the action. (October 2007)

Sitting in his duck blind one Saturday morning last winter, Jerry Garner came to the realization that everything that he'd read, Googled, heard and learned in over 30 years of waterfowl hunting in Mississippi wasn't worth much.

"It was my third straight miserable hunt," he recalled. "Saturday and Sunday one weekend and that Saturday morning -- awful: I think I killed one duck each day the previous weekend, and then didn't see a single duck I wanted to shoot that morning. The sky was beautiful, but it was empty. I kept looking for some big ducks in the sky and never saw one. Not one.

"I had such great expectations. To be honest, I was ready to quit the sport. Might still."

Here was the problem, as the 49-year-old hunter who's been chasing ducks throughout the Mississippi Delta since he was a teenager explained it: "Everything I'd studied, everything I'd heard and everything I knew told me I should have had a lot of ducks on my lease. There had been ducks around that part of the Delta for over two weeks. Most of the neighboring leaseholders had been hunting and had done well. They'd hunted the first weekend of the season and then the next. They'd done some shooting, but it didn't sound like they had overdone it, because they had moved around and made a conscious effort to leave by 8:30 or 9 each morning.

"I took up some invitations and hunted elsewhere with some cousins in the north Delta. I let my lease rest, providing sanctuary for ducks for the first two weekend seasons and then for the first week of the season. Ducks had been in the south Delta. There had been no pressure on my lease. I had water, and it was flooded food.

"There should have been ducks. Everything pointed toward there being ducks. I just knew it was going to be good shooting.

"Then -- nothing."

Garner looked for evidence of someone having poached on his lease, but found none. He had no explanation for what he'd experienced. Frustrated, he shut down his duck hunting for the remainder of the season; when he let friends use his lease, they, too, eventually gave up.

This may come a little late to help Garner, but here's the official analysis, courtesy of one of Mississippi's waterfowl project leaders, biologist Scott Baker of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

"Statewide, it seems that everybody had a fair to good opening weekend or two to the season," he explained. "Then, it slowed. From mid-December to mid-January it was slow statewide. I think some ducks came in early and gave hunters some good early shooting; then, after they were pressured, they left, and there wasn't a strong-enough weather pattern to bring in another migration flight. There were some pockets that held up during that middle part of the season, but for the most part, there was not a lot of ducks."

While no harvest figures were available by the deadline for this story, Baker asserted that the 2006-07 shooting would likely fall "about in line with the past five seasons." Not good news for most Mississippi duck hunters -- and particularly bad for Jerry Garner.

"I have come to accept less-than-great hunting over the past decade," he admitted. "My lease has always been decent -- at least average from what I read and hear other hunters write and say. Over the past five years, I've had a few limit hunts, but usually we average about three or four ducks each between two to four hunters. I've come to expect a good day to yield a three-duck average. Four to six -- well, that's a great day. But increasingly, we're seeing a lot more of the zero-to-twos. And that's what is bothering me."

When it comes to predicting the upcoming season, biologists and hunters can only thing look back at trends. For most Mississippi duck hunters, that's not a good thing; for some others, not so bad.

It all comes down to where and how you hunt," Baker observed. "Obviously there are going to be some places -- some big clubs -- that always hold ducks and always have good hunting." Those clubs, like Fighting Bayou near Itta Bena, are pipe dreams for the majority of waterfowlers, who generally lack the means to pour money (all but literally) into duck ponds and to enrich the habitat. Most big outfitters offering to book hunts have the advantage of having enough water to rotate their hunters and never overshoot ponds.

"For the smaller guys who don't have those advantages," Baker cautioned, "the best thing I can tell them is that they don't need to overpressure the ducks. We've been good about getting early flights the last few years, but if you get a good early flight in, and you put a lot of pressure on them, they leave. In mild winters -- and we've had a lot of them lately -- you can't depend on wave after wave of migration to replenish your hunting areas."

Baker pointed to some statistics gathered at the agency's wildlife management areas as an example of early-season success. "Last year, the best hunting we had on our WMAs was that first three-day weekend after Thanksgiving," he offered. "That was true at all of our WMAs in the Delta. We also had fair-to-good hunting that next weekend, but then it really slowed down. It would appear that once our hunters had shot the original flight -- the early arrivers -- we didn't get another migration to replenish."

Reduce that to a smaller scale -- to a leaseholder with limitations on the number of blinds and the amount of shootable water -- and it's obvious that one or two mornings of heavy action can ruin the area. "It may sound overly simple as a way to improve your hunting, but it works," Baker said. "It is a proven fact that if you limit your hunting to early morning and space out your hunts, you can have more consistent hunting."

It took Lee Benoist and his hunting partners a while to learn that lesson. "We finally started listening a few years ago and we saw the improvement immediately," he said. "We have a good lease, and it will always have water that we don't have to pump. If there are ducks in the area of the south Delta that we hunt, then our hole will have ducks.

"We have now learned that even if the rest of the area loses its ducks we can still hold some if we don't shoot them all up and chase the rest of them away. We have accepted the fact that one or two limit hunts does not a season make. We finally figured out that it is a lot better to have a season-full of three-to-four-duck days than a cou

ple of limit hunts early."

So can Mississippi have a good season in 2007-08?

As already remarked, trends tell us not to expect a great one, even if duck numbers stay stable or even increase. Predicting the kind of winter that the upper Midwest will experience is impossible -- but this much is certain: A late winter up there will bode ill for a good duck season in Mississippi. And all recent winters have been mild to warm, at least until well into January.

"I had great hopes last year," Benoist said. "Remember when we had that really cold blast in November and we had those ducks come in before Thanksgiving? If I remember correctly, we really didn't see another cold front that severe until January.

"I kept hearing all my deer hunting buddies complaining about how hot it was, and I kept telling them that if they thought it was tough on them, think how bad it was for duck hunters. It was awful. Last year was one of those winters when it only helped us a little while to be protective of the ducks we had. Eventually, even the low pressure we were putting on them was too much."

All duck hunters know that they're at the mercy of things well beyond their control. Mother Nature controls over 90 percent of the factors that affect the Mississippi duck season.

That control begins in late spring with nesting conditions in the upper Midwest and Canada. If water is furnished to ponds and potholes, then duck numbers are at least maintained, or perhaps slightly increased; if it's not forthcoming, they decrease. Predation on the nesting areas is another factor. How many hatchlings will survive?

Whether Mississippi will suffer from drought and whether it will have sufficient natural habitat to attract wintering waterfowl: both important influences, both unpredictable and ungovernable. At least through the early summer, it appeared that we'd be dry in 2007.

And finally, the winter scenario, the most critical, indeed, the deciding factor in our recent hunting seasons. Mother Nature hasn't sent us an early and continuously cold winter in many years, nor a winter with continuous passing cold fronts to deliver wave after wave of migration.

We can argue about the causes of global warming -- natural? arising from human activity? -- but we can't dispute that the current cycle of warm winters has been unkind to Mississippi waterfowlers. And no reason to expect that cycle to end this winter is now on the horizon -- but it could happen. And a cold winter could cure a lot of cases of duck hunting blues.

For its part, the MDWFP is working hard to cooperate if Mother Nature holds up her end and sends us ducks. "For one thing, we now have three biologists who are full-time on migratory birds, and for the most part that means working with waterfowl," Scott Baker said. "We have added Kevin Brunke to our Jackson headquarters and Houston Havens to our field staff. Havens works out of Greenwood in the Delta. That gives us more manpower to deal with the resource.

"For another thing, we are opening another waterfowl-intensive wildlife management area. Named for Howard Miller, the late two-term wildlife commissioner whose passion was waterfowl, the WMA is 2,100 acres near Rolling Fork in the south Delta. It is composed of rice and soybean farmland that can be flooded and yield a lot of ideal waterfowl habitat."

According to Baker, information on Miller WMA will be available on the agency's Web site, www.mdwfp. com. "We're still working on the regulations, but it should be ready and going this fall," he added. "I feel like it will become one of our better public waterfowl hunting areas, and will do so quickly. It will join the list of places like Mahannah and Twin Oaks, which are in that same vicinity, and Muscadine Farms near Hollandale. Those have been solid producers and should continue to do so."

Baker reported that the mallard-monitoring program is still in its infancy and has yet to produce much data. "We banded 30 in 2006 and we did another 15 in the spring of 2007," he explained. "Some of the new ones have GPS tracking instead of satellite, and the GPS is a lot more precise in its locating ability -- like, almost down to 12 inches. That will give us a better understanding of exactly what kind of habitat our ducks are using.

At this point we don't have a lot of data that can tell us too much, but more is coming in. Long-term, we feel like we will gain a fuller understanding of migration, habitat use and other factors that can help better manage the resource."

Short-term, the program has more or less been used as both an entertainment and slightly educational tool by hunters who can follow the migration of Mississippi's monitored ducks and those in the older Arkansas program. "I tracked them throughout the summer and fall last year," Lee Benoist offered. "I thought it was interesting to see where each duck went after they left the nesting grounds.

"But as far as did it help me during the hunting season? No, not really. It didn't tell anything more than I really already knew from hunting -- and that was that we weren't getting a lot of migration during the season. But I will continue to use the program and watch the ducks. I'd love to look at it one week this winter during an arctic blast and see all of the duck icons heading south in a hurry toward Mississippi. If I saw that, then sure, I'd say it would have helped me because I'd darn sure be heading to the duck blind."

Though he has low expectation for the upcoming season, Benoist -- like most duck hunters -- would be quick to accept a proposition that made limited hunts were the norm. "We may talk a good conservation game, but it is true that 99 percent of us do dream of having a situation where we could limit out every trip," he said. "Don't let any hunter tell you he wouldn't.

"But for that to happen, the situation would have to be ideal not only for hunters, but also for ducks. It would have to follow years of consistently good nesting production and that requires ideal habitat. It would require the right weather patterns with consistent cold fronts and a few arctic blasts.

"Realistically, that's not possible. We don't have the number of ducks we wish we had, we don't always have ideal nesting conditions, and we haven't had what I'd call a normal winter in about a decade. What we have to do is scale back our expectations -- and a lot of us have. It's either that or we'd get so frustrated we'd quit altogether."

Which brings us back to Jerry Garner.

"I'm still considering giving it up," he said. "They keep telling us that we have enough ducks, that we're going to have a good fall flight, that we will be seeing a lot of mallards, and yet they do not materialize. Last year, I did everything I thought was right to have a good duck season and I had the worst I've ever had.

"When I think of the money that I spend every year on leases and pumping and planting and travel and maintaining my gear and my dog -- well, you can't really count

the dog, because I'd do that anyway -- and I seriously have to think about whether it is worth it to hunt another season.

"Then I think about what if we did have a change, and the Delta was full of ducks and I wasn't there. I couldn't live with that. So, yes: I'll be out there again -- chasing the dream."

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