With the winter waterfowl action looming on the horizon, how is this year's duck season likely to stack up? Join the author in taking a closer look at the approaching wingshooting.
Photo by Kenny Bahr
By Robert H. Cleveland
Imagine the vision of hundreds - no, thousands - of green-headed ducks in a wad as thick as a cloud, funneling down out of the sky over a Mississippi Delta brake, their orange legs dropping like landing gear as they prepare to settle down among what they believe are some of their kin. It is a dream that never materialized over the past few years for thousands of Magnolia State duck hunters who had been led to believe it would happen. Federal waterfowl counters, as well as those from private conservation groups, said the ducks existed and would be coming.
Some hunters began wondering if the ducks were as plentiful as predicted. Many of those who did believe the counts began dreaming up stories, driven by anger and disappointment, about why the massive flights of ducks never made it to the Magnolia State.
"I know good and darn well what happened," said one Jackson duck-hunting fanatic. "They've been short-stopped in the Midwest, intentionally. They've been doing it for years, and now that so many landowners are getting paid by the government through WRP (Wetland Reserve Program) and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), it is beginning to have an effect. I also think the government is over-planting and even scattering grain on its national refuges where hunting is not allowed.
"I'd just as soon they not use my tax dollars to keep me from killing ducks."
Short-stopping is a term used by Southern hunters who feel their Northern neighbors and organizations flood the habitat with food to keep ducks from their natural migration into warmer climates, at least until the shooting seasons are over.
It is easier to point fingers at people than to point them at Mother Nature, which is where biologists say the blame falls for the lack of ducks visiting the South in recent seasons.
The bottom line, they say, is that ducks only come as far south as they need to in order to find food and to find water that is not frozen. In recent years, even in late January, they have been able to find that in Iowa and Illinois and have had no need to wing their way toward Mississippi, Louisiana and other Southern states. That was a point made by Louisiana's leading waterfowl biologist at a public forum held earlier this year.
"In the long-term average, we haven't seen a lot of difference in the number of ducks," said Robert Helm, waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "It goes up and down from year to year, but over the decades it's relatively level. Weather is the key issue no matter how many birds are produced or how many are expected in the fall flight."
While Helm said migratory patterns change over time, he added that mankind could not force so many ducks to change migrations in such a short time. Birds go where they find food, water and safety, and they stay as long as the habitat they are in can satisfy those needs. A duck can store up to seven days' worth of fat on its body before it must eat.
"I don't think mankind can change a migration," Helm said. "In the short term, migration changed during the past two years, but once weather patterns return to normal we'll see strong migrations south again. Even if we wanted to, there's no way that man can affect 90 to 100 million ducks to the degree that we've seen in the past two years. The federal government couldn't effect that kind of change even if it purposely set out to do that."
Neither could Ducks Unlimited (DU), which it doesn't, said Dr. Tom Moorman of the DU Southern Regional office in Jackson.
"DU does not pay anyone to plant crops," Moorman said. "We work with landowners to improve duck habitat, some of which is harvested by the landowners. The amount of state and federal refuge land is insignificant compared to the hundreds of millions of acres of private agricultural lands."
Former DU members object to the organization's creation of habitat projects in the middle of the continent. In the past, DU concentrated its efforts on breeding grounds. Opponents claimed that providing habitat throughout the Mississippi Flyway keeps birds from migrating all the way to the Gulf Coast.
"Nesting is affected by habitat across the continent," Moorman said. "As birds migrate up and down the flyway, their capacity to reproduce is affected if they don't have quality habitat. We work wherever ducks need us to work. We prioritize habitat in its importance to ducks and focus our efforts on our highest priorities."
On a Web site forum maintained by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), Moorman defended DU against the rumors that the private organization was sabotaging Southern duck seasons.
"We have been hearing this and other rumors for the past two seasons," Moorman wrote. "Folks have accused us of all kinds of ridiculous things, like making warm-water wetlands so ducks stay up north all winter, dumping corn via truckloads, via helicopters, etc., etc.
"At first it was humorous. Now it has gone too far, it is absurd and preposterous. DU has a long, long history of conserving waterfowl habitat. That's what we do, and that is what we will continue to do, despite those who attempt, for whatever reason, to drag us down. A large majority of our membership is hunters, and several Southern states are among our top supporters in members and funding. Why would we do anything to hurt those folks - our supporters who provide the very resources we need to conserve waterfowl habitat? If you stop and think about this issue at all, you find a host of reasons why the rumors don't add up. They are simply not true.
"Thanks for supporting DU in the battle to conserve waterfowl habitat. The U.S. loses 100,000 acres of wetlands a year, despite all the various efforts to protect and restore them. That's the issue we all need to remain focused on. We don't need to waste time and energy circulating and refuting rumors."
Not all hunters were upset with recent years' shooting and instead were happy with their results for the last few seasons.
Bob Tarver of Brandon hunts the south Delta and said the 2002-03 season was one of the best his club has had.
"We were limiting on greenheads about every hunt," he said. "We had mallards from the end of November straight through to late January. The biggest problem we had was finding the odd ducks needed to fill a six-bird limit. We'
d get our mallards and then have to sit and wait for enough teal or gadwalls to come by to finish up."
Hunts like that don't just happen. It takes work and planning, Tarver said, to make it come together on a consistent basis.
"We put time, money and effort into creating a hunting habitat that will draw and hold waterfowl, and then we do not overhunt it," he explained. "If you put too much pressure on the ducks, they leave."
Leaving is exactly what a lot of ducks did last year during Mississippi's season. Flight counts by the state wildlife officials produced estimates of 50,000 mallards in one area of the north Delta near Cleveland in the second week of December. By the fourth week of that month, hunters in that same area were complaining about a lack of waterfowl.
"Up and left," said Don Pruitt, who lives and hunts near Cleveland. "Yes, we had a lot of ducks come in with one or two cold fronts about the second week in December and they stayed about a week. We were able to hunt them for about two days and were really excited about the next weekend.
"When we showed up at daylight the next Saturday morning, there wasn't a duck of any kind to be found. As soon as I got back home, I got on the Internet and went to the weather channel to see what the conditions were north of here. Heck, it was just as warm in Iowa as it was here. Those ducks that came in here left and went back north.
"I know they didn't go back to Arkansas or over to Louisiana like a lot of people think. I talked to friends in both of those states who hunt from north Arkansas to the Gulf and they didn't have them either. Those ducks went north and I don't think they came back until February."
Pruitt said he got on the phone to some business contacts in Iowa and Illinois.
"I talked to some friends in the upper Midwest, especially the Corn Belt, and they all said they were covered up with ducks," Pruitt continued. "I talked to one guy in Iowa in mid-January who said his dad's farm had about 10 ponds and each one was covered with ducks.
"That's why we didn't have a good season. People can make up any excuse they want, and point fingers at the nearest target, but the truth is that mild winters caused by El Niño, La Niña or whatever are the problem. Had we had a severe cold winter last year, with lots of snow and ice north of Tennessee, we'd have gotten ducks and we'd have kept ducks," he stated.
Such conditions obviously point to both lower harvest levels of ducks in Mississippi last year and lower participation by sportsmen.
"I know they have to be down," Pruitt said. "I have a lot of friends who didn't hunt near as much as they usually do. This was the second straight mild winter and the second straight horrible season we've had in my area. It's only natural for people to get tired of getting up at daylight and trudging through the muck and mud, sweating and swatting (mosquitoes) to get to a hunting spot with no ducks.
"Last year, most everyone I knew was done by the first of January. I kept going, and let me tell you, those guys who quit had the right idea. The ducks didn't come back in enough numbers to warrant all the time and expense."
Mississippi hunters, like those in other Southern states, are now worried about the future. They question the accuracy of duck population estimates, and they hear the gloom and doom reports about poor nesting habitat in Canada and the Northern prairie states.
Those estimates and concerns lead to a couple of troubling questions. If the ducks were as plentiful as biologists say and they were so hard to find here last year, then how bad is it going to be if the populations drop due to a poor hatch? Also, how limited will our season and bag limits be?
"After how poor the season had been the year before, I was expecting to see a shorter season with a reduced bag limit last year," Pruitt said. "I was stunned when they not only didn't cut the bag or the season, but they also allowed us to hunt 60 days and do it until the final Sunday in January."
The habitat in the nesting areas was much improved last spring. A late blizzard and then several heavy rains broke what had been a drought and provided the prairie potholes and other water holes that ducks need in the north to nest.
Robert Helm pointed out that Southern hunters should remember that a severe winter is all that is needed to give us a good season.
"We are just one harsh winter away from having an excellent duck season," the Louisiana official said. "It doesn't matter how much grain is on the ground. If deep snow covers it, birds can't eat and they move. With one good snowstorm, ducks head south. That didn't happen last winter."
Helm went on to say that in addition to severe winter conditions up north, other weather conditions are important factors.
"We have to have a wet fall and winter here," he explained. "We need water on the ground, in our sloughs, in our breaks, in our fields, in our ponds, to hold the ducks if winter pushes them here."
That's what is so frustrating to Pruitt, and why he cherishes the duck hunting as much as he does.
"There are so many variables that affect our season, when you think about it," he mused. "Severe winters up north, wet weather here, duck population trends, migration routes - you think about all that, and how all have to be just right for us to have a great season, and it is amazing.
"That's why I love the sport so much. When we do get everything just right, and we are in a duck blind and the sky is dark with flights of ducks, it is the greatest feeling a man can have outside his home and his church. The way I look at it is this - if we had that every time we hunted, we'd get tired of it. I know I would. A little frustration, or, in our case, a lot of frustration, can be a good thing. It just makes me appreciate the good days more."
Mississippi duck hunters, however, are not known for their patience. They have historically been quick to wage war, both politically and in court, for longer seasons. They were successful, long term, in getting what they sought. It is a pity that they have no control over what matters most - nature.
You can't file a lawsuit against a lack of cold weather up north or rain down south. You can only sit, hope and watch the weather forecasts.
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