2016: A great year to be a goose hunter
Sault Ste. Marin, Mich. — Michigan waterfowlers are gearing up for another 60-day duck season that may see slightly fewer ducks winging their way south than in 2015, but the season will be highlighted with an even longer goose season and much bigger bag limits than last year.
The seasons start on Sept. 1 – for teal and geese – and hunters will be pursuing waterfowl somewhere in the state until Feb. 11, when the late goose season ends in the south zone.
Michigan’s longstanding “early goose season” has essentially been extended from 10 to 15 days in early September to pretty much the entire month for most of the state, with a bag limit of five birds per day. What has in the past been called the “regular season” begins shortly thereafter, running into December with a bag limit of three per day instead of two, which had been the limit for many years.
“The good news this year is the increase in the Canada goose season,” said Barb Avers, the waterfowl/wetland specialist with the Michigan DNR told Michigan Outdoor News. “This is really a big increase for us … and it will offer a lot more goose hunting opportunity for hunters.”
Avers said the change in goose regulations is mostly due to the giant Canada goose population, which has been steadily increasing throughout the flyway.
“It’s hard to believe there was a time when hunters would rarely see a goose here … If some people haven’t been goose hunting, yet, now would be a good time to try it out,” she said.
Another change that hunters are seeing this year is the early publication of the DNR’s Waterfowl Hunting Digest. For many years, hunters held their breath into late August, waiting to see how the surveys and regulations would shake out. But last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the way it sets regulations and now bases the coming year’s rules on the population estimates from the previous year. This allows the state to set an expectation for opening and closing dates for two years down the road, unless federal regulations change in the meantime.
Michigan’s regulations were set in April this year, and the waterfowl hunting digest was published in July. Avers noted that the ability to get regulations squared away earlier is due in part to the federal and state statistics that have been kept on waterfowl.
“We have monitoring information from over 50 years (throughout North America), more than any other species, so we’re confident that our models will do a good job of predicting next year’s breeding population,” she said.
Based on this year’s North American breeding population, it’s likely that hunters may see some slight changes to next year’s regulations, at least with ducks. While a record 49.5 million ducks were recorded on the breeding grounds last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report this year showed that habitat conditions in many places were poor when ducks returned to nest in the spring. In spite of that, the federal report said duck numbers were only slightly lower than last year, at 48.4 million. The USFWS attributes this to habitat conditions that improved through the summer with more rain.
The USFWS report noted that mallards increased from 11.6 to 11.7 million, a 1 percent increase that is 51 percent above the birds’ longterm average. American wigeon, another popular puddle duck, increased 12 percent from last year to 3.4 million, a 31-percent increase over the longterm average. Gadwall decreased slightly from 3.8 million to 3.7 million, but that is still a 90-percent increase over their longterm average.
Diving duck hunters will be pleased to see that scaup and redhead numbers have increased – scaup by 14 percent from 4.2 to 4.9 million, and redheads by 8 percent from 1.2 million to nearly 1.3 million. Canvasback, while down 3 percent from 757,000 to 736,000, are still 26 percent above their longterm average.
When it comes to locally produced birds, and the wetlands that produce them, Avers had mostly good things to say, although wetland conditions went from good to bad through the summer, the opposite of what happened in the prairies.
“It was really wet in early spring,” Avers said. “We had great conditions going into the breeding season. But habit conditions have changed since May.”
When the DNR counted wetlands in the spring, “We were near our long-term average,” Avers said. “It looked like a really good year going into the breeding season. But then we got pretty dry, especially going into June and July.”
She noted that hunters would be well advised to check their favorite hotspots before the seasons begin, to make sure they’re not dried up. With the Great Lakes at higher than average levels, though, coastal wetlands should be in good shape, even with the lakes’ typical seasonal drop.
Avers said state duck and goose surveys showed populations similar to last year, including a slight increase to local mallards – 278,000 – although that was not statistically different from 2015.
“There seem to be geese everywhere,” Avers said. “We are reporting 330,000 geese in the state. We strive for a range of 175,000-225,000, so we’re above that this year, and it should be a really good goose season this September.”
When the goose season opens Sept. 1, hunters will be afield for teal, too, in the third year of an experimental season for Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Avers reminded hunters to make doubly sure of their duck identification before they pull the trigger or we may risk losing the opportunity to make this an annual hunt in the state, at least as long as the teal population can support it. The seven-day season, from Sept. 1 through 7, is something that was long sought after by hunters in states that are identified by the USFWS as “production” states for teal.
“In 2014, we did fine,” Avers said, noting that Michigan hunters kept within the allowable limits of attempting to kill or killing ducks other than green-winged and blue-winged teal. In 2015, however, among the hunters observed during the season, 30 percent of the ducks they shot were not teal.
“We’re really asking hunters to brush up on their identification skills,” Avers said. “There is a lot of information on our website to help. This is an experimental season. If we want to keep it, it’s important for hunters to hold their fire if they’re not sure of the species of the bird they are shooting at.”
Hunters in Iowa kept within the allowable limits on both shooting attempts and kills for the first two years, but Wisconsin has fared about the same as Michigan, doing poorly in the first year of the season and better in the second.
Avers said we won’t know right away about the future of a regular teal season in Michigan, but it appears that due to the new way the USFWS is setting regulations, we may be able to enjoy at least one more year in 2017.
Avers urged hunters to try new spots this season, especially state-managed waterfowl areas in southern Michigan, which are featured in the DNR’s annual Wetland Wonders program.
Hunters need to try at least three of the managed areas to become eligible for prizes that include a shotgun, decoys, much more hunting gear, and a pass for first pick at a hunt in a managed waterfowl area next year.
Avers said the program, which is part of the 10-year Waterfowl Legacy, has been popular and has been attracting new hunters to the managed areas.
For more information, check michigan.gov/dnr and follow the links to “hunting and trapping” and “waterfowl hunting.”