By Dean Bortz
Madison – Duck numbers are one thing; the location of those ducks is quite another.
And it's locating those ducks that could stymie hunters this fall, despite the fact that state duck numbers are 21 percent above the long-term average, according to two avid duck hunters – Kent Van Horn, of Madison, and Don Kirby, of Freedom.
"You have to take a couple of things into consideration, said Van Horn, the DNR's waterfowl ecologist, in talking about just what kind of complexion this fall's duck flight might take on. "The spring breeding duck survey data show very good duck numbers continent-wide – a total count of 41 million breeding ducks."
Van Horn said that besides the fact that Wisconsin's spring breeding duck survey came in 21 percent above average despite a dry spring, since then the state has received a lot of rain, and that should boost nesting success and brood survival.
In fact, that appears to be the case, so duck numbers this fall could be even stronger than expected.
"I have heard from field staff that the rains that came after the breeding surveys have produced good conditions," Van Horn said. "Based on duck-banding efforts in August, it looks like we had very good production, even though breeding conditions in the spring were average to down. The great thing is that it looks like we will have water, and that should provide habitat for local birds, and that can also draw in migrants – a big contrast over the last two years where we started out on opening day looking pretty dry."
That water, though, is going to make a difference this year for hunters who have become accustomed to working around the drought conditions of the past few years.
"Early in the season, hunters will be challenged even with better duck numbers," said Kirby, executive director of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association. "There are wetlands now where there weren't wetlands in the past. We received 15 inches of rain in July in the northeastern counties, and that will allow ducks to disperse in ways we haven't seen in years.
"That will be challenging for hunters, but it is good for the resource. Hunters will have to do some scouting, especially after opening weekend and the first week of season – the birds are going to move around to areas where they wouldn't normally have been found," Kirby said.
Van Horn agrees with Kirby's suggestion for hunters to scout and move around. In fact, Van Horn said scouting may be more important to hunter success than duck numbers in any year.
He's been sifting through information that came back from his last waterfowl survey prior to this season.
"The success of an individual relates more to their scouting efforts and their local weather and conditions than any data I can give them," Van Horn said. "Based on our survey, the people who did not scout at all shot 4.8 ducks per season, and persons who said they scouted at least once shot 10.9 ducks. That's a big difference. Success continued to climb as scouting efforts increased.
"If you want to be successful, you have to look around and move around. Ducks are migrating animals and they are wetland animals. They move around. You have to do the same thing as a hunter," he said.
Yet, most hunters do not move around, at least on opening weekend. The survey showed that 83 percent of the respondents hunt the same place year to year.
"Wetlands change every year; hunters have to be willing to do the same," Van Horn said.
Although the abundant water this year may allow ducks to spread out, Kirby said hunters will be able to do the same thing. He said hunters should not overlook any piece of water.
"We're looking at almost spring-like conditions this fall," Kirby said. "There are places holding waterfowl that wouldn't have had ducks in the past – I'm talking flooded fields and ditches. There will be a lot of good opportunities this fall. It will also allow hunters to spread out. Last year in September we went almost the whole month without a drop of rain. We have far different conditions from last year, but I'm sure we would all choose to have these conditions when compared to last year."
When heavy rains hit the state, many farmers were forced to leave crops standing on soaked fields.
"Last year, the crop harvest was delayed, and that really changed how guys hunted geese," Van Horn said.
Whether hunters are after ducks or geese, Kirby and Van Horn said the most successful hunters will scout and move. As for the old saw of local ducks leaving early? Not likely. They just move to quiet areas.
"What I've seen is that if you're a local hunter, in a certain place, you see birds behave in a certain way. You shoot at them for three or four days, then say the local birds are gone and you have to wait for northern birds. The reality is they are still around and probably no more than 2 miles away. When birds do move into your hunting area, they came in from other areas of Wisconsin," Van Horn said.
DNR aerial surveys on the Mississippi River show, on average over about 10 years, that dabbler numbers are low near the opener, then peak at end of October to around Nov. 1.
During the month leading up to the peak, some ducks migrate in from the north.
"Divers migrate in from other states and provinces; they're not even showing up until the second or third week of October and they don't peak until the second or third week of November. The diver peak has been Nov. 5-10 over the last 10 years. By Dec. 1, the numbers are really low," Van Horn said.
This year's 60-day season will have a daily bag limit of six ducks – no more than four may be mallards and only one of those mallards may be a hen.
The limit allows three wood ducks, two redheads, one black duck, two pintails, two scaup, and one canvasback. For species of ducks not listed, such as teal and ringnecks, the combined total may not exceed six ducks.
In addition, the daily bag may also include five mergansers, to include not more than two hooded mergansers, and 15 coot.
Seasons dates are as follows:
• Northern Zone – Sept. 25 at 9 a.m. through Nov. 23.
• Southern Zone – Oct. 2 at 9 a.m. through Oct. 10, and Oct. 16 through Dec. 5.
• Youth Waterfowl Hunt – Sept. 18-19.
Youth duck hunters may harvest Canada geese in all zones during the two-day youth hunt on Sept. 18-19, but the bag limit and tag requirement applies for the respective zones. These days overlap with open goose seasons in most areas, so adults will also be able to shoot geese, but not ducks during the youth hunt.