Positive outlook for duck season
Springfield – First the bad news: Illinois duck hunters had an awful 2009 season, harvesting the fewest ducks since 2004.
The good news: Migrating ducks don't dwell on the past. Besides, they read weather – not statistics.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, duck populations are in good shape, though experienced waterfowlers are cautious about local food, water and weather conditions that can greatly influence success and negate the number of ducks coming down the flyway and across Illinois marshes, ponds, rivers and fields.
Duck hunting season opens Oct. 16 in the north zone, Oct. 30 in the central zone and Nov. 25 in the south zone.
Forecasting is nearly impossible at this point. Illinois once again had had an unusually wet spring and summer, with many areas not getting the high water off of shallow areas in time for crops or moist-soil plants to produce, DNR's state waterfowl biologist Ray Marshalla said.
"As far as conditions on state areas, my general impression is that the Illinois River sites may have limited food due to high water conditions from all the rain in Chicago and south this summer," Marshalla said. "Only areas protected from river floods will have good food conditions. Last I heard, Lake Shelbyville is in a similar situation. Rend Lake is in good shape with good planted crops as well as moist soil plants that will likely not be destroyed by an early frost. Carlyle is a little behind but likely to have decent food unless frost comes early."
Meanwhile, on the breeding grounds, conditions for ducks were generally very good this year. There were 6.7 million ponds in prairie Canada and northern U.S. breeding areas. This was similar to last year and 34 percent above the long-term average of 5 million ponds. A record number of ponds in the U.S. were similar to last year and 87 percent above the long-term average.
Last year's state duck harvest of 399,555 was 11 percent lower than in 2008 and 9 percent lower than the previous five-year average. Broken down by zone, hunters in the north last year harvested an estimated 67,500 ducks, while the central hunters took 184,636 and the south zone hunters took 143,459.
"Duck harvest was down [from the previous year] in the entire Mississippi Flyway, and Illinois' decline was not as much as many other states," Ray Marshalla, DNR's state waterfowl biologist, said. "Of the 14 states in the Mississippi Flyway, only Arkansas and Louisiana harvested more ducks than Illinois [in 2009]."
While not the best of times, Illinois hunters did take more mallards in 2009 than any other state in the Flyway except for Arkansas.
As far as participation, duck hunters spent an average of a little under 13 days afield to harvest eight ducks per hunter for the 2009 season. That harvest per hunter ratio was 11 percent below the previous five-year average of nine ducks per hunter. The duck harvest per hunter per day last season was 0.64, which is 15 percent less than 2008 and was the lowest daily success rate since 2004.
"This is the 14th year in a row we have been offered a 60-day duck season," Marshalla pointed out. "We anticipate a fall duck flight similar to last year's due to continuing good water levels over a large portion of the breeding grounds."
USFWS counts indicated 41 million breeding ducks, similar to last year, and 21 percent above the 1955-2009 long-term average. This is the fifth highest breeding population since 1955. Only 1956, 1997, 1999 and 2009 had more ducks.