Lansing – It's been several years since waterfowl hunters have been faced with gloomy forecasts for the coming seasons.
Yes, weather conditions have been dry some years, and the late 1990s were better years for duck and goose numbers. But for more than a dozen years, wetland conditions and waterfowl production in North America have been such that Michigan duck hunters have been blessed with 60-day seasons – classified as "liberal" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Goose hunters have seen decent seasons, too, especially where resident honkers are plentiful.
This year is no exception. Duck and goose numbers are better than they were last year in both Michigan and in the states and provinces that raise birds that fly through Michigan.
Goose hunters, in particular, have been happy with the number of honkers available to them this year. When the early season opened Sept. 1, Michigan's population of resident geese was estimated to be a whopping 306,000 birds, the second highest count since spring surveys began in 1991 and a 52-percent increase over last year's estimate.
Meanwhile, migrant geese found fairly good breeding conditions in northern Canada last spring in stark contrast to the cold and snow that greeted them in 2009. Biologists reported that predation by gulls was high, but hunters in the Upper Peninsula and western Lower Peninsula, especially, should see more geese.
"In general, the Southern James Bay Population of Canada geese was stable from last year and the breeding Mississippi Valley Population geese were up," Barbara Avers, waterfowl specialist with the Michigan DNRE told Michigan Outdoor News. Geese of the MVP generally migrate through the U.P. and west side of Michigan, while the SJBP geese generally migrate through Saginaw Bay and southeast Michigan.
Duck hunters have as much or more to be happy about this season. Overall, North American duck numbers increased over last year and in Michigan, mallard numbers are up 31 percent over last year, although 10 percent below their long-term average.
"It certainly looks like our Michigan waterfowl numbers are pretty good," Avers said. "It looks like production was better this year and should offer good opportunities for hunters this season."
Avers added a caveat that many waterfowl hunters already know: No matter how many ducks are reported to be out there, it doesn't mean you'll see them in your decoys.
"You have to temper your expectations because weather has so much to do with what hunters will see," Avers said, adding that local movement of birds is sometimes altered when hunting season starts and guns start going off. Also, some wetlands that looked good during spring surveys may have dried up during the summer, causing birds to change their movement.
"The wetland count in the spring is just one snapshot in time," Avers said. "What happens from then on is so dependent on the weather."
In 2009, Michigan duck hunters shot 309,000 birds and goose hunters shot 162,300 honkers. Those statistics have a definite chance of increasing this year.
Avers said local-grown mallards, which make up just under half of Michigan duck hunters' bags, have increased to 340,000 this year. That's an especially good number when you consider that 780,000 mallards were surveyed in the spring in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The big increase in Michigan was a puzzle to biologists since Michigan wetland conditions were not as good as they were last year. Avers said data collected over the years indicate that Michigan mallard numbers are tied to habitat, so one would have thought mallards may have remained steady or dropped somewhat.
Avers also said it doesn't appear that Michigan hunters are being allowed to take too many mallards, which had been a concern in the past. While federal frameworks allow Mississippi Flyway hunters to include two hen mallards in the bag, Great Lakes states including Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have cut that limit to one hen for many years.
Behind mallards, wood ducks are the second most numerous in Michigan duck hunters' bags, followed by bufflehead and green-winged teal, which compete for the number three spot every year. In 2009, surveys of Michigan hunters showed mallards made up 42 percent of the duck harvest, followed by wood ducks at 12 percent, buffleheads at 10 percent, and greenwings at 7 percent.
"That's what we see consistently from year to year," said Avers, who noted that Michigan hunters harvest more buffleheads than hunters in any other state in the country.
Something else that Michigan hunters see consistently from year to year is a fluctuation in weather that can have a dramatic effect on hunting conditions. In 2009, the season started out strong with hunters throughout the state reporting good hunting through a cold snap in mid-October. Then the weather changed, and the state saw unseasonably warm temperatures through Thanksgiving and many hunters complained of seeing fewer birds than usual. Many theorized that ducks migrated through the state after the season had closed. Avers said local observations don't always translate to the big picture.
"The best information we have on duck movements through the state are our weekly counts at managed waterfowl areas. We post them from mid-September through November," she said. "When you look at those, it doesn't really support the idea that the birds came later last year."
In fact, Avers noted that those managed waterfowl areas showed a greater duck abundance in 2009 than in 2008 and 2007.
"When you plot the 2009 weekly counts with previous years … peak abundance didn't change much in 2009," she said.
Areas that usually hold birds – places such as Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and managed waterfowl areas throughout the state – seemed to get as many birds as they usually do.
Here are some season specifics:
North Zone: Oct. 2-Nov. 30
Middle Zone: Oct. 2-Nov. 28 and Dec. 4-5
South Zone: Oct. 9-Dec. 5 and Jan. 1-2, 2011
Bag limit: six ducks, which may include no more than four mallards (one hen), three wood ducks, two redheads, two scaup, two pintails, one black duck, one canvasback. Bag limit may include five mergansers, two of which may be hooded mergansers.
Possession limit is twice the daily limit for both ducks and mergansers.
North Zone: Sept. 16-Oct. 30
Middle Zone: Oct. 2-Nov. 8 and Nov. 25-Dec. 1
South Zone: Oct. 9-Nov. 14 and Dec. 4-11
Bag limit: Two. Possession limit is twice the daily limit.
Late Season – South Zone Only: Jan. 1-30, 2011
Bag limit: Five. Possession limit is twice the daily limit.
Statewide: Same dates as regular and late Canada goose seasons
Bag limit: Snow (light and dark phase) and Ross geese, 20 daily, 60 possession
White-fronted geese and brant, one daily, two in possession.