Bemidji, Minn. – It isn't often that Steve Cordts hears from hunters who are satisfied with duck regulations.
Generally, the people who call are not supportive.
So what's he hearing this year, after the DNR made several major changes to the state duck season?
"In the eight years I have been here, this is by far the fewest calls and emails and letters that have been generated after we announced the duck season," said Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. After changes to the regulations in 2005 and 2007, for example, "within a day of those news releases going out, I had 20-some phone calls and a bunch of emails. This year, I don't think I've had five."
There are several notable changes to this year's duck season. It opens Sept. 24, which is a week earlier than recent years, and shooting hours on opening day begin one-half hour before sunrise.
The daily wood duck and hen mallard limits are now three and two, respectively, which both are increases of one from last year.
Additionally, the DNR has split the state into north and south duck zones. Both will open Sept. 24 and run for 60 days, but the south zone will close for five days at the end of September and then re-open, which will allow hunters there to hunt early and late in the season.
Reactions to the new regulations, predictably, have varied. Some hunters like some aspects of the new regulations, but not all.
"I don't like the number of duck hunters we have lost (40,000 in the past decade) – I think the sport needs something to invigorate it," said Jim Bezat, a longtime duck hunter who served on a DNR waterfowl focus group. "Something had to be done to get people excited about duck hunting again. (DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr) has made an attempt to do that."
Dave Zentner, also a longtime duck hunter and member of the Concerned Duck Hunters Panel, finds little to like.
"I'm really disappointed in it," he said. "I don't think the liberalized seasons are going to do anything to accomplish (the goal of) returning duck hunters to duck hunting."
The three wood duck limit "makes no sense to me," Zentner said, and he notes the earlier opening day shooting hours, combined with the earlier opener, likely will make duck identification more difficult and means "we're just going to kill a bunch of brown birds."
John Schroers, an avid duck hunter and past president of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, doesn't have an issue with the increased wood duck limit, but he's no fan of the increased hen mallard limit.
"I always in the past have supported (staying at) two wood ducks, but I guess that is OK," he said. "Mallards are a different thing. They are our No. 1 bird in the bag. I think we could have stayed limited to one. I sure hope the boys out there practice voluntary restraint."
On the other hand, he likes being able to hunt early and late in the season.
"(I'm happy) just as long as I'm not prevented from shooting mallards late in the season," Schroers said. "There's a lot of us that live and breathe for that late-season, migrant mallard shoot."
Bezat, for his part, notes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed states to offer a two-hen daily limit.
"I really and truly don't believe they would recommend that if it wasn't acceptable," he said.
Cordts noted the hen mallard limit has been at one since 2005.
"Our breeding population is above average right now, and higher than last year," he said. "In 19 of the past 20 years they have been above the current average. They are lower than our duck goals in our long-range plan, but that is a 50-year plan. And it matches what's allowed in every other state.
"To have a limit of one on your most abundant duck – I think a limit of two is biologically fine when you look at what we think the impacts will be to harvest."
Officials expect both mallard and wood duck harvests to go up slightly, but "any additional harvest will be offset" by the loss of hunters during the past decade, Cordts said.
Bezat believes hunters will like the positive message of expanded hunting opportunities.
"We needed some positive information to get people to say, "‘Let's give Minnesota a shot again.'"