WI: High duck numbers bring big hopes in ’11
Madison – It's almost always the same. It lurks out there, just beneath the horizon, an opportunity as yet unfulfilled from the boat blinds and the shore blinds, from the cattails, the bulrushes, and sloughs – it's the 2011 waterfowl season, and from all indications, it's going to be one of the better years for duck hunters across the state.
In fact, it's going to be hard to top the good news for Wisconsin gunners, and here's the reason: The total North American duck population is at a record level, and state numbers are way ahead of last year's count.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports there are an estimated 45.6 million ducks across Canada and the United States, the largest number in the 56 years that such records have been kept. In Wisconsin, where a majority of the birds are locally hatched, the estimate stands at more than 500,000, 33 percent above last year.
"Sixty percent of the ducks we harvest in Wisconsin are home grown," said Kent Van Horn, the Wisconsin DNR's migratory bird ecologist. "The other 40 percent come from all over," including the Dakotas, Minnesota, and the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba.
Three-fourths of the Wisconsin birds put in the bag are distributed among four species – mallards, wood ducks, green-winged teal, and blue-winged teal. Mallards lead the group with about 40 percent of the total harvest, followed by wood ducks, at 18 to 20 percent; greenwings at 10 percent, and bluewings, about 7 to 8 percent.
This year's estimate for the entire state duck population (513,000) is 17 percent higher than the long-term average of the last 38 years, Van Horn reported. Mallard numbers are about 188,000, compared with 199,000 from last year, he said, a statistically similar number. Other comparisons from this year to last: wood ducks, about 146,000, compared with 104,000. Bluewings are near 90,000, compared with 50,000 for last season. Figures for greenwings were not compiled.
But aside from the thrill of contemplating the large number of waterfowl flying around North America, and Wisconsin, and the favorable state forecast, there is an important preamble to the hunt. Van Horn stressed the need to prepare and to be diligent about it. He had some advice, and a sobering statistical evaluation of hunting success relative to that preparation.
First the advice: Hunters must scout in advance of when they'll hunt, he said, and they have to take some time doing it. In the course of scouting they should consider water levels, which will be all-important to their success. Weather, of course, will be a factor. That's Van Horn's recipe: scouting, water, and weather. And he emphasized scouting.
"We took some hunter surveys and we asked about the number of times hunters scouted the locations before they used them," Van Horn said.
He found that waterfowlers who did not scout at all averaged just 4.8 ducks per season. Those who scouted once harvested 7.1 ducks; twice, 8.1 ducks; and three times, 14.7 ducks.
He said scouting should be a must in state-owned hunting areas where water drawdowns have occurred to promote vegetation growth that attracts waterfowl.
"We are in constant management of these areas," Van Horn said, "but sometimes Mother Nature doesn't cooperate," and he mentioned the Sheboygan Marsh, some sections of the Mead State Wildlife Area, and the Lake Mills State Wildlife Area, as locations where water levels have not returned to their pre-drawdown status.
He said, however, that while a wet spring had helped the water situation in northern Wisconsin, it was varied in the southern part of the state – and he strongly recommended keeping tabs on those areas in the next month. In the meanwhile, he said, water levels in general currently look pretty good, but he couldn't guarantee that would be true at the end of September.
Van Horn said off-shore hunting had improved in Green Bay because of the increase in invasive mussel species, which have attracted bluebills, which, in turn, have brought in more hunters. He mentioned other big waters as also having potential – Big Green Lake, Lake Winnebago, and the Petenwell Flowage. He also pointed to areas "up and down," like Lake Michigan and in such Lake Superior areas as the Kakagon Sloughs of northern Ashland County.
He also addressed the addition of a newly created Mississippi River zone, which he said had been a historical request from duck hunters in that area. This year it will run from Sept. 24, to Dec. 4, with a 12-day closed period from Oct. 3-14.
"Hunters wanted an earlier opening to take advantage of wood ducks and teal, but still have the opportunity of later hunting until freeze-up," Van Horn said. But, he added, the last four years have resulted in an early freeze on the river.
More than once during the interview Van Horn emphasized the need to monitor water levels and hunting locations in advance of opening day to provide the best possible hunting opportunities during this coming waterfowl season.
"All in all, though," he said, "it looks like 2011 will be a good duck season for Wisconsin."