IL: ‘Historic’ season opens with new duck zone
Marion, Il. – This was the most anticipated duck hunting season in recent Illinois history.
For the first time, the state's waterfowlers kicked off the season with a fourth waterfowl hunting zone. In theory, that means seasons can be set to maximize hunting opportunities, and, again theoretically, hunter satisfaction.
"So far duck migrations in the Illinois river valley have been ahead of normal for early migrants such as teal and pintails and behind for later migrants such as mallards," Ray Marshalla, state waterfowl biologist, said a few days before the new south-central waterfowl zone opened its season.
"The Mississippi River valley has been behind for the most part but picked up recently. Southern Illinois has been behind normal migration until recently as well. We have seen a good movement of ducks into the state, but many mallards seem to be staying north for the most part."
The usual rule of thumb for freeze up to occur causing migration is at least three days in a row where the average daily temperature is at or below 32 degrees, Marshalla explained. The average is calculated by adding the high and low temperatures and dividing by two.
Ducks tend to migrate at night with clear skies and north or northwest winds. They often leave ahead of a front.
Duck hunting in the north zone began Oct. 15. The central zone opened a week later. The south central zone, which includes Rend Lake and other areas north of Illinois 13, began Nov. 12. The south zone opened Thanksgiving Day.
"I think a lot of people are very happy with the addition of the fourth zone," said Marshalla. "There are a few people who aren't happy with the dates they got even with the four zones, but for the most part, it's been very quiet."
Adding to the anticipation is the record duck population. According to the DNR's waterfowl hunting digest, the annual survey of key nesting areas indicated a record 46 million breeding ducks, an 11 percent increase for last year. That figure is 35 percent above the 1955-2010 long-term average.
The mallard fall flight forecast is 11.9 million, about 1.6 million more than last year. The pintail population is 4.4 million, a 26 percent increase from last year. Canvasback, redhead and teal numbers are also up. The green-winged teal breeding population is 2.9 million, 47 percent above the long-term average.
"The North American population is at a record high," Marshalla said. "There are plenty of ducks, it's just a matter of will the weather and habitat conditions bring ducks to hunters in Illinois. They can change their habits in a heartbeat. They'll go where conditions are best.
"We need northwest winds when the ducks are migrating to get them to come through Illinois. If they get blown straight south, they may stay in Missouri, but Missouri has been very dry."
The mallard fall flight forecast is 11.9 million, about 1.6 million more than last year. The pintail population is 4.4 million, a 26 percent increase from last year. Canvasback, redhead and teal numbers are also up.
While areas of northern Illinois were holding record numbers of teal, pintails and shovelers during the early season, mallard numbers remained low.
Marshalla said long-range forecasts indicate a substantial chance of heavier than normal snowfall from Chicago to St. Louis. If that weather materializes, it could be a boon for duck hunters in the deep south.
Food is the other factor in the duck hunting equation.
Because of extensive flooding throughout southern Illinois many state and federal hunting areas weren't able to produce food crops this summer.
"We have quite a few places that don't have much food," Marshalla said. "Carlyle is the worst we've ever seen in terms of food. Hopefully, the ducks will go in there foraging food. They didn't get any corn planted. They had a really wet July and August was hot and dry.
"I think Rend [Lake] is better than Carlyle. I've heard Union County doesn't have much food in their duck hunting area, but I've heard Horseshoe Lake is better."
Despite the lack of food at Carlyle, youngsters participating in the Youth Duck Hunt at Carlyle on Nov. 5-6 shot 453 ducks, an average of 2.5 ducks per hunter.
Lack of food will certainly limit the time ducks spend in the region.
"They'll still come here, but they won't stay as long," Marshalla said. "They're going to find places where they have food."