Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Waterfowl season outlook is good, despite drought

Madison — The summer of 2012 will go down in the books as a summer of drought throughout many areas of the country, including central and southern Wisconsin. That’s generally not a good thing for waterfowl, but despite the weather, it could be a pretty good waterfowl season this year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted a record 48.6 million ducks during its 2012 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. This survey has been conducted every year since 1955, and this year’s tally was a 7-percent increase over the previous record, which was established just last year.

“Last year we had a bunch of ducks and made a bunch of ducks,” said Kent Van Horn, DNR migratory game bird ecologist. “This year we had less water, but we still had all of those ducks. We had about an average year for breeding ducks in Wisconsin.”

Even with just average local duck production this year, thanks largely to dry conditions in roughly the southern two-thirds of the state, last year’s super duck crop increased its numbers for this fall.

Van Horn said about 40 percent of Wisconsin’s duck harvest is mallards, 20 percent is wood ducks, and 15 to 20 percent is teal, both blue-winged and green-winged combined.

“The good news is three of those four all breed in Wisconsin,” Van Horn said. “We actually produce a lot of our duck harvest. A big chunk of the birds we’re going to shoot are sitting here in August.”

The continental mallard population is projected at more than 10.6 million birds, which is a 40-percent increase over the survey’s 57-year average. Blue-winged teal came in at an all-time high of 9.2 million, which is a 94-percent increase over the long-term average. Green-winged teal came in at 3.4 million, 74 percent over the long-term average. Wood ducks are not included in the annual survey simply because they’re difficult to spot from the air in their wooded nesting habitat.

But there’s more good news. Hunters will be allowed four scaup daily, an increase from last year’s two-bird limit.

“We’re really happy about it,” said Don Kirby, executive director of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association. “Every duck hunter likes the opportunity to put a few more birds in the bag, but the science behind it is scaup, which had been in decline, have actually leveled and improved some.”

Scaup numbers have now increased for seven years in a row.

More good news: Canvasbacks were at 760,000, which is a 33-percent increase over the long-term average. Wisconsin hunters will have a full canvasback season with a one-bird daily bag limit. In fact, canvasback numbers fell just short of the threshold to allow for a two-bird daily limit – not bad for a species that was closed to hunting just a few years ago.

The only notable change to the duck season framework is a split in the Northern Zone. Waterfowl season will be closed in that zone Nov. 5-9.

“A couple of our groups in the northern part of the state both advocated in favor of running the season through the end of Thanksgiving,” Kirby said. “It will be a one-year experiment and we’ll go from there. Basically, it moves days from midweek to days that a lot of folks have off over Thanksgiving.”

Van Horn and Kirby think the split in the north won’t negatively affect harvest.

“Last year we had the big discussion about duck zones,” Van Horn said. “I had harvest data by week throughout the duck season. When you look at the graph of that, the first week we harvest the most and it’s pretty much step-wise all the way down. By Nov. 1, we’ve harvested 87 percent of the ducks we’re going to harvest.”

So, here’s the framework: It’ll be a 60-day season with a daily bag limit of six ducks – four mallards (one hen), three woodies, one black duck, two redheads, four scaup, two pintails, and one canvasback.

Season dates are:

  • Northern Zone – Sept. 22-Nov. 4 and Nov. 10-25;
  • Southern Zone – Sept. 29-Oct. 7 and Oct. 13-Dec. 2;
  • Mississippi River Zone – Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 13-Dec. 2.

The youth waterfowl hunt runs Sept. 15-16.

Things are looking good for goose hunters, as well.

“In the goose world, the last five years we’ve had a stable goose season,” Van Horn said. “We harvest the ones that breed in Ontario (the Mississippi Valley Population) and the ones raised locally in Wisconsin (giant Canadas). The local ones are going up, but the MVP has actually gone down for the last five years.

“We agreed at the flyway meeting to proceed cautiously with liberal seasons,” Van Horn said. “What that means is we’re going to add seven days to our season.”

Exterior Zone goose hunters will now have a 92-day goose season with a two-bird daily limit, in addition to the 15-day early September Canada goose season. That gives Exterior Zone hunters a total of 107 days to chase geese.

Prospects look good for the early September Canada goose season, as locally reared goose numbers continue to rise.

The early Canada goose season opened Sept. 1 and continues through Sept. 15 statewide with a daily bag limit of five geese.

Other season dates are:

  • Exterior Zone North – Sept. 16-Nov. 4 and Nov. 10-Dec. 21;
  • Exterior Zone South – Sept. 16-Oct. 7 and Oct. 13-Dec. 21;
  • Exterior Zone Mississippi River – Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 13-Jan. 3.
    Horicon Zone hunters may select the early season (H1) or the late season (H2). Hunters can receive six tags, with a daily bag limit of two geese. Season dates are:
  • Horicon 1 – Sept. 16-Oct. 28;
  • Horicon 2 – Oct. 29-Dec. 16.

“Our experience is going to be determined by how much water there is, the weather, and how much we scout,” Van Horn said.

He found that hunters who did not scout shot an average of 4.8 birds. Those who scouted one time shot 7.1 birds. Those who scouted two times shot 8.1 birds, and those who scouted three or more times  averaged 14.7 birds.

One other thing: The drought-like conditions experienced in many areas of the state have had the same effect on wetlands as prescribed drawdowns. Lowering the water allows many types of annual duck foods to take off.

“The one piece of good news about the drought is the amount of duck food that has grown. If we get some water back between now and the season, ducks are going to stay because there’s just tons and tons of food,” Kirby said.

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