Mallards, hunters ready for rematch

Springfield — If you’re a hunter who buys into estimates put forth by federal scorekeepers, there’s plenty of reason to look at last year’s Illinois duck season and grumble out a good ole “it can’t get any worse than that.”

Translation: Things are going to get better.

Take a look at the number mallards killed in 2012 – almost 75,000 fewer than in 2011. That’s according to calculations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which indicated in its annual Hunting and Harvest survey that Illinois waterfowlers took 197,579 mallards last year, compared to 271,428 the year before. There were fewer hunters, too – 34,100 mallard hunters in 2011, but only 26,200 last year.

On the bright side, fewer hunters resulted in the mallards-per-hunter average to actually climb from 14.9 in 2011 to 15.3 in 2012. Waterfowlers are hoping for a better 2013, and the seasons officially kicks off with the Oct. 19 regular duck season in the north zone. The central zone duck season begins  Oct. 26, while the south central zone season and the south zone season open Nov. 9 and Nov. 28, respectively.

This season’s daily bag limit is six ducks, including no more than four mallards (two hens), three wood ducks, one mottled duck, two redheads, three scaup, two pintails, two canvasbacks, and one black duck.  The proposed daily bag limit of mergansers is five, only two of which may be hooded mergansers. The possession limit for ducks and mergansers is three times the daily bag limit by species and sex.  

For Canada geese and white-fronted geese, the daily bag limit will be two, with a possession limit of six.  For snow geese, the proposed daily bag limit is 20 birds, with no possession limit.  

As always, weather will play a major role in the success of the 2013-14 waterfowls seasons. The USFWS has predicted a solid fall flight, but weather conditions and food supply along the rivers in the Mississippi Flyway will also be factors. According to the USFWS, the total breeding duck estimate in the traditional survey area was 45.6 million birds, down a bit from last year's total but about even with the 2011 estimate – the second-largest population on record.

Mallards had a breeding population of 10.4 million birds in the traditional survey area, the USFWS reported. That’s consistent with the 2012 estimate and 36 percent above the long-term average.

In nearly 60 years of surveys by the USFWS, this was the first time that mallard numbers exceeded 10 million birds in back-to-back years.
Improved duck counts don’t necessarily guarantee a bountiful hunting season along the Illinois portion of the Mississippi Flyway, but waterfowl conservation groups say there is reason for long-term optimism – and still reasons to be concerned about some species.

“Populations of mallards, canvasbacks, redheads, gadwalls, blue- and green-winged teal, and northern shovelers remained above their North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals,” Dale Humburg, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited, said. “Despite the good news in this year’s survey, we continue to be concerned about populations of scaup and northern pintails, which remained below their long-term averages, as well as ongoing habitat loss across the Prairie Pothole Region and in other high-priority waterfowl areas.”

The Mississippi Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the prairies, Great Lakes region, Western Boreal Forest and Arctic. Populations of all common duck species were statistically unchanged in 2013, except for green-winged teal and scaup, which decreased, and American wigeon, which increased.

Looking again at the 2012 seasons, the total harvest numbers for all ducks and geese in Illinois were down, according to the USFWS report, which presents hunter activity and harvest estimates from the HIP surveys.

It shows total waterfowl hunters in the state dropped from 37,600 in 2011 to 31,100 in 2012. Total ducks shot in 2011 in the state was 507,000, while the 2012 total came in at 401,200.

Canada goose hunters shot 92,719 birds last year, down from the 2011 harvest of 104,097. The number of Canada goose hunters dropped from 21,200 in 2011 to 19,600 in 2012.

Overall, the report estimates the number of waterfowl hunters in the state at 31,100 in 2012, down from 37,600 in 2011.

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