Duck hunters’ fiery start ended by freezer

A fast start to what became a truncated duck season likely will result in increased harvest numbers in the state, the state’s top waterfowl biologist predicted.

In other words: Illinois’ biting winter trimmed the number of days hunters spent in their blinds – but they had downed so many ducks before the hard freeze arrived that most pots will indeed be filled with ducks and duck soup.

As duck and Canada goose seasons wrapped up at the end of January, Randy Smith was still tabulating reports from hunting sites around the state.

“But at this point it’s looking like an up year,” Smith, who took over the top waterfowl job at DNR last year, said. “There was pretty good hunting for a time, then an early freeze hit in northern parts of the state, which pushed birds to cooling lakes at Braidwood and other places.”

Smith said even popular waterfowling spots downstate experienced shortened seasons due to freezing. Both Carlyle Lake and Rend Lake were affected.

On the bright side, the rough winter appeared to have pushed more Canada geese south.

According to DNR’s weekly aerial waterfowl census, there were more than 40,000 Canada geese in southern Illinois – a number that has not been reached in three years. The Jan. 13 survey showed 44,225 geese in the region, slightly higher than the 10-year average of 38,476. As a point of perspective, the survey conducted at the same point last year showed just 3,850 geese in the region.

“We have seen more geese further south than in past years,” Smith said. “I will have to look at harvest numbers to see if that was something hunters took advantage of, but our surveys did show more geese showing up in the south.”

As far as ducks go, Smith was encouraged at the number of non-mallard dabbling ducks that flew down the Illinois portion of the Mississippi Flyway.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done on the duck habitat, but we did see improvement,” he said.

Back in the summer and fall, DNR officials were looking at a potentially record-breaking season, with their wildlife surveys showing big increases in many breeding populations, including 45.6 million ducks counted.

But like deer hunters, the weather played havoc on the season.

“We froze early in most of our zones, which shortened the season,” Smith reiterated. “But then in other areas where guys depend on the freeze-up for their birds, that early freeze really helped them out, and they harvested a lot of ducks as well.”

Smith said the off-season will see his staff working on habitat projects. Money from the state duck stamp – expected to be just under $1 million – will be put to use. Half of the funds go to Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl for work in the duck breeding areas of Canada. The other half is used for projects here in the state, including those at Sanganois, Rend Lake, Sangchris and others.

Light goose hunters in the state are still working on their season, as the Conservation Order season runs through March 31.

An estimated 4.6 million midcontinent light geese were observed in the 2013 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, a nationwide waterfowl survey conducted by each state which occurs each year in early January.

That estimate was 15 percent more than the number observed in 2012 and is a record high for the third year in a row. Preliminary information on 2013 nesting conditions for midcontinent light geese indicated that the fall population will be similar in size to 2012 and contain a low proportion of young geese.

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