Bluebird skies and a chance of ducks on tap for opener

Hopkins, Minn. — For some, it’s a season opener on par in terms of promise and excitement with the fishing opener and the deer-hunting opener. Minnesota’s waterfowlers are generally a dedicated lot, because, mostly, they have to be. Seldom is duck hunting an easy endeavor.

This Saturday, those waterfowlers get the opportunity to do it all again, as the hunting season begins from north to south, one-half hour before sunrise. After that, the season deviates by zone (three of them) across the state.

“Everybody seems jazzed and fired up about the duck opener, as usual,” Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, said earlier this week. “The opener is always pretty good (and, this year) there are good water levels everywhere.”

Duck hunters who followed closely the developments in duck-related studies throughout the year probably are entering the 2015 season with mixed feelings.

After all, Minnesota’s own breeding duck survey this spring showed an increase in total ducks, but a drop by 20 percent in the number of mallards. When that news arrived, state waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts cautioned that the numbers might be somewhat skewed, given unfavorable weather that stretched the May count into perhaps the longest it’s been. And, Cordts said at that time, the later it goes, the fewer mallards typically are counted.

He said, too, that blue-winged teal numbers in the state were about the same as last year.

A short time later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that its count of waterfowl indicated another record high on the breeding grounds of the United States and Canada – around 49.5 million birds.

But waterfowl experts cautioned later that the spring breeding conditions weren’t prime in some locations this year, and production might take a dip, meaning fewer young ducks – those susceptible to decoys – might be arriving in the state as migration continues.

Cordts does weekly aerial surveys of ducks during the waterfowling season, and was scheduled to do the first after Outdoor News press time this week. But he said, however, that among what he was hearing and seeing, was that blue-winged teal numbers are “very high” in the state right now. He expected that to hold well through the opener, as high temperatures for Saturday were expected to be in the low to mid-70s across Minnesota, along with lows in the high 50s to low 60s.

“Conditions are good,” he said Monday. “We aren’t going to lose a lot of teal or wood ducks before the opener.”

He said waterfowlers typically are cautiously optimistic as the season opener approaches. And, Cordts adds, there’s good reason for that.

“Some will have the best opener they’ve ever had, and some will have the worst,” he said.

The Big Three species come opening day are those blue wings, woodies, and mallards. There also could be some ring-necked ducks in the mix, according to Cordts.

There are a couple changes about which waterfowlers should know going into the season. For one thing, the canvasback bag limit has been raised from one to two per day.

Also, according to the 2015 Minnesota Waterfowl Hunting Regulations, “Ducks may now be transported with only a fully-feathered wing attached.”

The season dates in the state’s three zones are as follows: North Zone – Sept. 26 through Nov. 24; Central Zone – Sept. 26 through Oct. 4, and Oct. 10 through Nov. 29; South Zone – Sept. 26 through Oct. 4, and Oct. 15 through Dec. 4.

The daily bag of six ducks may include only four mallards (no more than two hens), three scaup, three wood ducks, two pintails, two redheads, two canvasbacks, and one black duck. 

The regular goose season opens as well on Sept. 26. In all three zones the limit is three Canada geese.

Disease testing

Cordts said some of those ducks harvested by hunters this year will be tested for highly-pathogenic avian influenza, a strain of which wiped out the turkeys on a number of state farms earlier this year.

No waterfowl have tested positive in previous tests, though a Cooper’s hawk and chickadee did test positive for H5N2, which killed about 8 million farmed turkeys and chickens in Minnesota.

The state DNR intends to test about 800 hunter-harvested dabbling ducks this fall via cloacal swabs. Most will be tested in counties where turkey farms were infected – Todd, Morrison, Stearns, Kandiyohi, Meeker, and perhaps Swift, Pope, and McLeod.

“We haven’t found (the high-path AI) in a single (wild) duck or goose in Minnesota,” Cordts said.

He called the virus “more of a cool-weather virus” that state officials fear could resurface this fall.

The duck sampling will be done on a voluntary basis, Cordts said.

New way of doing things

Duck hunters next year likely will have known the details of the duck-hunting season far in advance of the actual event. That’s something most probably won’t have experienced in their respective lifetimes of waterfowling.

That’s because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will go the way of Canada next year – that is to say it will use the previous year’s data to set the season; this year’s data – from spring duck counts to harvest information from this past summer – will be used to set the 2016 season framework.

Federal officials say there’s a fear each year that the regulatory hurdles that must be jumped create a pinch between the offering of a season framework and the actual start of the hunting season. Once that framework is set, states must hustle to create regulations and print regs booklets.

“They’re afraid that some years something might happen (that would cause the framework not to be set in time),” Cordts said.

He expects under the new system that the duck season will be set sometime between December and March.

“There will be time for more comments in the federal register now,” he said, adding that, “I’m not sure that will change things – there are so few comments.”

Nylin said he sees the change as an opportunity to more thoroughly discuss matters of importance to duck hunters prior to the hunting season – things like start dates, season splits within zones, and so on.

“I can understand (some people’s) apprehension,” he said. “But we don’t see this as a negative, ultimately.

“This has been done in Canada for years,” he said. “There are some real advantages to it.” 

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