After lackluster season, no change to Minnesota duck hunt

Scaup and other diving duck abundance increased in most areas, according to the most recent waterfowl migration and hunting report.

Bemidji, Minn. — If you hunting only the first week or two of the 2016 duck-hunting season then never returned to your duck blind, you probably ended your hunt with a relatively good vibe. If, though, you were among the legions who waited for a push of ducks through October, into November, and, in some cases, beyond, you’re probably chalking up last year’s affair as one to forget.

The ducks, of course, did migrate, but when?

“(The duck hunt) was good for a couple of weeks, but at some point (around mid-October), it was poor statewide,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. And, he said, it pretty much stayed that way, with a few exceptions, such as in and around the Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area.

“Everywhere else, it was hard to find good reports,” Cordts said.

His summary description of the season? “No better than fair.”

Nearly everywhere in Minnesota, there remained open water following the close of the duck-hunting season, which had three closing dates due to three zones – north, central, and south  – across the state. The South Zone – the latest – closed Dec. 4.

Cordts said that based on about 50 years of “crude data” he’s collected, it may have been the warmest fall he’s seen. Still, he understands why, with this fall coming on the heels of a relatively warm hunt in 2015, some hunters might be wondering about a season that ends later.

But federal rules limit the number of days duck hunters may hunt ducks (60 days in the Mississippi Flyway), and the matter of extending the season was addressed just a few years ago when the zone structure was created in the state.

At that time, Cordts said, “We saw the writing on the wall” that seasons running later into fall were necessary, primarily in southern Minnesota. Extending it even further, based on the past warm fall, would be a “huge risk,” he said. Jockeying season splits is an option, but that, too, could backfire.

This year, the North Zone duck hunt ran continuously, from Sept. 24 through Nov. 22. In the Central Zone, following the Sept. 24 opener, the season was closed Oct. 3-7. It eventually closed for good Nov. 27. The South Zone in-season closed period was Oct. 3-14.

Is a later opener an option? Years ago, dating back to the 1980s, Cordts said, the season wouldn’t open until the Saturday after Oct. 1. By way of the state Legislature, Congress, and the DNR, the opening date’s been subject to change since then.

From 2005 to 2010, state law dictated the duck season open the Saturday nearest Oct. 1. Since 2011, the opener has been the Saturday nearest Sept. 24.

Cordts said he’s available to take public comments regarding the duck season year-round, through no formal meetings have been scheduled.

Federal framework

As of last week, Cordts said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t issued a framework for the upcoming season, though it’s clear there will be a couple changes – neither of which will affect Minnesota hunters much.

Based on the USFWS harvest management strategy, it appears the pintail bag limit will drop from two birds to one. Also, the black duck limit probably will increase from one to two.

“That’s what the model … calls for,” Cordts said.

Regarding the black duck change: “We shoot a handful here, but it’s sort of irrelevant to us,” he said.

Starting a year ago, those frameworks that guide duck hunting across the nation were based on the previous year’s data. With strong duck counts last spring, it’s considered a foregone conclusion that another “liberal” duck hunt, complete with a six-bird limit, will be in effect this fall.

The federal harvest estimate is released during the summer. During the fall of 2015, it’s estimated Minnesota duck hunters killed about 573,000 birds. The previous year the harvest was about 571,000 ducks, according to the USFWS.

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