Late waterfowl hunt a pleasure in 2018, but changes coming in 2019
What a difference a year can make. Last year, the waterfowl opener greeted us with some of the worst conditions ever. Yes, we had a great shoot, but it took me a day to thaw out from record-breaking cold. This year, the conditions were some of the most favorable I can ever remember.
It was 7:15 a.m. on opening day of the Western Zone waterfowl season. Everything was in place, including decoys, blind and heaters. It was legal shooting time on the Upper Niagara River and the five of us were ready for action, including John Van Hoff and Randy Tyrrell of North Tonawanda, Bob Lods of Cheektowaga, and Paul Sawicki of Angola. Temperatures were in the 30s with a slight breeze. It was comfortable, and plenty of birds were in the air.
The weather wasn’t the only thing that was different for our opening day foray into the wild. When the birds started flying, it was mostly “whistlers,” the nickname given to the goldeneye species. We had quite a shoot for those fleet-winged fowl and we did quite well. We had a few other species mixed in like bufflehead and mallards, but most of the birds were whistlers. One year ago, it was almost all mallards. In fact, we had our limit of greenheads in a relatively short amount of time a year ago. That’s going to change in 2019.
Mallard ducks are facing some tough times in that overall population levels are down about 20 percent since 1998. After some wrestling around on what the outcome would be, it appears the daily limit for mallards will now be no more than two birds per person and only one may be a hen starting this year. Duck seasons will not be reduced as far as number of days, keeping a 60-day season in the Atlantic Flyway.
The Eastern mallard breeding population was at its highest in 2004, when numbers reached 1.1 million birds. However, duck numbers have dropped significantly since then, now sporting an estimate of 650,000 birds.
Canada goose populations are also facing some difficulties. Due to some of the worst Atlantic Flyway Canada goose production in more than two decades, Canada goose hunters in some areas will be looking at a daily limit of two birds. Hunters in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia will be looking at a one-bird limit. That’s extreme, but necessary according to Atlantic Flyway biologists. In the Atlantic population zones, the season will also be reduced from 50 days to just 30 days as well. In New York, these regulations will affect the West-Central, East-Central, Northeast, Hudson Valley and Lake Champlain areas.
Also contributing to the 2019-20 restrictions was a 30 percent decline in Atlantic population of Canada geese based on the most recent breeding survey. This does not impact the North Atlantic or “resident” population Canada goose zones. This will all be further explained later this year when dates and limits are announced.
Most waterfowlers understand and appreciate the difficult decision that needed to be made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Atlantic Flyway Council. It’s a balancing act to manage the resource while keeping hunters happy. In the Chesapeake Bay Region where Maryland, Delaware and Virginia are being reduced to one goose per day, it may not be worth the effort of going through all the motions. Waterfowl hunting has a long and storied history in the region and it will take considerable effort to keep that heritage moving forward.
That same argument will undoubtedly be made by hunters in New York goose areas who will be reduced from three to two birds next year. It’s possible you could spend a couple of hours setting up for a morning hunt, only to have it over within five minutes – depending on the day, of course. We need to look at the big picture and not get discouraged. Don’t hang up those waterfowl calls just yet.
Once again, the hunt on this opener was most enjoyable. What really made our day, though, was not the limit of birds we harvested. It was not the weather. It was the people that we shared this adventure with that really made a difference. It was the banter back and forth that kept us all on our toes as we tried to out-shoot and out-talk one another on a dock on the Niagara River. It was a great way to end 2018 and plan for the next season.