Bemidji, Minn. — If, for some unfortunate reason, you couldn’t participate in last weekend’s traditional duck opener in Minnesota, you missed out on, as one waterfowler mused on social media, a “hunting bonanza.”
Steve Cordts, Minnesota DNR waterfowl staff specialist, said reports from wildlife managers and hunter bag checks across the state found many happy waterfowlers – even if excessively dry conditions made wetland and shallow lake access tough in many areas
“It was a very good to excellent opener for a lot of hunters,” Cordts said on Monday afternoon. “That’s my assessment based on the reports I’ve gotten.”
In fact, the ongoing drought likely played a critical role in hunter success, said Matt Loftness, Minnesota DNR conservation officer in the Marshall area. He said dry wetland basins concentrated hunters and ducks alike.
“Many smaller sloughs are completely dry … and the concentration of hunters into fewer areas kept the ducks moving around on the opener,” said Loftness, adding that it was one of the best openers he’s ever worked. “It really was unbelievable. Lots of limits, with teal, woodies, gadwalls, and pintails. Hunters were set up on the bigger water and it paid off.”
At the 7,100-acre Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River in northwestern Minnesota, DNR Area Wildlife Manager Kyle Arola said hunters had a banner opener, with strong participation throughout the weekend, despite low water levels. Hunters averaged 3.6 birds per hunter.
“Opening Saturday was the second-most successful one we have had on record,” Arola said, adding that ducks per hunter on Sunday fell to 1.6, based on bag checks of 85 waterfowlers. “The top birds in the bag over the weekend were green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, and wigeon.”
Added Arola: “Cover is in great shape for concealing boats, and we had a lot of happy hunters.”
At Roseau WMA, Cordts said waterfowlers averaged about 3.4 ducks per hunter on Saturday, the best opener in 20 years. “It was a great opener for many in northwest Minnesota,” he said.
At Canosia WMA near Duluth, Cordts said hunters averaged about 1.4 ducks per hunter (the average is 0.9), the best opener in two decades.
At historic Lake Christina in Douglas and Grant counties, hunting pressure was heavy and hunter success was high.
“Limits were the rule,” said Nick Brown, the DNR’s wildlife lakes/Red River Basin specialist, of opening day, with hunters shooting mostly blue- and green-winged teal. “Most groups were off the by lake by 8:30 a.m. It was really good.”
Early fall rains blanketed large swathes of the state during the weekend, with some areas getting several inches of rain while others barely got a sprinkle. DNR wildlife managers believe the rain will improve hunter access in some areas of the state, though most areas are so parched that the ground “just sucked up the moisture,” as one official put it.
On Monday, Brown said the Lake Christina area got about 5 inches of rain, which only slightly increased water levels on the lake.
“Most of it just soaked in … because we’ve been so dry,” Brown said. “But habitat conditions are good. Lake Christina should attract a lot of ducks during the migration.”
Adam Kleinschmidt is a wetlands specialist with the DNR. He said the multi-year drought has improved the health and productivity of wetland basins throughout Minnesota, many of which haven’t experienced a natural drought cycle in many years. That’s particularly true in the state’s agricultural region.
As a result, water quality has improved. So, too, has the quality of vegetation. Ducks have responded. Duck recruitment from this year’s spring breeding effort appears good in many areas of the state, DNR wildlife managers say.
“There’s a lot of high-quality duck food out there to keep and attract ducks,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s dry, but many of the wetlands that have water are in good condition, thanks to the drought.”
Kleinschmidt and a friend hunted the opener on a public area in Stevens County. They both shot limits of puddle ducks.
“It’s the most hunters I’ve probably ever seen in my life on an opener,” he said. “Even with the pressure of the early teal season and the following youth hunt, basins were full of ducks. Obviously, duck recruitment was strong this year.”
In the metro area, Jim LaBarre, a DNR area wildlife manager at Carlos Avery WMA in Forest Lake, said hunters had a solid opener, despite dry conditions. Hunters averaged 2.0 ducks per hunter on the opener, which is above the historic average (1.5).
“Many of our pools are mud flats, decreasing access and concentrating hunters on the few pools with open water,” LaBarre said. “Hunters who scouted had success over those who just showed up at their traditional opening-day locations.”
In western Minnesota, Lac qui Parle WMA typically has some of the best early-season hunting in the state. Not so this year. Cordts said waterfowlers averaged 2.0 birds per hunter, down from the historic average (2.4). Last year, the average per hunter was 5.9.
“It’s a respectable number, but a little off compared to the average,” he said.
At Swan Lake in Nicollet in southern Minnesota, DNR Area Wildlife Manager Stein Innvaer conducted bag checks on the lake’s south public access on the opener.
“I checked 20 parties … and came up with an average of 2.6 ducks per hunter,” he said, adding that the long-term average is 1.74. “Participation was a little bit lower … but this may have been due to the thunderstorms and lightning that morning, and the continuing low water levels from the management drawdown we did last year.”
Meanwhile, the fall soybean and corn harvest across the state is well ahead of schedule. That could jump-start field hunting in some areas. “Both soybeans and corn are coming out fast,” Loftness said.
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On Monday, Cordts said the weather forecast for roughly the next two weeks calls for mild temperatures throughout most of the state. That means few migrants will be pushing south.
“The birds we have are going to be around a while, unless hunting pressure moves them out,” said Cordts, who works in Bemidji. “It’s likely going to be super mild and we’re not expecting frost even around here. Hopefully after that, big numbers of migrants will start to push through. But we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
The DNR said 61,574 state duck stamps had been sold through Monday, down about 2.6% from a year ago, continuing a general downward hunter-number trend.
“This year would be fewest sold through opening weekend since 1977 when we started the state stamp,” Cordts said.
According to Cordts, roughly 50% of the state’s total annual duck harvest occurs during the season’s first nine days. Five duck species (mallards, wood ducks, blue- and green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks) make up about 80% of the state’s annual harvest, he said.
The DNR will also conduct a waterfowl-hunter survey in early January. The primary topic: the early five-day teal season, Cordts said.