John Weiss: A smorgasbord for ducks
We can look at continental or state breeding duck population surveys, acres of wetlands and other factors when wondering how we're going to do duck hunting this year, but the biggest factor is local — do we have the habitat to hold ducks?
On Mississippi River backwaters, which are our main place to hunt, the answer is a thick, luxuriant yes. Thanks to stable and relatively low water levels, vegetation is unusually thick, including a lot of wild rice, said Mary Stefanski, manager of the Winona District of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife & Fish Refuge.
"We are loaded, absolutely loaded — there's wild rice everywhere," she said. She's seeing "rice where we have never seen it before." Big Lake across from Wabasha has "huge beds."
That rice is beginning to shed its seeds, feeding wood ducks and teal. "The birds are just going to love that," she said. Those ducks will be the main ones in the bags when the season opens a half hour before sunrise Saturday.
That habitat is critical for us, because nearly all the ducks we shoot fly in from other parts of the state, country or Canada. We only have some local mallards and woodies.
No matter how strong the fall migration, if we don't have places for the ducks to rest and food for them to eat, they won't linger here.
The second thing working in our favor this year is the Department of Natural Resources' framework. For the first time, the DNR has divided the state into three zones. Down here, we hunt Saturday through Sept. 30. We shut down until Oct. 13 but then, we get hunt to ducks through Dec. 2.
The opener is the earliest since World War II, giving us shots at the woodies and teal that, when we opened in early October, were often gone. With the big gap, we can hunt later than in past years, when we sometimes had to hang up the duck calls well before the birds were gone.
The number of ducks raised throughout continent also offers a lot of optimism, though Minnesota's numbers are poor.
The DNR said Minnesota's estimated mallard breeding population was 225,000, 21 percent lower than 2011 and 17 percent lower than the 10-year average but similar to the long-term average of 226,000 breeding mallards.
Blue-winged teal numbers were estimated at 109,000, which is was 49 percent lower than 2011 and 50 percent below the long-term average of 219,000.
The combined population index of 135,000 other ducks was 29 percent lower than 2011 and 24 percent below the long-term average of 178,000 ducks. Total duck abundance of 469,000, excluding scaup, was 32 percent lower than 2011, 33 percent below the 10-year average and 25% below the long-term average. Canada goose numbers increased 1 percent from 2011.
Steve Cordts, the DNR's top waterfowl manager, said the timing of the survey during the unusually early and warm spring may have meant surveyors missed some ducks.
The loss of a big part of the state's Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, which is very possible in the next year or two, wouldn't be as bad for ducks as pheasants, he said. Not all ducks need grasslands, he said. But in the long run, loss of CRP could be felt, he said.
While he'd love to have record numbers of state ducks, he pointed out that Minnesota ducks make up only a small part of our overall harvest.
To find out how good things are from outside the state, you have to look at the continental breeding survey and it looks very encouraging, especially for divers that make up a lot of our late-season ducks.
The overall population was up 7 percent, with mallards increasing 15 percent, gadwall 10 percent, canvasbacks 10 percent and scaup 21 percent.
If we have open water late in the year, and the ducks are forced out of Canada and the Dakotas by winter, we could have excellent late-season shooting, Cordts said.