Duck zones and split seasons

November 17, 2014

That was fast.

Mallard

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some years, it takes a while for winter to arrive. There’s a flurry here and there, and you notice the mercury not going as high as it did yesterday or last week. When you add up all the indicators, you decide winter has arrived.

This year, winter arrived in a hurry. There was snow on the ground, single-digit highs, and cold winds. Boom, boom, boom. Woe be the person who didn’t have his jacket ready to go, or who didn’t bring in the hoses from outside.

And woe be the duck hunter. In many parts of the state, things froze up and duck hunting ended in a hurry. Some people probably set down their shotgun and picked up their ice-fishing rods. That’s how fast things happened.

While there’s still a week or two of duck hunting left in Minnesota, it is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much over. Especially if you hunt over water. (There’s still some good field-hunting to be had.) In the North Zone, the season closes Nov. 25. It closes Nov. 30 in the Central Zone, and Dec. 6 in the South Zone. The latter two zones are open later in the year because of season splits that resulted in the season being closed for a few days in September and October. The idea of the splits is to give people the opportunity to hunt late in the season.

But, predictably, a lot of people are grumbling about giving up days during the middle of the season.

So, the question is this: Do you support season splits, even with the knowledge that in years like this, they may result in basically losing hunting days?

Trumpeter_Swans_in_Flight

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It happens sometimes that hunters misidentify birds. While we all would like to know with 100 percent certainty what we’re shooting at, the reality is that sometimes we’re surprised by what falls from the sky.

That’s especially true with some species of ducks, and at certain times of the year. And so long as we’re aware of the possibility and ensure before we pull the trigger that what we’re shooting won’t put us in violation of the law, it’s not a huge deal.

But there’s been an alarming number of instances this season in which waterfowl hunters have killed non-target species. Based on reports from DNR conservation officers, the most common seems to be trumpeter swans. It’s illegal to kill one, so that’s a problem.

And in the end, it happens for one of two reasons: Hunters identify the bird as a swan and pull the trigger anyway, or they simply don’t identify what they’re shooting at before pulling the trigger.

Unfortunately, there’s probably not a whole lot (short of reporting the activity to law enforcement) that can be done for the former. For the latter, you hope it’s a learning experience – and that if someone else didn’t report their misdeed, they reported it themselves.

It’s hard to know why there’s an apparent increase in the number of swans getting shot this year. At least some reports indicate they were killed by inexperienced hunters – first-time waterfowlers who made an honest mistake. That doesn’t bring back the dead bird, of course, but hopefully it’s a sufficiently jarring experience that they never again squeeze the trigger before they’re certain what they’ll kill.

Anecdotal reports and state duck stamp sales indicate there’s pretty good interest in duck hunting this fall. That’s good. But this is a good reminder for all of us – especially if we’re trying to pass on our waterfowling heritage by bringing someone out with us – to identify what’s flying in front of us before making the shot.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton last month unveiled plans to hold a Pheasant Summit in Minnesota, similar to what South Dakota has done. The Summit is set for Dec. 13 in Marshall.

Ringnecked_pheasant

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of course, there’s an election between now and then, but Dayton’s challenger – Republican Jeff Johnson – has, according to media reports, said he’ll move forward with the Summit if he beats Dayton in the Nov. 4 election. (We’ll take this opportunity to remind you to vote.)

Pheasants aren’t ducks, but we at the Minnesota Waterfowl Association are in full support of the idea of a Pheasant Summit. In many ways, good habitat for pheasants is good habitat for ducks. Simply put, more grassland in the state would be a good thing, and so often those grasslands are associated with the wetlands we need for ducks.

In Minnesota, we’re lucky enough to have money to spend on conservation – about $100 million per year from the Outdoor Heritage Fund alone. Hopefully, the Summit will generate ideas for improving the lot of pheasants in the state, and we can fund some of those initiatives via these dedicated dollars we have. In any case, it never hurts to have the state’s top government official not only familiar with the issues facing the prairie portion of our state, but leading the charge to do something about it. And kudos to challenger Johnson for seeing the positive aspects of a Pheasant Summit.

Duck reports
Despite what’s been weather that isn’t exactly conducive to duck hunting, we’ve been hearing some fantastic reports from hunters around the state, particularly this past weekend.

It seems like ringnecks are loaded to the north and have started filtering into more central portions of the state, while hunters in more southern areas still are enjoying shoots that include species including teal and wood ducks.

It’s seasons like these that can go a long way toward rejuvenating duck hunting in Minnesota, so, please, consider taking a new hunter with you into the field.

Here is the most recent Minnesota waterfowl migration report from the DNR.

Second duck opener on tap

October 8, 2014

Bluewinged_tealdrake

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Who’s ready for the duck opener?

Yeah, yeah, we know the real opener already happened last month. That beautiful, hot September Saturday.
But for hunters in the southern two-thirds of the state, there’s another opener on Saturday. While the season in the North Duck Zone is a continuous one and runs Sept. 27 through Nov. 25, the season has been closed in the Central and South Duck zones.

The Central Zone has been closed this week, while the South Zone has been closed last week and this week. Both reopen on Saturday.

Last year’s second opener was pretty good, especially in the South Duck Zone, and we expect more of the same this year. By the time the season kicks off again, the ducks will have had 11 days without being targeted. The impact of the closure will probably be less in the Central Duck Zone, which will have been closed for only five days.

Given that we had a pretty good cold front move through the state late last week – some areas even got snow! – it’s likely some blue-winged teal already have bolted. So it will be interesting to see what’s around for hunters this weekend.

All in all, though, it’s shaping up to be a pretty darn good season, with many reports of good hunting and lots of ducks.
That likely is part of the reason why the DNR has sold more state duck stamps this year than at the same time last year. As of earlier this week, the agency had sold 79,002, which compares with 75,659 at the same time last year.

We probably don’t have to remind you that Saturday marks the beginning of the 2014 duck season in Minnesota. A quick glance at the forecast reveals temperatures are likely to be high, so it may behoove you to remember your sunscreen and bug spray along with your guns and decoys.

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The following is the DNR’s press release about the forthcoming opener. We hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable hunt.

Good waterfowl opener expected this weekend

(Released September 22, 2014)

When Minnesota’s regular waterfowl season opens one-half hour before sunrise on Saturday, Sept. 27, hunting is likely to be good, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“The number of breeding ducks this spring was very high based on the continental duck breeding population surveys,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. “In addition, recruitment, or the number of young ducks that hatched, was also good this year based on reports we’ve heard. These young ducks comprise a large percentage of duck hunters’ bags during the fall.”

Wetland conditions were favorable and the total continental breeding population of all ducks combined was more than 49 million ducks, which is 8 percent above last year and 43 percent above long-term averages, Cordts said. However, duck numbers can fluctuate widely at this time of year for a variety of reasons.

“Some species like blue-winged teal and wood ducks are very early migrants and many move south even before the season opens, which is normal,” Cordts said. “But many other species like ring-necked ducks and mallards will continue to increase in number as migrants move down from Canada during the season.”

Canada goose hunting should also be good early in the regular waterfowl season.

“Large numbers of Canada geese move into the state in mid- to late September. These were nonbreeding geese from Minnesota that moved to northern Canada during the summer to molt their flight feathers. These geese are new arrivals to Minnesota and provide good Canada goose hunting opportunity early in the season,” Cordts said.

Waterfowl habitat conditions are generally good statewide with much higher water levels than last year at this time.

The DNR will post a weekly waterfowl migration report each week during the duck season. The reports are typically posted on Thursday.

“If you haven’t been duck hunting in a few years, this may be a good year to get back out in the marsh,” Cordts said. “Hunter numbers have been very low compared to historic averages.”

Last fall, about 90,000 state waterfowl stamps were sold, which is similar to recent years but considerably lower than the 1970s, when 140,000 waterfowl stamps were sold.

The duck season structure is similar to recent years except for an adjustment in the duck season dates in the south duck zone only. In the south duck zone, the season opens for a three-day period from Sept. 27 through Monday, Sept. 29. The season is closed until it reopens Saturday, Oct. 11 and runs through Saturday, Dec. 6.

Waterfowl hunting regulations are available wherever DNR licenses are sold and online.

The following is a press release the DNR issued today, in advance of the designation of the state’s 50th wildlife lake.

A state program that provides wildlife habitat by managing Minnesota’s shallow lakes will celebrate a major milestone on Friday, Sept. 5.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr will designate Eagle Lake in McLeod County as the 50th designated wildlife lake in a ceremony at the Ras-Lynn Wildlife Management Area on Eagle Lake south of Hutchinson.

“It’s an honor to celebrate the state’s 50th designated wildlife lake,” Landwehr said. “This represents a powerful and enduring accomplishment for the state’s wildlife and its citizens. Permanent habitat conservation is the key to the long-term health of species enjoyed by waterfowl hunters and wildlife watchers.”

Since the late 1960s, the DNR has worked with partners and local communities to create designated wildlife lakes.

Today, some of the best lakes for supporting waterfowl are designated as wildlife lakes. The designation allows the DNR to manage water levels of shallow lakes – generally less than 15 feet deep – as well as regulate motorized watercraft and recreational vehicles. This aids aquatic plant growth, which boosts the number of waterfowl that congregate in the area. And that equates to more ducks overhead for waterfowl hunters and wildlife enthusiasts.

Start to finish, it takes community support and often years of planning to designate a wildlife lake. There must be a public review process that includes a public hearing, and the DNR seeks the support of community members, landowners and conservation groups.

“The DNR appreciates the individuals, communities and organizations that have supported wildlife lake designations over the decades,” Landwehr said. “We would not be celebrating the designation of the 50th wildlife lake without their strong support.”

The pace of designating wildlife lakes could quicken in the future thanks to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment approved by Minnesota citizens in 2008. The DNR is using this new source of habitat conservation revenue to step up its shallow lake management efforts.

Partner groups have increasingly been putting forth the funding and legwork, from local groups to large organizations. Looking back, the statute that created wildlife lake designation was passed in 1969 with great support from the Southern Minnesota Waterfowl Lake Improvement Association, now the Minnesota Waterfowl Association (MWA).

The original push to create the MWA in the 1960s involved a group of waterfowl hunters wanting to do more to attract migrating waterfowl and provide nesting opportunities, said Brad Nylin, MWA executive director.

“They had a plan to work with the DNR to create these shallow lakes, referred to at the time as game lakes,” he said. “The original battle cry of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association was ‘Save the Game Lakes’ and the MWA was launched because of this battle cry. The MWA has been, and is to this day, a strong proponent for lake designation, and we are hoping that this is just the beginning and we can get 50 more lakes designated in the near future.”

Among numerous other groups that have joined the effort to designate wildlife lakes is Ducks Unlimited, which has partnered with the DNR to enhance shallow lakes and restore and protect shoreland around them, said Jon Schneider, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited.

“Our partnership with the Minnesota DNR is at the core of our Living Lakes conservation initiative that strives to enhance shallow lakes from Iowa through northern Minnesota for both migrating and breeding ducks,” Schneider said.

Beginning with large water control structures on Swan Lake and other large wetland projects in the late 1980s, Ducks Unlimited has provided bio-engineering partnership assistance to the DNR to make shallow lakes as healthy and productive as possible.
 

“Designated wildlife lakes are critical to making this partnership work for ducks and hunters alike,” Schneider said. “We sincerely thank and congratulate the Minnesota DNR and Commissioner Landwehr for reaching this important milestone of Eagle Lake being the 50th shallow lake designated for wildlife management purposes.”

At Eagle Lake
The majority of designated wildlife lakes are in southern and central Minnesota. Some of the most well-known waterfowl lakes in the state are designated wildlife lakes, including Swan, Heron and Christina. Eagle Lake is the second of likely six lakes that will be designated in 2014 and gets the unique honor of being the 50th.

Eagle Lake will be getting a new water control structure to allow drawdowns, which will improve waterfowl habitat and water quality. As an example of how these projects often rely on public funding and private partnerships, the Eagle Lake structure is possible because of an easement from a private landowner, with help from local watershed district staff. The structure was designed and will be constructed by Ducks Unlimited with Outdoor Heritage funding from sales tax dollars generated by the Legacy Amendment.

“Through active management of designated wildlife lakes and other shallow lakes, we are striving to provide better habitat for ducks and other wildlife,” said Nicole Hansel-Welch, DNR Shallow Lakes Program supervisor. “These management activities are generally supported by duck hunters and birders alike because they recognize the multiple benefits that clear water and abundant vegetation bring to many different species of wildlife.”

Not all shallow lakes need or are desired to be designated as wildlife lakes. But having wildlife lakes designated helps ensure the protection of important waterfowl habitat for generations to come.

That was part of the idea of Dick Lindell, one of four founders of the MWA who started the group under a unified mission to save the game lakes at a time in the ’60s when Lindell said conditions weren’t that good for ducks. He said he’s very glad the program has continued.

“I’m very glad it kept going and it’s grown,” Lindell said.

The public is invited to attend the Sept. 5 event, but parking is limited so carpooling is encouraged. For more information on the DNR’s shallow lakes program, including wildlife lake designations, see http://www.mndnr.gov/wildlife/shallowlakes. For more information on the event at Eagle Lake, contact Nicole Hansel-Welch at 218-833-8626 or nicole.hanselwelch@state.mn.us.

Q&A: Five questions about designated wildlife lakes

Q: What is a designated wildlife lake?
A: These lakes are generally shallow lakes with abundant aquatic vegetation which provides food and habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife species. A designated wildlife lake is done through Minnesota Statute 97A.101, which gives the DNR the authority to manage water levels and surface use for the benefit of wildlife.
 
Q: How does designation work?
A: The DNR drafts a management plan and allows landowners and local units of government and other interested parties to review and comment on the plan and then holds a public hearing. If there is public support at the hearing, the commissioner can designate the lake via a Commissioner’s Order. Also during the process, engineers design water control structures that will allow water level management without flooding downstream properties. The entire process can take more than two years to complete but water level management is complex and many pieces of a plan have to come together for it to work.

Q: Does the DNR want to designate all shallow lakes as wildlife management lakes?
A: No, designation is considered a tool that is used when needed. Water level management is not feasible on all shallow lakes. The DNR’s priority for designation or some other form of management is on lakes that have publicly managed wild lands on parts of their shorelines. For example, the Ras-Lyn Wildlife Management Area on Eagle Lake makes it a priority for management for the DNR.

Q: Is designation the only thing needed in order for the DNR to manage water levels on a lake?
A: No, it is just one of many things needed. Also needed in some cases are easements from private landowners if the DNR does not own the outlet of the lake, agreements with counties or townships if the construction includes road culverts and several permits are also required, both at the state and federal level.

Q: What results are expected from water level management?
A: Improvements in water clarity aquatic vegetation are expected. Timing and extent of the drawdown will determine what types of vegetation will respond. Some drawdowns are timed to encourage the growth of both emergent (cattails and bulrush) and submerged vegetation (for example, sago pondweed) and some are timed to only encourage submerged vegetation to grow.

mallard11

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Anyone else feel like the summer just blew right by?

That’s not a complaint. Just a statement. After all, hunting is just around the corner (though some people already have hunted geese during the special August season).

The dove season kicks off Sept. 1, followed by the early Canada goose season on Sept. 6. Youth Waterfowl Day is set for Sept. 13, and the regular duck opener is Sept. 27.

But before we look ahead to those seasons, let’s look back to last year. The DNR recently released its annual small-game hunter survey report, which includes a variety of data about license sales and hunting success.

Hunters last year killed 782,810 ducks, which is down slightly from 2012, but the second-highest harvest since 2003. One piece of information that’s especially interesting is the estimated harvest per hunter, which was 10.2 ducks. That’s the highest number in more than a decade, and indicative of a pretty good hunting season.

There was good news, too, in the number of duck stamps the state sold. The 2013 total was 90,483, which marks the third consecutive year that number has increased. While it’s nowhere near the number we’ve sold in the past, it at least seems to be stabilizing.

Finally, there were 76,950 duck hunters in the state last year, according to the report. That’s the second-highest in the past five years. Like stamp sales, it’s well below what we’ve seen in the past – there were about 140,000 duck hunters each year in the 1970s – but it does seem to be stabilizing at right around 80,000 or so. Would we like to see that number grow? Of course. On the other hand, stable is better than declining.

Exciting August for MWA

August 20, 2014

It’s been an exciting August here at the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. Many of us are just back from another hugely successful Woodie Camp. It’s a lot of work to put on the annual week-long cDSCN0294_mediumamp, but the rewards far outweigh what we put into it.

It’s so exciting to be watching the next generation of waterfowlers and conservationists coming of age. You can see photos from throughout the week, and read daily accounts, here.

We’d also like to mention that Outdoor News recently awarded the Minnesota Waterfowl Association – and Woodie Camp, specifically – with its annual Outdoor Leaders award. It was quite an honor, and our president, Mark McNamara, accepted the award on the first Sunday of Game Fair. Outdoor News also gave a $500 check to Woodie Camp.

Following is the press release from Outdoor News announcing the award:

Outdoor News, Inc., Awards Minnesota Waterfowl Association the 2014 Outdoor Leaders Award
(Plymouth, Minn.) – Outdoor News, Inc., publisher of locally written fishing and hunting outdoor newspapers in seven Great Lake states, has named the Minnesota Waterfowl Association its recipient for the 2014 Outdoor Leaders Award. The award announcement occurred at Game Fair in Ramsey, Minn., on Saturday, August 9th. Game Fair is the largest annual gathering of sportsmen, outdoors organization, and hunting-related businesses in Minnesota.

In presenting the award to MWA President Mark McNamara, Outdoor News Associate Editor Joe Albert cited the organization’s 26-year legacy of encouraging youth ages 13-15 to participate in a week-long waterfowling experience called Woodie Camp. “Outdoor News recognizes the level of access and depth of experience that youth are exposed to through Woodie Camp,” Albert said. McNamara elaborated by telling the audience, “Woodie campers learn valuable lessons about conservation, wetland restoration, waterfowl protection, duck and goose calling, decoy care and placement, and ethical hunting skills.”

The Minnesota Waterfowl Association coordinates and sponsors the participating youth involved in the week-long summer camp. Brad Nylin, a Woodie Camp staff member and executive director of the MWA, related the mission behind this youth-orientated program when he said, “The name of the game is to introduce young people to waterfowling. When they leave camp each year, you see that we’ve created duck hunters.”

The success of Woodie Camp, and a second course for camp alumni called Advanced Woodie Camp (an application of skills learned in an actual hunting scenario) has served as a model for other states looking to bring waterfowling experiences to young people, according to Nylin. Organizations from Michigan to South Carolina have visited Woodie Camp to try and emulate the program in their own states.

In addition to a plaque, Woodie Camp received a $500 donation from Minnesota Outdoor News. Read complete coverage of the award and the MWA programs in the August 15, 2014, edition (pages 28 and 29) of Minnesota Outdoor News.

Outdoor News provides in-depth coverage of hunting and shooting sports, fishing, archery, conservation and outdoor activities including analysis of state and national outdoor agencies, local lake maps and fishing reports, expert tips and relevant gear profiles. Robert A. Drieslein is the president of the privately held company established in 1968. With regional editors, columnists and sales representatives in seven states, Outdoor News Inc. publishes newspapers in Minnesota 52 times a year and in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York 26 times a year. Outdoor News Inc. newspapers are subscription based mail periodicals with a verified circulation of over a quarter million including newsstand copies. New York Outdoors News is available through digital subscription as well. For more information about Outdoor News, Inc, visit http://www.outdoornews.com or call (800) 535-5191.

As expected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a liberal duck season once again this fall. That means 60 days, with a six-duck bag limit.

We haven’t heard yet when Minnesota’s season will open (it likely will be Sept. 27) or details about how the bag limits will break down. Nor do we know how the agency will deal with the possibility of bonus teal in the bag during the early part of the season.

But those details should be available in the very near future, so we’ll keep you posted.

This week has been extremely busy, as we prepare for what promises to be another awesome week of Woodie Camp next week.

We’ll write more when we know more.

Bluewinged_teal__drake

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

We should know as soon as today – and for sure by tomorrow – what the frameworks will be for this fall’s duck season. One thing is for sure: The chances it’s anything other than another liberal, 60-day season are beyond remote.

Bottom line: We’ll have 60 days of duck hunting this year.

But one item of note is the possibility that bonus teal will be allowed for some part of the season – likely the first 16 days. It’s not a sure thing yet, but there’s probably a better than even chance that hunters during those first 16 days will be able to shoot their regular six-duck limit, and then have two additional teal on top of that, for a total of eight ducks.

Recall the DNR isn’t pursuing an early teal season this year. (MWA was opposed to an early season, too.) But that doesn’t mean the agency won’t go for the bonus teal during the early part of the season. Keep in mind that things still could change, but we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the DNR offer those bonus birds.

We’ll post another update when we know the details of the season framework, and what Minnesota plans to offer this fall.