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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Holds Fast to Duck Hunting’s Heritage

As August started its death spiral, and the Sept. 1 opener loomed for teal and Canada geese, I smiled with respect as crazy duck hunters around Wisconsin posted photos of their new or refurbished blinds, with their retrievers peeking out between the thatch.

I assume mourning-dove hunters were prepping their gear for the Sept. 1 opener, too, but I can’t say I’ve heard any of them called “crazy,” no matter their passion for the hunt. Waterfowlers seem unique in that regard. We have “hunting and fishing fools” and “nutty deer hunters,” but only serious duck hunters inspire and embrace the “crazy” label.

Maybe that’s because they like how they’re portrayed in classic paintings, which show stalwart faces staring toward hazy-gray horizons, shotguns poised beneath their breast, and white-capped waves churning beneath strings of weathered decoys. Man, talk about the romance of the hunt. No pursuit captures hunting’s spirit better than waterfowling.

And maybe that’s why Wisconsin’s waterfowler numbers stubbornly fight hunting’s nationwide declines. Taylor Finger, the state’s migratory game-bird specialist at the Department of Natural Resources, said Wisconsin has about 75,000 duck and goose hunters, which ranks it No. 5 in waterfowling among the 50 states.

“We don’t have as many duck hunters as 25 years ago, but we’re bucking national trends,” Finger said.

It also helps that duck and goose numbers have been strong in recent years, which has allowed Wisconsin to hold 60-day duck seasons since 1997. Finger said hunters this fall can hunt nearly all duck species the entire season, except that the daily bag limit on scaup will drop from three birds to two for 45 days, and then to one bird for 15 days.

“We’re expecting a great year for waterfowl hunting,” Finger said. “Duck production was above average this spring in Wisconsin, and we had no problems finding geese statewide. Production was down overall for much of the continent, but it was still pretty good. And the Canada goose migrants from Ontario had average production, which means we’ll see good flights from there, too.”

The Delta Waterfowl Foundation shares Finger’s perspectives. Citing the 2019 Waterfowl Population Status Report, Delta Waterfowl’s hunting preview notes that North America’s spring duck population declined but most species remain above long-term averages.

The annual survey has been conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service since 1955. It estimates the continent’s breeding-duck population at 38.90 million, a 6% decrease from 41.19 million a year ago, but 10% above long-term averages. The 2019 survey, however, marks the first time since 2008 that the estimated breeding-duck population fell below 40 million.

“The fact that numbers are down reflects last year’s dry conditions for nesting ducks,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of the Delta Waterfowl, a conservation organization dedicated to preserving duck hunting’s heritage. “Production drives duck populations, so it’s no surprise that after a year of poor production, the USFWS counted fewer ducks.”

The North American survey found mallards increased 2% to 9.42 million, 19% above the long-term average; green-winged teal rose 4% to 3.18 million, 47% above average; American wigeon climbed slightly to 2.83 million, 8% above average; and gadwalls climbed 13% to 3.26 million, 61% above average.

Blue-winged teal endured the largest decrease in dabbling ducks, down 16% to 5.43 million, but still 6% above average. The only below-average puddle-duck population is pintails, which dropped 4% to 2.27 million, 42% below average.

Meanwhile, all three diving-duck species in the survey declined. Redheads fell 27% to 730,000, their long-term average. Canvasbacks dropped 5% to 650,000, but remain 10% above average. Scaup numbers -- greaters and lessers combined -- declined 10% to 3.59 million, 28% below average.

Delta Waterfowl said nesting/production numbers this year reflect distinct differences between the United States and Canada. “Canada is in bad shape,” Rohwer said. “It started dry and got even drier. I haven’t seen portions of Canada this dry since the mid-1980s. However, the prairies in the Dakotas started wet and stayed ridiculously wet. The problem is that while many of the duck estimates in the U.S. are up, it wasn’t enough to compensate for dry conditions in a region as massive and important to ducks as prairie Canada.”

Rohwer said production in the eastern Dakotas region was exceptional. Mallards were up 54%, pintails rose 64%, bluewings jumped 19% and total ducks were up 29%.

“The numbers aren’t bad,” Rohwer said in a statement Aug. 19. “Even though bluewings are down, a higher portion of their breeding population than average settled in the wet Dakotas, where they should produce ducklings like crazy.”

U.S. prairies were wet from south to north this summer, which should lead to strong duck production. “When the prairies were dry last year, it hurt duck production, and in turn, duck hunters,” Rohwer said. “But this year, ducks nested and renested in the U.S. prairies with a vengeance, and should have high brood survival.”

No matter how good or bad the numbers and fall flights, duck hunters can’t go just anywhere and bag limits of ducks and geese. Success and expectations are best met through planning preparation, Taylor said.

And the DNR has the social science to prove it. Lauren Bradshaw, a DNR sociologist, said her studies of 10 years of waterfowler survey information found the most successful duck hunters seldom rest. She wrote: “Duck hunters who spent more days afield, scouted prior to hunting, stayed mobile during the season, and utilized public lands harvested substantially more ducks than those who did not put effort into these behaviors.”

In other words, real waterfowlers tolerate September mosquitos, battle November’s gales, and suffer December’s snows to get their ducks and geese.

And when the season ends, it still won’t have been enough. They’ll lust to do it again.

Like most serious waterfowl hunters in Wisconsin, Bo Schumacher of De Pere pursues ducks and geese all fall in any weather. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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