MARSHALL - This summer's dry spell did a number on local farmers' anxiety levels, but it should play right into the hands of duck hunters.
The 2012 duck opener is Saturday, and low lake levels, combined with the earliest opening date since the early 1940s and a record continental duck breeding population, should give hunters an upper hand this fall.
Steve Cordts, waterfowl research specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said southwest Minnesota should see plenty of wood ducks, mallards and teal this weekend.
"With the early opener this year, I think that bodes well for teal and woodies, which are both migrants," Cordts said. "Mallard numbers, I think are fine, too. Up north where they're fairly dependent on diving ducks, there's not a lot of migrants yet. But they'll come in another week or 10 days."
The arid conditions that have affected most every area in the Mississippi flyway have been well documented all summer. Cordts said these dry conditions tend to concentrate ducks and lead to successful seasons.
"It's as dry as I've seen it in a long time for the middle of September," he said. "Southwest Minnesota is probably dryer than any other part of the state. It varies across the state, but if you can find water there should be ducks on it early all over."
Low water levels, however, can work both ways. If it's dry enough to expose mud flats, hunters could have a hard time navigating the waters. Plus, emergent vegetation which provides cover for hunters is susceptible to a lack of moisture.
"In some cases, there will be places hunters won't be able to access," Cordts said. "They might find themselves dragging their boat across mud flats, which can be extremely difficult. Hunters need to be willing to scout a little bit, maybe change their strategy a little. If they do, they'll find ducks this season."
Cordts said these periodic dry downs in the prairie areas are important for habitat, especially since the state has experienced numerous wet periods in recent years. He said the future looks bright as well if this dry pattern continues into 2013.
"We haven't been this dry for 20 years, really," Cordts said. "We've had little stretches of dry weather, but if it would stay dry next spring and summer, that's better from the standpoint of shallow wetlands and water quality; there could be lots of vegetation there."
According to the DNR, as of last week, waterfowl stamp sales were running ahead of last year as were youth small game license sales that indicated the licensee intended to hunt migratory birds.
Minnesota duck stamp sales totaled 46,001 through Sept. 14, compared with 44,479 in 2011 for the same time period, the DNR said.
Youth small game license sales with a Harvest Information Program certification totaled 7,194 this year compared to 5,879 last year. The DNR issued 89,520 state waterfowl stamps last year, up from the previous year but below the 100,000-plus licenses sold from 1990 through 2007.
This is the second straight year there has been an early opener. Historically, the opener falls on the Saturday nearest Oct. 1, which would be next weekend. Starting in 2002, states in the Mississippi flyway were allowed to open duck season a week earlier, but in Minnesota the Legislature passed a law that prohibited the state from opening that early. The state lifted that law last year, which is important since many species are migrating right now.
"Last year was an early opener and it was pretty good," said Cordts. "We're going to freeze at some point, probably before the end of duck season, so opening later, you kind of lose the good opportunities - we'll have fewer teal and wood ducks on the 29th than we will this Saturday."