MARSHALL - As the Department of Natural Resources continues its recruitment work to boost hunter numbers, it spread a bit of good news recently with what it is preliminarily calling a strong 2012 waterfowl season.
The DNR said an earlier season opener, regulation changes that created more opportunities and near-ideal weather conditions all played a factor in making the 2012 season a successful one.
Although official 2012 duck harvest numbers are not out yet, an increase in harvest is expected going by hunter bag checks on opening day and reports from regional waterfowl managers. Harvest counts in recent years have been around 650,000 ducks, with mallards coming out on top, followed by wood ducks, blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and green-winged teal.
"Success was good on opening weekend," said DNR Waterfowl Specialist Steve Cordts. "Generally, in a lot of places we saw three ducks per hunter, per day; in some cases it was over four. Anything over three is good."
2012 was the second consecutive year the opener fell in September. Between 2005-2010, the state opened the season on the Saturday nearest Oct. 1, which at times put the opener in October.
"That early-season success was predominantly blue-winged teal and wood ducks, which is why we opened the season earlier," Cordts said. "Almost half the duck harvest occurs the first two weekends of the season - it really makes or breaks the duck season. If we're good early, then the season is generally pretty good."
An increase in bag limits on wood ducks from two to three also made a positive impact, Cordts said.
The DNR also added a third duck zone in southern Minnesota and used different splits, or closed periods, to provide some later hunting in that part of the state. The DNR is also considering more changes, including allowing Canada geese hunting in August, changing the early goose season bag limit and allowing open water duck hunting on a small number of lakes.
Cordts said the success on opening weekend came despite it being unseasonably cold those days. But warmer days followed and the opening-weekend success continued during the following weeks. And the dry conditions, a bane for farmers in 2012, actually helped duck hunters who were able to access lakes.
"Access was fairly hard to some hunters, but in a lot of places in southern Minnesota, if you found water, there were ducks on it," said Cordts. "A lot of shallow lakes down in your part of the state will benefit if the water stays low."
Cordts said the low water levels, while good in some ways, can limit the breeding population, and might play a factor this fall if dry conditions persist across southern Minnesota.
"We'll see what Mother Nature brings us this spring," he said. "High water is generally not a good thing for shallow lakes, but it attracts breeding ducks."
Duck hunters could be facing some other challenges in the future, too, if loss of habitat such as Conservation Reserve Program lands that have expired and have been converted into farm production land, continues to increase.
"CRP loss is massive as far as how many acres have come out," Cordts said. "I think we peaked at about 1.8 million acres five, six years ago, and we've lost about 400,000 acres. Right now, it's just not financially viable for those producers to keep their land in CRP; they make more by farming it."