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Waterfowl continues to ride favorable conditions

North Dakota Game and Fish Department Courtesy Photo With increased water habitat, the waterfowl numbers continue to rise. The waterfowl season opens on Sept. 28.

GRAND FORKS -- In a year of fewer deer, grouse and pheasants, waterfowl look to be the bright spot on the horizon for North Dakota hunters this fall.

The state's waterfowl season opens Saturday for residents and Sept. 28 for out-of-state hunters.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the outlook more favorable than the Devils Lake region, where ample water conditions contributed to a year of good to excellent duck production, officials say. Mark Fisher, biologist for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake, said surveys of duck nests this spring indicated nesting success of 50 percent to 60 percent.

Research has shown nest success of about 20 percent is the benchmark for sustaining waterfowl populations.

"That's pretty amazing," Fisher said, considering there was a time before the duck boom when nesting success was as low as 5 percent.

Just as amazing, perhaps, is that nesting success isn't limited to areas where predator trapping or other practices to boost duck numbers are occurring.

"This is just natural production in some random locations," Fisher said.

Of the 407 nests that were sampled, gadwalls were the most abundant duck, Fisher said, followed by mallards, blue-winged teal, pintails and shovelers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated this year's continental duck population at 45.6 million birds, based on spring counts of breeding pairs. That's down 6 percent from 48.6 million in 2012 but still 33 percent higher than the long-term average since 1955.

In North Dakota, the spring index of duck broods declined from 6.05 broods per square mile in 2012 to 3.16 this year.

Good as expected

According to Mike Johnson, a veteran waterfowl biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, the brood numbers are just an index, and hunters shouldn't put too much stock in them. North Dakota waterfowl hunters still can expect this year to be among the top 20 in terms of hunting quality, Johnson said.

Considering the continuing loss of land in the Conservation Reserve Program, the draining of wetlands and other changes occurring on the landscape, that's about as good as anyone can expect, Johnson said.

"We're certainly well above the long-term average, I think, in terms of duck numbers and the fall flight forecast," he said. "We've been riding this remarkable high for quite a few years. There've been some ups and downs, but we're still way above anything we had before, say, 1993."

That was, of course, the first year of a wet cycle that hasn't yet abated.

"A lot of the continental populations are doing well," Fisher of the Fish and Wildlife Service said. "Scaup, for awhile we thought they were going down the drain, and last year, they bounced right back and are strong again. We're in a good time for waterfowl."

As has been the case every year since 1995, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which sets the frameworks for U.S. waterfowl seasons, offered states the "liberal" package of duck regulations. In the Central Flyway, of which North Dakota is a member, that includes a 74-day season with a six-duck bag.

Species restrictions include five mallards -- only two can be hens -- three wood ducks, three scaup, two redheads, two pintails and two canvasbacks.

North Dakota's bag limit on Canada geese for the regular season is eight, with the exception of the Missouri River Zone, where the daily bag is five.

More in possession

New this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed states to increase the possession limit of waterfowl and other migratory game birds to three times the daily bag, up from twice the daily bag limit. Johnson of Game and Fish said flyway managers have talked about increasing the possession limit for the past few years.

"Possession limits have never been something we've considered as an actual tool for regulating harvest," he said. "They've been at (twice the daily bag) forever with no real reason."

Fisher concurred, saying the strong duck populations hunters now enjoy can't be banked for the future. A severe drought and landscape changes can change the picture in a hurry.

"These birds, there's so many of them there's a surplus, and that's what we manage for," Fisher said "The liberal bags, we're encouraging people to take ducks because we can't stockpile them, we can't put them in the bank and grow interest. Next year, if conditions are bad, mortality factors will catch up.

"That's why it's liberal with big bags and big possession limits. Of course, that can all change. If we go through drought and May index populations crash, all of a sudden you're going to see everybody put the brakes to bag limits."

'Brown ducks'

Because of the late spring and this year's relatively early opening date, hunters will have to pay special attention to the birds they shoot because there'll be a lot of "brown ducks" in the sky -- drake mallards, for example -- that haven't reached full plumage.

That can make identification a challenge, especially for ducks with species restrictions.

"People are going to have to be aware of what they're shooting," Johnson said. "The good thing is there are no closed species this year, and you can take two of many species and two hen mallards so there's a little room for leeway. But if you put two of any of those in your bag, you need to be aware of what you're shooting.

"It should be a pretty relaxed situation for hunters this year," he added. "People forget back when we had one hen mallard (in the limit), it was a much more difficult situation and when we had closed canvasback seasons."

Traditionally, Fisher said, resident waterfowl hunters in the Devils Lake region hunt stubble fields, which favors species such as mallards and pintails. Nonresidents, by comparison, are more apt to hunt over water, which produces a greater variety of birds in the bag.

The downside: It's a lot more work.

Fisher said he expects locally produced ducks will dominate the bag during the first few weeks of season in the Devils Lake area, while migrant birds from Canada likely won't be much of a factor until mid-October.

Weather, as always, is the wild card. An early snowstorm or unexpected cold snap can freeze wetlands and drive birds south overnight.

"The weather's always the big determiner of what the season is going to be," Johnson said. "It not only affects hunters' ability to decoy ducks or get into ducks but also affects what ducks are here and when.

"The good hunters know how to deal with the situation. Maybe on the warm days, you go for grouse or pheasant hunting and find that early morning duck hunt and take advantage of that."

-- Info:

Rules of the hunt

Here's a look at some of the key waterfowl season dates and regulations in North Dakota:

-- Duck season: Sept. 21 (residents) and Sept. 28 (nonresidents); closes Dec. 1.

-- Canada geese: Sept. 21 and 28; closes Dec. 21 everywhere but Missouri River Zone, which closes Dec. 27.

-- Limits: Six ducks, eight Canada geese daily (five daily in Missouri River Zone); possession limit three times the daily bag. See 2013 Waterfowl Hunting Guide for Species restrictions.

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