DULUTH, Minn. — Minnesota's duck season starts Saturday, Sept. 21, with ample water, decent wild rice and at least some optimism that ducks will cooperate.
Conservation officers across the northern third of the state reported pretty good number of ducks for the Youth Waterfowl Weekend held Sep. 7- 8, including teal, mallards and wood ducks.
There also have been generally good reports from the early goose season, which started Sep. 1 and ends today.
Now, weather patterns and local habitat conditions will dictate how long those local ducks stay around before heading south and when new ducks will flitter down from the north.
“This is the earliest a (Minnesota) opener can be, Sep. 21, so we should have a lot of local ducks around still, but maybe not as many or any migrating ducks down yet,’’ said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources based in Bemidji.
Melissa Thompson, DNR small lakes specialist in the Tower wildlife office, said surveys show Northeastern Minnesota wild rice stands are “average to above average” this year, likely due to lower water during summer growing months. High water in summer can uproot wild rice.
Many duck species will linger in the northern part of the state during migration if wild rice is abundant, and this year, wild rice harvesters "have reported good success, thick stands and plenty of rice" in the northeast, Thompson said. There also are pretty good numbers of ducks around.
“While spring melt resulted in high water with scattered late frosts, which could have impacted early nesting birds, overall weather conditions and nesting habitat turned favorable for successful brood rearing for most resident waterfowl," she said. “Successful attempts at second batches of broods have been documented as well."
Thompson said local waterfowl numbers have been good in both formal assessments and during canoe surveys of northern lakes. In recent days, wood duck, teal and Canada geese have been gathering in larger flocks.
“With ample rice coverage across much of the Arrowhead, migratory waterfowl should be attracted to the vast feeding and resting habitat," Thompson noted, adding that means good news for hunters willing to put in their time. “I’m optimistic that we’ll have a good duck season. It’s about time for the weather, habitat and birds line up for us."
Cordts said Minnesota’s spring duck count, which surveys breeding pairs of adult ducks before young of the year are hatched, was fairly stable compared to last year. Across North America, most ducks species appear to be stable and a bit above long-term averages. But overall duck numbers dropped below 40 million this spring for the first time in more than a decade.
“Typically, most of what we shoot is young of the year ducks, and we haven't counted them yet, so we don't know what kind of abundance we’ll see. But our spring breeding duck count, the adults, were good this year for most species. And wetland counts, statewide, were pretty good, too,’’ Cordts said.
About half of all ducks Minnesota hunters shoot are raised in the state; the other half come from Canada and the Dakotas. Minnesota’s duck harvest and duck hunters has declined dramatically over the past 50 years. The state once shot about 25% of all ducks shot in the Mississippi flyway. That’s dropped to just 8% now. The number of hunters has dropped nearly in half, from 180,000 in the 1970s to fewer than 80,000 now.
Cordts noted that ring-necked ducks, a common and popular species among northern Minnesota hunters, were down a bit this year from 2018, at least continent-wide (they are no longer counted in Minnesota) but still remain well above their long-term average. “Their trend has been very positive. Ring-necks will make up a big part of the hunter harvest in northern Minnesota, central Minnesota, too,” he said.
Ring-necks, or ringbills as some hunters call them, nest in Canada and far northern Minnesota, then winter in Louisiana and Texas coasts on the Gulf of Mexico. Minnesota shoots the most ringnecks of any state as they head south.
“If they’re abundant and doing well, it bodes well for hunting in the north, and statewide,’’ Cordts said.
Seasons and limits
The Minnesota northern zone waterfowl season for ducks and geese starts Saturday and runs through Nov. 21. The central zone — south of Minnesota Highway 210 that runs across the state — goes through Sept. 29, then stops, then re-starts from Oct. 5 to Nov. 24. The southern zone, roughly south of Highway 212, also starts Sep. 21 and runs through Sept. 29, then stops and restarts from Oct. 12 to Dec. 1.
The daily bag limit is again six ducks, no more than four of which may be mallards, of which only two can be hens; the limit is 3 scaup daily, 3 wood ducks daily, 2 redheads daily, 2 canvasbacks daily, 2 black ducks daily and 1 pintail daily. If not listed, up to 6 of the species can be taken, such as teal, gadwall and ring-necked ducks. The possession limit for all ducks is three times the daily limit. The limit for Canada geese is three daily, 20 in possession.
Shooting hours for all waterfowl are from a half-hour before sunrise until 4 p.m through Oct. 4 and thereafter until sunset.
Don’t forget: Waterfowl hunters need a small game license, HIP certification and state and federal waterfowl stamps or valuations.