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Bad duck season?

Seems like a lot of hunters are having a bad duck season. There’s always talks about surface drives and pressure, weather, lack of feed in the area to many duck dynasty wannabes, season starts to early, no water and lack of public access. If your trying to feed your family with ducks you should probably fish more. I often ask my self is it worth it? Does the money I spend on gas, gear, licenses and shells pay for the ducks I harvest. The answer is NO. Is seeing the sunrise on the marsh, seeing my kids shoot their first duck, getting their first limit worth it. Absolutely priceless. This is want most of us enjoy, opening day is like Christmas morning for us duck hunters. I don’t know about you but I don’t sleep the night before opening day. I am going to keep hunting and doing what I love to do. I am going to go out there as often as I can even though I may only come home with a duck or two I will keep going. Because we will always have good days with limits and days we get skunked but at least we are out there trying, doing what we love to do.
I've always wanted to calculate how much I spend on average each hunt. I drive 2 hours in my truck and about 45 minutes in my boat. It's definitely expensive by the time you calculate the cost of gas and gear. It pisses me off when I bring people and they don't pay for anything, but I like bringing people out to experience the hunt and see why duck hunters have the passion they do to go out in the cold, fog, and as early as two in the morning to have the chance to shoot at a duck. Seasoned duck hunters realize it is called hunting and not killing for a reason.

As far as this season goes, it has been better for me than the past two years. The second split we saw way less ducks than we did on the last day of the first split. Will still continue to move around and go out every chance available until the last day of the season.
This year has been some of the best (and most consistent) hunts in recent years. I'm blessed to be able to hunt 3-4 times per week. Every hunt, except one, has yielded limits on quality ducks with 90% being gray ducks. Every hunt we've had 3-5 people in the blind.
If you don't enjoy spotting a group of ducks coming right by the blind just about five minutes before shooting time, a thermos of hot coffee with a ham and mayo sandwich to go with it, the clicking sound of loading up for the first shots, the sound of a duck on the water calling back to you after your first call before shooting time, and a group of cupped up ducks in front of the blind right at shooting time, Then you might want to stay in bed on a 40 degree morning with 12 mile an hour winds and a little drizzle of rain. Yep it ain't about the limit, it's about the surroundings.
The Mississippi Flyway contains about 45-50% of the North American waterfowl population during a typical fall migration period. But this Flyway also hosts about half of all the U.S. duck hunters, license figures show.

However, the population decline in both waterfowl and licensed waterfowl hunters is nothing new, and having been well documented since at least the early-1990s.

Below you will find the first page from a circa-1997 article written by a federal special agent with law federal enforcement for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who just happened to be formally trained in wildlife biology. And his observations are based upon the Mississippi Flyway state of Arkansas. This article was appropriately titled - 'Where Are The Ducks???????' - and you may draw your own conclusions about whether there are 'more or 'fewer' waterfowl within the Flyway from this federal agent's perspective:

(circa 1997; author's name redacted)

Traditionally, the Law Enforcement Division (LE) and the Migratory Bird Management Office (MBMO) have not been of one accord regarding waterfowl regulations. LE is always more conservative than MBMO concerning season length, methods of take, and bag limit proposals.

Since MBMO gathers the data on waterfowl production and harvest, they can and do tell that we ``have no data'', or our information is ``subjective''. For the most part, they are right, we do not have much data on the effects of the legal, much less the illegal, unreported harvest. So, let's look at their data:

Based on the ``Preliminary Estimates of Waterfowl Harvest...during the 1995 season'', MBMO estimates that Arkansas hunters killed 1,013,204 ducks during the 1995-96 duck season. Of this total, about 584,000 were mallards. At that time, this was the highest duck kill ever recorded for Arkansas, and all this took place during the driest winter in memory. The river systems that are so vital to ducks never flooded, and habitat was limited to areas that were pumped for hunting. This reported harvest was an increase of 38% over the 1994-95 season, and that was a good year. Other states in the Flyway reported similar increases in harvest during the 1995-96 season.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission conducts extensive aerial waterfowl surveys during the Winter months. The November 1995 survey revealed a total of 550,000 ducks in the state. Of these ducks, 365,000 were estimated to be mallards. The December 1995 survey showed 789,000 ducks, of which about 663,000 were mallards. The mid-Winter survey yielded 827,000 total ducks, of which 580,000 were mallards. Again, the data shows that Arkansas hunters killed a total of 584,000 mallards, and 1,013,000 total ducks during the 1995-96 season. According to MBMO, it appears that Arkansas hunters killed 186,000 more ducks than were ever seen at one time in the state during the season.

In the 1996-97 season, habitat conditions in Arkansas were nearly perfect. The river systems were in flood early, creating thousands of acres of feeding and loafing areas for ducks. This is the habitat conditions that most Arkansas hunters love. The only problem was that there were no ducks! The official explanation was that the ducks were ``scattered'', or that for some reason the birds were in Kansas and Oklahoma, or that the Winter was so mild, the birds never made it to Arkansas. (All standing water, and most moving water froze during the last 10 days of the season)...
Pages 2 & 3:

There were articles in the newspaper about a possible conspiracy with the FWS about duck numbers, there were so few ducks. Unfortunately, all the people who thought Arkansas didn't have any ducks were wrong. According to the MBMO publication Preliminary Estimate of Waterfowl Harvest...1996, Arkansas hunters killed 1,227,000 ducks, of which approximately 777,000 were mallards. This was an increase in total duck kill of 21% over the prior season, according to MBMO.

However, the aerial surveys conducted by Arkansas Game and Fish biologists again failed to document this many ducks in the state. The mid-December survey revealed 1,300,000 birds, and 632,000 mallards. The mid-Winter survey, flown just before the freeze in January, revealed 668,000 total ducks, of which 372,000 were mallards. It would appear from this data that Arkansas hunters fell about 3,000 birds short of killing all the birds observed during the mid-December survey. Is there something wrong with this picture???

MBMO estimates that nationwide, hunters kill only 15- 20% of the Fall flight. If we assume that analysis held true for Arkansas hunters, couldn't we have expected to have seen something approaching 5 million ducks (and not 827,000 at their peak) in Arkansas during the 1995- 96 season? Shouldn't we have seen something similar during the 1996-97 season? If there were so many ducks in Arkansas last season, why were all the hunters complaining? Certainly ducks are transient, and expanding the wintering waterfowl population in Arkansas to 5 million based on the report kill is not statistically correct. Still, killing more ducks than were seen during the season should be cause for concern, and raise questions about MBMO's methods.

MBMO uses the duck wing sample size to help determine the total number of ducks killed every year. In 1993- 94, Arkansas hunters turned in 3,848 duck wings, and the state-wide harvest was estimated at 451,000 ducks. The next year, 1994-95, Arkansas hunters turned in 3,840 duck wings, a decrease of 8 wings, and the harvest was estimated at 725,000 ducks, a 57% increase. The duck wing sample size in Arkansas actually went down from 3,840 in 1994-95 season to 3,060 in 1995-96 a DECREASE of about 20%, and yet MBMO now calculates that Arkansasans killed over 1,000,000 ducks in 1995- 96. In 1996-97, Arkansas hunters turned in 3,319 wings, an increase of 8% over the previous season, yet the reported harvest went up 21%.

The Canada goose harvest figures for Arkansas are particularly interesting. According to the figures in MBMO's ``Preliminary Harvest...1995'' document, Arkansasans killed almost 19,000 Canada geese in 1995-96. The Canada goose season in the east zone was only 22 days long, and even shorter in the west zone.

The mid-Winter survey (conducted in January 1996, at about the time of Canada goose season) showed there were only 26,000 Canada geese in the state. Is it possible that hunters killed 19,000 of the 26,000 geese? In 1996-97, MBMO estimated that Arkansas hunters killed about 22,000 Canada geese during a 22 day season, yet the January survey revealed only 10,373 Canada geese. This makes he duck harvest figures look even more suspect. Even the state waterfowl biologist admitted that the goose harvest figures were in error.

The office that provides the waterfowl harvest data is the same office that provides the production numbers. If they are wrong on the harvest numbers, is it possible that they are wrong about the production numbers? MBMO flies transects to determine breeding birds in the Spring. These transects are flown from South to North, following the Spring thaw. Isn't it possible that they are counting the samebirds twice? The ducks are following the thaw, too. MBMO admits this is a possibility in ``Waterfowl Population Status 1996'', but MBMO evidently does not factor this possibility into the equation.

During the 1980s era of stabilized regulations, and the point system, hunters could kill up to 10 ducks of the right species. Although diminished habitat, and not hunting pressure, was blamed for the subsequent decline in waterfowl numbers, the gun must have had an effect. If hunting mortality has no effect on waterfowl populations as MBMO used to claim, why is there a bag limit at all? The fact is that ducks which are hardy enough to survive the Fall migration to the South are probably the prime breeding stock, and have a high likelihood of surviving the Winter to return north and nest. Research has shown that the primary mortality for wintering ducks is the gun, but MBMO claims that ducks which hunters kill would have died anyway, i.e., compensatory mortality. Waterfowl biologists say that ducks cannot be ``stockpiled'', and we should take advantage of the birds when we have them. This is nonsense. The more birds we return to the nesting grounds, the larger the Fall flight. MBMO seems to admit this in a recent publication.

In the ``Adaptive Harvest Management'' publication issued by the Service recently, MBMO admits that ``we calculated a >99% probability of additive hunting mortality and a 70% probability of strongly density dependent reproduction.'' In layman's terms, this statement admits that the gun has a negative effect on waterfowl reproduction, and the more ducks that are sent to the breeding grounds, the bigger the Fall flight. However, the document goes on to say ``Based on extensive peer review, the Service is confident that the agreed upon updating procedure (for determining harvest strategy) was done correctly.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that managers would learn so much in one year regarding the additive and compensatory theories. Thus, the Service has new questions regarding the completeness of the procedure for updating model weights that must be addressed prior to the 1997 season.'' It sounds like MBMO is not happy that their data showed additive mortality so overwhelmingly, and plans on changing the way the data is tabulated. In this same document, MBMO admits that the toll free telephone number for reporting bands increased the reporting rate by 66%.

Presumably, this error in the band reporting rate was constant over the years. Doesn't this mean the harvest rate of ducks in prior years was much higher than originally thought? In other words, didn't we kill a lot more birds (possibly illegally) than were reported?

Now the Service will probably allow two hen mallards and three pintails in the bag, extend the season to 60 days, and permit waterfowl hunting over unharvested, manipulated croplands. MBMO estimates this will increase the total mallard hen harvest by only 10-12%, a figure which is not deemed significant by waterfowl biologists. Yet a 1987 study by MBMO in Arkansas and Mississippi revealed that 73% of radio tagged hen mallards fell to the gun. It would appear they are clueless. The Service has spent a lot of time and money on the North American Plan, Joint Venture projects, developing ``partners'', and holding meetings. MBMO has created a case of scenario fulfillment.

They want and expect to see a successful scenario, so they do. Have you ever known the Service to say ``Hey, this isn't working?'' No, the easy thing to do is declare success.

If we have so many, WHERE ARE THE DUCKS?
I have a passion for duck hunting,no matter what I harvest and Bayoubob and I typically each hunt solo and keep in constant contact and one of the worst two letters in a duck afficiando's vocabulary happens to be 'MT' as in Empty Skies and unfortunately,he and I have traded barbs about our constant 'MT' skies and so far this has been a bummer of a season but why should I complain as I have killed a trophy greenhead,fine drake mottled duck,fine redhead and wood duck drakes,some nice greys and teal and saw beautiful sprig pintail today,all on Public Land for the sum of free,free,free!!!Got my favorite trusty ole Beretta Extrema re-camo'd and she looks pretty fine with her new clothes,completely re-painted my Southfork flat and did custom stencil camo paint job on her and while disappointed in our results,by no means gonna send up de white surrender flag.In fact,scheming for tomorrow's hunt while I type this!!!Gotta love it fellow die-hards!!!

Trainasse, can you site where you got the article?