Water levels are good for Saturday's waterfowl hunting opener
THIEF LAKE — The low water conditions that plagued access for duck hunters in northwest Minnesota last fall are much improved, and reaching that favorite hunting spot by duck boat should be much easier this year.
Minnesota’s regular waterfowl season opens Saturday.
“Conditions are pretty good right now,” said Joel Huener, manager of Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River, Minn. “The lake is about an inch and a half below target level but well above last year, so there’s pretty good access at all the launches.”
Huener said there was a substantial migration of Canada geese into the area Sept. 3, and the 13 parties that hunted Thief Lake for the Sept. 7 Youth Waterfowl Day averaged about a duck per hunter. The kids shot a mixed bag that included mallards, wigeon, gadwall, pintails, blue-winged teal and even a canvasback, he said.
“They all got a fair bit of shooting, and that’s the important part,” he said.
Farther north, Randy Prachar, manager of the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area near the Manitoba border, said Pool 1, the easternmost of the WMA’s three managed pools, is low and will be difficult to navigate, but pools 2 and 3 farther west should be OK.
“They’re lower than average, but we run them lower them average, too, to encourage wild rice,” Prachar said. “I don’t think we’re doing too bad.”
Water levels also are better on the Roseau River, Prachar said, although hunters traveling by boat still must use caution.
“Last year, it was pack the decoys on your back, and that’s how you had to get around down there,” Prachar said. “You wouldn’t want to take off with reckless abandon, but you can make it work. The water levels are pretty good, and as we get closer to opener, I don’t expect a ton of change.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sets the season frameworks for waterfowl and other migratory game birds, offered Minnesota and other states in the Mississippi Flyway a 60-day season. As was the case last year, the Department of Natural Resources has divided the state into North, Central and South duck zones, with different season dates for each zone.
Duck season in all three zones opens Saturday, and the North Duck Zone is open through Nov. 19; the Central Duck Zone is open from Saturday through Sept. 29, and again from Oct. 5 through Nov. 24; the South Duck Zone opens Saturday through Sept. 29 and again from Oct. 12 through Dec. 1.
Saturday’s opener is one day earlier than last year and the earliest since 1945, DNR officials said.
“Hunters had a good waterfowl season last year,” Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section chief, said in a statement. “We heard positive reports, so we maintained the same season structure.”
According to Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the DNR in Bemidji, Minnesota’s spring population index of resident breeding mallards was estimated at 293,000 in the state’s survey area, which is 30 percent higher than the long-term average. Continental populations of mallards and most other ducks also are doing well.
Weather is the wild card with migratory birds, but strong numbers of mallards and other duck species this past spring, along with favorable wetland conditions, means the potential for a good season certainly exists. Hunters last year shot an estimated 749,000 ducks in Minnesota, Cordts said, up 19 percent from 621,000 in 2011.
Blue-winged teal and wood ducks, which traditionally migrate early, comprised the bulk of the increase, he said.
“We’ve made some changes with duck hunting regulations the past few years to increase harvest opportunity, particularly early in the season,” Cordts said. “These changes seem to have worked, as we have seen increased harvest of early migrating species like teal and wood ducks.”
The daily limit for ducks remains at six, with a mallard bag of four (no more than two hens) and three wood ducks. The only changes from last year are the daily limit of scaup, which drops from four to three, and canvasbacks, which increase from one to two.
The Canada goose limit is three daily and season in the Central and South zones will be closed when the duck season is closed.
Here’s a look at some of the key waterfowl season dates and regulations in Minnesota:
• Duck season: Sept. 21 through Nov. 19 (North Duck Zone); Sept. 21-29, Oct. 5 through Nov. 24 (Central Duck Zone); Sept. 21-29, Oct. 12 through Dec. 1 (South Duck Zone).
• Canada geese: Same opening dates as ducks, but closing Dec. 16 (North), Dec. 21 (Central) and Dec. 28 (South).
• Limits: Six ducks, three Canada geese daily; possession limit three times the daily bag. See 2013 waterfowl supplement for species restrictions.