DULUTH -- Minnesota duck hunters should see a decent number of birds around for the Sept. 25 waterfowl hunting opener but finding water to hunt them on may be difficult in some areas.
That’s the forecast from Steve Cordts, Bemidji-based waterfowl biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Cordts said many wetlands in northern Minnesota are still holding some water -- and some ducks -- but that hunters may not be able to access many areas because of the ongoing severe drought.
“I talked to some veteran wild ricers who said there was a lot of rice this year but that they couldn't get in to get it, or they couldn’t get out with a load of rice, because the water was so low,’’ Cordts said.
That may mean ducks may hang around in what will become de facto refuges.
“If you scout ahead and find places you can get to, it should be a good opener and a good season,’’ Cordts noted.
According to Kyle Arola, manager of Thief Lake WMA near Middle River in Marshall County, Thief Lake is 18 inches below target water level, and canoes and kayaks will be the best options for getting around on the waterfowl opener.
Despite the dry conditions, there are birds to be had, Arola said.
“Our first migrant Canada geese arrived (Sept. 14),” he said. “We currently have good numbers of wigeon, blue-winged teal and pintails.”
While many small, seasonal wetlands entirely dried-up in the Dakotas this summer, Cordts said Minnesota offers ducks far more water in permanent lakes that may have dropped but which still hold some water. The Dakotas drought also could push more migrating birds east over Minnesota.
“The last time it was really dry in the Dakotas, from about 1988 to 1993, Minnesota actually had some pretty good duck seasons,’’ Cordts noted.
Cordts said he found very little activity during the Sept. 11-12 youth waterfowl season and also didn’t hear many reports from the state’s first early September teal-only season since the 1960s. After a small blip up in state duck stamp sales in 2020 he suspects waterfowl hunting participation -- now half of what it was 40 years ago -- to dip back down again in 2021.
Meanwhile, 2021 was the second straight year of no spring continental waterfowl survey due to COVID-19 precautions, and that has waterfowl managers a bit nervous. Cordts noted duck production appeared good in Wisconsin and Michigan, where state surveys were conducted, but was “almost nothing’’ in parts of the Dakotas and Canada where drought hit hardest.
Because waterfowl regulations and season lengths are set in April, before the drought developed this year, hunters will see continued “liberal’’ bag limits and season lengths in 2021. That could change in 2022, however.
- Read more hunting stories in Northland Outdoors
- Read more fishing stories in Northland Outdoors
- Read more recreation stories in Northland Outdoors
“Not having two years of (survey) data is a problem, but it’s not the end of the world. We went into this pandemic with high duck numbers, and into this drought, so it’s not at a crisis situation yet,’’ Cordts said. “If we go a third year with no survey, or if the drought continues into next year, then it will be a serious problem.”
The season starts a half-hour before sunrise on Saturday, Sept. 25, with a six-duck daily limit. Of those, not more than four can be mallards, with no more than two hen mallards; 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 canvasbacks, 2 black ducks, 1 pintail. One scaup may be taken per day through October 14; 2 scaup per day after that.
In addition to the early teal season held Sept. 5-8, other rule changes this year include hunting until sunset for the entire duck hunting season and a five-bird Canada goose limit for the entire fall season. The northern Minnesota waterfowl zone season runs through Nov. 23. The southern and central zones run through Oct. 3, break for five days, then run again from Oct. 9 to Nov. 28.
Brad Dokken contributed to this report