Looking ahead to a throwback season for 'bills
Story and photos by Paul Wait, Delta Waterfowl Editor
"Was that you out there in the middle this morning?" asked a 65-ish fellow wearing a tattered deadgrass cap.
"I was out there," I offered, motioning toward the center stand of cattails sticking up on a shallow Wisconsin duck hunting lake I frequented. "Had a fine hunt."
"Bluebills, huh?" he queried, spying the pair of lesser scaup drakes draped on my bench seat.
"Yep, it was a good day for 'bills," I said, having sized up the old-timer a bit. "Had a few flocks come in."
"I hunt them, too," my new friend said enthusiastically. "Well, I used to. It's just too much work for one or two ducks."
I nodded as I stowed the last of my diver decoys along the rail of my duck rig.
"Looks to me like you were born 30 years too late," he said boldly. "I've lived on this lake most of my life. Back in the 1970s and 80s, 'bills came in waves. And you could shoot 10 a day. The good ol' days, ya know?"
In many waterfowl hunting locales, bluebills have historically been held in low esteem. But in Minnesota and Wisconsin, 'bills were the bread-n-butter ducks of lake hunters, especially for waterfowlers of my father's generation. When I began hunting ducks in 1982, Wisconsin even had a special extended season specifically for scaup.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin hunters shot 55,000 lesser scaup in 1981, while Minnesota tallied 87,000. Bluebills were the third most common duck in the bag in Wisconsin, ranking behind only mallards and wood ducks.
Back then, at least in Wisconsin, no fellow duck hunter frowned on a boat full of black-n-white magnum decoys. It was just as normal to hunt 'bills as it was to sit in a river channel waiting on greenheads, wood ducks and teal.
Sadly, that culture has largely disappeared.
Breeding population declines prompted the USFWS to slash daily limits to a point where few hunters are willing to set specifically for 'bills. In 2008, when my boat launch encounter occurred, the limit for bluebills in Wisconsin had slipped all of the way to two scaup a day for 20 days of the season, and one daily for the remaining 40 days.
Dropping the limits sharply curtailed the harvest: Wisconsin and Minnesota hunters shot only 16,000 lesser scaup — combined — in 2008.
But at what cost?
An entire generation of waterfowlers has largely missed out on one of our most exciting forms of duck hunting. I know it might just be the dyed-in-the-wool Wisconsinite in me, but from my spot in the duck blind, you haven't truly hunted ducks until you have swung a shotgun faster than you ever thought you could to catch up with a speeding bluebill as it whips past a stormy point. And if you get a chance to guard a bobbing diver rig while flat on your back in a layout boat, take it. Few moments in life are as exhilarating as 75 bluebills screaming straight at you from eye-level.
I will hunt bluebills even if the limit drops to one daily. Scaup are part of my fabric as a waterfowl hunter.
So you can imagine my joy when the USFWS revealed in the 2012 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey that scaup numbers had jumped 21 percent to an estimated 5.24 million. And I was even more thrilled the day I heard rumblings that the regulations would be relaxed so hunters could shoot four bluebills daily in the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, six daily in the Central Flyway and seven a day in the Pacific Flyway this season.
Now, my satisfaction from hunting ducks — bluebills included — doesn't come from the number of dead wings on my strap. However, it sure adds enjoyment to be able to stay in the layout boat overlooking a large spread knowing you won't be done after the second flock of 'bills gives a look.
Last season, I focused on canvasbacks in North Dakota, and I never made it to Wisconsin to hunt bluebills. I had a great season, including a fantastic layout hunt on the Mississippi River that yielded a limit of 'bills.
But this year, I've already made plans for a bluebill hunt on Green Bay, and I have my sights set on a pair of waterways in North Dakota that I know attract rafts of black-n-white ducks in mid-October. I've touched up the paint on my flotilla of diver decoys, restrung the anchor weights and even added a few new white-siders to the flock. I'm ready.
If you've never hunted bluebills, this is the year to put on your big-water boots when the weather gets a bit nasty and give it a whirl. If the 'bills are in, you'll undoubtedly discover one of waterfowl hunting's finest traditions.
Paul Wait is editor of Delta Waterfowl.