By Rob Olson, President
Record Flight in 2012?
A shift in duck production has put different species over your decoys
September 17, 2012
I can just imagine that duck hunters across many parts of North America uttered an audible "huh?" followed by some serious head scratching after seeing our July press release touting this spring's duck count as the highest ever.
Keep in mind that this year's spring survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service is a function of last year's hatch, which means by extension, last hunting season must've been a record flight of ducks, too. I can tell you from the many comments I've received that duck hunters in the south and on the east and west coasts aren't buying it.
So what's up? Have duck managers lost their minds?
No. The answer is the source of your ducks have changed dramatically, and so has the makeup of the fall flight. In the 1950s, Prairie Canada sent many more millions of sprig down all of the flyways, and many more Alberta mallards down the West Coast. Those days are gone. We've traded pintails for gadwalls, and swapped bluebills for teal and shovelers.
The Conservation Reserve Program has been a duck hunter's best friend. The Dakotas nowadays produce more ducks than all of Prairie Canada. We are all fortunate for the U.S. Farm Bill's impact, but the shift has big implications. Gadwalls, shovelers and blue-winged teal are the breeding kings of the Dakotas. Pintails have benefitted from the CRP-driven duck boom in the Dakotas, too, but not as much as other species.
For many hunters, gadwalls are not as desirable as the regal sprig. And pintails produced in the Dakotas don't go to sprig-centric hunters in California's Central Valley. Yes, the pintail production of the Dakotas has helped give left-coasters another sprig in the bag, but not necessarily provided more pintails to shoot at.
Other than Cajuns, I haven't seen many hunters treasure the newfound gadwall abundance. And spoonies: They're not what y'all are looking for. But wow, did CRP ever give you a bunch more than you've ever seen!
Bluewings have exploded to all time highs thanks to CRP. While they are a "good duck" in most folks' eyes, they aren't a "big duck." They motor down the flyways early and don't stick around for the main duck season. Greenwings are through the roof nowadays, too. They are fun to shoot, but again, they are "small ducks" and carry much less value to hunters than greenheads.
In the new world order of ducks, spoonies, gadwalls, bluewings and greenwings make up 44 percent of the fall flight, compared to just 17 percent in the glory days of the 1950s and 1970s, when mallards, pintail and bluebills filled the skies.
Although 'bills have made a nice comeback, they've not made it back to the peak numbers of the early 1980s. Bluebills built the duck hunting culture of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but years of depressed bag limits have had a lot of black-and-white dekes gathering dust in the back of sheds. Time will tell if they get dusted off.
Which brings us to mallards, which are at numbers comparable to the peak years of the 1950s and 1970s, but it's warmer now on average. You know what that means: they don't migrate all of the way south. Our research has shown that harvest has shifted later, and you probably already knew it. Last year was a big mallard flight year, but more than 50,000 of them stayed on Devil's Lake, N.D., all winter — Devil's Lake in January for Pete's sake.
So while CRP has given us a lot of ducks in the past 20 years — and liberal seasons — the abundant ducks have changed. We need to adapt, too. My advice: Get out there and fill your straps with bluewings. We need to appreciate the gadwall a little more. What a beautiful bird and underrated on the table, too. And here's some heresy: Knock a few spooners down — they're just a magnum bluewing.
If the snow zone isn't pushing down through South Dakota, and we aren't complaining about cold weather up here in Canada, head north to Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and South Dakota and get with the greenheads.
Let's appreciate the abundance in front of us, and do it soon, because CRP is going away fast. At Delta, we're working on new ways to produce more ducks in a post-CRP world, with a real focus on mallards. Young ducks have a way of curing most of what is ailing us in the duck blind.
Here's wishing all of you a great, safe season.
P.S. Send me your spoonie pictures.
Rob Olson is president of Delta Waterfowl.