Though Minnesota’s breeding duck population is up from last year, it’s uncertain whether that will mean more ducks for hunters this fall. But one thing is for sure: The regular season opener Sept. 21 will be the earliest since the end of World War II 68 years ago.
And Youth Waterfowl Day — Sept. 7 — will be the earliest duck hunt in the state since the end of World War I — 95 years ago.
Add a first-ever August Canada goose hunt Aug. 10-25, and you have one of the earliest waterfowl seasons since hunting became regulated in the early 1900s.
Federal and state officials are meeting this week to formalize the waterfowl hunting season framework, but Minnesota officials expect another liberal 60-day duck season, which, by law, can open the Saturday nearest Sept. 24.
“This year, that would be Sept. 21 — the earliest calendar date it can ever be,’’ said Steve Cordts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist. Next year, because of the quirk of the calendar, the opener will fall on Sept. 27 and Youth Waterfowl Day will be Sept. 13.
Though the duck seasons have been early the past two years, state officials don’t believe they are too early.
“The last two years, with early openers, we’ve had very good duck seasons,’’ Cordts said. “Essentially we’ve shifted harvest earlier, offered more opportunity, and increased harvest on early migrant species — teal and wood ducks. And that’s exactly what we tried to do.’’
Some are concerned about the potential overharvest of resident ducks.
“At present, we just don’t have any information to show that’s happened,’’ Cordts said. “Overall harvest, compared to the 1970s, is still down. Hunter numbers are way down.’’ And harvest of ducks banded in Minnesota is down, too.
“We have increased harvest of blue-winged teal and wood ducks,’’ Cordts said. “Everything else is similar to levels we had before we made these changes. It’s something we’ll have to keep looking at, but to date there’s nothing real negative evident.’’
The early opener could make it more difficult to identify birds not fully plumed, Cordts acknowledged. And some young ducks likely won’t be able to fly by Youth Waterfowl Day or even the regular opener.
“A non-flighted duck is the safest duck in the state on the opener,’’ Cordts said.
Minnesota hunters are becoming accustomed to hunting ducks in September.
In 1944 and 1945, the duck opener was Sept. 20. Except for a brief three-day experiment with a September teal season in 1965, the regular waterfowl openers moved to October until 1979, when federal officials moved it to the Saturday nearest Oct. 1. Minnesota’s season opened Sept. 29 that year.
Then in 2002, federal officials added a week to the beginning and end of the season, and in the following 12 years, Minnesota’s duck season has begun in September eight times.
Duck survey results
The state’s annual waterfowl survey, released last week, showed Minnesota’s estimated breeding duck population was up 46 percent from last year, to 683,000. And the mallard breeding population was 293,000, up 30 percent from last year and well above the long-term average.
But Cordts, who conducts the aerial survey, said the results serve as a population index best viewed over time, not from year to year. For example, the 30 percent mallard increase actually is statistically insignificant because of the large margin of error. Also, the surveys were conducted during extremes: a record early spring in 2012, followed by a record late spring this year.
And the survey counts breeding ducks, and is done before ducks nest and produce ducklings. The wet spring likely didn’t hurt duck production, Cordts said, but good reproduction is critical to good hunting. About 50 percent of the birds killed by hunters are locally grown ducks.
August goose hunt
Meanwhile, the first-ever August Canada goose season runs Aug. 10-25 in a large swath of west-central Minnesota, with a daily bag limit of 10 and no possession limit. The goal is to reduce the state’s goose population. The question is whether hunters will go afield in the heat of August, and if so, how successful they will be.
Hunters will be allowed to hunt over water.
“Some people like it, some don’t,’’ Cordts said. “Our intent is to harvest a lot of geese in that zone.’’ He doesn’t believe the disturbance a month before the duck opener will push ducks from the state.
Shooting hours will be from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. A small game hunting license, $4 early goose permit and state waterfowl stamp are required (a federal waterfowl stamp isn’t needed). For details, see startribune.com/a2367.