Come Saturday, about 5,000 kids age 15 and under and their mentors will slip into duck blinds before dawn and partake in Minnesota’s 18th annual Youth Waterfowl Day.

While the special one-day waterfowl hunt has its supporters and detractors, one thing is certain: Though the purpose is to encourage youngsters to take up duck hunting, the number of state duck hunters still has fallen 21 percent since the program was launched — from 114,000 in 1996 to 90,000 last year.

Still, officials say that’s not evidence Youth Waterfowl Day doesn’t bring new hunters into the fold and isn’t worthwhile.

“I don’t think we can say because [hunter] numbers have declined, youth recruitment isn’t working,’’ said Ed Boggess, Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division director. “It’s fair to say we don’t really know if various hunter recruitment programs are working. It’s frankly an experiment, because traditionally youths were introduced to hunting through families.’’

Boggess and others say duck hunter numbers might have declined even more without Youth Waterfowl Day.

The problem, Boggess said, is that it’s difficult to replace the huge baby boomer generation, which constitutes a large proportion of the state’s duck hunters.

“As that large cohort of the hunting population ages, it eventually will get too old to hunt or die, and we’re not seeing a commensurate number of 16- to 35-year-olds coming in,’’ Boggess said. “There isn’t another generation of that size coming through the system.’’

That young hunters aren’t replacing the number of aging hunters also is evident in the sale of state duck stamps to youths age 16 and older, which has declined even more precipitously than duck hunter numbers.

Yearly sales of duck stamps through mid-October for 16-year-olds dropped from 1,307 in 2000 to 763 last year, a 42 percent decline. Stamp sales during that same 12-year period fell by 38 percent for 17-year-olds, 34 percent for 18-year-olds, 31 percent for 19-year-olds and 23 percent for 20-year-olds.

Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, acknowledges the lack of evidence that Youth Waterfowl Day is helping recruit young hunters, but said he continues to support the one-day event.

“It’s the one time where kids can go out and hunt ducks and they are the only ones shooting without competing with adults. I think there’s a real need for it to go forward. I don’t see a negative.’’

The only way to know what impact Youth Waterfowl Day has had on Minnesota hunter numbers is to survey duck hunters and find out how many are hunting today solely because of the event, said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who also supports the youth hunt. “That would be expensive,’’ he said.

Said Landwehr: “I don’t look at it as a silver bullet, but it helps us as we try to encourage kids and other nonhunters [to hunt].’’

Historic hunt

Saturday’s Youth Waterfowl Day will be the earliest ever, and one of the earliest duck hunts in Minnesota history. This year’s regular duck opener falls on Sept. 21 — itself the earliest opener since 1945 — and officials hold the youth hunt two weeks beforehand.

Which puts Youth Waterfowl Day on Sept. 7, the earliest Minnesota duck hunt since 1918, when hunting regulations were just beginning.

“It’s the earliest we’ve ever had, and the earliest we ever will have,’’ Landwehr said.

Federal regulations say the regular duck season can open the Saturday nearest Sept. 24 — which makes this year’s Sept. 21 opener the earliest it can be. Next year, the opener will fall on Sept. 27, and Youth Waterfowl Day will be Sept. 13.

Some say Sept. 7 is simply too early, that some ducks won’t be fledged and that shooting pressure from the young hunters could push ducks from the state before the regular opener.

“We’re not concerned it’s too early,’’ Boggess said. “There aren’t many hunters out for youth day, and they don’t take that many ducks. They are likely to take primarily teal and wood ducks. We think it will work out fine.’’

Said Landwehr: “Some people are concerned there will be ducks that can’t fly, but no one is shooting ducks sitting on the water.’’

“With 5,000 kids, if they each shoot two or three birds, we’re talking 10,000 or 15,000 birds,’’ Landwehr said. “It’s trivial compared to the [overall] harvest,’’ which was 835,000 last season.

Youth day details

Hunters age 15 and under may take regular season bag limits when accompanied by a nonhunting adult (age 18 and older, no license required). Hours are a half-hour before sunrise to 4 p.m. Up to five Canada geese can be taken, too. Motorized decoy restrictions are in effect.