Clouds of ring-necked ducks arrived at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge this fall, grouping into a massive flock of 936,600 of these birds on Oct. 31 — a Minnesota record for the most waterfowl of one kind observed at a single time and place.
The estimate — derived from a 25-year-old survey method — meant that roughly half of the continental population of ring-necked ducks were feasting together on wild rice in the same shallow lake 5 miles south of McGregor in Aitkin County.
By the time the lake froze two days later, the ducks were gone, said Walt Ford, refuge manager.
"We had a great rice crop this year,'' he said. "Our numbers continued to rise through October. … They never felt the need to leave.''
The 18,000-acre refuge is off limits to waterfowl hunters, but the record-setting migration was a good omen, and it happened during the heart of a duck and goose season that didn't suffer from a shortage of targets.
On the down side, participation hit an all-time low based on license sales.
"It certainly was not the best season ever, but I think it turned out pretty good,'' said Steve Cordts of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The 60-day season will be remembered for having a fruitful start during an unseasonably warm opening weekend in September. The early phase was followed by a hunter-friendly period of cold weather that kept birds active in late October and early November. Late November provided another productive time for hunters in certain parts of the state.
"Toward the end of duck season there were more birds around here than I've seen in a while,'' said Troy Richards, the DNR conservation officer assigned to the Fergus Falls area.
Richards said the late-season hunt was noticeably good in the area, including historic Lake Christina and parts west of there.
Lots of geese, a fair amount of mallards and plenty of scaup provided waterfowlers in the Fergus Falls region with action, Richards said. Reports from the field included unusually frequent sightings of greater scaup, he said.
Hunters in and around Lac qui Parle County reported mixed results, "but everyone had something to shoot at,'' said Madison-based game warden Luke Gutzwiller.
In the greater Lac qui Parle area, flooded corn and bean fields attracted ducks during a delayed harvest. He said hunters were quick to adapt and took advantage of the offbeat dispersal. Another memorable facet of the 2017 season was a late-season reward for those who sat out the opening days of the traditional Minnesota firearms deer season. Those hunters rewarded themselves and their dogs with the chance to harvest late-departing ducks, Gutzwiller said.
"The birds stuck around and waterfowl hunters did very well during the early deer season,'' he said.
In the 1970s, when Minnesota's farming regions had considerably more wetlands and less water pollution, duck hunting in the state was in its glory. Back then, the DNR sold an average of 140,000 licenses per year. Cordts, the DNR waterfowl specialist, said the absolute peak during that time was about 170,000 — double the participation recorded this year.
By Nov. 27 of this season, the DNR sold 83,340 waterfowl stamps of all types, down nearly 4 percent from the same period in 2016. When all sales are tabulated, 2017 will be associated with the lowest total on record, Cordts said.
But ask about any duck hunter in Minnesota, Cordts said, they will say that there's still "too darn many'' waterfowlers. As individuals, they thrive on minimal disturbance in the field and plan their hunts in many cases to avoid other hunters.
"They are not going extinct,'' Cordts said.
The DNR is months away from providing a hard count of the 2017 waterfowl harvest. But Cordts said anecdotal evidence points toward a slightly more productive hunt than the norm in recent years. For instance, bag check surveys on opening weekend at Thief Lake and in the Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area indicated a norm of three ducks per hunter per day.
"We did have some huntable numbers of ducks this year,'' Cordts said. "It was OK all the way through to the end.''