Duck hunters turned out in strong numbers for Minnesota’s 2020 season opener, enjoying decent success and breaking from five years of sagging attendance.
The Department of Natural Resources reported an 8 % upswing in state duck stamp sales through Sunday after the opener. Observers noticed a ripple of newcomers to the sport and said that most hunters had fair opportunities to bag blue-winged teal, wood ducks and mallards.
“Participation on the opening weekend of the duck season was at record levels,’’ wrote DNR conservation officer Kevin Prodzinski of Wabasha in his weekly report. “Most hunters had some shooting and an average of two ducks per boat was checked.’’
Prodzinski was stationed where hunters converged on the backwaters of the Mississippi River late Friday to jockey for location. In Saturday’s predawn darkness, the glow from so many headlamps and flashlights made the swamp look like an airport runway, Prodzinski said.
Bruce Freske, district manager of the Morris Wetland Management District of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he received numerous reports of abundant ducks and a strong turnout.
“It was the busiest duck opener we have seen in many years,’’ Freske wrote in an e-mail that circulated this week to conservation leaders.
Freske said staff reported seeing vehicles in parking lots at pretty much every Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) in his district. In addition, he said, the opener seemed to be enjoyed by a lot of first- time duck hunters. Freske didn’t hunt, but received reports from staff and hunting friends.
“There were lots of people out and lots of birds around,’’ Freske said in an interview. “There were many who were out for the first time.’’
According to DNR licensing data updated after the opener, the agency sold 5,231 small game licenses in the youth category this year, a 24 % increase over 2019. The small game tags are required of all duck hunters but aren’t exclusive to duck hunting.
State ducks stamps are required of all duck hunters in Minnesota. Through Sunday, the day after the opener, DNR sold 66,218 stamps, an increase of 8 % over the same period last year. It marked the first time since 2014 that participation in the state’s duck opener didn’t plunge from the previous year’s level. Licensing data since at least 2007 show an overall downward trend.
“It’s nice seeing a lot of people outdoors again,’’ Freske said. “For a while it seemed like every year there were less and less people.’’
Opening day temperatures were warmer than usual and the surge in duck hunting mirrored pandemic-related increases in fishing, camping, biking, hiking, boating, four-wheeling, canoeing, kayaking and all things outdoors.
Wildlife managers believe demand for duck stamps also jumped because the outlook was good. According to the DNR’s preseason Waterfowl Migration and Hunting Report, this year’s hatch of young ducks was estimated to be good based on favorable wetland conditions across much of the state’s breeding range.
Habitat conditions were dry in parts of southwestern and northeastern Minnesota, but there was no flooding to deny access, and natural production of wild rice — an important food — was good this year, the report said.
In the Rushford area south of Rochester, DNR conservation officer Mitch Boyum heard from several hunters that it was the most crowded duck opener they’ve seen. Similarly in Winona, conservation officer Tom Hemker noted “very high hunter numbers,’’ including a dozen groups staged at the same access before 1 a.m.
In Hibbing, veteran conservation officer Don Bozovsky reported that it was the best harvest of ducks he’s seen during his time as a game warden in the area.
“Duck hunters did very well, with most everyone bagging birds,’’ Bozovsky wrote.
Similar reports were filed by game wardens in Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Moorhead, Detroit Lakes, Warroad, Grand Rapids and Pengilly.
West Metro conservation officer Arnaud Kpachavi of Mound also observed a big duck opener. He said he encountered a large number of first-time duck hunters and others who hadn’t been out in years.
Goose hunting, too, has picked up. Since the early goose season opened statewide Sept. 5, the DNR has sold around 29,000 goose permits, a 17 % increase from a year ago.
Duck hunting reports from Minnesota’s Arrowhead region were typically less bountiful for opening weekend, but grouse hunting was good in spots.
Officer Kylan Hill of Tofte reported Tuesday that “fall colors and high grouse numbers brought all kinds of people up the North Shore.’’ Multiple groups of hunters left with limits of grouse, he said.