Despite record continental duck populations, the number of Minnesota duck hunters and the duck harvest both fell last year — one of the biggest surprises in the Department of Natural Resources latest survey of small-game hunters.

The DNR estimated the number of duck hunters fell about 1,800 to 75,170, and they harvested about 700,000 ducks, a decline of about 83,000 or 11 percent.

Last year's continental breeding duck population was a then-record 49.2 million.

Hunter numbers often rise or drop with wildlife populations; when pheasant and ruffed grouse numbers decline, so do hunter numbers. That makes the duck situation perplexing.

"We don't have an answer to why there's that disconnect,'' said Jay Johnson, DNR hunter recruitment coordinator.

The outlook for this fall's duck season appears to be good: This spring's estimated continental breeding duck population was a record 49.5 million.

Meanwhile, Minnesota small-game license sales fell to 258,109, the lowest in almost 40 years, mirroring a nationwide trend away from small-game hunting and toward big-game hunting. Six years ago, the agency sold 290,000 smallgame licenses.

"We are very concerned,'' Johnson said, though overall the number of Minnesota hunters has been steady.

The brightest news came from ruffed grouse and grouse hunters. The boom-to-bust ruffie population appears to be heading back up after bottoming out in recent years. Harvest last fall climbed to 301,000, up 4 percent from 2013. And the number of grouse hunters climbed slightly to 83,000.

Camp Ripley archery

The DNR is offering surplus permits for the two Camp Ripley archery deer hunts (Oct. 15-16, Oct. 31-Nov. 1), which were undersubscribed for the first time. The permits will go on sale at 5 p.m. Sept. 18.

Hot hunting

Hunters seeking Canada geese and mourning doves battled heat and humidity last week, with mixed success. Geese and goose hunters were mostly absent near Fergus Falls. But near Virginia, conservation officer Matt Frericks checked a group of seven hunters who took its limits in less than an hour on the opener. Meanwhile, dove hunters did well near Marshall, Jackson and Hastings, conservation officers reported.

Doug Smith •