Waterfowl Outlook, 1998-1999
by Ed Mitchell
Predicting how a waterfowl season will go is a foolís errand but looking at the possibilities is something every old frostbitten duck hunter cannot resist. So here goes.
As a veteran duck and goose hunter, the itch to find a good smelly marsh where I can huddle to wait in the chill for the first flight is just about as bad as it was 30-odd years ago. The itch begins to want scratching about the end of August every year and I do look forward to this one, too. But I am counting more on a good year with the quail.
Winter range forage was abundant after the a couple of good, wet years and snow cover was average to nonexistent. Here in the hills of southwestern Idaho, we had green grass every month of the year. We may have to live quite a while to see this again. (Mild winters in Idaho usually mean less than average moisture. When we have a string of those winters, as we did in the late 1980s, herds build up until the next hard winter when forage is sparse, body-fat condition is poor and a crash is unavoidable. I like this better.)
This is not because we donít have ducks in the northland. The great gouts of moisture did land too far south last winter to make the Canadian duck factory ideal this spring but, overall, the nesting counts are good. The official numbers for the continent amount to about 84 million total ducks in the fall flight. This is off from the 92 million we talked about last fall but it is so many more than we had during the last half of the 1970s and in all of the 1980s into the early 1990s that we should still be thrilled as kids who know Santaís on his way and we havenít had a Christmas in years. We should be but, generally, we were not all that happy last fall when we had ducks but no duck weather to bring them to us and there is reason for concern about our prospects for this season.
What I have been saying the previous two years will be true again, the country is lush and, without unusual weather during the hunting seasons, we will have to hunt hard for these animals. They have feed anywhere they want to be, so they will probably remain scattered. And when the country is belly-deep to a tall horse in vegetation, casual hunters will never know how many animals they are among but fail to see.
Most of our fall flight in Idaho comes from the southwest part of Alberta, down through Montana and over the divide into the Snake River country, then on down the river as the season progresses. As ill luck would have it, the only place on the continent that had really poor nesting conditions was southern Alberta. Drat.
Elk hunters might be another matter. They already showed they donít know quite what to think of the new zone tag rule when nonresidents waited about two months longer than usual to buy up the available tags. Zones are the rule now and we will have to go through at least one season to have a definite feel for the system. As far as the biological effect of zone hunting, we really will not know much in one year and probably not much in two.
We do raise quite a few of our own ducks, mostly mallards, so the early part of the season could be good. We could also have more accommodating weather than we did last year and wind up with as good or better hunting anyway. How the wind blows plays as big a part as total duck numbers in Idaho hunting success.
On the unalloyed good things ticket, Idaho has about as many Canada geese as we can have. (I have heard this called "political carrying capacity" or the maximum numbers of certain species that will be tolerated by landowners and golfers.) This has been a progressive development over long years. The Magic Valley has even gone to a three-bird limit at last! And the kids will be allowed a goose limit for the first time on Youth Waterfowl Hunt day (September 26).
This could go a long way to making us forget if the ducks donít fill the sky this fall.
In any case, we do have long seasons again, so we can have our days on the water. The only real cutback is in the limit for pintails, ducks that need that shallow pond water on the prairies that we did not see last winter. We can always sit in the blind, hoping the Canadians are slogging through snow up to their noses so the waterfowl have water next spring.