Chris Schultz

Outdoors Column

By Chris Schultz
Herald Journal

September 25, 2006

Duck season opens Saturday, Sept. 30

From the Montrose slough, to Smith, Emma, Schillings, the Crow River, or a small hidden slough, it’s almost impossible to predict what our local duck hunting season will be like.

Low water levels may concentrate ducks, producing some good hunting on the bigger sloughs and shallow lakes in the area.

Recent rains, which could fill small potholes, may disperse an already thin local duck population and make hunting even worse.

Also, the recent cold snap may have pushed many teal, and a few of the wood ducks, out of our area already. Only a week, or two, of time in the slough, or on the lake, will tell.

One thing that is for sure is that local die-hard hunters will be out experiencing the outdoors again and, finally, aside from maybe the tree stand of a bow hunter, there is no other way to get closer to the outdoors and experience its true wonders then to sit in the middle of slough at sunrise.

I’ll be heading to the Clara City area for the waterfowl opener, and am expecting a lackluster hunt because of poor, to almost drought like, water conditions.

Ducks or not, I’ll be in the slough getting acquainted with the outdoors again.

Dassel Rod and Gun Club Fall Fish Fry

The Dassel Rod and Gun Club will host its Fall Fish Fry Friday, Sept. 29.

Fish will be served from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. with a cost of $7 for adults and $4 for children 12 and under.

The Dassel Rod and Gun Club is located at Sportsman’s Park on the north side of Lake Washington.

Reports of duck nesting success
From the DNR

Favorable duck nesting conditions, drier conditions in the Dakotas and high numbers of resident Canada geese are raising hunters’ hopes as the 2006 waterfowl season opener approaches.

This spring’s warm, dry weather across Minnesota, North Dakota and the prairies of Canada likely resulted in high waterfowl nesting success and brood survival.

The increase in young-of-the-year ducks could help offset Minnesota’s low breeding duck numbers.

“With drier conditions to the west, there is potential for hunting in Minnesota to be fairly good relative to recent years,” said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Excellent wild rice crops in the forested region and less water in the Dakotas could result in better hunting in Minnesota. Of course, overall success will depend on the weather in the early and later parts of the season.”

Scant rainfall this summer resulted in an excellent wild rice crop in the northern forests and dried out many small basins in southwestern Minnesota. With fewer basins, ducks will be concentrated on larger water that is more accessible to hunters.

“The dry conditions will take away some duck hunting areas, but make other areas more productive,” Cordts said.

Most years, hunters harvest about half their season’s ducks in the first two weeks.

Early migrating species like wood ducks and teal - often reared on local sloughs - make up a large part of the bag limit. By mid-October, Cordts said, ducks and duck hunters begin to change their patterns.

Teal and wood ducks become scarce. Hunters start to depend on later-season migrants like mallards, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and bluebills to fill the skies.

While weather affects duck movement from year-to-year, improvements in wetland habitat will increase duck and goose populations over the long term.

The DNR is currently working with conservation groups and other agencies on a long-term effort to protect 2 million acres of wetland and grassland habitat to boost the breeding duck population to 1 million birds.

“Waterfowl management is a key component of the DNR’s conservation mission,” said Dave Schad, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director. “We’re building a new future for duck hunters with our many partners, but there’s no quick fix. Restoring 2 million acres of wetland and grassland habitat is an enormous challenge that requires long-term commitment.”

The waterfowl season will open Saturday, Sept. 30, at 9 a.m. and continue through Nov. 29.

• New this year

- one canvasback may be taken daily throughout the season

- the bag limit for Canada geese has been increased to two statewide

- the bag limit for hooded merganser has been increased to two.

Cold water danger to duck hunters
From the DNR

Many duck hunters are already preparing for opening day of Minnesota’s waterfowl season on Sept. 30.

Unfortunately, a number of hunters will forget to pack their life jackets, noted Tim Smalley, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boating safety specialist and avid duck hunter.

“Ever since 1988 when life jackets were first required on duck boats,” Smalley said, “the lack of flotation devices is still one of the most common law violations among waterfowl hunters, and the most common cause of duck hunter deaths.”

DNR records indicate the law is working. In the 18 years since life jackets were first required on duck boats, 12 hunters have drowned in boating accidents.

“While 12 deaths in 18 years is 12 too many, three to six duck hunters died almost every season in the bad old days before life jackets were mandated,” Smalley said.

According to U.S. Coast Guard national statistics, more hunters die every year from hypothermia and drowning than gunshot wounds. In 2005, two Minnesota hunters drowned in a single boat accident.

Apparently, the 12-foot boat they were in capsized, filling with water but not sinking. Their guns were still cased and decoys were in the boat.

The men, ages 64 and 67, were both wearing life vests but they did not survive. This could be due to the effects of cold water and their inability to get out of the lake due to deep mud.

Minnesota law requires a readily accessible U.S. Coast Guard approved life vest for every person on duck boats.

For boats 16 feet and longer, there also has to be one U.S. Coast Guard approved device in the boat that can be thrown, like a seat cushion.

Seat cushions are no longer approved as primary flotation devices though, so everyone in the boat needs a wearable personal flotation device of the proper size and type.

Smalley said having a life jacket doesn’t do any good if it’s stuffed under the boat seat when the accident happens.

“Trying to put on a life jacket during a boating accident would be like trying to buckle a seat belt during a car crash,” he said.

Smalley advised hunters who have to wear waders in the boat, to practice floating in them in warm shallow water.

The Minnesota DNR offers these tips:

- wear a life jacket to and from the blind; there are now life vests available for around $35 with mesh in upper body that allows hunters to shoulder a gun

- don’t overload the boat, take two trips if necessary

- learn how to float in waders and hip boats or don’t wear them in the boat

- stay near the shore and avoid crossing large expanses of open water, especially in bad weather

- let someone know where you are going and when to expect your return.

“If you are near enough to a cell phone tower, its not a bad idea to bring your cell phone along in a waterproof zip lock bag to call for help if you get into trouble,” Smalley said. “You can use the phone without removing it from the bag.”

For hunters wishing to learn more about duck hunting boat safety, the DNR has a free publication about waterfowl hunting boat safety called “Prescription for Duck Hunters.”

It is available by calling the DNR Information Center at (651) 296-6157 or toll free 1-888-MINNDNR (646-6367). Computer users may download a copy from www.dnr.state.mn.us.

Ruffed grouse: Minnesota top state for species
From the DNR

When the small game season opens on Sept. 16, hunters are likely to see more of one of Minnesota’s most popular species - ruffed grouse.

An increase in spring drumming counts, favorable nesting weather along with anecdotal evidence point to improved hunting this year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

On average, hunters harvest about 600,000 ruffed grouse annually, regularly placing Minnesota among the top three states in grouse harvest.

“It is the place to go for ruffed grouse,” said Mike Larson, DNR grouse research biologist. “We have lots of good ruffed grouse habitat in Minnesota, and much of it is on our abundant public lands.”

Ruffed grouse are a native woodland bird about the size of a small chicken. The bird is noted for its fan-shaped tail marked by a broad, dark band. It also has a concealed neck ruff that the male puffs out during courtship displays.

Ruffed grouse can be found in the forested regions of northern and central Minnesota as well as the hardwood forests along the Mississippi River in the southeast.

The ruffed grouse population rises and falls on a 10-year cycle, a pattern the Minnesota DNR and other agencies have been charting since the 1940s. Every 10 years, the ruffed grouse population in Minnesota and elsewhere is either way up or way down.

Right now, the population is showing signs of heading upwards. Wildlife biologists say this past spring’s drumming counts were the highest since 2001, with increases observed in all survey areas except southeastern Minnesota, where the count was stable.

Although indicators are positive, Larson said the cycle is difficult to predict. “I’ll be more confident that we’re in the cyclical increase when the count goes up again next year,” Larson said.

While all species experience population fluctuations, the highs and lows for ruffed grouse are dramaticWhen the birds are more abundant, there are more hunters in the woods after them.

For example, in 1990, during a population high point, there were approximately 163,000 ruffed grouse hunters.

Last year, when the cycle was relatively low, hunters numbered 79,000.

Still, Larson said even in a down year, ruffed grouse are nearly as popular with hunters as ducks or pheasants.

This year, it’s possible that numbers of both grouse and grouse hunters will rise. Don Pierce, an assistant area wildlife manager in Grand Rapids, observed a noticeable increase in grouse broods during fieldwork this summer.

“We saw about one brood each day in the field,” Pierce said. “In the two previous summers, we would sometimes go for weeks without seeing a grouse brood.”

He added that the size of the broods and individual chicks he observed had improved as well.

This year’s warm, dry spring likely improved survival of grouse broods across the state, Larson said. “Grouse hatchlings are particularly vulnerable to hail and rain during their first week,” he said.

Grouse brood survival ranges from 20 to 50 percent depending on weather and predation from hawks and owls.

To ensure that Minnesota continues to be a destination for ruffed grouse hunting, the DNR has identified improving ruffed grouse habitat as part of its Conservation Agenda.

The goal is to raise the annual harvest from an average of approximately 600,000 per year to 650,000.

In doing so, the DNR will continue promoting and improving forest management practices that benefit numerous forest wildlife species, including ruffed grouse.

In a knock, knock slump
From Tom Conroy of the DNR

Charlie was restless. We were on a mission and there was no time to stop and let him out for a romp. His whining was starting to get to me.

Hunting dogs can sense autumn’s arrival and what lies in store for them. Rousting and retrieving game birds is what they were born to do.

But it is up to the hunter to provide that opportunity. And that was the purpose of the mission one recent Sunday evening – find a few good places to hunt.

It was dark by the time Charlie the lab and I got home that night.
Charlie had gotten only one short run in during our three-hour road trip. And I had struck out three more times.

That left me 0-for-12 thus far. Gaining permission to hunt private land seems to be getting tougher.

This fall promises to be a dandy for pheasant hunting enthusiasts, at least the equal of last year. And last year was outstanding.

Hunters bagged 586,000 roosters last fall, the most since the mid-1960s.

In anticipation of the exceptional prospects, I was determined to get an early start on securing permission to hunt at least a couple of private properties.

For the past few years our small group has been fortunate to have two private landowners allow us to hunt their land. The land is primarily CRP and CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) - great pheasant habitat.

The only drawback is that this land is an hour-and-a-half drive from where we live, bringing into play considerations about time and gas prices.

Since the pheasant population is up virtually everywhere in Minnesota this year, hunting closer to home seemed to make sense.

There is a considerable amount of good habitat in the county I had in mind so all that would be required would be to knock on a few farm house doors and line up a couple of places.

Over several decades of pheasant hunting I’ve always found private land to hunt.

By following a few simple guidelines, such as getting started well before the season begins, offering to help the landowner with odd jobs or chores, and being polite, access to private land has been there. And it always helps to know the landowner. But something is different this year.

Having moved a year ago, I don’t yet know any landowners in this new area. But zero for twelve? What’s the deal? I think I have discovered part of the answer.

For the past several weeks, while traveling the back roads, it is apparent that more private land than ever is being leased or bought by hunters with the means to pay.

This effectively locks up thousands of acres of land, making it off-limits to others. While this is not a new phenomenon in Minnesota, it seems to be escalating.

Of the twelve rejections I received, ten times it was because the land I had hoped to hunt had already been leased – or sold - to other hunters.

Fortunately, Minnesota has been wise to invest in wildlife lands for public hunting, wildlife watching, fishing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits.

There are currently 1,355 WMAs located in 86 of the state’s 87 counties. In the 28 counties of southwest Minnesota, widely considered the heart of the state’s “pheasant country,” there are approximately 130,000 acres of WMA land.

While that may seen like a lot of land, it actually averages less than 3% of the land base overall. WMAs receive heavy hunting pressure.

Three weeks into the pheasant season many of these WMAs have received so much pressure that the foot traffic has carved virtual roads through the cattails and prairie grass. At this point, private hunting land is particularly coveted.

Hunting pressure on public land is only going to increase in the future, especially if Federal Farm policy continues to subsidize corn and soybean production at the expense of conservation programs.

If it does, there could be steep declines in the amount of land enrolled in CRP and other conservation programs.

This will result in less wildlife habitat and private land for hunting.

What Congress does with the 2007 Farm Bill will have a huge impact on everything from water quality to wildlife. In the meantime, even though I’m 0-for-12 I’m not giving up. It’s just a knock-knock slump, I’m sure.

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