By Mark Petrie, Ph.D.
Fall 1962. Hunters willing to trade $3 for a duck stamp faced the most restrictive regulations in the history of waterfowl management. Those in the Mississippi Flyway found themselves restricted to a 23-day season and a two-bird limit. Hunters who insisted on shooting only mallards were required to retrieve their decoys after a single bird. That’s right, a one-mallard limit! Selective or not, duck hunters in the Mississippi Flyway shot just three birds each on average that year but were not alone in his misery, as restricted seasons were enacted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Fewer duck stamps were sold than at any time since 1939, when America was still in a 10-year vise of depression and drought. Waterfowlers reluctantly extended their fishing seasons, or turned their attention to deer. Hardware store owners complained of unwanted shells. Dogs paced. Spouses rejoiced.
How had it gotten this bad? Just three years before, hunters had enjoyed long seasons and generous bags.
The 1950s not only brought an economic boom to post-war America, the decade also delivered a string of wet years to the prairies breeding grounds. You could afford to hunt and there were ducks to be hunted. By 1959 all that changed. Winter storms that had reliably filled potholes for a decade now stayed bottled up in the Arctic. By 1961 the prairies were in the midst of a ferocious drought. Hunters with long memories nervously recalled the 1930s, wondering if they were facing another decade of dust and disappointment. In the end they would harvest just 4 million ducks in 1961, the lowest number ever recorded before or since.