By Wade Bourne, WF360 Mississippi Flyway Migration Editor
Duck hunting resumed in Wisconsin's south and Mississippi River zones on Saturday, Oct. 12, and shooting was better, though still sporadic, for many hunters in the lower half and boundary waters.
In summary, diving ducks appear to be increasing in number on Lake Michigan and on the pools of the Upper Mississippi River. In the interior, local dabbling ducks (mallards, wood ducks, blue-winged teal) are providing the most action as hunters wait for colder weather to move new ducks into the state.
"In the early part of the season we've been plagued by warmer than normal temperatures and strong southerly winds," reports Kent Van Horn, migratory game bird ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Bird movement and subsequent hunter success were adversely affected in our early split."
However, a cold front of moderate intensity blew in on Saturday and brought some new ducks with it – not huge numbers, but hopefully the vanguard of a big push that typically arrives in Wisconsin the last two weeks of October.
"We're starting to see large flights of divers building on Lakes Michigan and Superior," Van Horn reports. Specifically, he named Green Bay and Chequamegon Bay as places where significant numbers of lesser scaup and redheads are building up. "These ducks usually arrive the last half of this month," he says. "I'd expect to see more birds coming in with each new front, and hunting prospects should improve the later we get into October."
Van Horn's prediction is confirmed by Ryan Engel of Port Washington, Wisconsin. Engel runs Coastal Wisconsin Outfitters (www.coastaloutfitters.com) which specializes on layout hunts for divers in the mid-Lake Michigan region. Engel hunted both Saturday and Sunday and reports seeing large rafts of bluebills. "Their numbers are definitely growing," he reports. "We saw quite a few ducks both days of the weekend. Saturday we didn't do very well because of strong gusty winds, but yesterday the winds laid a little bit, and the ducks worked better. I'm certain that we've picked up some new birds with this front."
Numbers of divers are also increasing in the Mississippi River zone, though the big building of canvasbacks in this area's Pool 7-9 is just starting. Guide Matt Raley of Hideaway Hollow Outfitters (www.hideawayhollowoutfitters.com) scouted just prior to Saturday's reopening of hunting in this zone, and he reports "a trickle" of ducks in the southwest state area. "The (Mississippi) river is holding a few divers, and there are a lot of (blue-winged) teal still around. I think we had a small migration of mallards and redheads, but mostly I saw local ducks that are still hanging around."
Kent Van Horn says Wisconsin doesn't experience the big influxes of puddle ducks from the Canadian prairies that states to their west receive (Minnesota, the Dakotas, etc.) "The majority of those ducks funnel down from the north and follow the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to their southern wintering grounds. This means they bypass us to the west. That's not to say we won't pick up some migrants during the fall; we will. But we don't get the big overnight increases that states to our west see when a big cold front blows through."
"But it's different with the divers," Van Horn adds. "They migrate more diagonally from the plains along the Great Lakes to states to our southeast (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland). So we do see some dramatic increases in diver numbers when the fronts come through."
The Weather Channel is calling for cooler air and northwesterly winds in Wisconsin in the next 10 days, and hunting should improve with the passing of each new weather system. "We're getting into the time of year when things really start ramping up for duck hunters in Wisconsin," Van Horn notes. "Hunting should get noticeably better in the days just ahead."
(Editor's note: The shutdown of the U. S. government and subsequent furlough of U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service employees has stopped duck surveys on federal refuges and left a gaping lack of data on waterfowl numbers on specific refuges, thus clouding the picture of the status and progress of the 2013 waterfowl migration.)
Wade Bourne is the Ducks Unlimited Magazine editor-at-large, former DU-TV host, avid waterfowler and conservationist. Bourne will provide habitat and hunting reports for the Mississippi Flyway throughout the 2013-2014 season for Waterfowl360 and the DU Migration Map.