Well, here we are, approaching the end of the 2012 Northern Wisconsin waterfowl hunting season. I would suspect that would come as a surprise to most people; it might seem the deer season is the only show in town. Normally, that wouldn’t be far off, but this year is a bit different from other years. This year, we had a brief closure part way through the season, which allowed for five extra days added to our waterfowl season, which closes for the year at sunset on Sunday, Nov. 25. Add the fact that we have a deer season that occurs the earliest it can possibly occur (starting Nov. 17) and you have an interesting overlap of two very different hunting seasons.
The waterfowl season structure is very different from any other hunting season because they are migratory birds ultimately managed by the federal government through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There is a lot of work that has to go into setting up waterfowl seasons. Waterfowl hunters across the United States are selected through the HIP (Harvest Information Program) process to provide harvest information. Anyone who buys a small game hunting license must be HIP certified; this is a legal requirement for anyone who plans to hunt a variety of migratory birds.
Each year, HIP asks you a series of questions about how many birds of each species you hunted last year. From that information, hunters are selected and asked to help with harvest surveys. Some are asked to be wing collectors, like my former co-worker back in Minnesota. Every time we hunted together, we would fill out an information sheet and put a wing from every bird into his freezer. The wings are sorted out in a huge warehouse in Carbondale, Ill., where staff from natural resource agencies throughout the Mississippi flyway sort them and count them by species, age and sex, as well as date and state harvest information. This gives us harvest information that is thorough and complex, and we use it to set the season and bag limits by species for the following year.
According to this HIP data, Northwoods duck hunters (like me) have completed 87 percent of their waterfowl harvest by Nov. 1. This makes sense; a large number of Wisconsin waterfowl hunters only hunt the first two weekends of the season. Also, many times, the majority of our water bodies have stiff water by this time. In the past, when hunters were asked to comment on the waterfowl season, the majority (60 to 70 percent) thought that having an early opener with 60 continuous days of hunting was about right. However, there were about 20 percent who wanted a few days closed mid-season so that we could extend hunting a bit later in the year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives states options to select from each year when establishing their seasons. What is not optional is the total number of hunting days. Each zone can have 60 hunting days total. The earliest allowable start is the Saturday before Oct. 1, which is what we use in northern Wisconsin. In the recent past, we did not use a split, meaning we close for a few days somewhere in the middle. But this year, a request came through the public input process to use our available split to extend the season. With the weather we are having, this may well extend hunting opportunities on big water and rivers, as well as the Great Lakes. The biggest complaint I received was about the date selection for the closure, Nov. 1 through 5. Those of us who slog into the small marshes, bogs and backwaters know some of our best hunting lands on or around Nov. 1; however, that is not what the data shows. Now we are through the split, waterfowl is open until Nov. 25, and I am asking for your help. I want you waterfowl hunters to give feedback. How did you feel about the split? About the timing of the split? I will collect your feedback and supply it to our waterfowl ecologist. If you would rather contact him directly, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at (608) 266-8841.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.