Predictions from state biologists for popular waterfowling destinations
Headlamps cut through the hazy pre-dawn, confirming our fears. We had unexpected company in our opening-day goose field, and the uncertain COVID-19-influenced 2020 waterfowl season had begun.
The situation shouldn’t have surprised us. With widespread furloughs, layoffs, travel restrictions and safer-at-home orders during the 2020 pandemic, more folks throughout the country have been taking advantage of outdoor recreation. Many states documented increased hunting pressure and effort during Spring 2020 turkey seasons, and other areas saw jumps in angling participation, state park usage and other outdoor activities. And as the pandemic dragged on, duck and goose hunters wondered if marshes and fields might see similar heightened activity this fall.
The answer? It depends, according to waterfowl biologists.
The first inklings of change occurred during summer, when many popular waterfowling states announced changes to protocols for draw hunts and managed hunts, many of which previously required hunters to gather in large groups — potentially violating social-distancing measures — to receive daily or seasonal assignments. Illinois, for example, announced that it would cancel waterfowl blind drawings for 2020 because of the pandemic and let current blind holders maintain those assignments through 2020-'21. Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and other states have also made changes to draw-hunt selection procedures.
Soon, waterfowlers began pondering the impacts of travel restrictions. An Aug. 16 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune brought those fears into sharp focus, speculating that the Canadian border closure would result in substantially increased hunting pressure in North Dakota, a popular early-season destination with over-the-counter licenses.
“Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for North Dakota Game and Fish, said ‘it’s a little bit concerning’ that thousands of duck hunters who usually take trips to Canada will instead be looking to locate themselves near lakes and wetlands in North Dakota,” the article said. “Some of the groups will be larger than normal, looking for the kind of field hunts that happen on trips to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.”
“We’re expecting to take kind of the brunt of it,” Szymanski said in the article. “We expect there to be quite a bit of competition for hunting spots.”
Heavy nonresident pressure is nothing new for North Dakota. Still, the prospect of unprecedented hunting activity got folks thinking how the rest of the season might play out elsewhere.
“We haven’t foreseen anything that’s going to be a major impact,” said Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
The Natural State typically sees heavy nonresident pressure, as it’s the country’s No. 1 destination for mallards. U.S. Fish and Wildlife statistics show that in 2019-'20, Arkansas had about 77,500 active waterfowl hunters, second only to Texas. Still, Naylor pointed out that most visiting waterfowlers hunt private property, so he doesn’t expect a pressure increase on the state’s famous waterfowl management areas.
“We sell 40,000 to 50,000 nonresident duck stamps and actually fewer than 7,000 WMA permits,” he said. “The vast majority of folks are going on private land.”
Taylor Finger, migratory game bird ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, expects a small increase in hunter numbers and participation this fall — similar to what the state saw with fishing and turkey hunting in spring. Wisconsin had about 47,600 active waterfowl hunters in 2019-'20, sixth highest in the country.
“Fortunately for Wisconsin, we have 15,000 lakes, 5 million acres of wetlands, two Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the country (Horicon Marsh), and nearly all of them are accessible to the public,” he said. “I recognize we will likely see increases in some of our more popular wildlife areas, but there should still be plenty of room for folks to spread out and have a decent hunt.”
Further, Finger said he’s not too concerned about potentially higher waterfowl harvests and resulting long-term effects.
“We will be able to monitor if the increase in pressure this year has any impact on our harvest rate, but I would suspect that is not very likely,” he said. “But it is something to monitor.”
Ultimately, no one can be sure how unprecedented life changes from COVID-19 might affect the 2020-'21 waterfowl season. Perhaps my opening-day experience provides a microcosmic example of what to expect. My buddy and I introduced ourselves to the two strangers in “our” field, and we agreed to hunt together. They hadn’t hunted waterfowl in Wisconsin for 20-some years but were doing so this season because of Canadian travel restrictions. And after a couple of hours, we combined on a decent pile of geese and some new friendships, even exchanging info and vowing to hunt together again.
If that’s reality for this autumn, the season of COVID won’t be so bad.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.