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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The price for hunting in popular places is seeing a lot of other hunters. Spend time scouting and you can discover equally good spots with more space and solitude. © Dean Tvedt
The price for hunting in popular places is seeing a lot of other hunters. Spend time scouting and you can discover equally good spots with more space and solitude.

© Dean Tvedt

October 2008

Footing the bill to spread their wings

Waterfowl hunters support more space and more places for ducks and geese.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Take time to scout | Diverse and enthusiastic group
Steering a new course for Rush Lake | Undiscovered gems
Partner projects | Profile of Wisconsin waterfowl hunters
Waterfowl by the numbers

Wisconsin waterfowl hunters are clear in what they want. They want to see more ducks and geese while hunting with friends and family. They want fewer contacts with other hunters while doing it. And they want more places to hunt.

Kent Van Horn thinks they can score on all three counts if they're willing to change some old habits and take some time to do a little scouting.

"On one hand, many hunters tell us they're dissatisfied with overcrowding," says Van Horn, head of DNR's migratory game bird program. "And on the other hand, 88 percent of them said they continue to hunt the same place they hunted last year. Wisconsin has 15,000 lakes, five million acres of wetlands and roughly 1,250 miles of Mississippi River and Great Lakes shoreline. And we know from our annual surveys that we have enough ducks and geese. Waterfowlers should figuratively spread their wings a little and explore new turf.

"Waterfowl hunters tell us they have the time to hunt but are spending less time considering hunting locations and getting ready," says Van Horn. "They're going into the popular, easy places that many other hunters also choose because they haven't taken time to look for other equally fine spots to hunt."

Take time to scout

Jason Hill, Ducks Unlimited's regional biologist for the state, agrees whole-heartedly that duck hunters would benefit from scouting.

"There are a lot of resources on the Internet and TV that will give tips on how to scout," says Hill. "DU's website has some great information on selecting likely spots and techniques (see Ducks Unlmited). You'll also find a section where our members have submitted ideas over the years.

"Sometimes it's as simple as getting topographic maps or aerial photos, getting out the plat book, knocking on doors or talking to wildlife professionals in the region," Hill explains. "I think the key is finding good wetlands on private lands. One of the things DU focuses on in our priority areas in Wisconsin is putting dollars into private wetland restoration. Those can be some of the best hunting areas, and a lot of times they're associated with and located around those big public wetlands and lakes. Duck hunters tend to go out to the same area they've been to the last 10 years, but the birds might not even be using those places. You've got to put some time into exploring the surrounding landscape because birds move around. To have success and have a great hunt, you've got to put that time and effort into it.

"I hunted Crex Meadows last year," Hill adds. "I spent a whole morning during the season just scouting around to find where the birds were and had a great hunt that afternoon. Sometimes you have to give up some hunting hours to find out where the birds are that day or that week."

Crex Meadows, a 30,000-acre area of wetlands is widely used by resident and migrating waterfowl. © Don Blegen
Crex Meadows, a 30,000-acre area of wetlands is widely used by resident and migrating waterfowl.

© Don Blegen

Hill also suggests investing in a GPS unit to find your way back to promising locations. He thinks more hunters are using them because the units are better, offer more features and are becoming less expensive over time. Another resource for finding new places to hunt is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's listing of waterfowl production areas (WPAs). Agency staff cooperate with private landowners to protect wetlands from draining and filling with soil. Most WPAs are open to hunting and are listed on the agency's website. See Leopold Wetland Management District and St. Croix Wetland Management District.

Diverse and enthusiastic group

As the author of DNR's 10-year strategic waterfowl plan, Van Horn talks to a lot of waterfowl hunters. Some plan goals cover habitat management, monitoring waterfowl populations and balancing perceptions of a growing Canada goose population. Another important goal – improving the waterfowl hunting experience by improving interactions among hunters and helping them see and harvest birds – is one Van Horn is already working to complete.

He meets regularly with the Conservation Congress Migratory Committee, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF) and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association (WWA) and surveys hunters to find out their habits and satisfaction with hunting experiences. See Waterfowl by the numbers, results of the most recent random mail survey. Van Horn calls Wisconsin duck hunters a large, diverse and enthusiastic group. In fact, Wisconsin can lay claim to 83,300 active waterfowl hunters, second highest in the nation only behind Texas which has roughly four times our population.

"A group of avid waterfowlers here even organizes an annual conference in Stevens Point every March," says Van Horn. "They bring in speakers from around the country who report on waterfowl populations, conservation and hunting for the audience of 100 to 200 waterfowl hunters who attend."

Wisconsin waterfowl hunters also invest in their sport, contributing more than $500,000 each year to habitat improvement, here and on the Canadian wetlands. Most of the ducks Wisconsin hunters harvest are raised in-state and in adjacent states and provinces. State law mandates that two-thirds of duck stamp revenues are used to improve waterfowl habitat in Wisconsin; the remainder is sent to Canadian waterfowl agencies, primarily Manitoba. Last year, $382,000 was designated for Wisconsin habitat projects, and $188,000 went to Manitoba.

Van Horn also credits a broad group of government agencies and nongovernmental organizations that conserve and restore waterfowl habitat in Wisconsin. Besides the WWF and WWA, groups like Ducks Unlimited (DU), Pheasants Forever, county land and water conservation departments, local lake and watershed districts, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band together on projects ranging from a few acres to several thousand acres in size.

Steering a new course for Rush Lake

One such project completed last spring restored habitat on Rush Lake in southwestern Winnebago County and northern Fond du Lac County. The lake's shallow waters and marshy shoreline provided excellent waterfowl habitat for more than 150 years. But deforestation, sediment buildup, artificially controlled water levels, increasing carp populations and high levels of lead from spent shot settling into the mucky lake bottom took its toll. Quality habitat was dropping off and some waterfowl were dying from lead poisoning.

The Rush Lake Steering Committee, a partnership among DU, the Department of Natural Resources and seven other partners, set ambitious goals to re-establish a mix of vegetation for food and nesting cover, better manage water levels, improve water quality, reduce carp populations, reduce the effect of lead, and improve habitat for fish and other wildlife, as well as waterfowl.

Partner projects
Two of the biggest organizations dedicated to waterfowl production and habitat conservation in the state are Ducks Unlimited and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association.

In 2007, DU completed 87 projects in Wisconsin, invested $556,013, conserved over 2,000 acres and provided technical assistance on 15,776 acres. Visit Ducks Unlimited-U.S. Great Lakes System for more information on how DU monies are spent in the state.

The WWA also works with landowners to restore wetlands across Wisconsin. Among their 2006 accomplishments were projects totaling more than 150 acres where they removed drainage tiles and ditches, dredged and restored wetland basins, planted prairie, conducted cross contouring to restore floodplains and installed biologs to restore shoreline wetlands.

A restoration project in Green Lake County completed with the help of school children included soil surveys, topographic mapping and identifying cover vegetation, as well as building and erecting wood duck houses. For a complete list of WWA projects, visit Wisconsin Waterfowl Association.

Beginning in 2006, the lake was drawn down to expose the lake bottom over two growing seasons. Naturally occurring seeds germinated. Emergent plants that had been stressed by flooding had time to recover and the abundant carp were eradicated. A new dam was installed and the stream channel of Waukau Creek was graded.

"Now that Rush Lake is bigger than 3,000 acres and there's a new controlled outlet for Waukau Creek, the habitat is only going to improve," says Hill. "There's public access for waterfowl hunting and the Uihlein Waterfowl Production Area is just across the road. It's a significant area with plenty of hunting October 2008 7 opportunity, especially after this year's precipitation."

A big part of the success was cooperation and active involvement of local officials and landowners who learned better methods of controlling runoff. The steering committee held monthly meetings, two open houses, several informational presentations and still keeps in touch with quarterly newsletters.

One of the biggest remaining challenges is dealing with the lead shot deposited in the years before lead shot was banned. The committee hazed waterfowl away from the area during the drawdown when lead-laced sediments were exposed. Then they tried water jetting with high pressure hoses to drive and settle the lead deeper into sediments making it less accessible to waterfowl. Once bulrushes are reestablished, their thick root system will limit waterfowl's reach to ingest lead.

Undiscovered gems

One strategy Van Horn suggests hunters consider in their quest for less crowded hunting areas is to search just a little farther from home. For example, lots of hunters in the Wausau-Stevens Point area like to hunt the Mead Wildlife Area. Van Horn suggests a drive just a bit farther north to Vilas and Oneida counties, to find plenty of ducks and few hunters on thousands of lakes and wetlands.

Two DNR properties termed "undiscovered gems" by property managers are Powell Marsh Wildlife Area in Vilas County and Thunder Lake Wildlife Area in Oneida County. Powell Marsh is a 4,300-acre wetland complex with several wetland types and plant communities, including open water flowages, forested and unforested wetlands, grassy upland islands and upland forest. It is a regionally important wetland because of its large size and open character that is maintained by a combination of prescribed burns, hand-cutting, mowing and shearing. See Powell Marsh State Wildlife Area for more information and to download a map.

Thunder Lake Wildlife Area is a 3,000-acre property in northeast Oneida County used by a wide variety of waterfowl, including mallards, blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and Canada geese. Half the property is open peat wetland and half is forested tamarack/ black spruce wetland. It includes the 120-acre Rice Lake and 1.3 miles of shoreline on the 1,800-acre Thunder Lake. See Thunder Lake Wildlife Area for more information and to download a map.

Hill suggests that hunters in the northwest part of the state check out the 30,000-acre Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area, one he believes is under-utilized by waterfowl hunters. Crex Meadows is located in southwestern Burnett County near Grantsburg.

With the adjacent Fish Lake Wildlife Area, you've got almost 50,000 acres of public hunting owned and managed by the Department of Natural Resources," says Hill. "I don't think it gets much pressure just because it's pretty remote." See Crex Meadows Wildlife Area and Fish Lake Wildlife Area for more information and to download maps.

Pete Engman, property supervisor at Crex Meadows, adds Amsterdam Sloughs Wildlife Area to the list. Amsterdam Sloughs offers about 7,500 acres of wetlands east of Crex Meadows. "Especially after opening weekend, those three areas – Crex, Fish Lake and Amsterdam Sloughs – make up a block of waterfowl habitat with tremendous opportunity that is incredibly under-utilized by hunters," says Engman. "Other opportunities that are overlooked across the state are our river systems. Hunters may need to work to get back into some of the areas that aren't as accessible, but that's where they'll find the birds. I'm a little reluctant to tell a hunter where to go to find birds, but if someone asks me for four or five places where hunters aren't as likely to go, I'm happy to suggest them."

Kathryn A. Kahler writes about outdoor issues from Madison.

Profile of Wisconsin waterfowl hunters
A random mail survey completed in July describes state waterfowl hunters. Most choose to hunt on both private and public land, using a variety of techniques. Waterfowlers are about evenly split coming from both urban and rural communities. Most are older than 40 and are committed to improving their sport and introducing others to it. Specifically:

-59% hunted on land owned by someone else while 47% hunted on state land

-45% of those who hunted private land also hunted state land; 53% of those who hunted state land also hunted land owned by someone else

-74% used decoys, 49% used dogs, and 57% never or rarely used spinning wing decoys

-48% are urban/suburban, 52% are rural residents

-Hunters' ages follow our general population trends. The 18-29 year-olds – 15%; 30-39 year-olds – 17%, 40-49 year-olds – 26%, 50-59 year-olds – 22%, and 60+ year-olds – 21%

-79% had introduced someone new to waterfowl hunting

-74% enjoy other hunting activities in addition to waterfowl hunting

-80% of duck hunters think the daily bag limit is "about right"

-Most duck hunters think the season length (65%) and timing (59%) are about right

-Canada goose hunters also think the season length (72%) and timing (79%) are about right, but only 53% are satisfied with the bag limit

"When asked to rank attributes of a satisfying waterfowl hunt, we found results that may surprise some people," says Van Horn. Rather than picking options like "harvesting a duck or goose" or "filling my daily bag," the top ranked attributes out of 20 choices are:

-Not losing a crippled or downed bird

-Not having conflicts with other hunters

-Being with family and friends

-Seeing ducks and geese

-Not feeling crowded by other hunters

-Passing on the waterfowling tradition to new hunters

Top problems that detracted from a waterfowl hunting experience could be lessened by gaining access to uncrowded hunting areas. Problems include:

-Conflicts with other hunters (65% of duck hunters, 75% of goose hunters)

-Obtaining access to hunting sites (55% for both)

-Crowding at hunting areas (46% and 64%)

-Interference from other hunters (61% of goose hunters)

-Hunting pressure (56% of goose hunters)

"These numbers are important in guiding the future management decisions," says Van Horn. "Recent emphasis to assure that public lands purchased with Stewardship funds remain open to hunting should help. It also raises the need to look at creative ways to manage state lands to reduce crowding and hunter conflicts."

Waterfowl by the numbers
-While breeding waterfowl populations across the continent have followed normal cycles rising in wetter years and dipping in drier years over the past 10 years, Wisconsin has seen record numbers of breeding ducks and geese.

-Between 2000 and 2006, the average total breeding duck population was 622,444, and the average number of breeding mallards was 291,886.

-Total breeding duck populations in recent years has been 48% mallards, 22% wood ducks, 15% blue-winged teal and 6% ring-necked ducks, with the remainder divided among 12 other species.

-Mallard populations today average three times more than in the 1970s.

-Wood duck numbers have increased 6% per year for 33 years and they continue to be a significant part of the state's breeding waterfowl population at around 125,000 birds.

-Besides being the two most abundant breeding ducks, mallards and wood ducks are also the most abundant ducks in the fall harvest – 40% and 20%, respectively.

-Depending on annual conditions, 50% to 70% of our total duck harvest is produced right here in Wisconsin.

-The resident giant Canada goose population has continued to grow at a rate of 13% per year since 1986, averaging 141,000 each spring.

-Canada geese that breed in northern Ontario combine with resident geese to provide some of the highest fall goose populations that Wisconsin has ever experienced.

-Wisconsin pools of the Mississippi River are important for several species of migrating waterfowl. In March 2006, a one-day survey tallied 6,000 swans, 38,000 mallards, 40,000 scaup, 25,000 common goldeneye and over 100,000 canvasbacks.

-The Horicon Marsh sees concentrations of up to 300,000 Canada geese and 50,000 ducks each fall.

-The average number of ducks harvested per hunter each season since 1999 was 6.6, an increase of 2.78 ducks over the previous decade and the highest since the 1950s.

-The 2007 early Canada goose harvest was the highest on record at 21,760 geese.

-95,872 hunters received regular goose season permits in 2007; the statewide harvest was 60,092.