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The hunter crouches in his blind
Next week, as waterfowl seasons open across much of the U.S., more than a million and a half grown-up men, not to mention a burgeoning bevy of grown-up women like the one on the opposite page, will pit pluck, luck and a determined dedication unmatched in any other group of hunters into outwitting at least some of the ducks and geese now beginning their annual migrations south. And this year the odds in favor of the hunter are the best in a decade.
Wildfowl breeding seasons in Canada and Alaska, where more than 85% of the birds that travel the nation's four major flyways are produced, were the longest and most favorable in memory. Water and weather conditions since early spring have been the kind that biologists dream of, with hatches the biggest and survival rates the best in years. By summer's end, mallard broods were up 45%, canvasback and redhead broods 50%, and those of other species had doubled on most of their nesting grounds. What has been good for young birds has been equally good for their elders. Overall populations of all ducks and geese—young and old—are up almost 40% over a year ago. For the hunter this increase means longer seasons, larger bags and fewer shooting restrictions.
States in the Atlantic Flyway, for example, have a choice this year of either a 55-day duck season with a daily bag limit of three birds and six in possession or a 45-day season with a daily bag of four birds and eight in possession. In some portions of the flyway two additional special seasons on ringnecks and scaup have been added to the regular duck season, further stretching the number of shooting days to 70. Seasons on geese and brant run 70 days, with daily limits of two geese and six brant.
In all the flyways, states may also choose to split the maximum number of shooting days allowed into two separate seasons, provided they give up 10% of their shooting days as a penalty for the split. In states such as New York, for example, where climatic conditions differ drastically between northern and southern portions of the state, satisfying hunters in both sections often more than justifies the loss of four or five shooting days in the overall season.
The Mississippi Flyway, with a 45-day duck season, has five more days of shooting this year than last. Four ducks a day may be taken, with eight kept in possession. The goose season, like that in the Atlantic Flyway, is a hefty 70 days, with an equally hefty daily limit of five birds. Southern goose shooters get an additional break. There have always been plenty of geese in this Flyway, but in recent years the birds rarely got beyond the northern tier of states, where food was good and firepower furious. In order to equalize shooting pressure by moving the birds south into new wintering grounds, special goose-kill limits, based upon wildlife-management experiments conducted last season, have been set in parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri. As soon as the kill in these areas reaches a set figure, all shooting will be stopped regardless of when the season would otherwise end. By limiting the kill, game-management experts have discovered that those birds that stay after shooting stops quickly eat up the remaining grain, then move out to other feeding areas, thus spreading the sport over a much broader range.
Central Flyway shooters, too, have much to be happy about. The best news of all is 20 extra days of duck shooting in states choosing the optional 60-day season with limits of three birds daily, six in possession, or 10 extra days in states choosing a 50-day season with larger bag limits of four and eight. For goose shooters there will be 75 shooting days with limits of five and five.
But the most envied shooters in the U.S. are those in the Pacific Flyway, where there will be more birds for every hunter this year than anywhere else in the nation. The duck season here will be a whopping 90 consecutive days with a daily bag of five and possession limit of 10, or a shorter (purely by Pacific Flyway standards) 75-day season with a daily bag of six and possession limit of 12.
By any standards this is generous fare, but then the Pacific Flyway is generously endowed with exactly what waterfowl want in winter. And nowhere is it so richly endowed as in California's lush Central Valley. If there is such a thing as a waterfowl paradise, surely it is here. Formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, fed by countless tributaries that flow off the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, inundated by warm rains in fall and winter and by melting snows from the high country in spring, the Central Valley is the ancestral wintering grounds of much of the waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway.
There are fewer birds there now, it is true, than the awesome millions of ducks and geese that greeted early explorers of the region, and the vast tule marshes of centuries ago no longer span the breadth of the valley, but the area's traditional magnetism for wildfowl is as strong today as ever.