That the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) could have been joking when it recently issued possible changes to state duck hunting regulations seemed at first glance — and second and third glances — a possibility.
The state's duck hunting woes are well-known. Sightings of mallards and other fowl have been less frequent in recent decades than they were a half-century — or even a quarter-century — ago, the reason for which is straightforward: What isn't there can't be seen.
The DNR has acknowledged these duck declines, citing the state's widespread loss of wetland and other habitat, much of it caused by USDA farm programs that insufficiently promote conservation. Many shallow lakes, for example, that once were home to breeding and migratory ducks are now home to minnows, carp or both. Ditto many of the state's remaining wetlands, some of which are treated more like repositories for city and farmland runoff than incubators of aquatic vegetation and the invertebrates that ducks need to survive.
As a result, Minnesota waterfowlers have fled the sport in droves, or are hunting in other states and provinces. In the 1970s, the DNR licensed as many as 140,000 waterfowlers, a number that declined to just under 80,000 in 2019. Indeed, because, as the DNR itself has said, "no other state has the waterfowl production potential of Minnesota," the state for decades led the nation in the number of duck hunters it put in the field. Now, empty skies means empty blinds.
Sociological and demographic changes also are responsible for duck-hunter declines. Baby boomers are graying. Urbanization is rampant. Everyone is busy. Other factors include single-parent families, an emphasis on team sports among high schoolers and the nature of waterfowling as a sport: considerable equipment is required, as are calling, shooting and dog-training skills, and a willingness, oftentimes, to rise early and drive long distances.
So it is that Minnesota duck managers are confronted virtually simultaneously with multiple challenges.
Foremost is retention of duck hunters the state still has, a passionate group that in many cases considers waterfowling more a lifestyle than a pastime. Lofty but attainable, this goal can best be achieved if these hunters believe the DNR intends to retain, not reduce, the quality of waterfowling the state still offers.
At the same time, managers must continue to enhance and expand the state's wetland habitats, which ultimately will improve Minnesota duck hunting. And finally, attempts must continue to recruit new waterfowlers, thus ensuring long-term funding and political support.
Almost unbelievably, the recent waterfowling regulation changes (see below) the DNR is offering for hunter consideration seem less an effort to ensure the future of waterfowling in Minnesota than an attempt to shoot our way to more ducks, an approach that finds little support in the annals of waterfowl management.
Consider: The DNR wants Minnesota hunters to weigh in on establishment of an early September teal season up to 16 days long, which, if approved, would back up the DNR's already ill-advised Youth Waterfowl hunt this fall to Labor Day Weekend.
The DNR is also offering for consideration legalization of spinning-wing decoys throughout the season, as well as legalization of other motorized decoys — such as duck "floaters" that scoot around, simulating movements of live birds.
• The DNR wants waterfowlers to consider ending the 4 p.m. closure in the season's early going, a restriction established to hold ducks in the state longer in the fall.
• Also suggested is allowing over-water goose hunting statewide, a proposal the DNR makes with this justification: "Although originally implemented to reduce waterfowl disturbances, there are no data supporting the effectiveness of this restriction." Counter-argument: That's because duck disturbance is so obvious while shooting geese over water it doesn't need studying.
• The DNR is also offering the idea of legalizing open-water duck hunting, which the DNR defines as allowing "hunters statewide to shoot from open water using a layout boat or anchored boat blind." The DNR's rationale is that "few hunters currently use this method so expansion would increase hunting opportunity without negatively impacting duck populations." This last sentence calls into question whether anyone in the DNR actually hunts ducks. True, layout boats aren't part of Minnesota's waterfowling heritage. But anchored boat blinds that don't have to be hidden in or adjacent to vegetation? Already these craft are used widely among Minnesota waterfowlers, and the only restriction that keeps them from proliferating further is the current requirement that they be anchored in vegetation. Enact this proposal and a duck-hunting arms race will follow, with ducks and duck hunting the losers.
• Finally, the DNR wants hunters to consider allowing battery-powered trolling motors on state wildlife management areas. "Trolling motors could provide additional opportunities and access for hunters while minimizing disturbances," the DNR says. "Minimizing disturbances?" Already, parking lots of many, if not most, WMAs are crowded on days ducks are present. If this change is enacted, most waterfowlers would continue to row or paddle — as they always have — into the pre-dawn dark, hoping to find a spot to set their decoys, while old Billy Bob and his buddies race ahead, courtesy of their 112-pound-thrust "trolling motors."
Upshot: In tossing out ideas to make duck hunting "more accessible," meaning easier, the DNR risks diluting still further the quality of Minnesota waterfowling Yes, the state has fewer ducks. But those birds are being pursued by relatively fewer hunters who, thanks to their passion, still managed the same individual seasonal harvests here in recent years that state waterfowlers did, on average, the past 20 years.
The best path forward for the DNR is to focus on what's best for ducks. Put ducks in the sky, and hunter numbers will rise.
Until that happens, and to ensure no further diminishment of the state's waterfowling heritage, the DNR should: 1) Eliminate the early youth hunt; 2) forget early teal hunting; 3) open the regular season in central and especially southern Minnesota later to account for later migrations; 4) outlaw over-water goose hunting until the regular duck season; and 5) forget altogether about making waterfowling easier and more comfortable.
Duck hunting is at its best hard and uncomfortable.
Thus its challenge. And attraction.
DNR potential duck hunting changes include
Expand early teal season: Starting this fall, allow a September teal season up to 16 days long that would precede the September duck opener, allowing up to six teal daily.
Allow motorized decoys: Remove all restrictions on spinning-wing and other motorized decoys statewide, including on state wildlife management areas.
Eliminate early-season 4 p.m. closure: Hunting would be allowed until sunset throughout the season.
Over-water goose hunting: Remove all restrictions statewide against hunting geese within 100 yards of surface water.
End restrictions on open-water duck hunting: Except on a few large lakes, hunters now must be in or abutting concealed vegetation. Instead they could shoot from open water in a layout boat or anchored boat blind.
Allow trolling motors on state wildlife management areas: Saying battery-powered trolling motors would help hunters access WMAs "while minimizing" duck disturbances, the DNR is proposing such motors be allowed for duck hunting statewide.
For more proposed changes, and to offer your opinion, go to dnr.state.mn.us.