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Waterfowl Season Off to Good Start

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama’s waterfowl hunters had a good chance for fresh roast duck as the main course for Thanksgiving dinner as the waterfowl season opened with considerably more bang than in the past few years.

Several significant cold fronts moved ducks into the state earlier this year, and if hunters were lucky enough to have water, the action was greatly improved.

“From what I heard from various parts of the state, opening day of duck season was a good day,” said David Hayden, waterfowl specialist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WWF) Division. “There were good reports from the Mobile Delta and good reports from the Tennessee Valley. I haven’t heard much from west Alabama, but what little I’ve heard it seems they’ve done well over there. It seems likes everybody had a good mixture of birds. Of course, there were a lot of gadwalls, as expected, because we’ve got so many. There were wigeons and teal. The Tennessee Valley had some mallards mixed in. There were good numbers and a good mixture of ducks.”

Hayden also got a surprisingly good report on scaup, which had a change in the bag limit this season because of poor numbers in the breeding counts. The scaup (bluebill) bag limit will be one bird through Jan. 5 and then increase to two birds per day from Jan. 6-25.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service breeding population survey, scaup numbers were similar to last year, but last year’s numbers were down. The Service delayed any bag reductions until this year. At first, USFWS was leaning toward a one-scaup limit, but changed to a bag limit that changes from one bird to two during the season.

“It was a situation where estimates showed that more than one bird could be harvested part of the season, but not all of the season,” Hayden said. “That’s where the hybrid season came from.”

Of course, there was some concern that the changing bag limit could cause confusion among waterfowl hunters.

“That was discussed at length,” Hayden said. “The Service said you didn’t have to take it, you could go with a one-bird bag for the whole season. Some states chose to do that. We discussed doing that, but we felt it was best to provide the maximum opportunity that we could. So we went with one bird for 40 days and two birds for 20 days. Corky (Pugh, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Director) really pushed for the two-bird bag late in the season.”

Chuck Sharp, wildlife biologist who handles the waterfowl reports for WFF, echoed Hayden’s information and had some first-hand information about the hunting in the Mobile area.

 “On opening day, there was a lot of shooting going on – a lot of ducks flying around,” Sharp said. “The (aerial) surveys just prior to the season showed better numbers than the last few years, both on the Tennessee River and the Mobile Delta. The majority of ducks were gadwalls, which you would expect this time of year. But they did take some other ducks. The last few years we haven’t had much variety. This year we had blue-winged and green-winged teal, wigeons, shovelers, mergansers and a few mallards along the Causeway. There were a good number of scaup. That was the number that was up the most in our survey. There was a good number holding south of the Causeway. There were also a few redheads and mottled ducks taken.

“In the Delta, opening day was real good. The second day was pretty good. It wasn’t as good right at shooting time, but it got better on up in the morning when the ducks were filtering back north to feed.”

Whether the success will last is obviously dependent on weather – specifically cold weather to the north and rainfall to fill up holes that dried out during the prolonged drought in most of the state.

“We had a pretty strong front and I suspect more ducks came in,” said Sharp, who is based in Spanish Fort. “North Alabama probably gained more than we did.

It’s been pretty cold in the northern tier of states, but I think rain is the biggest factor. We were pretty dry, but we got a good rain over the weekend. I’m not sure if the gum ponds got filled up, but it certainly will help. It’s looking a lot better than it did.”

Alabama’s waterfowl season remains under the “liberal” designation from the USFWS with a 60-day regular duck, coot and merganser season, which runs through Jan. 25 with a six-duck bag limit.

The daily limit can consist of no more than four mallards (no more than two of which may be female), three wood ducks, three mottled ducks, one black duck, two redhead and one pintail. Again, the limit on scaup is one bird through Jan. 5 and two birds from Jan. 6-25. The harvest of canvasback is prohibited because of a significant reduction in the USFWS’ breeding population count. Canvasback numbers were down 44 percent from last year’s record high and 14 percent below the long-term average.

“The breeding population numbers for canvasback were way down from last year,” Hayden said. “It was a pretty significant reduction. Based on the prescription we follow for canvasback season, it fell in the ‘closed’ scenario. The question was, because of dry conditions, did some of the birds overfly their normal breeding areas and weren’t counted? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went over the data and talked with the biologists and they could not determine that that had occurred. So they felt the numbers were reasonably valid.”

The bag limit for mergansers is five per day, only two of which may be hooded mergansers. The bag limit on coots is 15 per day. The possession limit on coots and mergansers is twice the daily bag limit.

Shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset, except during regular duck season in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. In the area north of Battleship Parkway, west of Alabama Highway 225, south of CSX Railroad tracks, and east of the west bank of the Mobile River: Monday through Thursday shooting hours shall be one-half hour before sunrise to 12:00 noon; Friday through Sunday shooting hours shall be one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.

The regular goose season – statewide, including the Southern James Bay Population Zone – is open through Jan. 25. The daily bag limit of five shall not include more than two Canada geese or two white-fronted geese. The possession limit of five shall include no more than four Canada geese and white-fronted geese in aggregate.

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