By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

To say Jud Easterwood of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division is pumped about the approaching waterfowl season would be a significant understatement.

A combination of excellent duck numbers and early cold weather in the northern reaches of the Mississippi Flyway has Easterwood, the WFF’s waterfowl project coordinator, very enthusiastic about the season, which opens on Thanksgiving Day and runs continuously through Jan. 25, the last Sunday in January 2015.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) annual duck survey, the estimated overall duck population is 49.2 million birds, an increase of 8 percent over last year and a 43-percent increase over the long-term average. The USFWS

estimated that the habitat conditions were similar or slightly improved over last year because of average to above-average precipitation, despite a late spring.

As usual, mallards lead the way with an estimated 10.9 million, similar to last year and 42 percent above the long-term average. The gadwall count was 3.8 million, similar to last year and 102 percent above the long-term average, while the American wigeon numbers were 3.1 million, an increase of 18 percent over last year and 20 percent above the long-term average.

Teal are doing well. The green-winged teal count was 3.4 million, similar to last year and 69 percent above the long-term average, while blue-winged teal numbers were 8.5 million, similar to last year and 75 percent above the long-term average.

Redheads were estimated at 1.3 million, similar to last year and 85 percent above the long-term average, while scaup (bluebill) numbers were 4.6 million, similar to last year and the long-term average. Northern shoveler numbers were 5.3 million, similar to 2013 and 114 percent above the long-term average. Canvasbacks were estimated at 700,000, similar to last year and 18 percent above the long-term average.

Northern pintail stayed the same as last year at 3.2 million, but that is 20 percent below the long-term average.

“Obviously we’re very excited to hear the population is doing well, another good year for ducks,” said Easterwood, who is based at WFF’s District I office in north Alabama. “It tells me that if we get the cold weather that some people are predicting, we could have an excellent waterfowl season.

“I know the cold weather we’ve had so far has moved ducks down here. We’re seeing a lot of mallards, gadwalls, shovelers, and I’ve heard wigeons overhead. We’ve also received reports of pintails. We’ve got a good number of ducks for this time of year. I’m pretty excited about what we’re going to see from our aerial survey.”

WFF personnel do flyovers to count waterfowl along the Tennessee River and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in south Alabama. The Delta flyover was Monday, and the north Alabama flight was Tuesday.

Biologists Thomas Harms and Seth Maddox counted more than 2,400 ducks in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, including 1,730 gadwalls and 473 mallards, an unusually high number of mallards for this early in the season. Harms, Maddox, Easterwood and Drew Able flew the Tennessee River Valley and counted more than 40,000 ducks with the majority on Lake Guntersville.

Easterwood said despite a dry September, there should be ample water to support an increasing waterfowl population. Easterwood said the Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) gives wildlife biologists a snapshot of conditions in north Alabama.

“Water conditions for Swan Creek are pretty good,” he said. “We got a good bit of rain over the weekend. There should be plenty of access for hunters. It’s not near the top, but we don’t want it near the top right off the bat. We want a gradual flood for food access for the waterfowl. We’ve got normal river levels in the Tennessee Valley. The periodic rains we’ve had the last few weeks have helped quite a bit.”

Easterwood figures conditions at Swan Creek are pretty much ideal with loads of food for waterfowl through crops and native grasses. He said the crops were planted at the right time and got rain at the ideal time to produce abundant yields.

“Swan Creek has a better crop than it’s had in a long time,” he said. “Plus we’ve got native waterfowl foods like annual and perennial smartweed, foxtail millet and barnyardgrass. That place is replete with waterfowl food – millet, grain sorghum, corn and even a little rice. It is beautiful.”

Swan Creek WMA has 50 permanent blinds (assigned during annual drawing in October) that will accommodate at least four hunters each, according to Easterwood. There is also walk-in and boat-in access to the 8,870-acre WMA.

“We ask that people who walk in or come in in their boats stay 150 yards away from the permanent blinds and each other,” Easterwood said. “There will be a lot of people in here on opening day. But the entire Tennessee Valley is a great place to come duck hunting. It is phenomenal when the ducks are here and the weather is right. You’ve got Mud Creek WMA, Raccoon Creek WMA, Crow Creek WMA and the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) lands in between. There are lots of opportunities for public hunting in the Tennessee Valley. And we’ve seen an increase in some of our diving ducks. You’ll see canvasbacks and redheads later in the season as well as scaup. If it’s in this flyway, you can shoot it in the Tennessee Valley.”

Tim Lesmeister, an outdoor writer buddy of mine, had a recent waterfowl trip to North Dakota, and the photos he posted indicated plenty of cold and snow in that area of the U.S.

“That’s music to our ears down here,” Easterwood said of the winter conditions in the northern part of the flyway. “In the recent past, it was late December and we were hearing that South Dakota was chockfull of mallards. While it’s unfortunate that they’re frozen up there, it’s exactly what we need to hear down here. That’s probably why we’re seeing the number of mallards right now. When we fly our mid-winter survey in January, that’s when we expect to see a greater volume of mallards.”

The bag limits for the 2014-15 season are the same as they were last year with one exception. A total bag limit of  6 ducks per day is allowed with no more than 4 mallards, only 2 of which may be female. The daily bag limit may include 3 wood ducks, 1 mottled duck, 1 black duck, 2 redheads, 2 pintails, 3 scaup and a reduction to 1 canvasback.

The good news is the possession limit has been increased for all migratory birds, including waterfowl and doves. Hunters may now possess three times the daily bag limit.

For geese, the bag limit of 5 shall not include more than 3 Canada geese or 2 white-fronted geese (specklebellies). The possession limit of 15 shall include no more than 9 Canada geese and 6 white-fronted geese.

An Alabama hunting license, WMA license and WMA permit are required when hunting deer, turkey or waterfowl on a wildlife management area. Waterfowl hunters are also required to have federal and state duck stamps and a HIP (Harvest Information Program) stamp.

There are a couple of new rules for the waterfowl areas on the WMAs in Jackson County. Waterfowl hunters may not possess more than 25 shotgun shells (1 box) per person (in possession or in a boat) on all Jackson County WMAs. This regulation does not limit the number of shells one could possess in a vehicle or during special youth waterfowl hunts. Also, the Mud Creek (Wannville) and Raccoon Creek Dewatering Sloughs will be closed to hunting all day on Mondays and Wednesdays.

“This is an exciting season with the ducks we’re seeing,” Easterwood said. “With the water level, good food and the forecasts of a cold winter, everybody is just pretty fired up around here.”

PHOTOS (USFWS) The only reduction in the daily bag limit for the 2014-15 waterfowl season is hunters may now only take one canvasback per day. The annual waterfowl survey indicated there are plenty of blue-winged teal this year, and scaup (bluebill) numbers have stabilized.

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