Minnesota Outdoorsman - Minnesota Fishing and Hunting Reports
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Antler restrictions appear to result in


bigger bucks, decreased harvest counts

Antler restrictions appear to result in bigger bucks, decreased harvest counts

TRAVERSE CITY — Waiting through a long, wet morning paid off for Richard VanBlooys when a trophy buck stepped into his sights.

He left for his blind about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and sat for several hours waiting for a deer. An 8-point buck finally — later in the afternoon — entered VanBlooys' line of sight about 100 yards away. He quickly shouldered his .30-06 rifle, aimed and fired.

"This is the biggest one I've ever shot," said VanBlooys, 66, of Mancelona. "I'm really happy."

VanBlooys brought the buck — with a roughly 151/2 inch spread — to the Mancelona Buck Pole on Thursday and credited antler point restrictions for the large size of his kill. He believes the restrictions allow young bucks to grow, like his and others that hung next to it.

Department of Natural Resources officials introduced in 2013 rules that prohibit hunters from harvesting bucks with less than three points on one side in the region. The mandate was proposed by Northwest Michigan Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association officials. A majority of hunters supported the changes in regional surveying efforts completed prior to the changes and again at the beginning of 2017, said DNR Wildlife Communications Coordinator Katie Keen.

The rules typically protect 11/2-year-old bucks or younger, she said.

"Because the younger bucks are no longer legal, they can't be harvested, so they're allowed to continue to live, go into the winter and potentially live another season," she said. "So what we're seeing come in are older, and/or bigger bucks."

The response from most hunters has been positive, Keen said, acknowledging her lack of surprise, since most hunters she spoke to bagged a large buck. She expects there are still hunters and others who oppose the new rules.

Not all hunters have followed the new rules. About 20 prosecutions occur each year involving hunters who violate the antler point restrictions, according to DNR Lt. John Jurcich.

Andrew Milliron, president for the Northwest Michigan Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, said talking to hunters and looking at deer on trail camera footage shows the restrictions continue to improve deer herds.

"Overall, whether you would like to shoot an older age class of buck or if you're out for meat, there's ample opportunity for either or," he said. "I feel the program allows hunters to do both."

Milliron said some hunters fear the restrictions could lead to large increases in the deer population. But DNR officials upped the number of available doe tags in those counties with the restrictions, which could help contain the population, he said.

Mancelona Buck Pole volunteers noticed that while the sizes of the deer have increased since the rules were implemented, the number of deer being hung mostly fell.

"It's definitely quality over quantity at this point," said Kayla Moore, 21, a nearly lifelong volunteer at the buck pole.

But she's seen a slight increase in deer harvests since the rule change.

Deer counts were low at the buck pole in the first season after the changes, but those numbers slowly climbed, Moore said. This year's 35-buck count surpassed last year's count of 29, according to statistics on the buck pole's web page.

The size of the deer being brought to the pole this year have certainly increased, she said.

"It definitely makes hunters happier to see such huge bucks being harvested," Moore said.

VanBlooys celebrates firearm deer season's opening day every year, a tradition observed since he was 18. He hopes the antler restrictions will mean more opening days ending with trophy bucks in seasons to come.

"It's done wonders for our deer herd," VanBlooys said. "We have an awesome herd of deer now."

2017 Waterfowl Forecast

Another large fall flight is expected as duck and goose populations remain strong


Photo © Chris Jennings

This year's waterfowl survey results were released in mid-August, and once again the report contained good news for hunters and other waterfowl enthusiasts. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), duck numbers in the traditional survey area were statistically similar to the 2016 estimate. The total population was estimated at 47.3 million breeding ducks, which was 34 percent above the 1955−2016 average and the fifth largest estimate on record. With the exception of northern pintails and scaup, populations of the 10 most abundant duck species were near or above their long-term averages (see chart). In addition, the projected mallard fall flight index is 12.9 million birds, similar to the 2016 estimate of 13.5 million birds.

When ducks and geese returned to the breeding grounds this past spring, they found improved wetland conditions on many important waterfowl breeding areas. May ponds—the unit of measure for wetland abundance on the prairies—increased 22 percent, from just over 5 million ponds in 2016 to almost 6.1 million ponds this spring. The total May pond count was 17 percent above the long-term average, largely due to carryover water stored in wetland basins from the previous summer and fall.

"The surveys indicate that wetland conditions and populations of most frequently harvested ducks remain above the long-term average. There were some declines in several species from last year, but generally hunters are not likely to notice that annual variation out in the field, especially if timely cold winter weather develops in northern and mid-latitude areas of the continent," said DU Chief Scientist Dr. Tom Moorman. "This is great news for waterfowlers, who can now turn their attention to preparing habitat, tuning up dogs, and relentlessly watching the weather forecasts for the onset of fall and winter weather that will push the birds on their annual southward migration."

Although annual changes in duck and goose numbers have important implications for waterfowlers, they do not necessarily influence individual hunting success. Weather and local habitat conditions often affect the fortunes of waterfowlers more than the size of the fall flight, especially in migration and wintering areas. With that in mind, the following is an overview of waterfowl populations in each flyway, based on reports from biologists in the field.

Pacific Flyway

Pacific Flyway_1

The Pacific Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the western United States and Canada, with the majority of ducks and geese coming from Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alaska, and other western states. In southern Alberta, an estimated 6.4 million breeding ducks were surveyed this spring—a 28 percent increase from the 2016 estimate and 49 percent above the long-term average.

"The breeding season started with average to above-average spring runoff and cool, wet conditions that may have delayed early breeding efforts," reports Ian McFarlane, a biologist with DU Canada. "Summer precipitation was near normal in the south, but temperatures have been high, which has decreased water levels. However, semipermanent wetlands remain full in the aspen parkland and Boreal transition zone. There was a good late hatch and numerous large broods have been reported by our field staff."

Farther north, in the Boreal Forest of northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories, an estimated 11.4 million breeding ducks were surveyed this spring—a 19 percent decrease from the previous year's estimate. However, breeding duck numbers in this vast survey area remained 54 percent above the long-term average. In Alaska and the Yukon, this year's population of 4 million breeding ducks was similar to both the 2016 estimate and the long-term average.
DU Canada biologist Jamie Kenyon reports that wetland conditions were generally favorable for breeding waterfowl across much of the Western Boreal Forest. "This summer's weather has been varied, but brood production has been good overall. Northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and the northern Yukon have had above-normal temperatures and below-average precipitation, but ponds remain full," Kenyon says. "In the southern Yukon and northeast British Columbia, cool, wet conditions have maintained high water levels."

In the United States, above-average precipitation improved wetland conditions across much of the West following several years of severe drought. In California, improved production of mallards, gadwalls, and cinnamon teal was expected following one of the wettest winters on record. In Oregon, breeding duck numbers were similar to last year's estimate and the long-term average, while in Washington, total ducks were up dramatically compared to both last year's estimate and the long-term average.

The outlook is good for Pacific Flyway goose populations. Weather and habitat conditions were generally favorable for breeding geese in Alaska, and large fall populations of cackling, Ross's, lesser snow, and white-fronted geese are expected. Surveys indicate that Pacific brant numbers were similar to last year's estimates and the 10-year average. 

Central Flyway


Central Flyway waterfowl are raised on the prairies of the United States and Canada as well as in the Western Boreal Forest and the Arctic. Saskatchewan consistently ranks at the top of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas, and this year was no exception. Almost 12.2 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the vast grasslands and parklands of this province—a 13 percent increase from the 2016 estimate and a level 53 percent above the long-term average. 

According to DU Canada biologist Kelly Rempel, dry weather took a toll on small, shallow wetlands in the province this summer, but sufficient habitat remained on the landscape to support breeding waterfowl. "Limited moisture and high temperatures since May have dried temporary and seasonal ponds. However, water levels in larger semipermanent wetlands, which began to draw down in early July, continued to provide good habitat for hens and broods," Rempel says. "Mallard, blue-winged teal, gadwall, and northern shoveler broods were abundant in areas with suitable habitat."

Good spring wetland conditions were also initially reported in the Great Plains states. In the eastern Dakotas, breeding duck numbers were similar to the 2016 estimate and remained 32 percent above the long-term average. In the western Dakotas and Montana, duck numbers were also unchanged from last year's and were 28 percent above the long-term average. Unfortunately, the onset of exceptionally hot, dry weather in June and July likely had a negative impact on waterfowl breeding success across the region.

"Severe drought returned to the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and northeastern Montana this summer," reports Dr. Johann Walker, DU's director of conservation programs in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. "Although carryover water in larger wetlands and five years of above-average breeding populations resulted in some waterfowl production this year, the region's contribution to the fall flight will likely be smaller than in recent years."
Another bumper crop of geese is expected in the Central Flyway this fall. According to the USFWS, average to above-average production was expected for lesser snow, white-fronted, and Ross's geese in 2017. Good production was expected for Arctic-nesting Canada geese, while typical production was anticipated for prairie-breeding birds. 

Mississippi Flyway


The Mississippi Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the Prairie Pothole Region, as well as from Ontario, the Great Lakes states, the Western Boreal Forest, and the Arctic. In southern Manitoba, abundant carryover water resulted in a 10 percent increase in May ponds compared to the 2016 estimate. Total breeding duck numbers were essentially unchanged from the previous year's estimate, and were 13 percent above the long-term average.

"In the southwest, where a large proportion of Manitoba's waterfowl are raised, nest initiation was early this spring, with the first mallard broods observed in late May and the first blue-winged teal broods observed in mid-June," reports DU Canada biologist Mark Francis. "Dry weather has prevailed this summer, and water levels in wetlands are now receding, although ample habitat remains to support broods."

Conditions are much different in neighboring Ontario, where unusually wet weather has left wetlands brimming with water. "Precipitation has been abundant this summer, maintaining water levels in ephemeral ponds and providing good habitat for breeding waterfowl," reports DU Canada biologist David McLachlin. "Cool, wet weather delayed hay cutting in the south and east, which may have benefited renesting mallards and late-nesting waterfowl species."

Mallards and other ducks raised in the Great Lakes states are an important component of the waterfowl harvest in the eastern Mississippi Flyway and in the mid-Atlantic states. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, mallard numbers were similar to 2016 estimates and their long-term averages. Total duck numbers were up in Michigan and Wisconsin, while in Minnesota the population was down from the previous year's estimate.
"Favorable wetland conditions were present during the brood-rearing period across much of the Great Lakes states this summer," says Dr. John Coluccy, director of conservation planning in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region. "These conditions should have resulted in good brood habitat and renesting opportunities for mallards and other waterfowl species."

The outlook for Mississippi Flyway goose populations is mixed. The Mississippi Flyway Interior Population of Canada geese was up 10 percent in the main survey area in 2017. However, spring was late arriving on western Hudson and James Bays, and field reports suggest that goose production may have been slightly below average as a result. Nearly 1.8 million giant Canada geese were surveyed in the Mississippi Flyway, and good to excellent production was expected for this population. Surveys indicate that breeding success among midcontinent lesser snow and white-fronted geese was good, and large fall populations of these birds are expected. 

Atlantic Flyway


The majority of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl are raised in the northeastern United States and Canada, although this flyway also receives large numbers of dabbling ducks and divers from the prairies. In 2017, the total breeding duck population estimate for the six most abundant species in the eastern survey area (covering eastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Maine, and northern New York) was 2.6 million birds. This year's estimate of approximately 500,000 American black ducks was similar to last year's, but was 12 percent below the 1990−2016 average. Populations of mallards, American green-winged teal, and goldeneyes were similar to last year's estimates and their long-term averages. And ring-necked ducks were down 19 percent from last year's estimate, but remained near the long-term average. Approximately 1.3 million breeding ducks were surveyed in the northeastern United States, similar to last year's total and the long-term average.

DU Canada biologist Nic McLellan reports that wetland conditions were generally favorable for waterfowl production in Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), a key breeding area for black ducks and many other waterfowl species. "Although waterfowl nesting efforts were delayed this spring due to high water levels, observations from the field indicate that brood sizes appear to be large this year," McLellan says. "Summer precipitation has been near average across much of this region, and water levels are currently stable, providing favorable habitat for brood rearing."

The forecast for Atlantic Flyway goose populations is variable. The breeding pair estimate for Atlantic Population Canada geese was similar to last year's estimate and the long-term average, and these birds were expected to have fair to good production this summer. Just over 930,000 resident Canada geese were surveyed in the Atlantic Flyway, and production was expected to be good to excellent for this population. In the eastern Canadian Arctic, greater snow goose numbers were down 18 percent this year, and average production was expected. Atlantic brant numbers were similar to those of 2016, and surveys indicate that breeding success was variable for these birds.

About the Survey

Each year, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, state and provincial wildlife agencies, and nonprofit conservation organizations including Ducks Unlimited take part in the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey—the world's longest-running and most comprehensive wildlife population survey. These dedicated men and women physically count ducks and geese by air and on foot along thousands of miles of standardized survey transects from South Dakota to Alaska. The information collected during this survey has been the cornerstone of waterfowl harvest management in North America for more than 60 years. For more information about this year's survey results, visit flyways.us.

Ten Great Waterfowling Inventions

A short list of game-changing gear innovations that have made waterfowlers more successful


By Gary Koehler

Back in the dark ages, while doing my best to impersonate a diligent college student, one lesson I learned was that classes at eight o'clock in the morning do not mesh well with duck season. A Professor of Latin American history taught me that lesson, if little else.

That was in southern Illinois during the halcyon days of the early 1970s, when those of us who favored whistling wings over stuffy classrooms were surrounded by a wealth of wonderful waterfowling opportunities. Who could blame us for putting our studies on the back burner as the action heated up on public hunting areas such as Oakwood Bottoms, La Rue Scatters, and Piney Point on Crab Orchard Lake?

The gear my two accomplices and I employed never matched our enthusiasm, but that rarely put a damper on our hunting or our zeal. When the weather turned chilly, we would typically bundle up in flannel shirts and multiple layers of sweatshirts topped off by plain brown hunting coats incapable of shedding rain. Rubber hip boots usually kept us dry but never warm, even when worn over three pairs of socks. Our rig consisted of a dozen bulky cork decoys and four Styrofoam mallards, all of which could be squeezed into a pair of gunnysacks. Two dozen fiberboard silhouettes served as our goose spread.

By comparison, today's waterfowl hunting gear is far superior to what was available a generation or two ago. Technology has created miracle fabrics, gas-powered machines capable of going almost anywhere, blinds that can be easily transported on one's back, and many other products. Here's a quick look at a number of waterfowling inventions and improvements that help make duck and goose hunting easier, safer, and more comfortable.

Invention #1

The late Harry Debo and I spent one waterfowl season during our youth hunting a harvested cornfield near Cedar Point in north-central Illinois. We would head to the field when school was over, set out a couple of dozen decoys, and lie down on a bed of burlap bags acquired free of charge from a local supermarket. Those thin layers of burlap were our only protection from the cold, muddy ground, and they did little to hide us from the eyes of wary geese. Thank heaven for modern layout blinds! Who made the first layout is a matter of conjecture, but there are dozens of assorted models available today in a variety of sizes. Nearly every camouflage pattern imaginable can be procured, and these blinds, which fold up and can be carried to the hunting site with little effort, provide creature comforts previously unavailable. Many have pockets for goose flags and gear, flagging ports, padded headrests, cradle seats, and spring-loaded pop-up covers. Layout blinds have opened up a whole new world to those who hunt agricultural fields and many other waterfowl habitats.

Invention #2

Long-time gunning partner Paul Gillmann and I spent several seasons hunting an open-water box blind on 2,400-acre Lake Senachwine, an Illinois River backwater. We also endured more than one frustrating morning trying to find the blind in the fog. After launching the boat in the wet-blanket gloom, we'd find ourselves cruising around in circles trying to locate the all but invisible hide. I can't help but think how much easier navigating in fog would have been with the help of a global positioning system (GPS). All it would have taken was dialing in the correct coordinates and the GPS would have provided a direct line to the blind. GPS units can be used to mark secret spots, hard-to-reach honey holes, and any other places you'd like to find or revisit. GPS is available on many smart phones, too, but I prefer the handheld specialized units, which can deliver a wealth of additional data as well as specific location information. There is no reason to get lost in the fog anymore.

Invention #3

Back in the late 1950s, I watched my father strike a match to two gunnysacks full of wooden decoys. Like everyone else in our neighborhood, we had a backyard burn barrel, and the decoys had been tossed in among the assorted paper and trash. "They're too heavy," my father said of his smoldering blocks that fateful day. "I'm getting some of the new plastic decoys." And he did. Years later, he complained somewhat sullenly that he might have gotten enough money to purchase a new car had he saved those old wooden decoys and sold them to collectors. Fortunately, many of today's plastic decoys offer much more realism than the old wooden or plastic models of yesteryear. Modern plastic decoys are available in all manner of poses, or attitudes. And hunters can also acquire durable, lightweight decoys that swim, dip, paddle, flap their wings, and otherwise create a ruckus on the water. As a group, today's decoys are likely the most lifelike enticements ever created.

Invention #4

Several years ago, while preparing to hunt Arkansas timber, one member of our hunting party was running late. We waited, waited, and waited some more. When the truant finally arrived, we hopped on all-terrain vehicles (ATV), and off we went, through water and muck, driving over logs and traveling perhaps a mile through the swamp. The upshot was that we got to our spot and were set up and ready to hunt at first light. The ATVs made this possible, saving us the time and labor of wading through a morass of blowdowns and unseen underwater trip sticks. First introduced in 1970 by Honda, ATVs have come a long way over the years. In 1982, Suzuki introduced the first four-wheel ATV and other companies followed that lead. The rest is history. These remarkable machines, whether used on dry land or elsewhere, are reliable workhorses that allow waterfowlers to gain access to all types of environments. Even when you're running late, however, you should always proceed with caution and make safety your first priority.

Invention #5

Back in 1991, when the federal government outlawed the use of lead shot for waterfowling, many gunners threw up their hands in dismay. The feds had concluded that too many waterfowl and bald eagles were dying of lead poisoning after ingesting the pellets. The ban created a need for alternative loads that could provide enough speed, weight, and energy downrange to cleanly harvest ducks and geese. Ammunition makers began developing a number of nontoxic loads, including steel, bismuth, tungsten-matrix, tungsten-iron, and others. Like a lot of hunters, I can remember being unimpressed with the ballistics of the  earliest steel loads, but the overall performance of steel and other nontoxic loads has improved dramatically over the years. Always be sure to buy the best shotshells you can afford. Ammo isn't something you should scrimp on.

Invention #6

My first pair of hip boots were my father's hand-me-downs. They were made of rubber and covered with numerous patches. I wore those boots whenever an opportunity arose-when hunting, fishing, or seining for minnows. Rubber and canvas boots ruled the roost for years, because they were pretty much all that were available. Now neoprene is king. Neoprene is, however, hardly new. DuPont chemist Wallace Hume Carothers produced neoprene way back in 1931. Who knows why no one started using this material for waterfowling boots and gloves until years later? Neoprene dominates the chest-wader market and is also used in making hunting gloves. This material, properly maintained, will keep the duck hunter warm and dry. The only downside is that some folks are allergic to neoprene and can't wear that material without breaking out in skin rashes. For those seeking alternatives, much-improved rubber and canvas boots remain a viable option.

Invention #7

My first experience in a boat powered by a mud motor occurred on Georgia's Lake Seminole over a decade ago. My gracious host gave me an extensive tour of this beautiful body of water, including forays into seemingly inaccessible areas. I was amazed at the motor's power and versatility in getting us back and forth to some incredible hunting spots. Mud motors and jet drives are now relatively common in parts of the country where duck hunters navigate swamps, shallow water, stumps, thick vegetation, and other obstacles. A great idea blossomed into an entire industry, as numerous manufacturers now make a variety of these shallow-running motors that take waterfowlers nearly anywhere they want to hunt.

Invention #8

The nation's waterfowl hunters stood up and took notice when Robert W. Gore introduced Gore-Tex, the first waterproof and breathable fabric, in 1976. Old canvas coats fell by the wayside and companies from coast to coast began employing this fabric in their outdoor clothing lines. The arrival of Gore-Tex and the introduction of a number of high-tech insulating materials all but guaranteed that duck and goose gunners would remain more comfortable than they ever dreamed possible during the good old days. Toss in the emergence of dozens of camouflage patterns and the waterfowling fraternity had a whole new look.

Invention #9

The last time I hunted with my Illinois River Valley buddies I noted that neither of them carried a blind bag. I lugged my typical half-ton bag, which contained shotshells, extra choke tubes, a camera, gloves, calls, first-aid kit, a couple of knives, a multi-tool, and who knows what else. Because the clubhouse was within easy walking distance of their blinds, my friends simply stuck a box of shells in one pocket and their calls in another. "We don't need to carry all that stuff anymore," one said. "If we want coffee, we go back to the clubhouse and brew some." Not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully, today's blind bags are far superior to the old green canvas model I once carried on my shoulder. Many modern bags come with different pockets and compartments for separating gear. Most are water-resistant, and some are even capable of floating if dropped overboard into the marsh. Small, medium, and supersized bags are available to fit a duck hunter's every need and circumstance. 

Invention #10

While my memory is somewhat fuzzy, I still recall that my vintage pump gun served me well for several seasons before I traded up. The old slide-action kept on working despite being subjected to significant abuse during my youth. Today, young duck hunters have considerably more shotguns to choose from. The pace of innovation has accelerated, and new shotgun models appear on retail shelves almost every year. Many of these firearms feature resilient plastic stocks and forearms impervious to the elements, adjustable stocks, assorted choke tubes, camo finishes, fiber-optic sights, textured gripping surfaces, and many other options. Overall, technology has made modern shotguns lighter, shorter, and more durable than earlier models. And powerful guns that cycle 3- and 3 1/2-inch loads are now easier on hunters' shoulders thanks to advancements in recoil reduction. As product lines grow, there are more shotguns available for women, left-handers, and youth, which makes it easier for everyone to find a gun they're comfortable with.

Quick Fixes for Better Shooting

Follow these 25 simple tips to bag more ducks and geese


By Phil Bourjaily

Shotgunning is simple. In fact, the phrase "eye on the target, head on the stock" covers about 95 percent of what you need to know. In theory, at least. In practice, however, it's all about the other 5 percent—the tiny details that can mean the difference between a big day in the field and an empty duck strap. Here are 25 tips that will help you fine-tune your shooting technique for waterfowl.


Quick Fix #1: Cut the Kick

Recoil builds bad shooting habits. Cutting the kick makes you a better shot. The best recoil reducer is a lighter load. If your gun beats you up, try a load that's 1/8 ounce lighter and 100 fps slower. A gas-operated autoloader is the second-best recoil reducer, especially if the gun has some heft to it. A good recoil pad such as a LimbSaver or Kick-Eez is yet another buffer against felt recoil. Combining all three can make your shooting a lot more comfortable and successful.

Quick Fix #2: Blacken the Bead

The shotgun bead is not there to be looked at. You're supposed to see it in your peripheral vision to help you keep track of the muzzle-target relationship as you look at the target. As soon as your focus shifts to the bead, the gun stops moving and you miss behind the bird. If the bead distracts you, replace it with a less obvious sight, remove it completely, or blacken it with a permanent marker.

Quick Fix #3: Be Prepared for Problems

A cleaning rod is a handy tool to have with you in case a shot wad, or even mud, gets stuck in the barrel. And sometimes a spray of Break Free CLP or G96 Gun Treatment will help you get through a hunt when a grimy gun becomes sluggish. For any repairs beyond that, the best insurance is an extra gun. 

Quick Fix #4: Shorten Up the Stock

Late in the season, when you're bundled up in heavy clothing, you might find that a shorter-stocked gun is much easier to mount. A good solution is to adjust your stock or have it cut to the right length for hunting in winter clothing. You can always use a slip-on recoil pad for early-season teal or other shirtsleeve-weather hunts.


Quick Fix #5: Mix Loads for Maximum Results

You can get some of the benefits of a double gun, with its two chokes, by first chambering a shell with an open pattern followed by two tight-patterning loads. Winchester Blind Side and Xpert as well as Federal Black Cloud Close Range tend to open up faster than many other steel loads. Load one of those, then follow it with two standard premium steel cartridges in a larger shot size.

Quick Fix #6: Compensate for the Cold

The increased resistance of dense, cold air slows pellets and opens patterns. You might lose up to 75 fps of velocity and shoot patterns that are 10 percent wider late in the season, when temperatures drop. You can compensate for this by selecting shot that's one size larger than the pellets in your regular load and then tightening your choke. Cold air affects larger pellets less than it does smaller ones.

Quick Fix #7: Choose an All-Around Pellet

Steel 2s come as close as anything to an all-purpose pellet for waterfowl. They shoot patterns that are dense enough for close-range teal and yet sufficiently powerful to bag decoying geese. If I had to choose just one load for all waterfowl, it would be 1 1/4 ounces of size 2 shot at 1,450 to 1,500 fps. Take geese out of the equation and I'd go with 3s as a good all-around pellet.

Quick Fix #8: Use Swatter Loads for Cripples

You can use up a lot of ammunition trying to hit a crippled duck or goose in the head. Steel 6s give you greater pattern density for hitting birds in that small, vital area. Shoot a little low at swimming cripples so you don't waste the top half of the pattern. I also keep a bunch of 2s or 4s in my pocket for dispatching crippled geese in dry fields. 

Quick Fix #9: Open Your Chokes

Most waterfowl gunners are over-choked. You don't need tight patterns at 40 yards if you shoot your birds over decoys at 25. Improved-cylinder or light-modified chokes work very well at decoying ranges. When you choose chokes, pattern your gun for the distance at which you expect to take most of your shots. Look for a pattern that puts 75 to 80 percent of its pellets in a 30-inch circle at that range, with good coverage out to the pattern's edges.


Quick Fix #10: Practice at home

The most essential skill in field shooting is a good gun mount. Learning to bring the gun to your face smoothly and consistently helps you shoot instinctively, without conscious effort. Practice your gun mount at home with an unloaded gun. Concentrate on bringing the gun to your face first, then tucking the butt into your shoulder. Repeat this same gun-mounting routine while wearing your cold-weather waterfowling clothes, so you learn to push the gun out and away from your body to keep it from snagging on all those layers.

Quick Fix #11: Match the Target's Speed

Moving the gun muzzle too fast destroys your "feel" for the target and attracts your eye to the bead, which stops the gun. If you start the muzzle in front of the bird, match the bird's speed. However, swing-through shooters should think of moving the gun about 1 mph faster than the bird as they move the barrel through the target. On high passing shots you have to really slow down. Move the gun at half the speed you think you should.

Quick Fix #12: Point Below the Target

Keeping the muzzle below the target allows you to see the bird clearly. That's important, because blocking your view of the target with the muzzle makes you look at the gun, causing you to miss high and behind—the most common way to whiff in shotgunning. The only time you need to cover the bird with the gun is when ducks jump out of the decoys or when you have an overhead shot.

Quick Fix #13: Take Your Time 

Shooting ducks isn't a fast-draw competition. Rushing the shot only increases the chance of a bad gun mount. See the target and move the gun to it slowly. You have more time than you think.

Quick Fix #14: Keep the Gun in Front

The easiest way to make a crossing shot is to never let the bird pass your gun muzzle. Keeping the gun in front of the target will make the bird seem to fly slower, because you won't feel the need to rush to catch up. If your eyes stay on the target, your gun becomes a blur in your peripheral vision as the barrel remains out front.

Quick Fix #15: Focus on the Bird

The more precisely you focus on the target, the better your hands know where to put the gun. If you look in the general direction of a duck, that's what you hit. When you're having a bad day, take the time to narrow your focus to the bird's bill or eyes and the gun will go where it has to.


Quick Fix #16: Talk to Yourself

If you get excited when birds come in, use self-talk. Borrow a technique from target shooters and keep your thoughts performance-oriented. For example, think about what you need to do—such as pick a bird or move the gun slowly—in order to make a successful shot. 

Quick Fix #17: Stay Positive

Slumps happen, and they tend to get worse when your thoughts turn negative. Once you start thinking I'm a terrible shot; I never hit anything, a slump can become harder to break. Think only about what you can control—the next shot. When you miss a bird, think about why you missed it and move on. When you hit one, shooting will begin to feel like the easiest thing in the world and the slump will end.

Quick Fix #18: Read a Golf Book

Reading a book about golf psychology can help you handle the mental challenges of shotgunning, even if you don't play golf. The similarities between the two sports are remarkable; they go far beyond keeping your head down and your eye on the target. One of my favorite golf books for getting into a good shooting mindset is Zen Putting by Dr. Joe Parent.

Quick Fix #19: Avoid Mental Blocks

Although it's important to have confidence in your equipment, don't get stuck on a particular brand of shotshell, a specific velocity, or a certain pellet size. If you do, you'll be off your game the first day you have to shoot something else. 

Quick Fix #20: Visualize the Shot

Visualization is a lot like daydreaming, which is how most of us get through the off-season anyway. When you visualize, you are actually training your mind. See yourself shooting successfully. The more completely you can imagine the situation—the cold, the wind, the sights and sounds—the better. Picture yourself doing the things you need to do to be successful, and this positive outlook will carry over into your shooting.


Quick Fix #21: Help Yourself Up

When hunting in a layout blind, some hunters will dig a shallow depression beneath their seat so they're already partially sitting up in shooting position. Others will dig below the foot of the layout to gain the leverage needed to sit up more easily. Either one of these tactics will help make it easier to sit up and shoot in a layout blind. 

Quick Fix #22: Cover Your Face

Wear a face mask or paint. Dimming the shine of your face could give you a slightly bigger window of opportunity to keep your head up as the birds come in. It's much easier to shoot if you don't have to look up suddenly and try to find a target when someone calls the shot.

Quick Fix #23: Keep Your Hands Warm

Shooting with numb fingers can be challenging. Chemical hand warmers are great, just as long as you can keep them dry. However, rechargeable devices such as ThermaCell hand warmers and Flambeau heated hand muffs will keep your hands warm even in wet weather. Taking along extra pairs of gloves also helps.

Quick Fix #24: Have a Clear View

Pulling the bill of your cap down too low on your face can make it difficult to see the target and potentially cause you to lift your head off the gun. Tip back the bill of your cap or turn it around, and you'll see better and have an easier time keeping your head down as you mount the gun. 

Another way to improve your ability to see waterfowl is to leave your shades at home. Sunglasses can help cut down glare if you're looking into bright sunlight, but dark lenses make it hard to see ducks and geese. Instead of sunglasses, wear shooting glasses—and choose the lightest tint you can use without squinting. You'll see targets better that way.

Quick Fix #25: Set Your Feet

Being able to move your feet when you're standing in the water is often a luxury. Usually you have to shoot with your feet stuck in the mud. If that's the case, set them so you are facing slightly to the right (if you're right-handed) of where you expect to shoot. It's much easier to swing to your left without binding up than to your right.

2017 Waterfowl Population Survey

Total populations were estimated at 47.3 million


Duck Numbers Remain High

Most populations are above long-term averages; pintails and scaup are still a concern

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today released its report on 2017 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June by FWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Overall duck numbers in the survey area remain high. Total populations were estimated at 47.3 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is similar to last year's estimate of 48.4 million and is 34 percent above the 1955-2016 long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index is 12.9 million birds, similar to the 2016 estimate of 13.5 million.

The main determining factor for duck breeding success is wetland and upland habitat conditions in the key breeding landscapes of the prairies and the boreal forest. Conditions observed across the U.S. and Canadian survey areas during the 2017 breeding population survey were generally similar to last year with a few exceptions. The total pond estimate for the U.S. and Canada combined was 6.1 million, which is 22% above the 2016 estimate of 5.0 million and 17% above the long-term average of 5.2 million.

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