Readers Respond to “Looming Crisis”

“Looming Crisis,” a Special Report in the Spring Issue of Delta Waterfowl magazine about declining hunter numbers, generated more letters than we had space to print in the Summer Issue. We share them with you now, and invite you to join the discussion in the comments section:

Hold Later Seasons
I agree with your “Looming Crisis” article and certainly have concern that we are not getting our kids exposed to waterfowl hunting.

The increasing population of waterfowl does not normally occur until late in the season. While I’m not a weatherman, it seems like February is a colder month than December or November, which seems to push the birds to the south later in the season.

Obviously we can’t do much about the weather, but we could shift the dates more towards February, especially for those in the south.

My point is, people are interested in hunting when waterfowl are there to hunt. Kids these days want action. I noticed my boys elected not to go in early December, because we were getting skunked. A slightly later season would keep kids’ interest.

My second point is that “youth weekend” has recently turned into “youth days” in some states. I’m sure there’s logic behind having a youth day before the actual season begins, and then one on the Saturday after the regular season like we do in Alabama. However, many hunters, like myself, travel in excess of 4 hours to hunt. I used to take six kids and their dads — some that had never hunted waterfowl — and we would spend the whole weekend hunting. It was a great time of fellowship and usually generated an exciting hunt on at least one of the days. Since the commission has made it just a Saturday hunt, it’s not worth the long drive.

Additionally, to get kids involved, it takes a fair amount of money. Your article states, “First Hunt will continue to be a vital tool to bolster the ranks of waterfowl hunters.” When you’re asking friends and family to buy boxes of 20-gauge steel, pull together three or four pairs of youth waders and camo, and then ask them to go on a 4 to 5 hour drive — it’s a lot of work for a one-day experience.

As for bringing the kids during the regular season, yes, I do my part. Many of us in clubs are limited by the number of guests we can bring (especially during the active part of the season). Many times, the guests are not based on age, but rather “the number of guns.” Personally, I’ve had three guns, but they were all under 18 years of age. My point is, many clubs are selfish. The members pay good money and they want to have their spot, not one occupied by a kid.

In closing, we need to talk to those making these rules and encourage them to again hold youth weekends, preferably the weekend or second weekend after the regular season ends.

Mike Jackson
Hoover, Alabama

Encourage Diversity
I am a member of Delta Waterfowl, and just mailed my check the other day to renew my membership. I am a great believer in the mission of the organization.

As a lifelong educator and recent retiree (30 years of teaching elementary school), I wish to open Pandora’s Box, if you will. Over the last decade, we have made major strides in recruiting women and young girls to the outdoors and shooting sports. Here in Missouri, the Department of Conservation has programs just for women and young girls.

We also see programs that go by such names as “muddy kids” to bring children along in the outdoors. These programs, however, almost always predominantly benefit the family and friends of active waterfowlers and the like. So, a parent takes their kid to this program and the kid gets a new call, hat, etc. Maybe even a chance at a new gun. That’s all fine and dandy, but those kids are already exposed to the outdoors on a regular basis.

Statistics have recently shown that women are a major demographic when it comes to purchasing a gun for self-defense over the last 10 years. That certainly has helped arms manufacturers, ammunition companies, and all related fields.

What demographic is left? Well, pull a stack of Delta magazines from the last 5, 10, 20 years and start thumbing through them. How many minorities do you see represented in your magazine?

Want growth? Get serious about working with public schools to get inner-city kids involved in the great outdoors. It’s a win-win situation, but it won’t be easy.

Tony Wolf
St. Peters, Missouri

Inflated Duck Numbers?
I just finished reading Paul Wait’s “Looming Crisis” and its related sidebars.

It appears to me that there is a fatal error within the article’s first paragraph. Framing the decline in waterfowl hunters, it reads in part, ” … during an extended period of exceptionally abundant duck and goose populations … .”

Mr. Wait’s opening statement about waterfowl populations being “exceptionally abundant” would automatically assume that the statistical foundation would be based upon USFWS survey data, and that the government’s findings would be without question.

But wait just a minute: There has long been conjecture from both within the Service and from the private sector that the statistical data is, in a word, overstated. From the late 1970s, into the 1980s and 1990s, there have been some generally well-founded opinions voiced that disputed any possible claims of abundance.

Liberal seasonal frameworks and abundant bag limits are without dispute. But years ago, noted outdoor writer George Reiger opined that in terms of hunter success, we were being lulled into the acceptance of “mediocre results.” He further added that the sport would suffer from decline, were that trend to continue. Subsequently, George’s insight was apparently correct.

Overregulation has also been a causal factor of waterfowl hunter decline. And as a senior federal special agent with the Service once reminded me, “If I can watch you waterfowl hunting for a day, you’ll break some law or regulation.” Obviously, outdoor sports such as golfing offer participants far less legal liability than duck and goose hunting.

There remain a significant number of statistically significant reasons for the decline in waterfowl hunters, but in my 55-plus years of waterfowling, the purported “abundant duck and goose populations” does not in any way figure into the equation.

Charles Conner
Picayune, Mississippi

Waterfowlers Face Barriers
I am a 75-year-old, long-time hunter who has mentored a son, two grandsons and a granddaughter. Rule No. 1: Don’t shoot anything you don’t eat. Likewise, if you shoot it, you clean it whether it is a duck, goose, turkey, deer or upland game.

Hunting has its costs. A gun I bought for my grandkids — a 20-gauge pump-action youth model — was $300. I also paid for licenses, shells and some hunting clothes.

In the early days of my hunting along the Mississippi, one could find a lot of places to hunt. In today’s world, it is harder and harder to find a good place. I have hunted waterfowl in Canada, New York, Illinois, Texas, North Dakota and Missouri. Was I willing to pay the price? Yes, and so are my grandsons. However many former hunters aren’t. They would rather spend their money on something else that gives them immediate enjoyment. Looking at the costs and state regulations, they say it’s not worth it.

In Iowa there is a pool behind Lock and Dam No. 13 on the Mississippi. The state has a law now that you cannot leave your decoys out overnight. Well, if you have a spread of 200 duck and 100 goose decoys (perfect for scull-boat hunting), two men would spend many hours putting them out, only to pick them up at the end of the day. Hunters say it isn’t worth it anymore.

In Missouri the state has public hunting areas that you can get drawn into hunt at 5 a.m., meaning one would have to get up by 3:30 depending on where one lives. If your hunting party doesn’t get the right “pea”, home is where you go. My grandsons, much younger than me, do go but many times they are not drawn. And other young people would rather play games on cell phones or iPads, hang out with their friends and go to bed late.

Then we come to the farmer. Their costs are up and prices are down for corn, beans, cattle and hogs. We are very lucky that we have access to good areas on farm ground that cost very little. I believe that if farmers do well, the whole state does well.

I’m afraid that all hunting is declining for these reasons: 1) Costs 2) Places to hunt 3) Transportation 4) State regulations

I belong to five conservation organizations: Ducks Unlimited since 1975 as a sponsor member, Delta Waterfowl, NWTF, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Quail Forever. I believe these organizations help in different ways, but they all use the money wisely.

My waterfowl hunters range from 20 years to me at 75 years old. We are more than willing to take a young person with us any time and show them the ropes at setting up. We have extra guns, blinds and decoys. They wouldn’t have to buy much. However, enticing them to go is another matter. Why? I certainly have no answer, but hope maybe I have given you some idea of why they are not going into hunting. I truly think a lot of their desire depends on whether their parents are hunters.

I see very few youths at banquets who are really interested in hunting. They are there to maybe win prizes, but are they truly budding hunters? That remains to be seen.

Tom Blanchard
Jefferson City, Missouri

Minnesota Feels the Decline
I have been passionate about duck hunting for as long as I can remember, and your story “Looming Crisis” really struck a cord with me.

Let me start by saying I definitely agree with what you had to say in the article. Declining hunter participation is a huge issue, and what I really start thinking about when I read stories like this, is what the situation is like in my hunting area in north-central Minnesota. Nowhere in the country is this more apparent than in Minnesota as a whole, as we have lost 50 percent of our duck hunters in the last 30 years. Given that I’m only 26, I obviously don’t have the years of experience that much older hunters have, but I do have their stories to listen to. I also think my observations in my area are worth something, because if you look at a map of the U.S. broken into counties, mine (Itasca) was among the highest average waterfowler days afield in the entire country from 1999 to 2002. I can’t find a recent map, but I can only imagine that number is dropping.

From what I can see, the top reasons for the decline of duck hunters in northern Minnesota is lack of ducks, and lack of duck hunting areas that a person can actually shoot ducks at. That may seem like a weird way to say it, but there are literally thousands of places a person could duck hunt in Itasca county alone, and years ago, people could shoot ducks at most of those spots. Minnesota has a very large amount of public hunting land available in the northern part of the state, so I don’t think having a place to go is the issue. However, nowadays, spots that the old timers tell stories about shooting ducks at hardly ever have a duck in sight. Even though the breeding surveys have been at record highs the last few years, if the ducks don’t come through your areas, it doesn’t matter if there are a billion ducks, you still won’t shoot any.

The reasons why they don’t come through Minnesota like they used to are a whole other topic. Whether it’s because of the loss of prairie habitat in the southwestern part of the state, or just an overall shift of the duck migration, I don’t really know. But what I do know, is there is definitely a decrease.

The Bigfork River that runs by my cabin has its banks lined with wild rice every year. On paper, it should be a fabulous duck hunting spot. I hear stories from the past about shooting scores of ducks there. The river is where I mainly hunted during my teenage years and we usually did OK, but the past few years, I’ve hardly shot a duck there. In fact I have had multiple days in mid-October where I hardly saw a duck. The Bigfork, along with many small, rice-filled lakes that were once great spots, is essentially free of ducks. What I have found is that in order to actually have some good shooting, you have to go to the traditional “best” spots in the county, which leads to these spots getting overcrowded, resulting in people not hunting anymore.

Another reason for fewer hunters in Minnesota is due to the decrease specifically in bluebill numbers, as that used to be the No. 1 duck harvested in Minnesota and it’s now the 13th most harvested. I know you can relate to this, as I have read your articles about hunting for bills in Wisconsin, and how it’s not the same as it used to be. I dream of being able to experience what older guys experienced on lakes like Winnibigosh, Leech and Bowstring, back in the ’70s and ’80s. Even in the 14 years I have been hunting, the bluebill rafts on those lakes have decreased drastically. A friend of my uncle’s has a cabin on Bluebill Lake, which was obviously named because it teemed with bluebills, but now you will not see one there the entire season. The entire time I have been hunting, one of the top ducks harvested in Itasca county has been the ringneck. I would say that some years upwards of 80 percent of our bag is filled with ringnecks. If the same thing that happened with bluebills happened to ringnecks in Minnesota, I can’t imagine what that would do to hunter numbers.

Another reason I believe people are giving up duck hunting is because a ton of people only ever hunt opening weekend. Sure, that’s the one weekend where you may actually get a good shoot on some of the smaller beaver ponds and rice lakes, but if you go to the popular spots, you will run into scores of people. About 4 years ago, I started hunting one of the more storied lakes near my cabin. Yet on opening weekend this past year, I didn’t even hunt, but instead opted to just drive around to spots to see the numbers of vehicles that were at certain landings. There were 14 rigs at one of the two landings alone, and I can tell you there are not 14 good spots. I hunted that lake almost every weekend the rest of the year, and only ever saw two other rigs. I really think that people get excited for duck season, go out opening weekend, battle for a spot to maybe shoot a couple early season ducks, and get so frustrated that they don’t give it another chance. Which is extremely unfortunate, as they are missing out on the best part of the season!

What scares me the most is the thought of me someday not duck hunting. I live, eat, and breathe duck hunting, and if duck hunting was to get so poor that I gave it up, I feel that many more people would have already given it up before me. In fact, I’m taking a six month leave of absence from work this year, mainly so I can duck hunt as much as possible! Right now, I can’t imagine a year in which I don’t duck hunt, however, I have been lucky enough to have found the lake I mentioned above, and have had fairly good success there the last few years. I still hunt my old spots a few times a year, like the Bigfork River, and some other smaller lakes, but I rarely even shoot a duck there. If those were the only places I had to hunt, I wouldn’t go nearly as much as I do. I would more likely spend my time in the deer stand or the grouse woods, which is a growing trend that I have seen with my peers. In fact, I had a very slow year this past season, and my father never duck hunted once all year. He bought a license, but given his age and the work we go through to paddle to our spots, he wanted to wait till the ducks came down. Unfortunately, that moment never came. That’s the first year he hasn’t duck hunted since he was a child. So while I sit here and think and write about how big of a problem this is, I see it happening right before my eyes in my own family.

I definitely agree with the issue of high start-up costs and intimidation for new hunters. The price of steel shotshells, the decoys, the guns, waders, etc. is an extremely costly investment. I have been lucky enough to have used my dads old beat up Herters as a kid, along with other hand-me-downs, but I have also acquired quite the decoy collection over the years. But if I was to start up now with nothing, there’s no possible way I could afford even half of what I have now. So let’s say someone gets a dozen decoys and the bare essentials. Then they still need to find a spot that has ducks, compete against guys with bigger, better looking spreads, and have a means to get to the spots — which in Minnesotan typically means a boat of some sort. I really wish it were as simple as the stories Jimmy Robinson wrote about when he was growing up. All you needed was a shotgun, some shells and your own two legs.

Another topic you mentioned is the long, liberal ducks seasons. I find this to be an extremely hot topic in Minnesota, especially in the last few years when we have had unseasonably warm falls. Luckily, Minnesota recently started three different zones, which I think was definitely needed, as conditions in the northern and southern areas of the state can vary greatly. However, even though the seasons in the southern zones went later than they had for years, I still think that great hunting opportunities can be lost due to extremely late migrations. It’s the same concept as there being more ducks than there have been in years, but if the season is not open when the majority of them pass through your area, then is doesn’t matter how long the season is. I have hunted near Winona and Lacrosse on the Mississippi backwaters in late November the last two years, and both years, everyone you talk to said the migration hadn’t come through yet. The weather continued to stay warm till the first week of December’s close date, and then people saw clouds of ducks come through. Now I know that season lengths are set by the USFWS, but I think they need to take a closer look at specific areas. I also don’t understand why the Central and Pacific flyways get such longer seasons than the Mississippi and Atlantic. To me, the length of seasons for a state like Minnesota versus Arkansas should be looked at differently, too. Sure they are in the same flyway, but Minnesota is a migration state while Arkansas is a final destination for a lot of ducks. The season closing during the absolute best part of the season could also be a major cause for hunters getting disgruntled.

I also have a theory to what you mention as the fluid waterfowlers. What I have been seeing more and more in Minnesota is a lot of people making trips to North Dakota to hunt waterfowl. This is great, and a lot of times it’s the best hunting people experience. However, trips are starting to become the only waterfowling of the year for some people. In fact, a lot of those people no longer even buy a Minnesota waterfowl license. But given that a trip to North Dakota takes more time and money than hunting around home, a lot of those people don’t go every year, which could lead to seeing this up and down trend of license sales. Now obviously this is just a small sample size, but I think similar instances may be occurring elsewhere, where duck hunting has become more of a vacation done once every 3 years or so.

As far as hunter recruitment goes, I really think what Delta does with First Hunt is the best way to get hunter numbers up. I really hope that this program further blossoms, and I also hope to take part in it and be a mentor this fall. I really wish it was acceptable in society these days to just show up at a school and ask, “Who wants to go duck hunting!?” But something tells me that may be frowned upon.

Billy Shaw
1000 Lakes Chapter of Delta Waterfowl
Grand Rapids, Minnesota