Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: The Fine Art of Duckling Hunting

By Shawn Perich

Minnesota is breaking new ground this summer. A new generation of young hunters will be introduced to the fine sport of duckling hunting. This summer—yes, summer—Minnesota is holding the earliest duck hunt in 95 years. The annual youth waterfowl hunt is on Sept.7. The regular duck season opener is Sept. 21. The first day of autumn is Sept. 22.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that state officials are saying not all baby ducks will be able to fly when the youth season opens. Some will still be flightless when the regular duck season starts. Now, I’m not sure when a duckling officially becomes a duck; but if a little quacker has yet to take its first flight…well, that’s a duckling in my book.

So, in the dawn’s early light of Sept. 7, a bunch of kids will have their first duck hunting experience. I really wonder what it will be like. For starters I’m not sure how you lure ducklings into range. For instance, what do you use for decoys, little rubber bathtub duckies?

Can’t you just see the kids out there with Grandpa, carefully laying out a string of little rubber duckies, each one following the other. Then, at the head of the rubber ducky line, Grandpa plops down the pièce de résistance—a full-sized hen mallard.

“Heh, heh, heh,” Grandpa chuckles with a wicked grin, “Come home to mama.”

Grandpa takes his young, impressionable hunters into the blind and tells them to “hunker down.” Then he pulls out his trusty call, promising to “work some magic.” Of course, the trusty call looks surprisingly like a plastic dog toy with a squeaker inside. Grandpa gives it a squeeze.

“Squeak,” goes the call, “Squeak, squeak.” From Grandpa’s poor old black Lab comes a forlorn moan.

Hark! From somewhere off in the rushes come the sounds of an approaching brood.

“Cheep, cheep, cheep,” go the unseen ducklings.

Anticipation builds as the kids get ready for action. Now they really hunker down, heeding Grandpa’s advice to not move a muscle. Suddenly, the ducks…er, ducklings…swim into view. They spy the decoys and make a beeline for the fake mama duck.

“Git ready kids,” whispers Grandpa. Then he roars, “Take em!”

Ok. We have to pause here. I really don’t have any idea how you shoot ducklings. Nor do I want to imagine, even in jest, a duckling shooting scenario. The problem is, come Sept. 7, this won’t be an imaginative exercise. Instead it will be real, live hunting occurring in Minnesota swamps.

Sure, responsible hunters won’t shoot swimming ducklings, although there is no law to prevent them from doing so. However, responsible hunters will shoot drab, brown ducks that are slow flyers, because they are either adults just finishing their summer molt or young of the year still learning to fly. Hunters will have difficulty identifying the sex or species of passing ducks, because they haven’t acquired their bright, autumn plumage. So they’ll shoot first and sort them out in the bag. That’s the reality of late summer duck hunting.

Many of the ducks in the bag will have been raised in or near the swamp where they are killed. Long ago, in a Minnesota that is now far, far away, waterfowl mangers and duck hunters valued locally produced ducks and took the regulatory steps necessary to protect them. Duck seasons began in October, to ensure ducks were fully feathered and identifiable by sex and species. Hunting ended at 4 p.m. each day, primarily to protect hen mallards that are especially vulnerable to afternoon jump-shooting. And, even though hens were allowed in the daily bag, hunting organizations encourage hunters to harvest only drakes and thus protect the brood stock.

Back then, studies showed hunters were primarily interested in seeing an abundance of ducks and shooting a few of them. Waterfowl managers tried to maintain abundance of waterfowl, even though ducks numbers rose and fell from year to year based upon weather conditions. Season lengths and bag limits varied from year to year based upon duck population estimates. Despite the combined conservation efforts of waterfowl managers and hunters, waterfowl abundance slowly declined. This had nothing to do with hunting and everything to do with increasingly intensive land use that gobbled up wildlife habitat throughout the waterfowl flyways.

Today we have a generation of duck hunters who are accustomed to seeing empty skies. Ironically, today’s hunters want to shoot lots of ducks. Where hunters were once content to see many ducks and just harvest a few, now they seem to judge the quality of the hunt based solely on the pile of dead ducks they accumulate during the course of a hunt. Waterfowl managers seem eager to feed this urge to kill—long seasons and generous bag limits are the rule. Now, in what seems a desperate attempt to kill even more ducks—and maybe sell a few more hunting licenses to boot—the duck season openers are being pushed forward nearly a month from what they used to be.

An earlier generation of waterfowl managers would have been mortified to hold a hunting season before the ducks were old enough to take flight. Today, a Minnesota DNR waterfowl manager glibly tells the Star-Tribune, “A non-flighted duck is the safest duck in the state on the opener.” Really? If that’s the case, perhaps we should open the hunting season while the hens are on the nest–in the “best” interests of conservation. After all, in an era when we are teaching kids to shoot summertime ducks, doing so would be just one more, small step backward.

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