Waterfowl hunters in Idaho and Washington have a lot to celebrate this fall with longer shooting hours, increased limits, legalization of bismuth shot and a season up to 24 days longer than last year.
Most important, however, is news that duck numbers have rebounded to levels that haven’t been seen since the mid-1970s.
Seasoned hunters in this region know that all the forecasts could be moot with a wrong twist in the weather.
Should extremely low temperatures hit the region in early November, stillwaters could freeze and cause the birds migrating south from Canada to move quickly through Washington and Idaho and down along the lower Columbia River.
Or bluebird weather could plague the hunters during most of the fall and early winter. Ducks raft up on big water during sunny, mild and windless days and feed mostly at night. Even though there may be thousands of birds within a few miles of where a hunter is hiding in a blind and contemplating his decoys, only a few may move during shooting hours.
But most waterfowlers are optimists. They’ve got to be.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has told hunters 36 million ducks are in the U.S. and Canada this year, an increase of 10 percent over last year and 11 percent higher than the long-term average.
The mallard population increased 18 percent to more than 8 million, the highest estimate since 1972. Other species also did well during the nesting season.
The biggest increases were in Canada. Eastern Washington duck populations didn’t increase dramatically, but numbers are up slightly over last year. Those birds will provide early season shooting.
Indications are that nesting ducks did well in North Idaho.
The duck picture looked so good that the feds authorized bigger bag limits and longer seasons for this fall and winter.
Idaho and Washington will have similar bag limits. Hunters can kill six ducks a day, including no more than one hen mallard, two pintails, two redheads and one canvasback.
Shooting hours have been lengthened. They’ll be from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.
For the first time, hunters can use bismuth-tin shot in place of steel shot. Bismuth-tin and steel shot are considered nontoxic replacements for lead. However, bismuth-tin shot may not be available at most sporting goods stores during the early part of the season.
As usual, most North Idaho duck hunters will concentrate in a few places on Oct. 7. The most popular include the lakes adjacent to the lower Coeur d’Alene River drainage, on parts of Lake Pend Oreille and on and near the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge near Bonners Ferry.
Like Washington hunters, most Idaho gunners will hunt during the opening weekend and then wait for the arrival of ducks out of Alberta and British Columbia. The hardcore hunters will hunt as often as they can get out.
Numerous lakes, potholes and streams in northeastern Washington provide fair to good waterfowl hunting. However, a high percentage of the most strategically located are leased each year by duck clubs.
Some spots, namely the Pend Oreille River and lakes where there is public access, are open to freelance hunters, but they’re usually crowded.
Duck hunting was good in the Columbia Basin last year, according to Basin regional wildlife manager Mark Quinn. It should be even better this fall and winter, he added.
One out of every three ducks bagged in Washington each year is taken in the Basin.
Many Basin potholes are leased each year by clubs, but many more are open to the public. One of the most consistent producers has been the Potholes Reservoir.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Duck seasons North Idaho’s duck season will get under way Oct. 7 and end 93 days later on Jan. 7. The season will not be split, as it was last year, and it will be 24 days longer. Eastern Washington’s duck season will open at noon Oct. 14 and continue without interruption until Jan. 21.