By Rich Davenport, published December 28, 2021
Waterfowl hunters across NY continue to express frustration over how the waterfowl seasons are set, after changes were made to this process starting in 2018, when the Citizen Task Force work was supplanted by the new Structured Decision Making (SDM) process that was first successfully used to make stronger decisions when it came to deer hunting issues and setting and updating buck take objectives, allowing for more stakeholder input and faster updating processes.
However, what worked well for deer hunting and population management assessments and updates, is not working so well when applied to waterfowl season setting, as a big point of difference exists between deer herds and flocks of ducks and geese – migration periods.
Waterfowl seasons are set each year before the start of the hunt – usually the work is done by end of spring – and leverage more timing of when the seasons will start and end, based on the total allotment of days from US Fish & Wildlife Service, which caps the maximum days allowed between regular and special seasons to a total of 107 days. Exact length of seasons is dictated based on Flyway, with the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways seeing shorter duck seasons than the Pacific or Central Flyways do.
Before the SDM approach was adopted, Citizen Task Forces made up of waterfowl hunters from the various regions in NY would come together to discuss how to carve up the 60 days allocated for duck hunting, and the 103 days provided to Canada Goose hunting. Historically, the first split (states can carve up the 60 days of duck hunting into two seasons) would commence just prior to wood ducks and teals beginning their migration south, while offering ample time to hunt the resident mallards ducks and Canada geese before the start of the Regular Big Game Hunting season in NY. Timing would typically see the first season open close to Columbus Day, and run up to the final week or early archery, then closing up until the day after Christmas, using up the final 15 to 20 days for this second split, which brings migrating mallards from up north, along with canvasbacks, red heads, greater scaup and other desirable diving birds that inundate the Great Lakes area of WNY to the Finger Lakes region as ice forms on the bays up north in Canada.
However, since the adoption of SDM, duration of the first split is typically ending by first weekend of November, then re-opening towards the last weekend of November and closing shortly after New Year’s Day. Canada goose season runs through January 13 this year in NY’s southern/ western waterfowl zone. This brings several issues not envisioned when SDM was first embraced – chiefly the nature of the migrations – as no matter how long a duck season may be, or how short it may be, if it isn’t timed to coincide with arriving migrating birds, hunters see empty skies, or skies filled with mergansers and heavily pressured resident mallard ducks that often are difficult to pull into a decoy spread and into range.
“We have two more years of this to suffer with,” said waterfowl committee chairman George Rockey during the December 2021 meeting of the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “Birds have not begun to come down from Canada yet, and if last year is an indicator, hunters can look forward to thousands of canvasbacks, red heads and bluebills filling the upper Niagara River about 3 or 4 days AFTER the season closes!”
Last year a large migration event occurred bringing thousands of ducks, including red heads, canvasbacks, and even bluebills and mallards, along with buffleheads, into the upper river in large rafts of birds, only their arrival came a few days too late for waterfowl hunters to get a crack at them. Under the old system, hunters would have had a good week or longer to hunt with these birds in the vicinity. Since 2019, the first year of SDM structured seasons, few, if any of these birds had dropped down from Georgian Bay, Canada prior to the season closing up.
This year’s weather seems to be a repeat of last season’s warmth at the end of December, but cold nights up north could bring some birds down from Canada for the last few days of the second split. Yet, only a few days out of the established 34 days of the 2nd season is not enough to say SDM has been successful – not by a long shot.
Southern region duck hunters have until January 2 to harvest ducks, coots and mergansers, while Canada goose hunting continues through January 13, 2022. We can hope the process either returns to the CTF style of setting the seasons, or if a new weighted SDM will be released that puts at the heaviest weighting the timing of the migrations to set seasons against. Waterfowl hunters do not favor good weather hunting, they favor hunting when the ducks are present. The 2023/ 2024 seasons will be the last of the 5 year SDM period before something new is implemented. Waterfowl reps, like Rockey, prefer to see what worked fairly well restored. Waterfowl hunters are encouraged to contact DEC and express their frustration with the current season setting, and ask to have the migration timing become a larger factor in setting future seasons to DEC waterfowl managers and biologists. Constructive feedback should result in some changes to what makes or breaks an SDM choice, and only waterfowl hunters can provide the best information to the season setting team.