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What was a duck hunter to do? With snow piled high, the season over and the bulk of Mississippi Flyway waterfowl way down south, their options were slim.

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Unless, of course, you were one of nearly 180 duck hunters whose solution was to gather together last week in Stevens Point for the ninth annual Wisconsin Waterfowl Hunters’ Conference. The two-day event’s theme, “Help keep the Flame Alive” put an accent on issues like hunter ethics, recruitment and the future of the sport, while numerous technical sessions rounded out the event.

Where were the birds? One conference session took a look at the changing patterns of migration. Early migrants like teal, beeline for Central America and wood ducks head to southern states early, while mallards and geese remain as long as there is food and water available. But why do the masses of Canadian and prairie state birds sometimes miss our area on their journey south?

The speaker noted that waterfowl are adept at exploiting the resource. Last year, north of the border, crops came off later than normal and huge numbers of ducks and geese remained late into the season. During years of drought, they gravitate towards wetter areas that afford flooded cropland - sometimes scarcely a few hours east or west. In the fall, hunters need to learn to be adaptable and move with the flocks.

Participants also received a few lessons in duck biology, like their springtime use of small ephemeral ponds - temporary depressions holding water on poorly drained soils. Those in the woods attract breeding female wood ducks, whose diets change quite drastically in the spring – converting from plants to animals, which supply calcium and minerals as their embryos and eggshells develop. A diet including invertebrates, like fairy shrimp, water fleas, leeches, snails, crayfish and insect larva – to name a few – makes it happen. Small, ephemeral ponds are the first to thaw and warm up in spring, literally becoming invertebrate factories.

A Dakota grassland predator management project was discussed. Removal of predators resulted in positive nesting in areas of limited quality grassland cover, but became insignificant in larger tracts of prime habitat.

DNR’s Executive Assistant Scott Gunderson was on hand to represent the new administration in Madison – and promised a more frugal approach to stewardship land purchases, funds directed towards shooting sports and ranges, youth hunts and the potential of high school trap shooting leagues. He declared the agency, open for business.

The duck hunter’s conference started with a quote from famed Wisconsin outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie. I’ll end this week’s column with a bit more of his duck hunting wisdom.

“I wanted to see the cleaving flight of feathered migrators splitting the wind before me. I wanted to behold the suddenly tightening grip of the winter upon my beloved lakes and marshes—watch the country say its last goodbye to warm wind and drowsy rain before the white blanket of another season gently covered every dry stalk and patient pine. The day was one for moods. The sun was somewhere behind the black, wooly mass overhead. It struck me as I watched the stingy daylight grow that it is not all of duck hunting to hunt ducks.”

Duck hunting is more than hunting ducks. For dedicated waterfowl hunters, that about sums it up.

Ken M. Blomberg is a freelance writer and longtime resident of the Town of Eau Pleine, northeast of Junction City. A 1976 graduate of UWSP in Resource Management, he is currently Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association.

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