Brad Allen has been an avid duck hunter for as long as he can remember. Growing up in coastal Maine, he was bitten by the bug early and has turned the study of birds — ducks included — into his life’s work.
With duck hunting set to start in the state’s North Zone on Monday, Allen, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s bird group leader, said it’s hard to adequately describe the allure of the sport.
“I think there’s so much to duck hunting,” the wildlife biologist said. “Just being out there and watching the day wake up. It just gets in your system. In your blood. It’s always been that way.”
Allen said about 10,000 duck hunters buy the state’s migratory bird permit — one way of tracking the number of duck hunters in Maine. And bright and early — or, more accurately, dark and early — on Monday morning, many of them will head to their favorite wetlands to kick off the season.
Allen said the number of Maine duck hunters has dropped drastically over the past four decades, and said the total was likely three times higher in 1970 than it is now. Allen cites development along the Maine coast and near wetlands, along with an aging hunting population and the failure to recruit youngsters to the sport, for the decline.
Each year, in cooperation and consultation with federal agencies, the state releases its “ Migratory Game Bird Hunting Schedule” which outlines the season dates, bag limits and total possession limits. Covering varied birds from crows and woodcock to regular ducks, sea ducks and Canada geese, some view the schedule as a confusing, convoluted document.
“It seems inherently confusing to the layperson that doesn’t understand [the schedule],” Allen admitted. “It’s a very complex set of hunting regulations. But the bottom line is, from year to year it changes very, very little.”
That’s the case this year, he said, as bag and possession limits have remained unchanged. Season dates shift slightly each year, however, and different seasons exist for different species of waterfowl.
Among the highlights of this year’s schedule: Sea duck season runs from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31. The daily bag limit is seven birds, which shall not include more than four scoters or eiders. The possession limit is 14 birds, not more than eight scoters or eiders; regular ducks (including blacks, scaups, mergansers, pintails and American coots) can be hunted from Sept. 26-Dec. 3 in the North Zone, and from Oct. 1-Oct. 22 and from Nov. 8-Dec. 24 in the South Zone. The daily bag limit is six birds, with no more than four of any one species, with some exceptions. Possession limit is 12 birds, with no more than eight of any single species, again, with exceptions. Seasons and regulations also exist for brant, Canada geese and snow geese.
Allen said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is reporting a phenomenal fall flight of birds nationally, based primarily on observations made in the prairie states.
“[That is] the duck factory of North America. There’s tons of water out there and water translates to ducks, for the most part,” Allen said.
Maine and the maritime provinces of Canada also have a lot of water that can hold plenty of ducks. The problem: A wet spring may have made nesting conditions difficult.
“Some of the survey biologists speculate that some of that early rain and flooding may have hurt early nesting ducks but we’ve been up in northern Maine the last part of the summer and there’s lots and lots of production that resulted probably from re-nesting,” Allen said. “[There were] lots of ducks being hatched in July and August instead of May and June.”
Allen said that re-nesting will likely buffer what would have been a poor reproductive year, and said he expects a solid flight of birds this fall.
“I’m hedging my bets and calling it average, but it may be average to good,” Allen said.
One change that is in effect, with minimal impact, is the issuing of a mercury advisory for ducks living in one marsh in Frankfort. Allen said few hunters utilize Mendall Marsh Wildlife Management Area, but those who do should heed the warning to limit their consumption of those ducks.
Years of mercury contamination attributed to the Holtrachem plant in Orrington have not flushed from the marsh, and recent research turned up high levels of mercury in the breast meat of black ducks found in the marsh.
“It’s a very nice wetland but the geography and the geology of the marsh is such that it’s the perfect storm for mercury contamination,” Allen said. “It’s just not flushing out, it’s not degrading, it’s not doing anything. And it’s there in fairly high abundance.”
Allen estimated that 10 duck hunters may be affected by the warning, and said that ducks found elsewhere in the Penobscot drainage, even nearby, have shown no evidence of mercury.