COVID-19 has affected just about everything else this year; now it’s duck hunting’s turn.
From preseason surveys to duck-blind safety, the coronavirus pandemic is weighing on the West Virginia duck season, the first segment of which opens Oct. 1.
“Spring gobbler season was perfect for social distancing,” said Mike Peters, migratory bird project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. “Duck hunting is just the opposite. It’s hard to maintain proper social distance in a duck blind or a duck boat.”
It’s hard to tell what to expect for this year’s fall and winter migrations, too. In an ordinary year, biologists would have fanned out across Canada and the prairie potholes of Minnesota and the Dakotas, counting the number of ducks they saw.
Not this year.
“A lot of those surveys weren’t conducted because of COVID-19,” Peters said.
Without those surveys, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials weren’t able to tell Peters and other state-level biologists how many ducks would be migrating their way this fall.
“We’re kind of flying blind,” Peters said. “We have no pond-survey numbers. We have no breeding-pair numbers.
“A lot of banding efforts didn’t happen because Canada didn’t want people from the States coming up and giving COVID-19 to the indigenous people there, so it’s hard to know exactly what to expect.”
Peters can’t really trust the only information he’s been able to get his hands on because it came from social media.
“We have to treat that as anecdotal information that might or might not be accurate,” he said.
Based on what he does know, Peters anticipates a duck season that gets off to a slow start.
“In parts of northern West Virginia, we’ve had a summer that was dry in some places and wet in some places,” he said. “I think the hunting will be hit-and-miss this fall until the rains show up.”
The first segment of the season runs from Oct. 1 through Oct. 14. Peters said blue-winged teal are already migrating through the state, and he expects flights of green-winged teal to start coming through. Most of the early-segment hunting, however, will focus on two species more familiar to Mountain State hunters.
“Early on, hunters mainly concentrate on local mallards and wood ducks,” Peters said.
Throughout the Atlantic Flyway, which includes West Virginia, mallard numbers have been in decline for several years. As a result, federal officials last year reduced the daily limit for mallards from four to just two. Peters said the lower limit will remain in effect throughout the 2020-21 season.
Hunters should keep the two-mallard limit in mind when they venture out this fall. Peters said it almost caught him out last year.
“It was strange,” he said. “I shot two mallards on opening day, and I was thinking, ‘Hey, I’m in for a good day. Oh, wait — I’m finished.’ ”
Hunters who focus on wood ducks could be in for a good time.
“We increased the daily bag for wood ducks from two to three several years ago, and we seem to be sustaining the population at that harvest level,” Peters said.
Because ducks are considered migratory birds, hunters must purchase federal migratory waterfowl stamps in addition to their hunting license. They also must carry federal Harvest Information Program cards, which are free but every bit as mandatory as the two purchased licenses.
The other two segments of the duck season will take place Nov. 9-14 and Dec. 21-Jan. 31.