WILTZ: Why have our duck hunters quit?
By ROGER WILTZ
On the morning of Sept. 21, I joined a few friends for an opening day grouse hunt in my old Gregory County stompin’ grounds. While we didn’t limit out on the sharptails and prairie chickens, the doves gave us all the shooting we wanted. We never saw any partridge, and we didn’t bag any chickens, although we saw some at a distance.
We saw grouse in just about every field we hunted. They were especially partial to alfalfa, but they were extremely wild. I’ve always felt that on opening day I could walk up on some young and dumb birds, but it wasn’t the case on this Saturday.
It didn’t appear that many of the doves had headed south yet. We found doves absolutely stacked in some three- or four-acre marijuana patches, where shooting was continuous. I had hoped that I might get a shot at some of our newcomers — the ring-necked doves — but these birds have a definite preference for life in town. Based on my interpretation, these birds are not protected by a season as they are considered to be an invasive species. Thus far, I can’t see where they have done any damage.
We did find a few pheasants in the alfalfa, as well as some milo strips. Note that I said “a few.” However, it was encouraging. Our hunt was quite relaxed — just the way I like it. In fact, we took time out to watch our SDSU Jackrabbits battle Nebraska. The Jacks had me excited for the first 20 minutes.
Later this week, friends and I will head west of Winner for some additional sharptail-prairie chicken action. We are anticipating a lot of birds. During my last trip out there, rattle snakes were thick. I felt that they were “migrating” to their dens. This time I’ll be more relaxed as I’ll be wearing my high-top boots. I’m not afraid of snakes, but I can’t hear them and this puts me at a disadvantage.
I suspect we have more East River grouse/prairie chickens than many people believe. From the fall of 1997 through the spring of 2003, I drove from Wagner to Tripp every day. Often times I took a cross country route. Late in the day during the early winter, I’d see flocks of 40 birds in the air as they moved to night time roosting areas. If I had to guess, I’d bet they were prairie chickens. People from that area will know what I’m talking about.
I was shocked by the feature article on the front page of the Sept. 21 edition of The Daily Republic. It, in part, related to the steady decline in South Dakota duck hunter numbers. According to the story, we have gone from 26,172 duck hunters in 1999 to 12,797 in 2012. That’s less than half. Why is this happening?
I’ve read volumes of hunting stories over the years — many by great or distinguished writers. They have called hunting ducks over decoys the sport of kings. They claim that in hunting circles, the hunting of ducks over decoys has no equal. I won’t argue their point. The sport has a romance all its own.
In an attempt to determine why duck hunter numbers have fallen, I’ll admit that a duck hunt. I duck hunt unless we are crawling over the dirt mound on the side of a stock pond and blasting away, which requires more preparation than say a pheasant hunt where we put some shells in our pocket, grab the shotgun and head out the door.
In all likelihood, for a duck hunt we are talking a suitable shotgun, expensive non-toxic shotgun shells (minimum price $15 a box), calls, waders, camouflage clothing, decoys, a boat or blind and a dog. Add to this a $15 dollar federal duck stamp plus a state waterfowl stamp after the regular license is purchased. A duck hunt may be pricing itself outside the reach of many would be duck hunters.
Sufficient time has become a problem in today’s world. I recently read an article about golf. It said the golf industry was in big trouble because many golfers didn’t have the time to play 18 holes of golf. It was hoped that 9-hole courses might be the solution. We small-town South Dakotans have known about 9-hole courses for a long time. What I’m inferring is that if people no longer have the time to play 18 holes, they no longer have the time to work in a duck hunt.
The Daily Republic feature also talked about the coming special duck season for youth. This hunt required a non-hunting mentor. Do we have the dads anymore who would be that mentor for our youth? We have numbers of biological fathers, but do we have the fathers who will spend time with their children? I don’t imagine that single-parent families have time for a duck hunt. It relates to our decaying morality.
Although I can’t blame our current decline in duck hunter numbers on the non-toxic shot requirement as it has been around for a while, many waterfowl hunters, myself included, either drastically cut back or quit duck hunting entirely back when non-toxic shot became the law. In spite of our South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department sending me to a Tom Roster steel shot clinic, I’ve never been fully convinced that steel shot in the hands of the occasional-weekend waterfowl hunter is as effective as lead shot. I’ll tell you this: Tom Roster can shoot steel shot.
The one problem we don’t have with a duck hunt is finding a place to hunt. Most of our duck sloughs and lakes are public waters.
Pheasant numbers are down again. Because of this, hunter numbers will be down. It’s the truth, and little else needs to be said. I get one reoccurring call from those interested in pheasants. The question is: Does the release of pen-raised birds introduce inferior genetics into our wild birds? Good question.
See you next week.