A passionate duck hunter voices concerns about possible early teal season

Roger Strand checks a wood duck nesting box on Stony Ridge farm in this file photo.

Roger Strand checks a wood duck nesting box on Stony Ridge farm in this file photo.

Minnesota is debating whether to follow the lead of neighboring states Wisconsin and

Iowa and offer an early teal duck hunting season.

The teal population is believed capable of supporting an increased harvest.  Supporters believe an early teal season is an opportunity to introduce more to waterfowl hunting and reverse the decline in the numbers of waterfowl hunters in the state.

One of this area’s most passionate waterfowl hunters is among those urging the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources not to establish an early teal season.

An early teal season might be popular, said Roger Strand of rural New London, but we risk harming our native duck populations by harvesting too many hens. A teal season in early to mid-September would occur when native hens and their broods would be harvested disproportionately in comparison to drakes. There are lots of banding studies that reveal that Minnesota hens and their broods are still around at the time, while the drakes are not as likely to be around, he explained.

Strand is a long-time member of the Wood Duck Society.  He recently stepped down after roughly 15 years as editor of its publication, the Wood Duck NewsGram.

He is especially concerned about the toll an early teal season might take on our native wood duck population.

He pointed out that Minnesota offered an early teal season in 1965.  The experience showed that most hunters had difficulty identifying ducks whizzing by in the low light conditions and with early season plumage. There were plenty of “mistake” ducks shot.

Rather than see hunters stomp mallards and wood ducks into the mud to avoid getting caught, neighboring states have allowed hunters to include one “mistake’’ duck in their daily bag during early teal seasons. Strand said the most likely candidate of all for a “mistake” duck is a native wood duck hen.

 

Minnesota has already liberalized its regular waterfowl regulations in recent years to allow a greater wood duck harvest. Last year’s bag limit allowed hunters to keep three wood duck hens, as compared to two mallard hens, he pointed out.

He believes we increased the wood duck limit without accurately knowing the wood duck population in the state. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and are notoriously secretive; their populations are not as readily measured by the field surveys conducted to monitor mallard and other duck populations, he said.

The DNR has made a commitment to do more banding work to better know the state’s wood duck population, and that is commendable, said Strand. But we don’t have those results yet. By opening up more opportunities to harvest the birds – including as “mistake’’ birds – we could harm the population, he warns.

Blue-wing teal, mallard and Canada goose.

Mallard hen and drake and Canada goose.

Strand has been maintaining wood duck nesting boxes since he erected his first in 1956. He’s been documenting the individual birds and their nesting success for nearly as long at his Stony Ridge Farm near Sibley State Park. He knows that many of the hens return year after year to the same nesting boxes.

Our harvest should focus more on the drakes than the hens. We should protect our Minnesota breeding hens so they can continue to produce progeny, he argues.  “We’re talking about the same hen that produced 14 wood ducks this year. Why shoot her in the dark in an early opener?’’ he asked.

Strand is also member of the Concerned Duck Hunters, a group that has long advocated for a more conservative management of our waterfowl. Protecting our native nesting hens is critical to protecting our waterfowl populations.

Until recent years, Minnesota restricted the shooting hours on the opening of the regular waterfowl season. Hunters had to wait until 9 a.m. to shoot on the opening day, and could not shoot after 4 p.m. during the first two weeks of the season. The shooting hour restrictions were championed by Robert (Bob) Jessen all for one reason: To protect our native hens, said Strand.

We’ve done away with those protections, and have yet to do the banding work and science needed to really know its implications for our native wood ducks, said Strand. He and others believe the longer shooting hours during the start of the duck season mean we are harvesting a larger share of our native hens.  And now, we appear ready to risk harming our wood duck population further with an early teal season.

He hopes the Minnesota DNR continues to hold off on allowing an early teal season until we can learn more about our native nesting duck populations and more accurately determine what such a season might do to them.

“Why not error on the conservative side?’’ he asked.

Many worry that changes in regulations that have allowed longer shooting hours during the first two weeks of the season means we are harvesting more of our native hens.

Many worry that changes in regulations that have allowed longer shooting hours during the first two weeks of the season means we are harvesting more of our native hens.

No secrets on the ice: Fish house count tells where the fish are biting (and not)

 

An annul fish house survey conducted by the local DNR fisheries staff tracks where the fish are biting, and not.

There are no secrets on the ice, no matter how tight-lipped anglers try to be.

The location of their ice fishing houses always gives it away.

This year’s best fishing lakes as revealed by the annual mid-January fish house count conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries crew in Spicer are familiar waters. The most popular lakes in this area were Green Lake and Koronis.

Other popular ice fishing destinations include Diamond, Eagle, Elizabeth, Florida, Games, George, Big Kandi, Long Lake by Willmar and Long Lake by Hawick, Norway, and Rice.

The count also helps reveal which lakes saw improved fishing from previous years, and those which turned south. Foot Lake, Big Kandiyohi and Long Lake by Hawick saw the bigger increases from previous years. This year’s duds (based on declines from the previous year) included Lake Andrew, Calhoun, Camp, and Ringo.

Overall, the count showed that fish house numbers on area lakes were down from one year ago, but still comparable to the numbers counted in recent years.

Every year at the mid-point of January, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff in Spicer conducts a count of the fish houses on 44 water bodies in an area including all of Kandiyohi County, and parts of Swift, Stearns, Lyon, Meeker and Yellow Medicine counties. The annual count provides a snapshot of angling and spearing activity on the area’s lakes.

This year the crew counted a total of 1,138 houses, as compared to 1,361 houses last year, a decline by 19.5 percent.

The year-to-year totals can vary greatly depending on ice conditions.  Ice conditions this year during the count were good, with little to no snow cover and sufficient ice to support vehicle traffic and large houses.

The annual count does not tell it all, and there is no doubt.  The number of houses on area lakes changes week-to-week much more than ever before, according to Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisors in Spicer.

More anglers are using portable houses that they do not leave on the ice over-night.

And, many of the larger, manufactured houses favored by anglers now are much easier to move. Anglers may fish a weekend on one lake, drive home with the house and place it on a different lake a weekend or two later.

The fish house count began in 1978, and also records the number of individuals on the ice without houses.

Not only does the count give a fairly good idea of where the fish are biting each January, but the staff also visits with those fishing and spearing to see how things are going.

This year, the DNR is also conducting a creel survey on Green Lake to get a more detailed look at how game fish populations are doing there. Anecdotal information from anglers suggests this is a down year for fishing on the lake.

It was definitely an up year for Koronis.  Always a popular fishing destination, it saw a big jump from 126 houses in January, 2014 to 202 houses in January, 2015.

The houses numbers of Foot Lake rose from 30 in 2014 to 50 in 2015.

Green Lake proved again to be one of the most popular with 218 houses, as compared to 217 houses last year. Dark houses for spearing represented 14 percent of that total.

Rice Lake saw the biggest decline, with only 78 houses counted this year as compared to 217 last year.

Andrew saw a significant drop too, with only 27 houses counted this year as compared to 50 last year.

The annual count has been conducted since 1978. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s the counts were often in the 1,500 to 1,800 range. The counts declined as more anglers began using portable houses. Today’s lower numbers reflect that change. Creel surveys and other measures indicate that ice fishing activity and pressure on the fishery has not declined.

If resources allow it in the future, Coahran said he’d like to conduct the count on two separate days to measure fish house mobility.

Eye for the prairie: Photographer documents the remaining one percent

John White captured this image of deer on the prairie in Big Stone County.

There is nobody alive today who saw what the tall grass prairie of western Minnesota looked like before it was converted to the landscape we know today.

John White got enough of a glimpse to imagine what it was like, and that’s made all the difference.

There is not a day now that he doesn’t roam the landscape with his camera, capturing images of the remaining one percent of the prairie that remains. In part, he’s driven by the hope that his images will lead people to respect the prairie, but he can’t know that they will.

“You can’t worry about what other people think. You just have to kind of go and do what you’re inspired or driven to do,’’ said White, 71.

An airplane ride with Clara City pilot John Donner provided White with his moment of epiphany.

It was the spring of 1997, and White was the editor of the Clara City Herald. Donner took White up to look at the flooded landscape and know the risk it posed to the community on the banks of Hawk Creek.

From the airplane, White could see a landscape filled with thousands of wetlands, the prairie pothole region returned. “I was just stunned. I didn’t realize. I had no clue that there were all these wetlands that had been drained. I didn’t know that was part of it,’’ said White.

His glimpse of the missing landscape was the start of a journey. He started a prairie garden in his backyard.  He became a master naturalist, studying the prairie pothole eco-system in the University of Minnesota, Extension program.

But his passion to document what remained of the prairie didn’t really begin in earnest until just over a year ago with a move. He had lost his wife, Sharon to cancer, retired from a career in journalism, and remarried.

Fringed orchids

John and Rebecca White found the place of their dreams in Big Stone County.  They set about making a small farm place into their home, converting eight acres of tillable land to prairie with the help of the local Pheasants Forever chapter.

They live amidst wetlands and patches of the remaining, one percent of prairie to be found in western Minnesota.

Both are captivated by the quality of the light that plays on this open landscape. “It’s just amazing. It’s like a reverie every day,’’ said Rebecca White of what calls her husband to venture out with camera in hand.

“He evokes the beauty of this place we live in,’’ she said of his work. “It’s so underestimated by people who get their kicks by grand vistas of canyons,’’ she said.

Her husband’s talent is to “portray the subtle beauty of the prairie in a way this is really breathtaking and really rivals those kinds of grand vistas,’’ she said.

Kylene Olson of Watson, director of the Chippewa River Project and a friend of the Whites, has made the prairie her passion as well. She appreciates most the beauty of the many different flowering plants that thrive on it.

Her appreciation for White’s work began more than a year ago, when a photograph of a Pasque flower he posted online “just really caught me.’’ Now, she said, she is impressed by how his work has evolved. “Tremendous growth,’’ said Olson. “I can really see that.’’

White is aware of how his work has evolved too. He said his original work on the prairie focused most-often on the straightforward, “in your face’’ kind of stuff.

Today his works are much more impressionistic. He uses different focal lengths and selective focus to look through the prairie and reveal the depth of the prairie, and expose the beauty lying within it.

John White takes advantage of the light found at sunrise and sunset to highlight the texture of these prairie grasses.

He’s often out of the house at the first blush of sunrise to capture the unique color as day arrives. It’s all about using the natural light to enhance the beauty of the prairie.

His skills with a camera date back to 1967, when the Missouri native graduated with a major in photojournalism from the Missouri School of Journalism. He was a student of Clifton “Cliff” Edom, known as the father of photojournalism. Once a week, he and other students would place their works on a table in Edom’s home and ask visiting photojournalists, including famous photographers like Gordon Parks and Robert Capa, to offer their critiques.

From there it was off to a career that included photojournalism work at the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, and the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado. He did freelance work for national magazines and found his way to Minnesota when he took a position with Webb Publications in the Twin Cities. Later, he joined a friend who had started his own magazines.

His friend’s untimely death to cancer led White to a job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but he returned to Minnesota for the opportunity edit a country weekly in Minnesota when offered the position with the Clara City Herald in 1992.

The journalist’s edge remains. Along with his photos revealing the beauty of the prairie, he has also been capturing what his wife Rebecca calls the “beautiful, but terrible in a gut wrenching way’’ images of the winter-time erosion of soil that we call snirt.

“Not only have we totally destroyed a whole biome, a whole eco system, but now that we’ve done it we’re letting it blow away,’’ said White. “And once it blows away, where we gonna go?’’ he asks.

His photographs are currently on display at the K.K. Berge building downtown Granite Falls through February 14. His images of the prairie and writings can also be enjoyed in the blog he co-authors with his wife, found at:  http://listeningstonesfarm.com/

He’s also hoping to follow the lead of the late Paul Gruchow, and author a book of essays on the prairie to be enhanced by his photographs.

 

John White

 

 

 

Ice Fishing 2015: Revolution in motion on area lakes

Brandon Bratsch of Clara City gave Foot Lake a try earlier this week.

WILLMAR — Dave Genz discovered the importance of mobility on the ice more than 35 years ago and got himself into the Fishing Hall of Fame for how he revolutionized ice fishing by creating products allowing anglers to move, move and move.

No ice fishing season has seen more wanna-be Hall of Famers out on the ice in motion like this one.

“It’s been one of the weirdest, strangest seasons I’ve ever experienced,’’ said Brad Foshaug, Brad’s 71 Bait and Sports, Willmar.

This year’s ice fishing bite has been on and off like a traffic light, with fish biting one day and shutting down the next. The anglers who have done the best have definitely been those who have heeded the wisdom of the founder of Clam Outdoors and stayed mobile, searching for the fish, according to Foshaug and others who provide the bait and gear needed to catch up with them.

Green Lake has been one of the tougher lakes to figure out this year. There have been good walleye bites reported, but also days when they just don’t bite. One frustrated angler told Foshaug he watched what he roughly counted to be 50 walleyes fin by his underwater camera. Only one took the bait.

On Tuesday of this week, two other anglers stayed out all night on the lake and were rewarded. The walleye hit off and on through the night, they told Greg Melges, Mel’s Sporting Goods, Spicer.

Others are finding the fish too. Foshaug and Melges have both been busy scooping lots of minnows for anglers. “We’re selling a lot of bait,’’ said Melges. “To me that means they’re catching fish.’’

Being mobile is the mantra this ice fishing season. This angler’s portable was set up on Lac qui Parle Lake last weekend.

They’re starting to spear them too. Along with buckets of minnows, more decoys are going out of the doors at Pete’s Surplus near New London. The dark house anglers reported earlier this week that the northern pike are starting to move.

The northern have been active on Koronis Lake, which has proved to be one of the more consistent lakes this season for both spearing an angling. The walleye bite has been decent on Koronis and more consistent than in many other lakes, said Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer.

But without a doubt, it’s the opportunity to spear northern that is bringing most people to Koronis. There were more spearing houses than angling houses on the lake when the Spicer fisheries staff conducted its annual fish house survey in mid-January.

Koronis has also produced crappies. Norway and Diamond put out good numbers of crappies in December, said Coahran. Action on Norway has slowed down, but Diamond still holds a good population, but sorting is needed, he added.

More anglers are turning their attention to crappies as walleye action naturally slows at this point of the winter. Foot Lake in Willmar has been a good producer, and anglers are nailing perch as well. Lake Andrew has been a bust.

No lake has produced crappies this season like Lac qui Parle. It’s been seeing one of its best crappie bites ever, according to Chris Domeier, fisheries supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Ortonville.

He’s not surprised by the success. Gill nets pulled by DNR crews earlier showed that the lake held a bumper crop of crappies.

Yet Domeier also knows the conundrum many ice anglers are facing on their traditional waters this season. Gill nets pulled on Big Stone Lake show that the lake continues to hold a very large perch population, but this year’s bite has not been as active as last year’s.

Big Stone Lake anglers have reported seeing lots of perch on cameras and electronics, but they are not always hungry. Domeier said it appears they are feeding on an abundance of zooplankton. His advice to anglers: Be mobile and work to find the fish, because when you do hit them right the action can be furious.

It also pays to come late. Whether it’s Diamond Lake or Lac qui Parle, the crappie bite is best right at sundown and for an hour or two after.

The night hours are best for walleye too. Like elsewhere, walleye fishing has slowed on Lake Minnewaska, but anglers are still catching them in the night hours, according to Larry Jensen, Minnewaska Bait of Starbuck.

Sunfish and crappies are biting on the Glenwood end of the lake, and many anglers there are also setting out tip ups for northern pike, he added.

There’s good news no matter the lake or fish you might want to target. There’s good ice on all of the area lakes, with anywhere from 16-inches to 21-inches, and no snow.  Mobility is not an issue.

Whether you rely on one of the portable houses developed by Genz some 35 years ago, or one of the more comfortable, wheeled Ice Castle houses developed Jeff Drexler of Montevideo some 16 years ago, you can join the parade moving in search of the fish.

Crappies are being taken during a during hour window starting at sunset.

Buffer proposal aims to reverse loss of habitat

Conservation leaders in the state adopted a plan in 2005 to protect an additional 78,000 acres each year to provide habitat for pheasants, but we’ve been losing grasslands since 2007.

There are regulations today requiring vegetative buffers along waterways, but the rules can be confusing, can be interpreted and enforced differently across the state, and certainly do not provide the amount of habitat Governor Mark Dayton hopes to achieve with his recent proposal.

He is calling for a 50-foot buffer along 21,000 linear miles of waterway in the state, enough to provide 125,000 acres of habitat.

“In my mind the strength of it is the simplicity,’’ Dayton told reporters shortly after announcing his proposal last Friday at the Department of Natural Resource’s Roundtable in Brooklyn Park. “Everything is treated the same.’’

Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota DNR, and his staff are now at work turning those words into legislation to be introduced this session. Speaking to reporters last Friday, Landwehr said he is looking at the successful efforts in Olmsted and Otter Tail counties as the legislation is drafted. A combination of incentives and enforcement has brought both counties a long ways towards the goal the governor is seeking, he said.

Landwehr said two existing laws are currently at play when it comes to buffers. One pertains only to public ditches and requires a one-road (16.5 feet) buffer. The rules applies only to the public ditches that have been improved or developed since the requirement was first enacted, or about 6 percent of all ditches, he explained.

The other rule at play is the state’s shoreland zoning statute which counties are required to adopt as part of their zoning rules. The 50-foot buffer requirement applies to those waters formally designated as public waters and which have an agricultural purpose adjacent to them.

Buffers can help reduce the amount of sediment reaching waterways.

These public waters are where the bulk of the opportunity is, said Landwehr.

Kandiyohi County is among the counties which meets its responsibility to enforce the one-rod buffer requirement. Most landowners in the county understand the law and are very conscientious when farming next to these buffers, reports Loren Engelby, drainage officer in the county’s public works department.

There are 11 ditch systems in the county where the one-rod buffer requirement pertains. The 39.2 miles of waterway include 156.8 acres of buffers.

The Governor’s proposal- if the Legislature adopts it as he outlined it- would have its largest impact along what were once natural waterways in the county, but have now been channelized. There are 605 miles of open ditch, or channelized portions of Hawk Creek, Chetomba Creek, and Shakopee Creek, as well as the three branches of the Crow River in Kandiyohi County.

Governor Dayton emphasized that most farmers take seriously their responsibility as stewards of the land. He also pointed out that protecting waterways is a public purpose. “The water belongs to everybody and is used by everybody and everybody depends on it,’’ he said.

Dayton said he recognizes there is a cost in expanding buffers, but said the greater cost “is not doing it.’’ While the recent proposal resulted from last December’s Pheasant Summit and the desire to provide habitat to build back their numbers, everyone has agreed. They are really the “canary in the coal mine.’’

Conservation leaders at the Roundtable described the Governor’s buffer proposal as an opportunity to reach for the low hanging fruit when it comes to habitat protection.

There is a long ways to go.

In 2005, conservation leaders in the state adopted a pheasant plan with the goal of returning the state’s annual pheasant harvest to 750,000 birds.

To reach that goal, the 2005 plan called for protecting roughly 78,000 new acres of grassland a year until 1.56 million acres are added. It would bring the total to roughly 3.3 million in 2030.

We’ve been losing grassland ever since 2007, and we now have roughly 1.5 million acres of grassland in the state’s pheasant range.  In 2013, pheasant hunters harvested 169,000 birds and last season’s hoped for harvest was pegged in the range of 224,000.

Restoring prairie habitat is important for pollinators.