Sep 10, 2016

Layout Boat Hunting on Green Bay:

A banded duck begins an adventure in identification and aging . . .

By: Bruce Urben 

Waterfowl hunting has changed in the last 10 years on the Bay of Green Bay. The Bay was historically known as a waterfowl hunting hot-bed, and still is a stopover for northern migration flights each fall. Hunters dotted the shoreline landscape for years, with blinds, both primitive and elaborate, trying to fool the wary and tired migrators. Some shore hunters have been using the same blinds for years.   Don’t get me wrong, shore hunters still dot the landscape and harvest their share of ducks, but layout boat hunting has been popularized in the last ten years. Maybe it is because of the shore-hunting pressure, pushing birds to open water, maybe for hunters to get away from shoreline conflicts with other concentrated hunter populations, or maybe it is for the sheer joy of having ducks land on top of you, when the migration is on. I know it is not unusual to encounter waterfowl hunting guides from Sheboygan, Milwaukee, and even Chicago at the boat landing now, with their layout rigs and tender boats, fully equipped for open-water hunting.

The upper and lower Bay provides refuge to tens of thousands of ducks each fall on their migration south from northern nesting areas in Canada and the prairie pothole region in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Hunters can set their watch to flights as various species of diver ducks show up for their stopover rest and feeding frenzy in the Bay. Early arrivals include teal and wood ducks, then; mallards, redheads, scaup, buffleheads, canvasbacks and golden eyes round out the traveling diver duck migrants, later in the season. Each year, it seems that the Bay nesting ducks are increasing in number, but several species of diver ducks seem to be staying longer and some choose to call the Bay home and nest right here.

Duck season in 2014, for us, started like others, hunting the “north zone” in Wisconsin. Small lakes, flowages and ponds provided the first opportunity to harvest teal, woodies and mallards on their early trek south. My hunting partners are my two grown sons, who have been water-fowling for more than ten years. My own start was in the early 70’s (almost 45 years ago) when the “point system” was still in place.   Early in my water-fowling career, we used a dozen decoys, sloshed into your favorite duck hole and ambushed the ducks on their return. Northern zone hunts still bring back those early memories for me. But, the reason we hunt the “north zone” is to get tuned up for the “south zone” opener on the Bay of Green Bay!

The 2014 “south zone” opener was on Saturday, October 4th. Little did we know that this would be the last “late” opener (9 a.m.) in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Waterfowl Association and their membership was pushing hard to change the delayed start of “shooting time” to one half hour before sunrise to match other surrounding states and be consistent with regular shooting times over the course of the season.

This year my oldest son, Eric, was coaching high school soccer and was unable to join us for the opener, so it was his younger brother, Bryan and I hitting the water on the bay by 7:15 a.m. After some early scouting, we began to set up at 8:00 a.m. We were setting up our layout blind about one half-mile from shore. The wind was from the west at 10-15 mph, it was overcast with clouds, some light rain and 37 degrees. We both agreed, “Perfect duck weather!” The wind provided a good chop on the Bay to keep the decoys moving. We set out seven strings of decoys. Each string was at least 100 feet long and held 20+ decoys on dropper lines. We dropped several individual decoys to further hide the layout boat and put in two floating, motorized, spinning wing decoys on either side of the setup. The layout boat was positioned at the apex of the decoy strings in an upwind position. We must have hurried our setup that morning because we were completely ready by 8:30 a.m., enjoying a Thermos of coffee (an “energy drink” for my son) and watching ducks fly into our setup from the tender boat.

I was first in the layout boat that day, and of course, I scratched on my first two birds – missing them cleanly. The next was a double on a pair of drake redheads and a drake scaup, commonly known as a bluebill. Redheads were flying and I was at my limit, so Bryan was in the layout boat next.   A pair of redheads came right down the chute into the spread. The hen flared and Bryan shot the drake. I motored over with the tender boat, retrieved the duck, and confirmed Bryan’s first banded duck! I’ve never seen a smile bigger than that morning. We each took another turn in the layout boat and harvested several more ducks. Our total for the day was four redheads (our combined daily limit), two bluebills, and one widgeon. We pulled in the decoys, loaded the layout boat on the tender and were back at the landing by 2 p.m. A great opener! We were looking forward to hunting the next day!

In examining the band on Bryan’s duck, it was clearly worn and weathered. We couldn’t wait to get back home, and call in the band to get its age and banding location. Three of the four numbers on the band were clearly legible but the rest were very worn and the numbers only partly legible. The call-in operator asked us to call the banding lab biologist on Monday to help us identify the age and banding location.

On Monday, after a long conversation, and multiple attempts at reading the worn band, the banding biologist, Matt Rogosky, indicated that he would have to “etch” the band to recover the numbers. This process uses an acid mixture to etch the outline of the stamped numbers in the aluminum band. He was confident he could “etch” the band successfully for identification. Considering this was my son’s first duck band (he had other goose bands, but no duck jewelry), he was reluctant at first to send the band off to Maryland with visions of losing his precious band. Allaying our concerns, Matt confirmed the process would not damage the band, and assured me he would send the band back within ten days of completing the process. I was able to convince Bryan of the importance of band recovery information, reminding him that wildlife biologists use band returns to confirm migrating routes, hunter success, bird mortality and ultimately set hunting harvest quotas. Reluctantly, we sent the band to the National Banding Lab in Laurel, Maryland. To be extra careful, the band was sent in a shoebox, to be sure it would not be lost and insured for the maximum offered ($100)!

In two days, I received a call from the bird lab and they confirmed receipt of the band (this offered a little relief for my son) and in seven days another call confirmed that the etching was successful and the band was being sent back using US Priority Mail. The band #1046-81-423 was put on a one year-old redhead drake on August 11, 2004 at a banding site 10 miles northwest of Badger, Minnesota. This put the duck at almost eleven years old, one of the oldest redhead bands ever recovered! Badger, Minnesota is about 600 miles northwest of the Bay of Green Bay, just north of the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and the banding site is two miles from the Canadian border. My son’s first water-fowling “trophy” was even more rare and unusual!

Historically, the first use of band data was used to study the movement patterns of birds. Now, band returns help biologists understand breeding areas, pathways of migration and wintering areas. The band return data also defines harvest distribution and is important to the development of hunting regulations. Band recovery data is used to assess harvest pressure and harvest vulnerability, estimate survival rates of young and adult, and general population ecology. The National Bird Banding lab is run by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center at 12100 Beech Forest Rd. in Laurel, Maryland. You can report a band by visiting the website at www.reportband.gov or calling toll free at 1-800-327-2263.

If you are lucky enough to harvest a banded bird, be sure to call it in or go online, and confirm the life history and help biologists manage the population. The results are reported to you in a beautiful certificate which will serve as a reminder of your awesome time afield! The “jewelry” is just a side product of your experience. 

Bruce Urben is President of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, retired after a 38 year career with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He is a veteran waterfowler and hunts with his two sons, Bryan (34) and Eric (38). He lives north of Green Bay near Pulaski, Wisconsin. To learn more about banding opportunities in Wisconsin, and other activities of the Association, check out wisducks.org.