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Scaup limits mean hunters must identify ducks carefully

The Rev. Paul Larson, an ardent duck hunter from Deer River, remembers the good old days of bluebill hunting.

"It's nothing like it used to be," Larson said this past week with Minnesota's duck season just around the corner. "I used to shoot -- oh, from about Oct. 20 to the middle of November -- I'd get bluebills all the time. Now, if I get two a year, I'm lucky."

Minnesota's 2008 waterfowl season opens Saturday, and with it comes new regulations on scaup, or bluebills. The scaup limit will be one daily except from Oct. 25 to Nov. 13, when two may be taken. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources protested to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sets season frameworks, hoping to get a two-scaup limit for the entire season. The limit has been two in recent years. But the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't change its framework.

Larson said the new scaup limit is reasonable.

"I can live with it," he said.

So can Gene Olson, 54, an avid duck hunter from Coleraine.

"I'm in favor of it, if it helps us get our bluebills back," Olson said. "The way duck hunting is going nowadays, we're going to have to do something to get duck hunting back. I'm afraid before my time is up, they're going to take duck hunting away."

One problem with the restrictive scaup limit is that most hunters have difficulty distinguishing scaup from ring-necked ducks in flight. The ringneck is popular among hunters and a significant part of the annual bag in northern Minnesota. Ring-necked duck hunters may inadvertently take too many scaup, Olson said.

"I'm afraid we're going to find a lot of ducks [discarded] in the weeds. That part of it's going to be bad," he said.

Larson, who has been out harvesting wild rice lately, says the population of ring-necked ducks, many of which breed in Minnesota, appears good.

"I've been ricing every year for 30 years, and this year I saw the biggest flocks I've seen in a long time," Larson said. "Ringbills [ring-necked ducks] and also lots of teal."

The question is whether the teal will stick around.

"If we have lots of teal on the opener, it seems to make or break the opener," said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist in Bemidji. "We'll hope the teal here will stay."

The scaup population has been declining across the continent, and biologists aren't sure why. Some say the habitat along migration routes may be a limiting factor, Dennis Simon, chief of the DNR's wildlife management section, has said.

Larson remembers the good old days, when thousands of bluebills rafted on Lake Winnibigoshish and on Bowstring Lake, both north of Deer River, and Cass Lake to the west.

"I purposely hunted bluebills," Larson said. "That's what I did. I'd rather hunt bluebills because of the excitement they'd provide. I enjoy watching them fly. I enjoy watching them twist."

Olson, too, loves the late-season hunting of diver ducks despite dwindling numbers of bluebills.

"I would go duck hunting if they knocked the limit down to one," Olson said. "I go right to the end of the season. If I have to find a trout lake with deep water, I do it."