Last week, the Game Commission released the details of the 2010-11 migratory bird seasons and bag limits. Whenever I see those new regulations each year, it often reminds me of something I was told early in my hunting career when I asked a veteran waterfowl hunter what I would need to get into duck hunting.
"Well," he said, "you'll need a good shotgun with a tight choke that will handle magnum loads. Then you'll need camouflage clothes and foul-weather gear because some of the best duck hunting can happen on the most cold and miserable days. A couple of dozen decoys are also a good idea, depending on where and when you want to hunt. Finally, you'll probably need to find a lawyer to explain the darn regulations to you."
He was kidding about the lawyer, of course, but not by much. For generations, the hunting regulations for waterfowl have been set at the federal level by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To put it mildly, those rules have never been all that user-friendly, with some aspects of them being downright complicated. And that situation hasn't changed much in the nearly 40 years since I first started hunting ducks.
The good news is duck hunting is better now for the most part than it was 40 years ago, so the management principles reflected by the sometimes tedious rules and regulations have apparently been working. As I recall, the daily bag limit for ducks back in the early 1970s was four per day. Now it is six per day - with a few stipulations, of course.
Within the total six-bird daily limit, there are some additional daily limits for several species of ducks. For instance, no more than four can be mallards, and no more than two of them can be hen mallards. The limit for scoters is also four per day. Scoters, by the way, are sea ducks, which are almost never found on any of the inland waters of Pennsylvania. Three wood ducks per day may be taken. The daily limit of redheads, pintails and scaup is two each. And on any given day, only one black duck, canvasback, mottled duck and fulvous tree duck may be taken.
Don't expect to shoot many mottled ducks or fulvous tree ducks here in Pennsylvania, however. Neither of those species ever ventures much farther north than the Gulf coasts of Texas and Louisiana and southern Florida.
I assume that any of the other species of ducks we would be likely to encounter during the fall here in south-central Pennsylvania, such as teal, widgeons, gadwalls or ruddy ducks, aren't subject to any of the aforementioned daily sub-limits. Just so the total of whatever combination of ducks you have in your gamebag isn't more than six, if I understand the whole thing correctly. Of course, the exception to that is mergansers.
The common merganser and hooded merganser are both found throughout Pennsylvania, while the red-breasted merganser can be abundant around the Great Lakes during its spring and fall migrations. In spite of their long, thin serrated bills, which give them a somewhat strange appearance compared to other species of ducks, mergansers are indeed ducks. But under the duck hunting regulations, mergansers have their own special daily bag limit of five per day, which is separate from other ducks.
And if you've been paying attention so far, give yourself a gold star if you've already surmised there is probably an exception to exception for mergansers. There certainly is: no more than two hooded mergansers a day may be taken. What puzzles me, however, is why we have a season on mergansers in the first place.
No duck hunter I have ever known would ever shoot a merganser on purpose, nor do I know anyone who has ever eaten a merganser on purpose. While the flesh of many species of ducks is considered a gourmet delight, mergansers are fish eaters, and their meat is generally considered foul and undesirable.
Along with being unpalatable, studies over the past two decades have shown the flesh of mergansers, especially those found in the Great Lakes region, to contain unacceptable levels of contaminants such a PCBs. Because of this, state and federal agencies have for years issued warnings to hunters advising them not to eat mergansers. Yet we continue to have a season and liberal bag limits on a bird that is unfit and even unsafe to eat. Go figure.
The complete waterfowl season brochure is posted on the Game Commission website. Copies of the brochure will also be able at U.S. Post Offices within the next two weeks.