Monday, Nov. 7 — The jet stream, that great river of air that drives the continent's weather, stretches in a mildly undulating line from Oregon to Maine, pushing storms and weather fronts from west to east across North America.

Arctic air is trapped near the pole, and residents of the continental United States enjoy unseasonably mild weather.

Those residents include millions of bright-plumaged waterfowl, which are spread in thick patches from the Plains through the Midwest.

Northern hunters with annual leave take it; others call in sick or show up late. The season they wait all year for is here, and this is one of the best in recent memory.

A weak low skirts across the northern Pacific Ocean, threatening rain for the evergreen forests of the Northwest.

Tuesday, Nov. 8 — The strengthening low arrives late in the day, carrying more rain and pulling more winds than forecast.

On the other side of the continent, a subtropical low is birthed off the eastern tip of Cuba. Slight strengthening is forecast as the storm moves north along the Eastern Seaboard.

 

Wednesday, Nov. 9 — The Pacific low inches eastward, bringing cool rain and "ducky" conditions to hunters in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

The birds fly all day, and gullibly dive-bomb decoy spreads set in known feeding areas.

In its wake, the low leaves a trail of thick snow in Montana and Idaho as it sucks cold air out of Canada.

To the southeast, as was forecast, the subtropical low continues to gain strength and crawl north, paralleling Florida's Atlantic coast.

 

Thursday, Nov. 10 — The Pacific low stalls over the eastern Great Lakes, spinning in place like a massive eddy left by a paddlewheeler.

To its west, a powerful burst of Arctic air, which has been bottled up in Canada for weeks by the horizontal jet stream, surges to the south, creating a sharp weather front that rings out the atmosphere like a rolling pin pushing across a saturated sponge.

Forecasters predict record cold across much of the country.

That includes the Southeast. Like the Pacific low to its north, the subtropical low has stalled as well, lashing the Carolinas with squalls, and providing a superhighway into the South for the frigid air racing out of Canada.

After night falls, air-traffic controllers in Iowa and Missouri must shut down several airports for as long as two hours. The radar screens are simply too clogged with the images of migrating waterfowl to make out those of storms or, more importantly, planes.

 

Friday, Nov. 11 — Hunters in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota awaken to thick snow, freezing lakes and barren skies. The waterfowl that smoked gun barrels and served up endless thrills only 24 hours earlier are gone. Not a duck on a pond, not a honk from a high, overhead V-flight of geese. Nothing.

 

Saturday, Nov. 12 — It's opening morning in Louisiana. Skies are opaque, and winds are sustained at 20 m.p.h. straight out of the north.

Every bayou, pond, lake and river seems to have more ducks than this entire great continent could ever produce.

It is an opener that will be talked about for many years, and the legend will grow as lives fade.

 

Is the above scenario impossible?

Hardly.

Although they're not exactly common, so-called "grand passages" of waterfowl are certainly not rare events. The last occurred only 10 years ago, in 1995, according to Richard Kaminski, a scientist who studies and writes for Ducks Unlimited.

"It was reported that 90 million waterfowl may have engaged in that grand passage," he said. "So dense were the flocks of birds that radarscopes at major Midwest airports couldn't distinguish birds from airplanes."

Louisiana waterfowlers can only hope and pray for a similar set-up this year. It would be a healing salve, a soothing balm, to quench the irritation that remains from several years in succession of disappointing results.

Hunters' preseason hopes have been buoyed by loose federal regulations that allowed 60-day seasons and the harvest of six ducks per hunter per day.

But many found six ducks to be difficult — if not impossible — to harvest, and few desired to make full use of those 60 days sitting in warm, mosquito-infested blinds under empty skies.

"We went from the best of days to the worst of days in a very short period," said Robert Helm, waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The best of days were the late 1990s and early 2000s, when hunters across the Mississippi Flyway harvested upwards of 9 million ducks some years. By last year, that total had fallen off to 5.5 million birds.

The decline has been especially acute in Louisiana. In 2000, Bayou State hunters harvested a whopping 2.5 million ducks. The entire Atlantic Flyway that year harvested 1.8 million ducks.

Those harvest numbers were particularly satisfying to neophyte hunters who had gotten into the sport during the heydays of the '90s, many of whom had plunked down big bucks to lease prime waterfowl real estate.

Throughout Louisiana, lease prices soared as quickly as demand, and hunters were happy to pay the price to get a piece of the very large waterfowl pie.

But like the stock crash of 1929, the bottom fell out of the market. A drying trend began in the Northern Plains and, particularly, Canada, and duck production started to wane.

Hunters saw the results almost immediately. Louisiana's harvest fell 20 percent in 2001 to 2 million birds, and then plummeted in 2002 to a mere 820,000 ducks.

The numbers rebounded somewhat in 2003 to 1.3 million birds, but then fell off again last year to 822,000.

When unfortunate events occur, it's human nature to look for a scapegoat, and hunters are no different. Many decried conservation practices that opened refuges across more northern states, others blamed the very conservation organizations that are seeking to keep populations strong.

Still others pointed fingers at scientists and regulators like Helm, who, they felt, should have done more to protect duck populations from perceived overhunting resulting from too many consecutive seasons with liberal limits.

But actually, research shows that even with the liberal limits, hunters have a minimal negative impact on the health of duck populations, harvesting, at most, 12 percent of the annual population, according to Helm.

If hunting did, in fact, have a profound impact on populations, Helm would likely be one of those screaming the loudest for a marked reduction in limits. Few hunters were more adversely affected by the dismal hunting in recent years than Helm himself.

"Our lease is on the Terrebonne Parish side of the Atchafalaya River," he said. "The year before Hurricane Lili, we killed 350 (ducks). Last year, we didn't kill one."

There's no clear-cut explanation as to why hunter success has fallen so precipitously across the state in recent years, Helm said.

"There's not one reason," he said. "There's lots of theories, but this is not a fine science like engineering. If a bridge falls down, you can examine it and determine exactly why it fell. The same isn't true with duck populations.

"Some people say it's global warming, but the fall-off has been too quick.

"Some people think it's the loss of the coastal habitat in Louisiana — and that remains the biggest threat to waterfowling here — but again, the coast hasn't changed that much in four or five years."

One of the most-logical explanations, Helm said, remains the weather.

"The last four winters were some of the warmest on record," he said. "Last fall was very warm."

Additionally, no-till farming practices, which are now common across the Midwest and Plains, leave lots more grain on the ground than traditional farming methods.

That combination means ducks have very little reason to subject their bodies to the rigors of a long flight south.

"You've got a mild winter, you've got all that food on the ground, and the season (up north) is ending right around when ours is beginning, so you've got no pressure," Helm said. "There's no reason for those birds to leave."

But clearly, those aren't the only explanations for the slow hunting in Louisiana. Throughout most of the Mississippi Flyway, harvest numbers were down in 2004 compared to 2003. Only three states — Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee — had an increase in harvest over the span.

Significant harvest declines were seen in states that should have benefitted most from prolonged warm temperatures, like Minnesota (down 23 percent), Illinois (down 32 percent), Iowa (down 26 percent) and Missouri (down 31 percent).

2004, it appears, was simply a continuation of the downward cycle of duck production in the breeding grounds, and that, more than anything, is the culprit in the poor-harvest caper.

At the start of last season, some hunters, recognizing the trend, began calling for decreased hunting days and bag limits, and they hoped those pleas would have an impact when waterfowl managers got together this year to set dates and limits.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses a complicated formula, called Adaptive Harvest Management, to regulate duck hunting in the lower 48. It takes the guesswork and politics out of the process.

Managers simply plug in numbers from a wide range of data, and the formula tells them which harvest criteria to use for that season.

This year the formula once again called for a 60-day season with a six-duck-per-day limit.

"It was very near the boundary line for a moderate package (45 days, five ducks), but it fell in the liberal zone (60 days, six ducks)," Helm said.

The liberal limits have been authorized for this year despite a fairly substantial fall of 9 percent in the number of breeding mallards from last year. Mallards are the key species entered into the AHM formula.

The hit delivered by that fall was cushioned by a Canadian pond count that was about as good as biologists could have hoped for.

In May, researchers counted 3.9 million ponds in Canadian prairie lands, up a remarkable 56 percent from last year and 17 percent higher than the long-term average.

And to make the situation even better, more rains fell in late May, June and July, and ponds formed from those rains weren't included in the count.

"There were lots of reports of farmers being unable to harvest crops, and some even unable to plant crops (because of the rainfall)," Helm said.

All that water will benefit ducks — and duck hunters — both this year and in the future, according to Delta Waterfowl President Rob Olson.

"Recent rains could mean we'll see a better re-nesting effort from hens this year," he said. "More wetlands could also result in improved brood survival.

"Another benefit is that the ground is soaking up a lot of water, which could translate into improved wetland conditions by next spring."

Two species that are extremely important to Louisiana hunters should benefit immensely from the mid-summer rains.

"Blue-winged teal and gadwall are late-nesters, so we would expect their production to be good," Helm said.

That's great news for hunters because it will affect the age ratio of the ducks in the fall flight. During the poor-production years since 2000, Louisiana hunters have complained that the relatively few ducks that have flown down have been extremely wary and call-shy.

But the increased moisture on the nesting grounds should translate into more young birds filling skies — and, more importantly, dive-bombing decoy spreads — in the Bayou State.

That can be seen in the Fish and Wildlife Service's fall-flight prediction for mallards. Even though the breeding count fell 9 percent to 6.8 million, biologists are predicting a fall flight of 9.3 million mallards, which is statistically the same as last year's prediction.

That means a larger percentage of the birds will be the gullible, young-of-the-year rookies that hunters love.

And if a low spins off the coast of the Carolinas at the same time one is twisting over the Great Lakes, those beautiful birds will darken the skies over the Bayou State.