As owner of Mallard Retreat, James Warrington has the option of hunting any of his five lodges from Jonesville, La., to northern Alberta, Canada, including Stuttgart, Ark., southern Alberta and North Dakota.

Of all of his choices, guess which destination offered him the highest-quality hunts last season?

Jonesville.

Yes, Jonesville, La.

Could that be possible? Tiny Jonesville, located in Catahoula Parish on the banks of the Little River, had better hunting than Alberta, Canada? It had a better season than Stuttgart, the reputed "Duck Capital of the World?"

Well, yes and no.

"Northern Alberta is always extremely good," Warrington said. "The birds are very young, they're not very wary, and they're extremely easy to kill.

"It's not a very challenging hunt. It's a great place to take your wife or your girlfriend or your kids."

But since the Alberta season opens in early September, those birds are still in their nesting plumage.

"They all sort of look like gadwall," Warrington said.

Some hunters feel that lessens the aesthetic value of the hunt.

Such is never a concern by the time waterfowl reach the swamps and marshes of the Bayou State, and Warrington and his team of guides had plenty of mallards and pintails, in flashy winter plumage, to swing on last year.

"It was the best season we've had in, certainly, three or four years," Warrington said.

It was far better than what Warrington and other hunters with land holdings or leases in Stuttgart had.

"It was extremely dry in Arkansas," he said. "There was no rainfall at all until, literally, the last weekend of the season."

Arkansas' loss was definitely Louisiana's gain.

"We had a lot of birds (in Jonesville) for the first 10 days of the season; then we had a little lull," Warrington said. "Then, beginning about Christmas, it stayed strong until the end of the season."

Warrington's hoping for last season to repeat itself, and from the looks of things, he may get his wish. Waterfowl managers congregated at the Mississippi Flyway meeting in Minnesota in late July, and approved another season of liberal regulations for the 2004-05 season.

That means 60 days and six ducks per day for Louisiana's hunters.

The unofficial season dates for this year, as proposed by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, are as follows:

West Zone — Nov. 13-Dec. 5, Dec. 18-Jan. 23 (pintail Nov. 13-21, Dec. 18-Jan. 7)

East Zone — Nov. 20-Dec. 5, Dec. 18-Jan. 30 (pintail Nov. 20-28, Dec. 18-Jan. 7).

Though many hunters have been shocked to learn that waterfowl managers opted for the most-liberal restrictions, it was really the most logical choice, according to Robert Helm, waterfowl study leader for the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

Helm explained that scientists plug several different numbers — most importantly, pond count and mallard count — into a formula called Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM), and then have the option of going with liberal, intermediate or restrictive regulations based on the numbers produced by the formula.

"This year, we were well within the bounds for the liberal framework," he said. "The AHM suggested that the optimum choice was 60 days and six ducks."

Helm said he knew, even while he was in Minnesota, that the season framework would be surprising — perhaps even disturbing — to Louisiana's hunters.

"I think hunters would have been satisfied with 45 days and six ducks," he said. "I think we do hurt our credibility a little bit by going with 60 and six.

"But when the formula shows that 60 and six won't hurt the population at all, how can you turn it down?"

With the same season framework as last year, hunters like Warrington are hoping for a repeat performance, but other waterfowlers want to forget last season ever existed.

"Last year was a terrible year," said Nicky Bergeron, who hunts a lease near Caernarvon. "We had plenty of grass, but there just weren't any birds."

He said during most years, thousands of ducks will raft up on Lake Lery, and groups will occasionally get up and filter into his ponds.

Last year, those rafts were non-existent.

"A boat would pass, and only a few birds would get up," he said. "And those that were down were all wary. They wouldn't decoy well."

That's how last season was. It was an enigma. The descriptions varied like those from the blind men who touched different parts of an elephant in Saxe's poem.

Depending on with whom you spoke, it could have been the best season ever — better than the heydays of the 1960s — or the worst ever, making the early '90s seem like banner years.

But actually, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures, last season was neither terrific nor abysmal.

Louisiana hunters killed 1.3 million ducks last season, which represents 10 percent of all ducks killed in the continental United States. That's only slightly more than half the record 2.5 million ducks killed in Louisiana in 1999, but it's 58 percent more than the 821,000 killed just two seasons ago in 2002.

Though many hunters complained of consistently light or empty bags, a harvest of 1.3 million ducks represents a fairly average year when compared to previous seasons. In 1977, Bayou State hunters took 1.8 million birds, but then, other than a brief blip upward in the early '80s, harvests steadily declined until they bottomed out at around 500,000 each year from 1988 to 1993.

Then in 1994, the cycle began trending the other way as wet conditions returned to the prairies and northern breeding grounds. Harvests shot to record levels in Louisiana and throughout the Mississippi Flyway.

It appears certain, however, that harvests are now trending downward again, and that's attributable to several factors, primarily a drying of the breeding grounds.

This spring, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilots found a 24 percent drop, compared to last year, in the pond count across the traditional survey area. Compared to the long-term average, the pond count was off 19 percent.

"Unfortunately, good water conditions in the short-grass prairie of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan seen last year did not carry over to this year, and habitat in these areas deteriorated from good last year to fair or poor this year," the USFWS reported.

A heavy snowfall last spring that many biologists hoped would be the saving grace for the ducks proved to be too little too late.

"Although many areas of the southern prairies received considerable snowfall during the winter and spring of 2003-04, including a late-spring snowstorm, the snowmelt was absorbed by the parched ground," the USFWS reported.

Waterfowl conservation groups took the reports in stride, but noted that hunters may feel the impact.

"We got a mixed bag of news this spring," said Rob Olson, president of Delta Waterfowl, a conservation group based in North Dakota. "Many areas of the prairies were very dry when the spring survey was conducted, and apparently some of the early-nesting birds like mallards and pintails over-flew the breeding grounds and headed north into Canada's bush country. History has taught us that when ducks over-fly the prairies, production is typically poor.

"The good news is that water conditions have improved across portions of the region since the spring survey was conducted. Parts of North and South Dakota and southern Canada received good rainfall in May and June, parts of southern Manitoba are very wet and conditions are pretty good across the extreme southern portions of Saskatchewan."

The heavy rainfall continued into July, and that's very important for next year's production, according to Helm.

"The summer rains caused good growth in the ground cover, and a lot of that will stay around for next year," he said.

Also, if conditions stay wet, many of the temporary potholes will freeze in the fall, and provide water for ducks when they thaw in the spring.

"Going into August, the prairies are very wet," Helm said.

But for this year, even with the liberal framework in place, the news could have been a lot better for hunters. Scientists pegged this year's breeding count estimate at 32.2 million birds, which is 11 percent below last year's count of 36.2 million.

The decrease was less severe in the population of mallards, which is the species scientists use as a representative sample of duck populations as a whole when figuring the season parameters. This year, the mallard count dipped to 7.4 million birds, which is 7 percent less than last year's estimate.

Although the mallard population is only 1 percent smaller than the long-term average, this is the lowest number of birds counted since 1994, when Louisiana had a 40-day season with a three-duck-per-day limit.

One species that continues to buck the downward trend is the one that's most important to Louisiana's coastal marsh hunters — gadwall. This year, scientists counted 2.6 million gadwall, known as gray ducks in much of Louisiana, which is 2 percent more than they counted last year.

The gadwall population represents a 56 percent increase over the long-term average, and this year's estimate is more than 150 percent higher than that of any year from 1955 through 1964.

"Gadwall tend to be more flexible with their breeding requirements," Helm said. "They adapt pretty well to the conditions."

Green-winged teal, another species that makes up a large part of Louisiana hunters' bags, are also faring well, though the numbers aren't as high as last year's.

The breeding count this year for greenwings was 2.5 million ducks, which is 8 percent lower than last year's estimate of 2.7 million. Still, this year's population is 33 percent higher than the long-term average.

One species that continues its sharp decline, however, is Northern pintails, which have declined from 10.3 million birds in 1956 to just 2.1 million today. That number is 15 percent less than last year's low estimate.

Helm said the problem has nothing to do with hunting pressure.

"It's a habitat issue; we're fairly certain of that," he said. "Pintails are a short-grass prairie nester, and so most of them breed in western Canada. That area has not been real wet."

Also, since pintails are early nesters, they're more likely to be affected by agricultural practices, Helm said.

"They're not very adaptable," he said. "A mallard will nest two or three times if she's unsuccessful, but pintails sometimes just group up after an unsuccessful nesting. A pintail may nest twice, but not always."

Even though hunting pressure isn't the cause of the decline in pintail numbers, it does, obviously, have some impact, so managers allowed the same restricted hunting parameters as last year — a 30-day pintail season with one-duck limit per day.

Blue-winged teal also saw a sharp decline this year, prompting the state to reduce the special September teal season to nine days rather than the 16 it had allotted every year since the late 1990s.

Bluewing numbers dropped to 4.1 million this year, a fall-off of 26 percent from last year. This year's count represents a 10 percent decline from the long-term average.

But no matter how many ducks of any species exist on the continent, the success of hunters here at the end of the Mississippi Flyway is entirely contingent on the weather, Helm said.

"Our success is based on the weather not only here but to the north of us as well," he said.

As an example, Helm pointed to the 2002-03 season, which was shaping up to be excellent for Louisiana hunters until Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili paid a visit.

"Two years ago, we were hammered by two storms not long before the season, and it just destroyed our habitat," he said. "No matter what that year, we just weren't going to have a lot of birds. It could have been a record year for production, but those birds weren't going to come here."

But so far this year, Helm said, the habitat in Louisiana looks good.

"The submergent vegetation in the marshes appears to be in real good shape, and that's the key for marsh hunting," he said.

The submergent vegetation benefitted from the prolonged high stages this summer of the rivers coursing through the state.

On the downside, that high water limited the growth of annual grasses on many pond and lake beds.

But, Helm said, the water retreated in July, which should have been early enough to allow the annuals to grow.

"We have a lot of growing season left," he said. "We should catch up."

So does that mean Helm thinks the 2004-05 season will be a good one?

"I'll be glad to make my prediction," he joked, "but I'm going to wait until January to do it."

James Warrington can be reached at (318) 458-6698 or (601) 825-5454.