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Managed Hunting Areas in the USA
by Chris Banish


To many British fowlers, talk of mandatory hunting licenses, stamps, and other fees is anathema, and for good reason, too.  The very long season, the lack of bag limits, and the opportunity to do things like shoot under the moon or engage in punt-gunning are things that are simply unknown in the United States and Canada, and are rightly treasured in the UK.  By the early part of this century, the combined pressures of excessive market-gunning and prolonged drought caused the federal government to enact a series of laws governing the hunting of migratory birds.  The various states soon followed suit.  Bag limits, shortened seasons, and mandatory licenses and duck stamps became the order of the day.  For all of the restrictions they brought, these new mandatory licenses, fees, and stamps generated a significant flow of cash every season.  In time, taxes on ammunition and other hunting supplies would be added to the other fees.  With wise foresight, those funds were from the beginning earmarked for use in acquiring and maintaining public hunting areas across the country.  Though often crowded and generally over-pressured, these public areas provide access to prime wetlands for all waterfowlers, and can, if conditions are right, provide world-class shooting.  

While refuge and preserve systems vary from state to state, examples from my home state of Michigan will undoubtedly be generally representative.  Many of the pictures below were taken at the Harsenís Island unit of the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area.  Harsenís Island forms part of the delta of the St. Clair River where it flows into Lake St. Clair, which is located just north of the City of Detroit, and through which runs the international border between the United States and Canada.  The St. Clair Flats area has always been a well-known fowling area.  It continues to be so, despite the fact that the great bulk of the natural wetlands have been destroyed, especially on the American side of the border.  The state wildlife area is one of the few intact areas of wetlands that is left in the area.  A map of this area, along with some of the area rules, can be seen at : http://www.michigandnr.com/publications/pdfs/huntingwildlifehabitat/sga/stcf_harsens.pdf

 Areas like Harsenís Island are designed and run to give hunters access to decent hunting opportunities.  To avoid overcrowding, and to ensure that everyone in the area has a reasonable amount of space in which to hunt, the entire area is divided into hunting zones.  Each zone will take an individual or small hunting party, and all others are denied access for that day.  In order to determine who gets to hunt in which zone, a lottery is held before each of the two daily hunts, held at prescribed times every day.  As the hunters arrive at the area headquarters for the lottery, they are assigned numbers for the lottery.  A random list of numbers is generated, and the order in which the party numbers appear on that list is the order in which those parties will choose their hunting zones.  To facilitate this process, a big board is posted at these areas, and as the zones are chosen, the tag on each zone on the board is turned over.  This is a poorly-flashed photo of the board at Harsenís Island:

After choosing their zone, the hunters make their way to various access points and parking areas that surround the hunting areas.  In a place like Harsenís Island, small boats are usually used to gain access to the various zones via a well-maintained system of canals and dikes.

Oftentimes, pure water access is impossible in some areas, and boats need to be pulled over dikes in order to get from flooded area to flooded area.  Here is a photo taken from a dike just after our boat has been pulled across.

Some of the dikes are quite large, and rollers and other aids to pulling the boats back and forth are placed on the dikes.










Depending on the area of the country in which a specific area may be, the composition of the hunting area can vary greatly.  For example, the Harsenís Island area is split between large marsh zones, as seen in the first photo below, and crop fields which are flooded shortly before the season begins, as seen in the second photo.










Below are two photos of myself, and you can see from the background which type of area Iím hunting in each.

The flooded crop fields at Harsenís Island are planted with corn (maize) or sorghum.  Some of the crop is knocked-down prior to flooding, while a wide strip down the middle of the zone is left standing to provide cover for the hunters.  Most public hunting areas also have a refuge area that is planted with crops or managed in other ways.  The refuge area is strictly off limits to hunters, and provides the often heavily-pressured birds a place to rest without interference.   

The habitat management of these areas is a year-round proposition.  Oftentimes water levels need to be raised or lowered, and the areaís system of dikes and canals are utilized to gain different levels of water in different areas during different parts of the year. Here is a photo of some water control devices embedded in a dyke. Shown are the tops of valves which, when opened, allow the water to flow freely between the flooded areas on either side of the dyke.

State waterfowl associations and other voluntary groups often contribute their time and money to improving the area.  For example, below are photos of woodduck nesting boxes that were placed throughout the area with the help of the Michigan Duck Hunters Association.  In the second photo, the woodduck box was built onto one of the poles throughout the area marking the boundaries between individual hunting zones.













Many hunters often deride these public areas, or just become so tired of dealing with the hunting pressure that they go elsewhere.  I canít blame them.  Not only does success in a public area require the same bit of luck concerning the weather and presence of birds, but additionally getting a good draw at the lottery is often the crucial factor for success.  A high draw means that one can choose a historically productive zone, while a low draw will mean taking a zone that is less-favored and will usually produce less shooting.  Hunters often call these areas ďduck bingo,Ē and the name is deserved.  However, these areas provide two very important things:  first, all fowlers have an equal opportunity to hunt these areas, and do not need access to private land, and second, the patchwork of federal and state wildlife areas and refuges provide much needed habitat for the migrating wildfowl.  If one is successful at the duck bingo, and the migration has arrived, success can often be had at these managed public hunting areas.

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