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Duck opener wasn't as good as expected

The opening weekend of the Utah duck hunt wasn't exactly what everyone had expected. But, as time goes on, things will get better.

There is, after all, a record number of ducks with flight plans through Utah that have yet to be filled.Opening weekend was supposed to be one of the best in recorded history. It was good, but it wasn't the best.

Three things contributed to lower-than-expected results. A serious outbreak of botulism on the marshes will reportedly take between 150,000 and 200,000 ducks before it's over.

Tom Aldrich, waterfowl program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said there were still a million ducks on the marshes.

Stormy weather days before the hunt also pushed a lot of ducks south. And a number of hunters felt the one-day hunt held the previous Saturday for youths alerted ducks and made them wary.

No one said they didn't see ducks or get shots. Consensus was, however, that there were not the number of ducks they expected, not with numbers being at all-time highs in breeding areas in Canada and northern areas of the United States. The most common complaint, usually delivered with a smile, was that hunters couldn't hit the ducks they did see.

And, even though there were large numbers of ducks, they did seem to be concentrated.

Hunters near the center of the Ogden Bay Refuge, for example, did better than those hunters on the fringes of the refuge.

At Public Shooting Grounds near the northern tip of the Great Salt Lake, bag checks show hunters took home about twice as many ducks as they did last year. Across the road, however, at Salt Creek, success was not as good.

As the season progresses, hunting is expected to be good. A lot of ducks have yet to make their way south before winter.

Ultimately, what will determine the difference won't be bird numbers or marsh conditions, but weather.

If weather patterns - such as winds and light rains - move birds around, hunting will be good. If conditions remain mild, success may not be as good. An early freeze could also move birds out of state early

The limit is seven birds. Three years ago it was four birds. Included in this year's limit is no more than two hen mallards, three pintails, two redheads and one canvasback.

The duck season will run through Jan. 17. The 106 days is the longest in more than 20 years. And, for the first time in many years, it extends past the goose season, which closes Jan. 11.

Drought conditions, which also hit Utah in the 1980s, severely reduced surviving hatches on the prairies of Canada and the northern reaches of the United States, where the majority of ducks breed.

For the past three years, above-normal precipitation in these areas has resulted in record survival. This year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the fall flight will be 92 million birds, which is up 2 million from last year. This includes an expected flight of 14.4 million mallards, which is up from 12.6 million last year.