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This year's duck hunt could be Utah's best since the early 1970s

All signs point to a good duck hunt. Some say it will be the best in more than a decade.

Not since the early 1970s, in fact, have things looked this good going into the hunt, which opens Saturday.Marshes, ruined by flooding of the Great Salt Lake, are now at or near full recovery.

Ducks, whose numbers dropped to their lowest levels ever in the 1980s, are said to be at their highest levels in more than 40 years.

And hunters, frustrated by poor hunting in the 1980s, are dusting off the decoys, oiling the shotgun and returning to the marshes.

In response, the Utah Wildlife Board extended the season and increased bag limits on some birds.

The hunt will officially open Saturday at 8 a.m. for ducks, geese and swans.

Some Utah youths took advantage of a preview opportunity on Saturday. For the first time, Utah held a "Youth Waterfowl Day." Boys and girls between 12 and 15, accompanied by an adult, got to hunt for ducks, mergansers and coots.

Parents became guides, teachers and retrievers on Saturday, while youths got a sample of the opener.

Tom Aldrich, waterfowl program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the day was set aside to introduce waterfowl hunting to youths "without adults out there at the same time. . . . It also freed up adults to take youths hunting."

Val Bachman, superintendent at the Ogden Bay Bird Refuge, called it "the best day I've had working for the division."

Wildlife officers will be out in force, and in camouflage, for the opener again this year. Last year more than 100 hunters were cited for early shooting. Because there were so many, officers collected licenses and issued citations when hunters came to claim them.

Officers also cited a number of hunters for using lead instead of steel shot, which is required statewide for all waterfowl hunting.

Having an over limit of birds was also a problem last year.

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 season will run from Saturday 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. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a cooperative recovery strategy between the United States, Canada and Mexico, has targeted a 100 million-bird goal.

Aldrich says production on a local level was also good and, with few exceptions, the marshes are in excellent condition. He doesn't expect the outbreak of botulism, which first hit in August, will be noticed by Utah hunters. He estimates the disease could take between 150,000 and 200,000 birds. Officers are removing dead ducks daily to try and lessen the problem.

"Even though losing this many birds is a great loss, we will still have close to 1 million ducks on the Great Salt Lake marshes when the season opens," Aldrich says.

Ultimately, what will determine the difference between a good and excellent season 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 we have mild conditions this year, hunter success may not be what some are expecting," he said.

"If we have an early freeze, this could also move birds out of state early and affect hunter success."

The goose hunt, which also opens Saturday, is expected to be about the same as the past few years. Goose numbers have leveled off in recent years.

Because of typical goose movement, meaning they fly very early off water to feeding grounds, usually before the hunt opens on the first day, not many geese are taken on the opener.

And because the number of hunters is expected to be higher this year, officials are asking that those going onto public hunting areas to be careful of their targets and mindful of other hunters' space.