January 10, 2024
Duck hunters are on the edge of their mud seat with the rumors of the pintail limit finally relenting from one bird to possibly three birds per day.
For the past 30 years pintails have been under strict regulation. Each flyway has set certain bag limits for the bull sprig and his hen. In the late 1980s hunters were allowed to harvest four pintails, but only one could be a hen. Then the number dropped in the early ‘90s to one. With another spike to three in 1997 (again, only one hen), then a fluctuation between being able to take two, then one, then two again throughout the early 2000s. Most recently, the bag limit has been lowered back down to one pintail, male or female, per hunter.
Much speculation about the pintail bag limit numbers has hunters up in arms. It seems like in most areas of the country pintails seem to be doing just fine. There constantly seems to be a steady stream of pintails flowing through each state, leaving many hunters sitting on their thumbs watching as more and more sprigs work their decoys without the ability to pull the trigger because they’ve already bagged their one-pintail limit.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” says Kimball Vance, a seasoned waterfowler from upper California, a known pintail haven. “I go out, shoot my one pintail, then I’m done unless the teal or wigeon start to move. And I get it. If it’s better for the birds I don’t want to complain. But I just don’t see the lack of pinnies like they say there is. If anything, I think there’s a lack of mallards and gadwall. The pintail seem to be outnumbering them 10-to-1.”
Other hunters across the nation seem to be voicing the same concern – why is the bag limit down to one bird when the birds seem to be doing just fine? Poor count numbers in 2018 and 2019 were the driving factor for the one-bird bag limit. The pintail is currently down 43% from the desired long-term average. Pintail numbers were up, however, 24% in 2023 from their last survey numbers in 2022 according to Delta Waterfowl.
Whisperings are finding their way through the hunting community that the one-pintail bag limit may be coming to an end. WILDFOWL had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Chris Nicolai of Delta Waterfowl to get his insight on the situation. “As far as we understand, harvest rates have no impact on the number of pintails. The number of pintails and waterfowl as a whole comes down to their breeding ground and nesting habitat,” says Nicolai. In talking about the potential for a raised bag limit Nicolai notes that the process of getting the single-bird limit changed to three is already being considered. “It goes through four steps, the Harvest Management Working Group, and that box is pretty much checked to raise the bag limit; then the Four Flyways Technical Sections, the Four Flyways Councils, and then it will go to the SRC meeting in D.C.” Chris noted that the voting for the 2024-25 season is currently underway, so any changes to the bag limit would take effect during the 2025-26 waterfowl season. “State and Federal biologists are the ones who have put this proposal together, and they deserve a lot of credit. A lot of smart men and women who are putting an effort in to make sure that duck hunters are happy.” Nicolai added.
Chris also noted, “Part of the reason states implemented a restricted season was due to the fact they were overestimating pintail harvest by 230%.” Nicolai did make it clear that the pintail numbers are still down, but that hunters aren't to blame. The largest culprit at fault is the loss of nesting ground and habitat.
The California Waterfowl Association (CWA) has been a loud voice in trying to get a more liberal pintail limit. According to the CWA website, “The current model assumes that hunter harvest affects populations, but a growing body of research indicates that harvest has a negligible effect on populations, which appear more likely to be constrained by conditions on their breeding grounds in Canada. Pintails nest in prairie shortgrass, but they also use stubble left behind from the prior year’s spring wheat harvest, which is often disced in preparation for spring planting long before broods hatch. In response to CWA's request, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formed a National Pintail Harvest Strategy Working Group in November 2018, and it includes representatives of the Service and the four Flyway Councils. In addition, a Pacific Flyway Council Pintail Working Group was formed in January 2018 with the support of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The goals of the revision include re-evaluating the goals of pintail harvest management, evaluating current and other regulatory alternatives (such as three-bird bag scenarios) and incorporating new scientific data (such as the effects of harvest on pintail).”
With more science and studies emerging, and biologists backing the science, it is possible that the 2025-26 season could offer a higher bag limit of pintails. Hunters across the nation could enjoy taking hame a few more of these spectacular bronze heads and spear-like tails each hunt, instead of watching them soar in and out of the decoys in hopes that other ducks will give them a look.