Most duck hunting rules are pretty simple; no shooting after sunset, your shotgun can't hold more than three shells and it's illegal to shoot birds from a boat under power. The regulations that cover baiting? Not so much. Particularly those covering various farming practices that may attract waterfowl.
Hunting a corn field recently bush-hogged because it was damaged by wind or hail, for example, is illegal, but hunting a field of flooded standing corn planted for the sole purpose of attracting ducks? Have at it. You can't hunt a field of volunteer rice that was rolled, but it's perfectly legal to manipulate natural vegetation.
The rules are spelled out by federal regulations and include different scenarios, but they still leave the most seasoned hunters scratching their heads, unsure if a particular field is technically baited. Even some law enforcement officers can't agree on the definition.
Minnesota resident and Avery territory manager Mark Brendemuehl recalls watching ducks land in an unharvested corn field when a state game warden pulled up. The corn was partially covered in snow and there was little chance the crop was going to be harvested.
"He told me it was OK to hunt, but he then told me a federal game warden might have a different opinion," recalls Brendemuehl. "I wasn't going to take a chance."
Despite years of tweaking and endless grumbling from otherwise law-abiding hunters, waterfowl baiting regulations are confusing. You can hunt this field, but not that one, even though they are planted with the same grains. Planted crops can't be manipulated but natural vegetation can.
Birds flying to or from a baited field might be off-limits, thanks to vague "zone of influence" rules. Even after serving as chairman of an ad hoc committee that revised federal baiting regulations in 1998, Brent Manning agrees they can still be confusing.
"It was our fear that we were driving hunters away from the sport through complex regulations, so we worked with state and federal managers and law enforcement personnel. The language as it is written is strong," says Manning, who served as director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources from 1991 to 2003. "However, there is no group of words that will satisfy everyone or every situation. Farming methods vary from state to state, and region to region, so in some ways, the baiting regulations do have to be somewhat complex."
Whether or not current waterfowl regulations keep potential hunters out of the marsh is difficult to gauge, but they certainly keep seasoned hunters like Brendemuehl on edge. That day in Minnesota wasn't the only time he's passed up an opportunity because he wasn't sure if the field met an arbitrary definition of "legal."
"My friends and I will stand in the middle of a field and argue over whether it might be considered baited. We shouldn't have to call a game warden every time we want to hunt a field," he says.
That's why it's time to rethink not just our current laws, says Ed Hanna, but the very reasons we even have baiting regulations.
"If duck hunting was treated like a business, waterfowl managers would have been out of a job a long time ago," says Hanna, a natural resources policy analyst from Ontario.
He does not mean, of course, that they have done a bad job of managing ducks, which are at historic highs. He is talking about treating hunters as valued customers.
An outspoken critic of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Hanna says we need to shift towards giving hunters a better overall experience. That means simplifying or even eliminating many of the confusing and contradictory rules. All agree waterfowl must be managed to ensure the resource will be there for future generations. But easing baiting rules might result in a drastic harvest increase and lower populations. And that would lead to lower bag limits and shorter seasons. That concerns Manning, a life-long duck hunter.
"I would prefer more restrictive regulations if it means a longer season, and pretty much everyone I know says the same thing," says Manning. "I've watched video of ducks coming to bait. They won't leave, even after they've been shot at. They will fly a hundred yards and come right back."
What's the Difference?
That's why wildlife managers have to dance a fine line between resource conservation and hunter opportunity. The current regulations, which have been fine-tuned for nearly 100 years, are the best tools for sustaining hunting as we know it, adds Manning. They also preserve the notion of fair chase, a common theme among hunters and wildlife managers concerned about the sport's reputation among non-hunters.
However, resource managers routinely tweak bag limits and season lengths to ensure viable game populations. Hanna sees no reason waterfowl managers can't do the same thing when the need arises. Keeping regulations confusing and restrictive for the good of the resource counters the notion managers are working for those who benefit the most from the resource.
"I have a hard time defending bait regulations as a management tool. What's the difference between shooting a duck over waste grain and thrown grain? The duck doesn't know the difference," he says. "Maybe we could consider an individual season quota or something that would give everyone an equal shot at the same number of birds."
Allowing one guy to hunt over flooded corn but preventing another from shooting over bush-hogged corn only penalizes an otherwise law-abiding hunter, Hanna says. It also favors those with the resources to undertake labor-intensive methods deemed legal under current regulations. How does that benefit the resource or the future of duck hunting? Tough questions with no simple answers.