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Waterfowl populations are huge, but you have to flock to the right places

Drake mallards such as these Des Plaines River will be prime targets when waterfowl seasons open Saturday Illinois’ north zone.

Drake mallards such as these on the Des Plaines River will be the prime targets when waterfowl seasons open Saturday in Illinois’ north zone. | Dale Bowman

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:25AM

At best, hunting in suburban/urban areas is an odd business. Be it sailing a goose into a subdivision and making the evening news, trouble explaining legal nuances of hunting to suburban authorities or changes caused by annexations or sale of farmland, there’s always a challenge — and plenty of geese and ducks. The Chicago suburbs have become the go-to for hunting Canada geese for hunters from across the Midwest. This drought year will present its own challenges and rewards when the waterfowl seasons open Saturday in Illinois’ north zone.

Much like real estate, suburban waterfowl hunting this fall will come down to ‘‘location, location, location,’’ guide Mike Richied emailed.

‘‘Get out and find those birds — don’t wait for them to find you!’’ said Richied, who will guide for Matt Porter at Porter’s Hunt Club in northern Illinois.

To extend the real estate analogy, the market is hot. The 2012 ‘‘Trends in Duck Breeding Populations’’ report, released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates North America’s duck factory at a record 48.6 million, ‘‘up from the 45.6 million birds estimated last year and 43 percent above the long-term average.’’

Mallards, the most popular target of Illinois duck hunters, are at 10.6 million, up 39 percent over the long-term average of 7.6 million.

With those record estimates, there were 60-day duck seasons and a liberal daily bag of six ducks, which may be no more than four mallards (two hens), three wood ducks, one mottled duck, two redheads, four scaup, two pintails, one black duck and one canvasback. The daily bag on mergansers is five, only two of which may be hooded mergansers. The daily bag for Canada and white-fronted geese is two.

Record estimates of ducks and geese don’t necessarily correlate to even good hunting, which depends more on water and food conditions. That makes this year trickier than most in recent memory with the drought and the speed of crop harvest.

‘‘We are seeing a ton of birds,’’ said Jeff Norris, owner of Fox Valley Guide Service in the western suburbs. ‘‘The whole crop thing won’t have any effect early. They will clean the field out and move on to the next one.’’

‘‘The rapid crop harvest opens up a lot of areas to hunt early, uneducated geese in each hunter’s favorite spots,’’ Richied said. ‘‘No more staying home because your field isn’t harvested.’’

Through Sunday, an astonishing 80 percent of the corn in Illinois was harvested, compared to the five-year average of 44 percent.

‘‘The bigger issue is water levels,’’ Norris said. ‘‘Nelson Lake is down to mud.’’

The water levels are another odd business in the suburbs. Norris said with the low levels, geese are using subdivision and retention ponds more.

‘‘Hunting around northern Illinois, we are blessed by the amount of retention ponds that have managed water levels and will always hold geese and ducks due to their proximity to food and their safety from the ever-increasing population of predators,’’ Richied said.

The Fox River runs through the western suburbs. But it runs so low this drought year, it may lead to other issues later in the season.

‘‘My biggest fear is it is going to freeze earlier, and we will lose the late season,’’ Norris said.

Then Norris’ distinctive wit found some hope.

‘‘Everybody in St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia has to flush twice a day, at least, so we should be good to go, so to speak,’’ Norris said.

Go time comes Saturday for waterfowlers in northern Illinois.

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