Youngsters fortunate enough to have chances to get into East Zone blinds Saturday had the last shots on ducks overwintering in Louisiana. It was the second of that zone’s two-day allowance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for hunters 15 and younger.

For ardent wild waterfowl hunters, it’s a sad day just knowing their next trips to blinds across the state will come with September’s special 16-day teal season.

Tempering this gloom is knowing, for the first time, the proposed dates for next season so early in the year. For as many years as can be remembered, duck hunters had to wait until August to find out the dates suggested by Wildlife and Fisheries’ Waterfowl Study team, then await approval (although most times it was rubber stamped) by the USFWS.

It’s Mardi Gras time, and November seems so far away, but for anyone wanting to jot down opening-day dates, then it’s Nov. 12 in the Coastal and West zones, and Nov. 19 in the East Zone. Another point is to check the new zones map. All three zones have changed, and will be for the next five seasons, and it’ll be especially important for hunters in the south-central and southeastern parishes to note the changes. Some of you have been moved from the Coastal Zone to the East Zone.

It’s notable the coincidence that the Coastal and West zones open the same day, and even better that there was little squabble among the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission members about a second-Saturday-in-November opening, especially after the contentiousness on the commission when votes were split over opening the most recent season on November’s first Saturday.

That earlier opener flew in the face of Wildlife and Fisheries’ recent surveys showing hunters’ preferences for later season dates, a noticeable departure from a decade ago when coastal duck hunters pleaded for more early days.

All this squabble sent State Waterfowl Study leader Larry Reynolds back to the stacks upon stacks of years upon years of the study’s aerial surveys.

“All the numbers were there, from the (aerial) surveys taken by our state’s pioneer waterfowl biologists, men like Richard Yancey, (Hugh) ‘Butch’ Bateman, Robert Helm and the current team,” Reynolds said. “And I’m blessed to have a group of young men dedicated to this research. Matt Haugen is a young biologist who got his masters (degree) from Nebraska and handles technology remarkably well. He put together a graph showing trends in our aerial survey over time and he did it in about 45 minutes.”

Reynolds said when he and the study staff looked at the graph, they noticed several interesting trends, and one Reynolds labeled “perplexing,” especially in the years during the prolonged breeding-grounds droughts of the late 1980s into the early 1990s and the now 20 years since rainfall and snowmelt have revitalized the breeding grounds in Canada, eastern Montana and the Dakotas.

“We have more ducks in January in the state. That’s what our surveys shows,” Reynolds said, “But (state and federal) numbers show (Louisiana) takes more ducks in the first split.”

There are explanations, things like early-season excitement wearing off in a 60-day season, increasingly cold conditions, and hunters returning to work in January after taking time off during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays. Low water in the coastal marshes is another factor.

The Waterfowl Study team takes to the air three, sometimes four times, around the duck season. The first takes place the weeks before opening day, the second usually between the first and second splits in early-to-mid December, and the last aerial survey in the first 10 days of January during the second split. Reynolds was quick to point out that there were years when foul weather and fiscal restraints didn’t allow for aerial surveys, but that there was enough data produced in 40 years to read trends.

“For scientists, the good thing about our survey is that our (counting and estimating) methods have remained consistent, and we can make valid comparisons from years to years,’ Reynolds said.

The disturbing downward trend comes in comparing numbers in the November survey. A spike in the November 2014 count reversed a trend showing November duck estimates varied by as many as three million ducks in the years following the November 1993 survey, and November’s average appears to have dropped from about 2.5 million birds to the 1.5 million range.

December’s numbers during the past two decades show increases, but January’s average shows an upward trend.

“Maybe the story is there appears to be a slight long-term decline of ducks in Louisiana,” Reynolds said. “But there’s so much variation, I’m not sure to label this a trend.”