Originating in a North Dakota duck blind, targeting divers instead of dry-field puddlers, this scaup discussion was a real eye-opener for Ramsey Russell. Eric Smith cut his teeth on duck hunting while chasing bluebills (scaup) with his dad in northern Minnesota. Later involved in graduate research and scaup banding studies, he’s remained fascinated by them ever since. How’d Smith fall into the scaup rabbit hole? How are scaup populations doing relative to redhead and canvasback populations? Why are daily bag limits only half that of redheads and canvasbacks? Are zebra mussels problematic for bluebills? How are scaup bag limits determined, what do mallards have to do with it, and is the best science being applied to scaup management? Like a flock of low-flying bluebills hammering toward the layout while obscured behind a huge swell, I never saw this one coming. Found this Duck Season Somewhere podcast episode extremely interesting and bet that y’all do, too.
Scaup Are the Most Abundant Diver Duck in North America But the Bluebill Bag Limit Is Only One. Eric Smith and Ramsey Russell Discuss Scaup Science and Bluebill Bag Limits in the Context of Duck Hunting Opportunities
Is the US Fish and Wildlife Service looking at scaup bag limits as hard as they should be? We’re losing duck hunters. If we’re losing them, we should be doing everything we can to promote and recruit new hunters, right? And science is one way we could do that. So yeah, ultimately, I grew up hunting bluebills with dad, and my grandfather was the same way. I remember those days. And I’ve lived through the tough times with bluebills, and I’d hate to see all these tradition go by the wayside because we don’t think we have enough bluebills.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. Today I’m in Brandon, Mississippi. I’m watching Char Dawg stretched out in front of the fireplace, although it ain’t terribly cold. It’s about forty-five or fifty degrees right now as we’re recording. Today’s special guest is my buddy Eric Smith from Jamestown, North Dakota. How are you?
Eric Smith: I’m good, Ramsay, how you doing?
Ramsey Russell: Good. Now look, how cold is it right now in North Dakota?
Eric Smith: I think we’re looking at about five degrees outside right now. But the wind is weapons. So, I think more of what we talk about in North land is wind chill. It feels like it’s about -25 out there right now.
Ramsey Russell: -25 real feel. It reminds me, I know I was just telling you before we recorded, right after college, I got offered a temporary appointment in North Dakota. They’re in Jamestown working for the Research Center. One of the last questions he asked me was, “How’s the Southern boy going to do up here in the wintertime?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, but probably about as well as you would do down here in my summertime.” He laughed and said, “Well, you all are humid down there, and I’ve been to Vicksburg, Mississippi and had never hardly been as cold as when I was in Vicksburg, Mississippi just because that humidity gets into it.” But I’m going to tell y’all, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know if I could winter -25 real feel. What do you do on a day like today Eric, when it’s that cold?
Eric Smith: Oh, just go for a walk in some shorts and take the dogs out.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Eric Smith: We’re born and bred for this stuff. We have all been in it. No, typically hunker down and do a podcast with Ramsey Russell I guess is probably a good thing to do on a day like today.
Ramsey Russell: That sounds like a good plan for today. Be up in the warm and do something like that. You know, I met you, Eric, at Jeff Pelayo’s. We were shooting divers, which was a real unique perspective or experience for me in North Dakota because most folks hunt the fields and chase the puddle ducks and the geese, and Jeff and y’all are set up and are freaking diver purists. And it was a beautiful hunt, especially the way Jeff does it with those antique blocks and all that good stuff out there “soaking.” But I just never will forget sitting in the blind, talking in between the volleys, and hearing you talk about bluebills. I was under the understanding that bluebills are practically an endangered species. The limit for bluebills in Mississippi this year was one. The bluebills limit in many places around the country was one. And I can remember decades ago here that scaup, or bluebills, were supposedly eating zebra mussels and really having some problems. So when I heard you begin to talk about them, it really piqued my interest. You’ve got a background in bluebills, don’t you?
Bluebills (Scaup) Background
I got into wildlife as a profession, strictly because of bluebills. They have always been a species I’ve been interested in. And I got involved strictly because when I first started getting interested in science, what was going on with bluebills and their populations was a big topic.
Eric Smith: Yeah, I got into wildlife as a profession, strictly because of bluebills. They have always been a species I’ve been interested in. And I got involved strictly because when I first started getting interested in science, what was going on with bluebills and their populations was a big topic. I mean, it still is a big topic in the waterfowl world. But there was a big concern that there was really no good explanations for the bluebills decline that we saw in the last year scaup populations.
Ramsey Russell: You’re a wildlife biologist by training. You came into the field with a passion for bluebills. But I know from having talked to you, that passion, you’re what I call a hook and bullet biologist. A lot of us that went through school, a lot of the field biologists that I know today and work with and hunt with, they’re like myself. I came through wildlife, but I was hook and bullet. My origins were hunting and fishing back when, and that just kind of translated into an interest in wildlife management. Let’s talk about how you grew up and how you formed such an interest in bluebills and in scaup. Where did you grow up Eric?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I grew up in an area of the country called the Iron Range in Minnesota. So, it’s northern Minnesota, known for its iron mining. And how that relates to bluebills? I mean anybody that grew up there or hunted in northern Minnesota, especially back in the heyday of the bluebill we’ll call it- There were lakes that I grew up hunting with my dad and even before I could actually hunt. I mean I remember being a toddler and my dad coming home with lots and lots of bluebills with him and my uncle and their friends. They would come home with piles and piles of bluebills because Lake Winnibigoshish, also known as Lake Winnie to most, was a really popular area for hunting bluebills because there were a lot of bluebills that use that lake.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about some of those early memories. Do you still remember your first duck hunting experience or your first duck?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I remember my first. I have memories of being a toddler. I remember my dad put me in a snowmobile suit to keep warm. I remember walking around on the sandy beaches of Lake Winnibigoshish. My dad and my uncle Randy, who was alive at the time, hunting a lot of ducks, and so my cousins and I did that a lot. So a lot of my early memories are of big water and seeing these big wads of diver ducks come in, so I guess that’s why diver hunting gets me so excited and why I’m so interested in diving ducks as a whole. Yeah, then I remember my first duck that I shot. When I could finally shoot a gun, I had a 20-gauge single shot. First duck I shot was a drake ring-necked duck, which is a Minnesota staple. There’s a lot of ring-necked ducks that are harvested in Minnesota, a lot that breed there, a lot that migrate through there. I water whacked him too, Arkansas style, like you guys do down south and that’s what a lot of us used to do. But if I could hit, at nine years old, a ring-necked duck on the wing, I probably would have been competing against Tom Knapp or something like that because they’re a hard duck to hit.
Ramsey Russell: Ring-necks are fun to shoot because they are freaking black and white flashes across the water. They are a ton of fun, but they’re fast.
Eric Smith: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve shot plenty of ring-necks down here in my life. I can tell you that. I was looking at some old pictures of my dad when he was a little boy and my uncle with my granddad. It’s one of the very few photos, black and white photos, of their childhood that I’ve seen with him hunting. And looking at the board where the ducks were hung up, there were mallards and gadwalls and whatnot. But there were quite a few ring-necked ducks. They shot them back then too where they hunted. So how would you and your dad hunt these divers? I mean, you all were targeting divers back in those days. It was just ring necks and bluebills, I’m assuming some redheads.
Eric Smith: Yeah. I mean, we were out to kill ducks like any duck hunter. We wanted to get out there and kill ducks. Back then in the 80s and going into the 90s, mallards were a prize always, and they still are in that part, just because you don’t have necessarily as many mallards. But my dad loved wing shooting. That was his thing. I’d be hard pressed to find another species between lesser scaup (bluebills), ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes and redheads. I mean throw them all in the mix. Those are some really fantastic wingshooting birds, and it’s what we had a lot of. So a lot of times, we’d basically just go look for good activity on some of these medium-sized to larger lakes- We didn’t really care the species, but obviously we were really interested in hunting bluebills and things like that. A lot of times a pair of us would just go out in a canoe, and we had particular islands that we’d like to hunt. I really got an addiction to bluebills when, you know, you’re on this small pothole lake in northern Minnesota, and you’re on an island and you got a couple of blocks out there. It seems like out of nowhere, all of a sudden you’ve got these rockets just coming into your decoys in pretty good numbers. I mean flocks of twenty-five, things like that. That did it for me as a kid, Ramsey. The sound of them working, the way they just lose altitude whichever way they want. That’s the kind of stuff that I always think back on whenever I’m hunting. If it’s a slow day, or I’m not hunting and I’m really thinking about hunting, I often go back to those early memories of why I got into this, why I really like hunting so much. Not just the biology part of it and why I got into being a biologist, but just why I even hunt birds in the first place, what do I like about it. Those thoughts always come up. It was just spending time with my dad and my family members and just the camaraderie of it all. You pick up on that at such a young age, and it becomes so important to a lot of us.
Ramsey Russell: I agree that is one of the constants in duck hunting worldwide, nationwide, everywhere I’ve ever been, is just beyond the trigger pull, beyond the hunt, no matter what species, it’s just the whole camaraderie, the social experience, the food, the culture, the whole thing. It’s real constant among duck hunters and duck camps. It’s just a staple of it all.
Scaup Hunting In Different Parts of US
Ramsey Russell: What I find so interesting, and we talked about this out there with Jeff, hunting on his lake. Where I’m from, here in the Deep South, scaup and divers in general are not a primary target. They’re an odd bird. They’re what you shoot generally to pick up the rest of your limit. You get four mallards or whatever to make your bag. It’s not the bread-and-butter duck, it’s just not in the Deep South. I’ve heard them called “shit ducks”. I don’t call them that, but I’ve heard them called that. Well, in some circles, Eric, anything that’s not a mallard is that. I don’t ascribe to that road, but that’s what I’ve heard them called. But then as you start to travel around the United States, especially up in the Northern Tier, scaup are a pretty dang big deal. I know Lee Kjos, my good buddy, Lee Kjos. I’ve shot many different species of ducks with that man. He loves bluebills, and it goes back to hunting those mid- to large-sized waterbodies in Minnesota with his dad. His dad was a bluebill guy. That’s what they did when the weather kicked up and everything got right, they were all about those bluebills. Which reminds me of this, you hear that old wives’ tale, I’ve heard it said my whole life, that rainy, snowy and windy, just that whole nastiness is what you want for duck hunting. It’s been my experience and a lot of places that I hunt for puddle ducks, I know what I want, I want enough wind to steer them, I want enough cold to make them move and make the birds migrate, but I want sunshine. And if you get up in y’all’s part of world in them great big water bodies, those birds will raft up out in the middle of nowhere unless you’ve got that real inclement weather to kick them off into the coves, kick them off into the shorelines, is that right?
Eric Smith: Yeah, exactly, it’s what really drives them there, if you’re a mallard hunter or goose hunter and you’re field hunting these birds- And the same sort of things drive the diving ducks right? A lot of these species that we’re hunting, their optimal feeding range is three to six feet. But they’re out there rafting up and who knows how deep. You think they’re feeding out there? No, they’re not. They’re resting just like mallards will go out to roost. But they’re going to come in. In North Dakota here, they might leave the wetland that you’re on. You got to do your scouting because they might be on this wetland, but they might be rafting up there, and they’re going up to the smaller, shallower ones neighboring to go feed. Because there’s better food sources in some of those, especially when you take a prairie wetland that are sort of relatively unaltered, they tend to have better food sources than some of these deep, what we call consolidation bases, that are just larger because of not only wet cycle, but past drainage practices.
Are Scaup (Bluebills) Good to Eat?
So they’re really not that different, but if you go back to talking about “shit ducks,” I think you hear that stuff, but it really comes down to cooking skills. I think a lot of hunters out there, especially waterfowl hunters don’t really know how to cook duck. So it leads me to believe that they don’t know how to cook a steak either because some of these birds have some differences, but as far as birds that don’t taste quite that good, I wouldn’t put bluebills very low on the list.
Ramsey Russell: No, I’ve eaten some great bluebills.
Eric Smith: Yeah, they’re just like any duck, Ramsey. I mean you shoot me ten mallards, and I might get one or two out of there that tastes a little funky just for whatever reason. Maybe they’re in poor body condition, that their muscles are a little bit more stressed from the point of migration they’re at or whatever it may be. But, you and I always talk about how people give shovelers a bad name, you’re a big shoveler lover too. Especially if we’re doing the breast-out method, I cook these the way I cook anything else. You’d have a hard time to tell the difference between bluebills and gadwall, other than the initial color.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I agree entirely. Speaking of cooking, cooking is becoming somewhat of a lost art. Cooking wild game, cooking ducks especially as compared to your dad, my granddad’s era, that is becoming a little bit of a lost art. And it really is a quantum leap to go from frozen pizza to waterfowl. I mean it’s a quantum leap to cook ducks right. If you’re more accustomed to microwaves or frozen pizzas or even just grilling steaks. But I’ve eaten some good scaup. Scaups are to me darker than a mallard, but they’re good, and if they’ve been feeding on some good stuff, they’re very good to eat. Divers are harder to skin than a puddle duck. I mean their skin’s a lot tougher now. Ring-necked duck, man, that’s a bugger.
Eric Smith: You ever try to pluck the breast feathers off a ring-necked duck? Good luck.
Ramsey Russell: I know, man. But, tell me this. So you grow up hunting through high school with your dad, then how did you crawl further down into this bluebills rabbit hole?
Eric Smith: Yeah, it wasn’t a straight path. Maybe some people have that in their life where they just got a straightforward path and that’s fine and dandy. I’m just sort of a drifter. I have a Jack of all trades, I like a lot of different things. I mean, when I got out of high school, the duck hunting really wasn’t that good, and I didn’t duck hunt quite as much as I used to. I got involved in other things. I was always interested in rock and roll and music, and I got together with some guys, and we played bands together for years and did a little touring and kind of thought maybe we would make something out of that. So I spent a lot of time traveling around the country and a lot of time practicing music and things like that, so that was my passion at the time. I was in a band with a guy, and I think at that time we had kind of called it quits in that particular band for a while. Mikey was a good friend of mine, and he wanted to go duck hunting. I’d always talked about duck hunting and fishing and stuff with him, and he didn’t do a whole lot. He really liked to fish when he was growing up, but he didn’t get to do a whole lot of duck hunting stuff. I remember one time I took him out to one of my favorite lakes, actually the one where I was talking about some of my childhood memories of being on an island. I actually took him to that lake, I hadn’t hunted out there for years and years. I had no idea what to expect. The only real recon on any of that I had was talking to my dad because he was still trying to hunt even though a lot of the boys were out of the house, certainly his hunting boys were out of the house. I brought him out there, and we shot whatever came in. I mean we shot mallards, we shot scaup, bluebills, we shot goldeneyes, we shot mergansers. And it was just awesome to introduce him to that because ever since then, he’s been a pretty die-hard waterfowler and that just kind of got me back into the game. Like I shouldn’t have ever hung this up, not that I really hung it up permanently, but I just wasn’t doing it to the degree that made me happy. So from there, he and I were kind of farting around all the time, just drinking beers, and BS-ing, and fishing together and hunting. We kind of got it in our heads like, “Hey, both of us are still young, and we’re still single. I kind of want to go to school for wildlife, and I’d really like to get into waterfowl and waterfowl management and waterfowl biology.” He kind of thought the same thing: “Yeah, I’m going to get into something like that.” So we actually both saved up our money, quit our jobs and took our girlfriends with us and kind of got down the path of going to school for wildlife. And one of the first things I did, because, for probably one of the first times in a while, I knew what I wanted to do. I got on the phone, and I called up a researcher with LSU who’s a big bluebill guy, and he’s since retired. His name’s Al Afton.
Ramsey Russell: Dr. Al Afton, you’re right.
Thinking About Scaup Issues
Eric Smith: Yep. I just cold-called Al out of nowhere and just kind of said, “Hey, I’m looking for some guidance. I’m in a wildlife program now, but if I want to work with ducks, what do I do? Like just give me some pointers.” And he’s like, “Oh man, get as much experience as you can with waterfowl people and network.” He’s like, ”What you’re doing now.” So Al’s a really good mentor to a lot of people, and he invited me down. He said, “Hey, if you’re serious, and you want to drive all the way down to Pool 19 on the Mississippi River in March and donate your spring break, then you can come down and help me band ducks.” So that’s what Mike and I did. We made the plans to- I said, “Mike, hey, he invited me down, let’s go.” So that kind of got me started with at least, getting my hands on birds. It certainly got me involved in banding scaup. It was cool man, because the timing of it all just kind of worked out because the first time I met Al, it was sort of the front end of the banding operation for the year. So we were helping him do a lot of the leg work, like the scouting for birds, getting traps ready and setting traps. It was literally just free time with a scaup expert to just driving around every day and just to pick his brain about everything. So I really appreciated his time answering all my questions. Some of them were probably pretty bush-league at the time, but Al answered them all. He really kind of got me thinking about this scaup issue.
Ramsey Russell: I know in those Louisiana marsh areas, a lot of south Louisiana, scaup, “dos gris” they call them, are a big deal. Now you’re getting down to that part of Deep South that they like scaup. I mean, that’s kind of one of their big deals. But Dr. Afton was doing a lot of bluebill research, wasn’t he? I mean doing a lot.
Eric Smith: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: What was the scope of his study with those bands?
Eric Smith: Well, just with the bands specifically- When I first met Al Afton, he was actually putting satellite transmitters in female scaup as well. So he was just kind of trying to map out the migration corridor of female scaup as they left Pool 19 and made their way towards the prairies, essentially at the time we were thinking breeding grounds, but turns out a lot of them go to the prairies of North Dakota and South Dakota. But ultimately, when you’re banding a lot of ducks, that’s used for harvest estimates, survival, and population estimates and all that kind of stuff.
Ramsey Russell: I remember one. I remember reading or becoming aware of some research that Dr. Afton was doing based on the means, I think some of those telemetries – it was surprising to know or find out that a lot of the “dos gris,” a lot of the scaup, or bluebills, were rafting and finding sanctuary way offshore during the day. Way offshore. I think I remember it shocked me. It’s like they were coming in and feeding at night, feeding early in the morning, maybe you’d catch them late in the evening. But man, they’re spending their daytime hours way offshore. So what were some of the other topics and some of his other areas of research regarding scaup?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I mean, he was kind of all over the place with scaup. He’s done a lot of stuff. I say one of the big ones is stuff that I’m more familiar with, because I ended up having one of Al’s former PhD students be my graduate co-advisor for my Masters. I guess to frame it in everything, there was a lot of research being headed to sort of try to understand the scaup population decline. I know we haven’t fully got into that yet, but the part that Al was really focusing on- He subsequently got Mike Anto, the guy I’m referring to, to head this up as his PhD work because they were looking a lot at the spring condition hypothesis. They were really looking at the condition of these female scaup as they migrate through, with the idea that maybe some of this habitat in these mid stop over sites and on the prairie changed enough that the food sources aren’t quite as good as they once were, and then that would subsequently affect scaup females, right? So I came on after that, after Mike was done and stuff, and I didn’t focus directly on that. But they certainly had some compelling research that they did together regarding this. And we sort of questioned-
Ramsey Russell: Go ahead, go ahead.
Eric Smith: It just brought up a lot of questions of like, “Okay, well are females in poorer body condition than they were historically?” They do have evidence to show that they were in some historic areas, showing lower lipids overall than they had in previous decades.
Ramsey Russell: Because as I understand it, North American waterfowl, they molt twice, feathers are a very demanding replace- They need a lot of nutrition to molt. But then the females also have to produce eggs, which is an enormous energy sink. So the higher their energy level, the higher their lipid levels, whatever you want to call it, the more eggs they’re going to produce, and the more successful and viable those eggs are going to be. Is that right?
Eric Smith: Yeah. Absolutely. The better fit individuals, they’re going to tend to have better success than others. That holds true for many duck species. But the question was about scaup, and they’re a difficult species to study just given their nesting ecology. Scaup are a remote nester, most commonly nesting in the boreal forests, in the western boreal forests in Canada. So they’re pretty remote. We do have some that nest here in North Dakota, particularly on the Missouri River Coteau. And then they nest in Prairie Canada and Prairie Parkland habitat as well. But the bulk of scaup are our boreal forest nesters.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy, isn’t it? What is their nesting habitat like then? I mean, what do the Missouri Coteau, and especially the boreal forest have in common? How is their nest area different than say a mallard or a pintail or a teal?
Eric Smith: Well, it depends on which teal you’re talking about. If you’re talking about blue-winged teal, it’s not really all that different. Scaup prefer to nest in grass cover. So they would be similar to the ducks you described before versus say, some of their relatives, the canvasback or the redhead, which are overwater nesters and ring-necked ducks. Ring-necked ducks primarily like to- I would call them an overwater nester. But it’s sort of bizarre because they like those sort of bob-type wetlands that have set floating sedge, like floating maps, and there will be sedge on top, and that’s where they typically like to breed. So they’re a different scaup in that respect too. So you’d think you would find some similarities between what they would like to nest in, and sure, the prairie’s got a lot of grass and if there’s good wetlands, that’s why we see them here. But there’s also those types of habitat in the boreal forests and subtaiga as well.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all very interesting. Let me ask you this, what happened to scaup between the time you were growing up, your dad was growing up, your granddad was growing up, Lee Kjos’s dad was out there coming in with lots of bluebills, to now? I mean, obviously as I understand it as a layman reading the popular literature, scaup population have declined, are practically endangered. I mean, when you got a limit of one, you got to be worried as a sportsman that there are no birds, and it’s been that way for a while. I do remember hearing years ago that cargo ships had brought in a zebra mussel, and it was noxious, and it was taken over the Great Lakes, and scaup were eating all these zebra mussels and toxins or something and dying. So scaup are in a bad way as I understand it, is that correct Eric? The scaup population is virtually nothing right now?
Eric Smith: That is not correct. So if you’re not really in tune with the science, or if you really follow the population surveys and things like that, if you just got to hear what duck hunters are saying, you might be led to believe that. No, scaup are certainly in no danger of going extinct. I don’t have the exact numbers for this year, and I don’t know if Covid complicated that enough, but in the last fifteen years or so, we’ve been seeing the scaup breeding population be somewhere in that neighborhood of- I’d say somewhere in the 3.8 to 4.5 million.
Ramsey Russell: Whoa. Really? So how would that compare just ballpark to 20-30 years ago? 3.5 to 5 million scaup is a lot of them.
Eric Smith: So that’s that 20-30 year scaup population decline that we’re talking about from what we see in our best population estimates from back in the day. We style sort of a peak in the late 1970s. With depending on the estimates you look at, the breeding scaup population estimates were somewhere between 6.5 to 7 million. So contrast that with a 3.8 to 4.5 or whatever it is today. It’s really hard to trust estimates of scaup. Well, really for any species, but particularly scaup if we’re talking about May Pond counts. Because their migration chronology, sort of depending on the years, scaup might not be well represented in those May Pond counts. So therefore, your scaup estimates would have a little bit more margin for error. We saw a big shift I would say, we would call it a long-term decline. It was twenty to thirty years before we really saw what appears to be somewhat of a stabilization right now. So that prompted a lot of the research that we were talking about, a lot of working groups, and a lot of really good duck scientists, really trying to come up with some reasons why. Do we know why? Definitively, no, we don’t.
Ramsey Russell: Well, my first question is, I understand margin for error doing pond counts. Is the pond count methodology or extensiveness of it, has it changed at all since the numbers declined in the last twenty years? Is the May Pond count survey methods consistent with then and now? Or has there been any change in that too?
Eric Smith: I wouldn’t be able to speak to that necessarily, Ramsey, of any sort of adjustments. I mean, there’s other folks that would be able to speak to that better than I could. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think so. Any major tweaks or anything like that. But certainly, if we think about a decline in scaup, it’s not to the point where- I don’t want anybody to get the idea that they’re endangered. We do have a lot of scaup out there.
Ramsey Russell: I was being facetious. I know the punch line of this thing. So I was being facetious. Because when a federal agency steps down to the States, has got the limit pegged at one-not six, not five, not four-one, you got to wonder, you have to wonder, “Well, something’s going on.” I’ve read in popular literature, not in scientific journals, I’ve read in popular literature that has led me to believe that scaup were an imperiled species in the waterfowl world. And then meeting with you, I just realized that that was not true. So I was being facetious saying endangered species.
Eric Smith: I got you. I’m following you.
Ramsey Russell: Look, I’ve been this year over to North Dakota, but also around Lake Erie. When you get off into scaup country, you see massive rafts of scaup. I mean, zillions of them, bazillions of them, gobs of them, everywhere. When you get off into scaup habitat these days, there’s a bunch of them.
Eric Smith: Yeah. I mean scaup are sort of a cryptic species for humans as a whole. Unless we’re scaup hunters or duck hunters, we’re not a lot of times going to where scaup are and would be ID’ing them. I mean, somebody lives in the city, a duck is a duck, right? For most of them, unless they’re like an avid birder or an avid hunter themselves. But again, they’re not necessarily a species that- I mean they’re not a mallard, scaup are not a habitat generalist, they don’t have the potential of nesting on your dock in Minnesota. It’s just not there. And scaup are a big water duck in general. So they’re using big bodies of water where they might be out there far enough that you just don’t see them.
Scaup Are Habitat Specialists
Ramsey Russell: What is scaup’s principal food source? I mean, scaup eat a lot of vegetation. I know they eat some invertebrates and protein too. But they’ve got a good diet, don’t they? They just like it in deeper water.
Eric Smith: They do. The research has shown that they’ll eat a lot of dang things. My opinion is that the scaup is a habitat specialist. Number one, they’re wetland obligate, they need wetlands. They’re not going to farmer Joe’s cornfield to get anything. But scaup are a specialist when it comes to feeding, like they’re really good at catching aquatic inverts and particularly amphipods. Some people call them freshwater shrimp or whatever. But yeah, they’re a shrimp-like creature, we’ll just say that much, but they’re called amphipods, and that’s what they’re really good at catching. And they really, really like to eat those. Now, if you look at diet studies of scaup, depending on where they’re at, boy, scaup will eat just about anywhere. Scaup will eat a lot of different things. You and I have talked about catfish ponds, and I’ve talked about that with other biologists from- Certainly guys from Mississippi State that were doing waterfowl stuff down there and hunters down there that are like, “Yeah, if you want to go shoot bluebills, go to a catfish pond.” They’re in there eating stuff. I can’t say exactly what they’re eating. I would suspect they might be eating some minnow species, but it just all depends on what’s there. When times get tough for any of us, we’re going to eat. I don’t like to eat at fast food restaurants, but if I’m out on the road, sometimes I have to.
Ramsey Russell: Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Eric Smith: Yeah. But I think in a perfect world, if scaup had these beautiful, pristine prairie wetlands that they had evolved with, they’d much rather do that, I would think if I was a scaup. But scaup got to eat, and they’re pretty good at finding food sources. They’re really social feeders and stuff like that, and they’re really cute. You find that out when you start observing them in large groups, when you’re trying to catch them, certainly.
Lesser Scaup versus Greater Scaup
Ramsey Russell: We talk scaup. There are Lesser Scaup versus Greater Scaup. I’m thinking lesser scaup because that’s what I’m most familiar with. That’s what I’ve seen the most, but you do have a greater scaup, slightly different. I know the first thing I noticed on the very few times that a dog brings in a greater scaup, I noticed that broad bill. I mean, his bill is different. Then I’ll always pull out the wing, and I see the white extending off into the primaries, but it’s a little bigger. But when we talk scaup in this conversation, are they all just kind of lumped together?
Eric Smith: They are managed as sort of a lump together because greater scaup and lesser scaup– Yes, they are different species genetically. You’ve described the key characteristics that we look for morphologically to tell them apart. They both use boreal habitat to nest. It really comes down to, the greater scaup seems to be more of a great lake, large lake coastal species where a lot of our lesser scaup use the interior of the United States to migrate through. From a migratory bird’s standpoint, they’re all managed together. But the bulk of the population is made up by lesser scaup. I haven’t looked at the estimates on greater scaup. I think the B-Pop estimate on greater scaup is somewhere around 600,000 if I remember correctly. Don’t quote me on that, but I think it’s somewhere in that ballpark. So quite a few more lesser scaup than there are greater.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, there are. I’ve seen the greater scaup out in San Francisco Bay. I’ve encountered them this year at Lake Erie. Also on the Eastern seaboard. I don’t know, I guess because I put my hands on so few of them, they’re kind of a prize. They’re a beautiful bird. They’re a notably heavier bird than a lesser scaup. And don’t get me wrong, I like lesser scaup too.
Why Is the Scaup Bag Limit Only 1?
Ramsey Russell: Let’s get down to the meat of the question: why is the scaup limit only one? What might the limit be in a perfect world or something, and why?
Eric Smith: Oh sure. Man, if I could answer that, I would have a really high paying job with the federal government. You know Ramsey, it’s not an easy question, and it’s complicated. To be fairer to like, Joe Duck Hunter who’s like, “Man, why is it one scaup? That’s just ridiculous.” And they don’t know anything about the science. They’re just saying, “Man, this sucks.” And then you contrast that with the other side of the story, the Fish and Wildlife Service manages migratory birds. If you really think about it, they’re trying to please the hunters as much as they can while responding to changes in populations or habitat or anything like that. So, they’ve got a tough task because they’re asked to do that, they’re asked to make people happy and give us a lot of ducks. But you’ve got limited information. Like you get harvest information and you want to manage all that. So it’s tough from their perspective, and it’s tough from a duck hunter’s perspective. Because they’re just sitting there going, “Why?” And the scientist might be saying, “Hey man, we’ve been looking at this stuff, why isn’t anyone acting on this?” So it’s not easy, and I wouldn’t say I point blame at anyone or anything like that.
But in my experience, coming from the scientific perspective, I studied scaup, and I know a lot of the scaup literature that’s out there. I know a lot of what’s been examined, especially during this scaup population decline. In my experience, I’ve seen science out there that’s pretty compelling that says our hunter harvests, the birds that we shoot every year for scaup, doesn’t really add to the population mortality that’s out there, right? So I started thinking about this, and I’m thinking about what I’ve seen, right? And I’ve seen skewed sex ratios in my banding record the entire time. Now there’s a certain level of bias with mine, because I’m catching them at a certain site at a certain point of migration. I know for a fact that every year the scaup males are going to be heavy up front. Then the scaup females tend to lag behind a little. We start catching what gets closer to a 1:1 sex ratio, and I don’t think it has ever quite gotten there. Later in the season, we see that and then that changes. But what we have for harvest information is looking at a sex ratio, certainly, and that’s got some bias to it. What I have has a little bit of bias to it, but I would say that it’s definitely skewed, and it’s more than the harvest data. But we don’t know exactly.
So you and I have talked about the pintail problem before, and I think you talked about the pintail problem a little bit on some of your previous podcasts. Some of that stuff that you hear from some of the other duck biologists, the guys that really know what they’re talking about when it comes to some of these other species, there’s been talk about pintails having a skewed sex ratio and given their other characteristics, it doesn’t make sense to say, “Let’s shoot a few more drakes.” And not that we ever harvest enough. It might not make a difference, but it certainly provides hunter opportunity, right? The same thing goes with scaup. Can we shoot enough? Let’s say we said the same thing for scaup. We’re like, “Okay, let’s shoot more scaup. Let’s do males, let’s shoot scaup males.” Maybe you can only- to be safe on regulations and keep accidents from happening because some scaup hens are going to die in the mix, like when you’re shooting at bluebills sometimes, you’re going to miss IDs, and you’re going to have the bird in the background fall out type thing. If you did that, it’s providing opportunity for hunters. And you’re bringing down that sex ratio. Or I should say, in theory, you’re bringing down that sex ratio. Now, not to talk in circles, but, like I said, there’s compelling evidence that we don’t harvest enough ducks to impact their population, right? Enough scaup to impact their populations. So it doesn’t matter if we shoot a bunch. I bet we would never catch that number. We wouldn’t impact it. But it would provide more opportunity.
Scaup Bag Limits versus Canvasbacks and Redheads
A lot of waterfowl biologists get that question: “Hey, I thought there weren’t that many canvasbacks. Why can we shoot two of those and only one bluebill?” We’ve got smaller populations of those ducks, and lesser scaup are the most abundant diving duck in North America.
Ramsey Russell: Eric, here’s what I’m getting at. Here’s what is on my mind based on this conversation. I have a one scaup limit with about four million birds. How does that compare to two redheads and two canvasbacks? Why is it one scaup, two redheads, two canvasbacks? Are their populations equally as big?
Eric Smith: No, they’re not. And that’s actually a question I get a lot. I think a lot of waterfowl biologists get that question in general: “Hey, I thought there weren’t that many canvasbacks. Why can we shoot two of those and only one bluebill?”
Ramsey Russell: How many canvasbacks and redheads are there by comparison? Like we said, there’s somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million scaup. So what are we looking at by comparison for redheads and canvasbacks versus their limits?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I’d just ballpark some numbers because I don’t know which year I’d be quoting in the last couple of years of looking at it. But scaup, we’re looking at right around four million scaup. Canvasbacks, when I was banding them a lot, they were doing really well for their long term. I think there were around 750,000 canvasbacks back then.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, less than a million canvasbacks.
Eric Smith: Yeah. They’re somewhere slightly below that. They’ve been pretty stable over time for the most part, and then redheads, for the best numbers out there, if you’re talking about the stuff we get in the breeding survey, you’re talking maybe a million birds-ish. About 1.2 million redheads if I’m remembering right in recent numbers. I’ve had conversations with guys about redheads before, and I just don’t know, I’m not the person to talk to about redhead populations in particular. There’s other guys out there that are, and I don’t know if we have a great handle on redheads in general. So I don’t want to speak too much to redhead populations. But yeah, we’ve got smaller populations of those ducks, and lesser scaup are the most abundant diving duck in North America.
How Are Scaup Bag Limits Determined?
If I’ve got 700,000 M&M’s in a jar, and I decided everybody can have two of them. Everybody comes by that wants one, every day for sixty days, and they can have two of them. I don’t understand how I’ve got four times or five times that many in the jar, that you can only get one. I just, I can’t get my mind wrapped around that.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what I’m having trouble getting my mind wrapped around here, Eric, is the fact that the most abundant pochard, most abundant diver in North America, scaup, I’ve got a limit of one in most states. But now I’m looking at a bird like a redhead that is one-fourth the population of scaup, and the limit’s two. There may be some dispute, you’re saying, on what we really do know about that population. And now we go down to the absolute king daddy of them all, the canvasback, fewer than a million, and the limit’s still two, so as a layman, as a hunter, I don’t understand. Where are these numbers coming from? Do they got like a special diver model, and that’s supposed to make some kind of sense. Because it makes absolutely, positively no sense to me that I can only shoot one scaup out of four million birds, but I can shoot two a day with 750,000 canvasbacks sitting out there or two a day with a million? That makes absolutely no sense at all to me. So is there like a special diver model or something? How are these numbers coming up? What are the models? What is the science behind all this?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I mean, so it’s the same for all ducks, there’s modifications to that, but there’s not like a diver model. Like I mentioned to you before, I don’t know if we’ve mentioned it, I know I’ve talked to you about it a couple of times that scaup are poorly represented in May Pond counts on certain years. It’s misrepresented, I should say. Because it just depends on the migration chronology from year to year. Scaup are a late nester. So a lot of times in May, they’re not where the breeding survey is happening. A large portion of them aren’t. So scaup are just really underrepresented. So if you think about redheads and canvasbacks- Canvasbacks, some of them migrate earlier North to go nest than say, scaup will. So scaup may be better represented. So there may be more confidence in those estimates of the population, where the scaup one- I’m shooting from the hip here of why these things would come about when I get asked this question, but maybe theirs is a little more dynamic even though we think scaup populations have been relatively stable in recent years, in the last twelve to fourteen years, probably. Theirs may be a little more dynamic in the long term. So they incorporate that when they’re making those decisions. So it basically comes down to less confidence in the scaup estimates based on the things I’ve kind of brought up versus more confidence in some of the other population estimates because they think they’re getting better counts. Does that make sense?
Ramsey Russell: Kind of. I’m not happy with it. I still don’t understand if I’ve got 700,000 M&M’s in a jar, and I decided everybody can have two of them. Everybody comes by that wants one, every day for sixty days, and they can have two of them. I don’t understand how I’ve got four times or five times that many in the jar, and you can only get one. I just, I can’t get my mind- Talk to me about how all this stuff is modeled or managed. I mean, is there like a one duck fits all model that all this adaptive harvest management is going through, or because you said there wasn’t like a special diver model? It seems to me that divers are different than puddle ducks in terms of their life ecology and their management, their population dynamics. I mean how is everything being factored?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I mean if you had to guess what species it’s sort of modelled around, what would you guess as an educated man, as a smart duck hunter and biologist, and training that you have had in your life?
Ramsey Russell: I’d guess that it’d be the omnipotent mallard duck. Because that’s what’s driving the band studies, when we were out there in Canada years ago, banding mallards with the targets. That’s what I would guess. Mallards.
Eric Smith: Well, it sure as heck ain’t the northern shoveler, we’ll just say that much. So yeah, I’m not saying anything new to anybody in the world that works with waterfowl, and a lot of duck hunters that are educated, it’s like, that’s kind of the way it works. Is it a perfect system? It’s not, I mean especially if you’re sort of a diver snob like I am, where I really kind of get fixated on these wetland obligate species that have different lives than some of the puddle ducks. It’s problematic, and it’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. Just the hope is that we get more adaptive with it. I’ve always kind of brought up the question in conversation with people, other biologists and stuff: if we’re really concerned about scaup in their long-term trends, is it too hard to make sure that we’re counting them in a different way to maybe get better estimates? Is there something mathematically that some really good statistician can do other than what we’re doing now, to let us have more confidence in those estimates? But like I said, the good science out there that’s been done recently shows that it’s not hunters. And we talked about the skewed sex ratio before and scaup. There is opportunity for the discussion to be able to shoot more scaup.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, you got to do what you got to do with the budget you’re given. I get that. But it just seems like disingenuous science to model all waterfowl species, all duck species on a mallard, which can make a living anywhere from local parks to the plains of Saskatchewan, pothole flooded timber. He’s a habitat generalist. As you just described earlier, a scaup has a very specific nesting pattern, life pattern, production pattern and dietary habit. I don’t see how you can manage all things on one very general duck. I just feel like you might as well just guess. I mean, I’m not beating up on nobody that’s putting a lot of time and money into this. But I am, I’m like, wait a minute. This just sounds like a wild ass guess to me. You know way more about them than I do. And I’m just sitting here thinking, wait a minute, I’ve got 2 – 4 million scaup, and I can shoot one, and there are 700,000 to 750,000 canvasback, and I can shoot two. That doesn’t make sense to me. And now I find out that maybe all of these forecasting models are being predicated on a mallard which can live everywhere. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
Eric Smith: Yeah. I’ve had this conversation, I’ve been asked this a lot by people. I wish I had a great answer, but I kind of laid out the numbers there and what the population trends kind of look like. I still come back to that same question every time. Well, why can’t we be exploring the scaup limits a little more for hunter opportunity? Because we think that the good science out there shows that we probably got room to talk about that. And in my opinion, my personal opinion, it should not be one in North Dakota Central Flyway. It shouldn’t be one anywhere really. But not all Flyways are the same. They don’t get the same numbers of birds coming through them.
Ramsey Russell: Hunter harvest distributions, stuff like that. Yeah.
Eric Smith: I mean, a lot of scaup, they’re shot in the Mississippi Flyway. They make their way through the Central, but they’ll end up in the Gulf Coast. Number one state for band recoveries for me has always been Louisiana. I would think it’s the same for the other couple of guys that have been banding scaup over the last few decades. It always seems to be Louisiana and other states in the Mississippi Flyway. So, what I want to get at about all this is, you and I always have good discussions about this, and that’s good. I mean, that’s good for science to have these sort of discussions, right? It’s good for management and all those things. But the thing I’ve always brought up in talks with people is, I mentioned, why can’t we maybe count scaup a little bit different since we’re concerned? Realistically, I’ve thought about things where, why can’t we split groups of ducks, as far as management-wise goes, with their migration chronology? Because scaup aren’t the only late nesters. Why can’t we split them up versus like, some general characteristics about the species, like even go so far to say, like a wetland obligate species versus, I mean all ducks are wetland obligate, but is a mallard more dependent on high quality wetlands than a scaup or a canvasback? No. I mean, like we talked about dry field feeding before, it’s everything for them. So if we’re looking at the ecology of these species and how they migrate across the landscape and how they use habitat, can we break them up into different ways where we’re maybe managing them different as far as like hunter harvest and stuff like that, getting population estimates at a minimum, and that’s obviously where you get the harvest regulations. But I’ve always questioned that too.
Ramsey Russell: If we truly care about the conservation of the individual species, and obviously we do because we’ve been on restricted bag of scaup for a long time, and if we truly care about the future of ducks hunting, we do look at it harder, I think. And from this conversation, my head’s swimming, thinking, “What do we know about redheads? What do we know about canvasbacks?” I’ve always heard, I’ve talked to some other smart people like yourself that say, “Well, canvasbacks are different.” They’re like you talked about, they nest earlier, they’re more represented in the counts, and their population seems to be real stable with less variability in the estimates, I’m just taking away from this conversation. So, I don’t know. But what about redheads? What about how much scaup? What about some of these other species? I don’t know.
Eric Smith: I asked the question about American wigeon, and you can shoot six hen American wigeon if you want to. Do we really know that much about American wigeon? Yeah, they get counted. They probably get counted better than scaup do. That’s for sure because they do nest earlier, but they’re a parkland nester. But then ring-necked ducks I mean, Minnesota DNR had done a ton of work with ring-necked ducks in the past, and they did some really good work over there. But in general, what do we really know about ring-necked ducks? I know Delta is doing some work with ring-necked ducks with some transmitters and what not. But we don’t know a whole lot about ring-necked ducks. So you can go and shoot six hen ring-bills if you want to. I don’t know, do we trust those estimates? Those are smaller populations compared to scaup as well, like I mentioned. So yeah, I mean there’s a lot of questions. It’s not a perfect system Ramsey, and I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. But I am saying, “Hey, somebody a lot smarter than me, can we work together to figure scaup out? Can all of us kind of come up with something better or modify what we’re doing now to maybe answer some of these other questions where we’re uncertain?”
Ramsey Russell: Become truly adaptive.
Eric Smith: Truly adaptive harvest management, right? For sure. I mean, they’re not necessarily one in the same, harvest regulations versus population counts, but obviously they inform one another, right?
Ramsey Russell: Well Eric, when you talk to somebody like myself that hunted twenty some odd states this year, met with hundreds of hunters, shared a blind with hundreds of hunters, and it was a mediocre duck season continentally at best. Especially in the Deep South, it was downright horrible. I think that anybody listening that had a horrible duck season would agree and support the idea of putting more money at better science for all ducks species. Because mallards are a preeminent species duck, don’t get me wrong, they are THE duck. But they’re not the only duck. Of all the people listening, very few of us can relate to going out and shooting nothing but mallards. We shoot ducks respective to our habitat, respective to where we’re hunting. Divers, other puddle ducks, some mallards, some pintails, geese. I mean, all these ducks deserve attention and wow, that’s an eye-popping piece of information and thought-provoking subject matter that we just stepped into, and it’s the reason I wanted to have you on here to talk. We need good science.
Eric Smith: Yeah. That’s what good science is predicated on, is that we continually ask questions and sort of challenge the status quo, right? So if we have unanswered questions, and we’re not happy with what we’re seeing, we should be continually testing that, right? And that’s all I’m saying really. Speaking as a duck hunter, who doesn’t want to shoot more? Scaups are my favorite duck, one of my favorite ducks to hunt. Yeah, of course, I’d like to shoot more of them, so I understand what the duck hunter wants. But then I also understand the other side of it quite a bit. And it’s a complicated issue. But I say we sit down and talk about it because one scaup was pretty sad this year in North Dakota with how many scaup we have coming through here, free pass. It’s certainly limited opportunity for guys that are interested in going after scaup or just the general duck hunter, right? Like I’m just out on a marsh and maybe it’s somebody that came to North Dakota, which we have a lot of visiting hunters here. They just want to come shoot ducks in North Dakota. They’re set up on a beautiful wetland, and they’re going to shoot the ducks that come in, kind of like you and I do. We don’t pass on spoonies when they come through the divers’ spread. That limits the opportunity because you might be seeing a whole bunch of bluebills and not much else on certain days in certain wetlands, and sure, it’s a good show. Duck nerds like us can sit there and be happy about just that. But not everybody is. People measure by bag limit, unfortunately. For some people, that’s why they’re in the sport. For me, it’s not. But yeah, I want more opportunity for everyone. I want to kind of hang on to some of these traditions that bluebill are a big part of: layout boat hunting, decoy carving. All that kind of stuff. You name it. It’s kind of going by the wayside.
What Scaup Mean to Duck Hunting
Bluebills on the Great Lake regions in the upper Flyway is a very important species. Here’s an opportunity if the data supports it to increase hunter participation. Shooting one scaup just doesn’t quite give us the incentive to go out there.
Ramsey Russell: We always get wrapped around the axle, Eric. Every time you and I talk, we spin off, like we do in person talking. Boy, you’re right, what scaup represent nationally in certain areas of the United States is an important species. I mean, you go up there to Chesapeake Bay, you get around to the Great Lakes, and blackhead decoys predominate. I mean, that’s one of their bread-and-butter ducks. I just keep thinking of Havre de Grace, I’ve mentioned it before, but you get to Havre de Grace, black ducks, scups or “blackheads”, canvasbacks, those are the three big decoys up there. It’s a very important species. Well, that’s why it was important to me to have someone with an informed perspective like yourself come and discuss scaup. And to me, in the grand scheme of things, we are at a juncture in hunting. We all know Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, all of us recognize that there’s a decline in duck hunting, and we hunters, our monies, our licenses, our stuff are footing the bill for conservation, and here’s where I get with scaup hunting in particular. Here’s what I’m trying to articulate. I was up in Havre de Grace, Maryland, hunting and meeting with some folks. And there’s a lot of bluebills on Chesapeake Bay still, they call them blackheads. A lot of blackheads. It’s a foregone conclusion: go set up, go hunting right, you’ll shoot your limit, one on scaup. There’s tons more. As I got to meet with some of these old-timers, I was meeting with the Jobes brothers, for example. And they talked about growing up with their dad and their uncles and some of the old-timers way back when, body booting in Susquehanna flats, and the subject wasn’t so much about just bluebills, but duck hunting in general and that tradition and growing up. After the meeting we were looking at some stuff and talking, and I was meeting with Charles, Joe’s brother-in-law. We just got to talking, and he started talking about growing up and how when he was a young man, all the young guys went out with the old guys. The old guys were the leaders, and they’d bring along the young guys because body booting is an arduous hunting endeavor. And you needed young bodies to move all that weight, all those decoys, all them stick ups, all that good stuff. And he said, “Now, I’m the old guy, and there’s no young people behind us. So we’re having to do all the work.” And his point being, it’s kind of hard to motivate and get young people fired up to come duck hunting for one duck. One duck. We’re not just talking Middletown, Midwest USA. We’re talking about Havre de Grace, just right there in the cradle of market hunting, duck hunting, all that history, all that hunting tradition, and it’s absolutely just dying on the vine, hunting is, waterfowl hunting is. And so if the data supports the increased bag limit, seen from your conversations that it does, then it increases hunter participation at a time that we need an increase in hunter participation.
I know some of you guys listening, you’re shaking your head going, “Well, we don’t need any more where I hunt.” I get it, but overall, the economy and the sport needs fresh people coming in. We need more hunter participation, not less. That’s what concerns me is in the instance of pintail, go spend a week or two hunting in the rice fields of California and see those tens of thousands of pintail with six or seven drakes per hen, and you can shoot one. But there are people, there are private organizations that advocate the take of three pintail, not to exceed one hen. That it would be good for their conservation, and that would incentivize hunter participation. That’s why it was important for me to get someone like yourself on here to talk about scaup. It is a very important species to particularly upper Flyway hunters, to big water hunters. That’s a very important species, same as mallards and Stuttgart. Bluebills on the Great Lake regions in the upper Flyway is a very important species. Here’s an opportunity if the data supports it to increase hunter participation. So in your opinion, based on the data, based on their stable population, might we be able to shoot more scaup without harming the population?
Eric Smith: Yeah, I mean it’s certainly something that needs to be looked at and evaluated, right? Because there is good science out there that suggests that hunter harvest isn’t additive to the population mortality or the trends that we’ve seen. So it’s certainly something that should be talked about with the appropriate people. And for all you and I know, it already is. But yeah, that information is out there. As a hunting constituency, Ramsey, that’s all we really want. We want to make sure that the best science is going into how we’re managing our resources, right? That goes for anything. So there’s certainly room for discussion on that, no doubt. And a guy like me speaking as a hunter, not as a biologist, I’ve got a really nice layout boat that sat in the hog barn this year because I wasn’t going to go through all that work, and do my normal thing, and go to my great bluebill spots to shoot one bluebill and then just see a lot more bluebills come in. I love watching ducks. Don’t get me wrong. And so do you. We also like shooting them, right? And it would just be hard press for me to deal with. But that’s how my region is. I mean we have a lot of scaup that migrate through here. But yeah, I mean it’s certainly something that could be talked about.
Ramsey Russell: So, you’re saying, I mean for you to go to the effort of doing your layout boat hunting. I know from talking to you, you love to do that. One scaup and you’re done. But how many scaup might come in that place you hunt? Flocks of fifty, flocks of a hundred?
Eric Smith: All day, nonstop. Like as many scaup as you can count.
Ramsey Russell: And if you go shoot two or three scaup, you might be more inclined to get out and participate in that sport?
Eric Smith: Well, yes, that certainly increases the fun. I mean, you know how a layout crew operates, it’s multiple guys and you’re doing work and you’re taking your turn, so a lot of bird traffic is important. Just shooting one scaup just doesn’t quite give us the incentive to go out there. Obviously, there’s other species and stuff like that, but they don’t always necessarily jive with- When we get a lot of bluebills here, we get a lot of bluebills here. And you can sit in the layout boat in this particular area. Notice I don’t give things away, but this particular area, you’ll sit in the layout boat, it’ll just be nonstop bills for hours, and there’s no incentive for it really, and I get it.
Thoughts on Increasing Scaup Bag Limits
Ramsey Russell: Eric, you don’t work for US Fish and Wildlife. You don’t work with the state. Neither do I, we’re hunters talking about hunting opportunity. But you do have, because of your past career, your research, your science, your personal and professional commitment to this species, you know a lot more about scaup ecology, populations and stuff like that than most of us listening. I’m just asking a personal opinion of you: might the bag limit of scaup be two or four or six? What would you propose?
Eric Smith: What would I propose personally, based on what I know, if I was the one calling the shots? If any one person was really calling the shots, I would propose that we treat scaup similar to how we treat a mallard population right now. You’re legally penalized for going beyond whatever your set is for hens. It’s the only species with the sex restriction. My argument would be, what’s keeping us from doing that with pintail and scaup? You’re not going to get a big booboo. Maybe you can shoot two-hen scaup or one-hen scaup, like you can in some states for mallard. Well, all states for mallard is either two or one. But you let us shoot five drakes, why not? The opportunity is there. We know their sex ratio is skewed. We know that there’s strong evidence that says we’re not having the impact that we maybe thought we were with hunting them. So, like I said, we’d never get there because we don’t harvest enough ducks to impact them at the population level of bringing that sex ratio back, per say. I can’t say that definitively, but now the opportunity is there, right? So if we’re strictly talking about managing harvest and trying to satisfy hunters based on what’s out there, I would propose that we would have something similar to that type of management strategy with them. It seems in really stark contrast to what we’ve seen with scaup over the decline. It wasn’t just a quick decision by the agency that manages them. It was, “Holy cow, we got to do something,” and researchers were also saying, “Hey, yeah, we got to do something,” and that had to be evaluated, right? Is having these restricted bag limits on some of these species, in particular scaup, is that having the effect that we desire, that the populations will recover? Well, we’re long down that road, and we’ve got other science that says, “No, not really shooting them, per say.” So how long are we going to play the restrictive bag game? Where it’s super restrictive. And I get how we have a model right now, and if the b-pop hits a certain number, here’s what you get, states. And I’m totally fine with that. But let’s use some of the current information here to inform some of those decisions.
Ramsey Russell: Do you personally feel that more science is needed, or that under the current scaup bag limits, they are observing the best-known science? What are your personal thoughts on this?
Eric Smith: Yeah, my personal thought is more science is always needed. I mean, no scientist is out there making these definitive conclusions on anything, that’s not what we do, and that’s not science. So yes, more science is needed. The second part of your question is, do I think they’re using science enough? Boy, I’m a trained scientist. So I always say, no management agency is needed, and science is enough. But the reality is you got to come from their side of it too. They’re not driven by only science. That’s what they want to do. But anytime you throw people in the mix, and you’re trying to make people happy, that complicates things.
Ramsey Russell: And it gets political?
Eric Smith: It does get political. Getting political with science is something I just won’t do. I just consider the two to be separate. I do want good science to inform good management. And that’s what I think should be out there. So if we have new information, I hope that that’s what we’re acting on. At least having the debates about it because ultimately what I’m getting at here from my personal perspective, Ramsey, is the things you talked about: the guys doing all the work, and there’s no recruitment behind it. Well, if we’re losing duck hunters, which we know we are, and I think there’s a pretty big consensus from the human dimensions people through biologists to hunters. We know we’re losing hunters, and we’re losing duck hunters. If we’re losing them, we should be doing everything we can to promote and recruit new hunters, right? And science is one way we could do that. So yeah, ultimately, I grew up with a bluebill hunting dad, and my grandfather was the same way. I remember those days. And I’ve lived through the tough times with bluebills, and I’d hate to see all these traditions, whether it comes to layout hunting or longline hunting, certain traditional areas, the Great Lakes, there’s a lot of areas there that are really popular for hunting bluebills. It’s got a long tradition. I would hate to see that stuff go by the wayside because we don’t think we have enough bluebills.
Ramsey Russell: Yep, that’s my whole point. I just see an opportunity because we don’t know, and maybe we should know. I mean, I know a lot of individuals that work for federal government agencies that are really good people, good biologists, close friends, and I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for them. But when you start talking about government agencies, think of it as a government corporation. And agencies have corporate cultures. One person, one team. It’s just a little cog on a very big wheel. We all know that all government agencies turn slow, and the last thing I think that I want or that you want, or that anybody listening wants is to fly off and ignore facts and imperil any of our beloved waterfowl species. But at the same time, this is a very important time in history. We hunters, call it what you want, ain’t nobody out there hunting to live. It’s a recreational interest. It’s recreational, and it’s interest. And in the same way that I envision our recreational interest in football generates billions of dollars of economy around that recreational past time, so does duck hunting. And in duck hunting or in hunting in general, a lot of those recreational dollars, that economy, goes into conservation, especially at the state level, but also at the federal level. The last thing we want is for the public to lose interest in a species because if we’re not interested in it, it ceases to have value, it’s going to cease to exist. Other than just the encyclopedia level. So listening to the conversation that we could be hunting possibly six scaup, one hen. If it needs to be looked at, now is the time to look at it, not five years, not ten years, not twenty years, not a generation from now. Right freaking now is the time that we need to look at it. Wow, as I watch from afar the struggle to maintain duck hunting in Australia, it’s halfway across the world, but they are us. It’s just like America, except it’s Australia. I’m telling you, they’ve got a profound culture and everything else. But what’s happened is I predict that in ten years on the outside, maybe one year, maybe two, in ten years duck hunting in Australia will cease to exist. Period, end of discussion. It’s going to happen, not if, but when, and other countries are fighting this battle too, and I think that we Americans suffer from the delusion that it’ll never happen here. Oh, it can happen.
It’s either going to be enough scaup hunters for now, saying, “It ain’t working,” and they’re putting their boats up in the barns, and they’re collecting dust. I heard this year, on the fourth or fifth consecutive disappointing year, due to migration or whatever’s going on down in Louisiana, a lot of duck clubs are going up for sale, a lot of duck hunting land is going up for sale. When the duck hunters walk away from some of those marsh properties, they’re just going to revert to marginal habitat instead of good quality habitat for ducks. It’s a death by a thousand cuts. But we’ve got to hold the line. If a federal agency can look at something more rigorously, can create opportunities for hunter participation, I believe it’s incumbent on them to do so. That’s just my personal belief. I’m not arguing against science. I’m not arguing against the welfare of a species. But I’m saying, listening to you, you’re saying based on your extensive experience and understanding of the data, that hunter-related bag of scaup is not additive to their mortality. We’re just plucking some of that population that would die anyway, compensatory. Okay, the numbers, the skewed sex ratio, the overall numbers and the stability of that population, which is all biased from account. There’s margin of error in here. But I’m just saying, if the scaup limit could be more and would incentivize hunter participation in America today, we need it. We don’t need it tomorrow. We need it yesterday.
Eric Smith: No, I agree with you from that standpoint that anything we can do to retain and recruit new hunters is sort of the big challenge that we have. Because you and I both know, especially if we’re talking about a bluebill here, outside of the duck hunting world, there’s very few that would ever know or pay any attention to what goes on with them. It is the duck hunting public that knows these things and cares about these things and invests their time and money in these things. So, you and I talked about this, and now that I’m on a platform where you got some listeners there, if you’re a duck hunter out there, I don’t care if you like scaup or bluebills or not, you call them whatever you want, “shit ducks,” but we’re all duck hunters. We’re all in this together, and all ducks benefit from hunters’ support. So, if you’re out there, support your Ducks Unlimited, support your Delta Waterfowl, those organizations that are doing really good work, not only for hunters but for the ducks and habitat themselves. Buy another duck stamp. I mean, you spend a lot of money on other things that really are, sort of overpriced. Duck stamps are one thing that are not overpriced and should be, in my opinion, and I’d have no problem with it. But buy more than one duck stamp, buy multiple duck stamps because the efficiency of that money going straight to helping waterfowl habitat and managing waterfowl is like none other. I don’t remember the number, but it’s in the ninety-some cents on every dollar spent that goes directly towards conservation.
Ramsey Russell: The word you used, “efficient,” is probably the best descriptor of a federal duck stamp. Every penny that goes into a federal duck stamp is probably the most rigorously safeguarded, hyper-focused penny that goes into the entire federal government budget. And it goes towards what we want, which is more ducks, duck habitat, nesting habitat. Not heated corn ponds up North. I agree entirely. It’s a very important thing to do. I’m just going to give Sam Soholt’s “Stamp it Forward” a shout out because he is advocating buying multiple duck stamps to increase that budget. And he should be applauded. He has stimulated tens of thousands of more dollars going into that program, just encouraging people to buy more like you just did.
But Eric, I really appreciate you coming on. I want to wrap up this episode saying this: duck hunting is a participation sport. You may not be the camp cook, but you roll up your sleeves and clean dishes. We all throw out decoys, we all bring good food, good booze. We share stories in the blind. We all get waist-deep and put out the decoys, and we hunt. We pluck ducks, and we cook them. It’s just a participation sport. Duck hunting is a participation sport. But in light of this conversation, that throughout the United States, we’re looking at scaup, a species with a stable population that is thought to have compensatory hunting mortality, not additive; that we’re not hurting the population with hunting them; that’s got a skewed sex ratio; that the bag limit could possibly be considerably higher than it is, creating big opportunities for existing and new duck hunters; I would ask everybody listening- If one of you does it, it doesn’t matter. But listen to me guys, google your state congressman, call your congressman, just call him. You’re not going to talk to him, you’re going to talk to a college kid wearing a blue blazer. He’s going to say, “Hello, can I help you?” And he’s going to listen, he’s going to take notes. And if enough of us listening call our congressmen to say, “Hey, what’s going on with the bluebills? Why’s the scaup limit only one? Why is Fish and Wildlife Service not raising the scaup limit if it could be?” If enough of us call, if fifty or even a hundred of us call, let alone more of us, there will be an answer, and we could effectuate meaningful change in duck hunting. That’s how we, the duck hunters, the citizens of America, participate. We’re not government employees, we don’t call the shots, but we do have representatives in Congress, and they’re just a phone call away. So, I’m going to wrap up this episode asking everybody listening, whether you’re a scaup purist or not, you shoot these birds or not, pick up the phone and call. Just pick up the phone and ask your congressman: is US Fish and Wildlife Service looking at the scaup population and the scaup bag limit enough? Just ask them that question. Eric, wrapping it up, if anybody listening wants to get in touch with you- I love your Instagram handle by the way- how can they get in touch with you? Because you pronounce it right, I pronounce scaup with a W. But how can people get in touch with you if they want to get in touch with you after the show?
Eric Smith: That’s just your southern drawl. Yeah, I mean people can follow me on Instagram. It’s just me hunting with Ramsey and all my other buddies, a lot of pictures of decoys, birds and dogs, but it is “Scaup or my mom will shoot.”
Ramsey Russell: I love it, I love it. It’s very easy to remember.
Eric Smith: You either get it or you don’t. If you know Sylvester Stallone movies, you either get it or you don’t.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, very good. Thank you for enlightening all of us on scaup. Thank you very much for talking bluebills with me today. And do you own a snow shovel? I bet you do, don’t you?
Eric Smith: Do I own a snow shovel?
Ramsey Russell: A snow shovel.
Eric Smith: Yeah. Don’t say that word because we haven’t actually had a lot of snow up here right now, so I don’t want you to jinx us where I have to get out there and shovel or plow because it’s been pretty nice from that standpoint.
Ramsey Russell: I talked to my buddy Lee Kjos the other night, and he was huffing and puffing still shoveling snow. I said, “Look, I got one rule, one simple rule in life: if I need to own a snow shovel to live there, I’m out.” Born and raised here in the Deep South, we don’t have to fool with that. But y’all stay warm up there Eric and thank you very much for coming on today’s episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
Eric Smith: Yeah, thanks for having me, Ramsey. It was good to catch up with you again. Sure we’ll be shooting ducks again next fall when you roll back through.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, it’s going to happen. We’re going to meet at Jeff Pelayo’s, and I can’t wait. I had so much fun shooting divers with y’all. What was so crazy- I just got to say this- here we are, sitting on a blind, targeting divers, and across that lake to the East were about five thousand mallards feeding in the field, and we could have gone and shot a bunch of mallards, but instead we were out there shooting scaup, and it was a blast. It was fun. And it was pretty dang cold for that time of year, last time I saw you, it was cold for a Southern boy.
Eric Smith: It was cool for a Northern boy too. That was unexpected, and it was rough.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. But anyway, thank you all very much, folks. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. You’ve been listening to my buddy, Eric Smith. We’ve been talking scaup and hey, pick up the phone, call your congressman and just ask him: is US Fish and Wildlife Service looking at scaup bag limits as hard as they should be? Thank you all. See you next time.