The author dug into the data from 39 openers past to see how great days and stinkers both affected the rest of the season
Everyone hopes for a successful opening day, but they can’t all be great. Photo by Phil Kahnke
Waterfowlers make a big fuss about opening day. After all, it’s the first chance to hit the marsh or timber after a long off-season, and we’re anxious to see what the campaign has in store.
Yet we probably overreact about the results of most openers, slapping ourselves on the back and envisioning a great year after we do well, but almost ready to throw in the towel for the season if we fare poorly.
I thought about that while driving through pouring rain to this season’s Northern Zone opener in my home state of Wisconsin. I remembered some great days when ducks filled the sky and we’d found the X, far from the crowds. And I recalled some hideous stinkers, when weather, hunting pressure and laughably poor decisions ruled the day. It made me wonder how many good versus bad openers I’d experienced through the years and whether that success or lack thereof had carried through the entire season.
Peeling back through four decades of hunting journals, I examined the results of 39 opening days and gave each a rating: poor, when I’d only scored a handful of ducks; fair, when the group and I had done OK; and great, when I’d shot a limit or at least as many ducks as I cared to that day. I threw out three years when I didn’t hunt the opener: one because of college, another because of a health problem, and another because wicked thunderstorms were pounding the area I intended to hunt, and I actually thought better of it.
I also discounted five openers when I skipped Wisconsin in favor of North or South Dakota. As expected, those openers were great, but that’s not a true litmus test. So, I was left with 31 Wisconsin openers from 1986 through 2022. Then I rated the seasons after those openers, using the same three-grade scale. And the results surprised me.
Without digging too deep into the numbers, I’ve experienced almost a 50-50 ratio of substandard openers and fulfilling hunts. The substandard outings ranged from days when I only collected a handful of ducks when I expected to get a limit, to outright skunkings during which my dog probably wanted to walk home. Most of the good hunts involved full straps, but some were just days when I shot as many ducks as I wanted to, like taking three wood ducks during my new puppy’s first hunt.
The author’s retriever, Birdie, savors a good opener. Some years, however, she probably wanted to walk home. Photo by Brian Lovett
How did those openers set the tone for the season that followed? Seven of the seasons after lousy openers received a poor rating. Three were great, and six were good. Seasons after the fair to excellent openers came out like this: nine were excellent, five were fair, and one was poor.
What does all this mean? Two logical conclusions shine through: A) Lovett is old as dirt, and B) he still has far too much time on his hands. (Seriously, who keeps track of garbage like this?) But did success or failure during the opener consistently carry through for an entire season? It might seem so, as 44% of the seasons after poor openers were bad, but only one in 15 seasons after fair to good openers turned out lousy. But those numbers require some context.
Where I live, the northern portion of the Mississippi Flyway, the season consists of several distinct phases. That usually means local ducks (teal, woodies and mallards) early; the heart of the migration, from mid-October through about mid-November, depending on conditions; and then the cold, bitter end (mallards, goldeneyes and black ducks). Further, I’ve hunted the Dakotas and/or Canada for 25 consecutive years, which is like going to fantasy camp compared to much of my local hunting. So basically, success or failure through an entire season rests on several phases, not just the early local ducks common during most openers. Experiencing good success during one or two phases can quickly make up for poor hunting earlier, just as clunky subsequent periods can tarnish the shine of a good opener. I’m sure that’s similar to where you hunt.
With that in mind, here’s my very unscientific conclusion about opening day: Sometimes it’s good. Some years, it’s below expectations. Your first hunt of the year might set the tone for a while, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. The relative success of an entire season rests on many hours and days afield, not just the initial foray.
Ultimately, opening day just represents a chance to start; one more day in the marsh or timber with dogs and friends, doing what you enjoy. Do your best, have fun, and shoot a bunch of ducks when you can. Just don’t make too much of it.
Watch all the latest video episodes