The eight-day 2013 Skagit brant hunt will start Saturday, Jan. 12.
State biologists who took an aerial look-see Wednesday, Jan. 2, on Samish and Padilla bays in Skagit County counted 8,960 brant, far more than the 6,000 required for the hunt to take place.
Opening day will be followed by hunt days on Jan. 13, 16, 19, 20, 23, 26 and 27.
While the airborne count focuses on Pacific black and Western High Arctic or gray-belly brant in the two Skagit estuaries, it extends north to near-shore marine waters off Whatcom County.
By now, most overwintering birds should be settled in the two Skagit inlets. But Wednesday's survey also found 2,000 brant in several Whatcom County harbors including Birch Bay.
Duck and goose hunters generally have much latitude in terms of hunting locale; for brant, the rules are much more restrictive.
Brant in Whatcom County waters are off-limits. Among Puget Sound goose hunting haunts, only blacks and gray-bellies within Skagit County are fair game.
The only other place to hunt brandt in-state is at Willapa Bay. Pacific County's 10-day opportunity began Saturday, Jan. 5, with more openings coming on Jan. 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19 and 20.
Brant hunters must have a Washington hunting license, state migratory bird validation (now in lieu of a stamp) and federal migratory bird stamp, plus a $13.20 written authorization issued by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
This document, obtainable online to qualified applicants, doubles as a permission to hunt brant and as a harvest record, on which each day's take of these marine geese must be made.
To fulfill the end-of-season reporting requirement, brant hunters can either mail their reports or make a digital accounting at the department's website, fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov/wa/migratorybird.
Hunters who hold these special written authorizations must report annually to be eligible to receive the documents in the coming year.
In addition to ones for brant, separate written authorizations are issued for band-tailed pigeons, snow geese in Goose Management Area One and sea ducks (harlequins, scoters and long-tailed) throughout Western Washington. For brant and other waterfowl, the reporting deadline is Tuesday, Feb. 15.
Brant hunting is tightly controlled. Seasons are limited to a few days, daily bag limits are restricted to two brant a day, the numbers of hunters and birds killed are tracked, and critical habitat has been protected.
The Samish-Padilla wintering brant population contains the only known Western High Arctic or gray-belly stock on the entire West Coast of North America.
As a group, black brant wintering on Washington's northern inland waters nest apart from the rest of the Pacific Flyway's large black brant population.
The sprawling Yukon-Kuskowim and MacKenzie river deltas are key breeding grounds for most Pacific (black) brant. But until tagging studies in the mid-1990s, the exact whereabouts of the Samish-Padilla group's nesting areas to the east in the central Canadian Arctic were unknown.
With the use of neck collars, leg bands and miniature radio transmitters, these birds were traced to tundra nesting areas centering on Melville Island off Canada's mid-Arctic Coast.
Another facet of brant behavior that satellite radio tracking helped demonstrate is their preference for migrating along continental shorelines rather than flying long distances over land. With few exceptions, brant do not venture very far from saltwater environs, especially from the bays and inlets along their migration routes where eelgrasses, the mainstay of their diet, grow.
Brant keep to the same fairly strict diet on their wintering grounds, flocking to shallow bays - so-called stranded estuaries - that do not have major influxes of fresh water. These bays typically have greater salinity than marine waters receiving rivers, and that favors eelgrass growth.
Another unusual behavior of brant is that outside of the nesting season they seldom come ashore.
These birds approach gravel beaches and spits to pick up a daily ration of small gravel only for brief periods on winter days during low tides here. In their crops, this grit helps grind up the tough, stringy marine vegetation before it's digested. Several of these gravel sites in Skagit County are now reserves where hunting is not allowed.
Otherwise, the birds spend most of the day and night rafted up and idling in open water areas feeding on floating wrack lines of eelgrass and a small selection of other intertidal and sub-tidal saltwater plants.
Hunters do get a bit of a nod in that the limited hunt days here and at Willapa Bay are selected for the occurrence of daytime low tides that prompt brant movements to and from gravelling sites.
As always, weather will play a key role in hunter turnout and success, making this one of the more challenging waterfowl hunts in the Northwest. There are no make-up days.
THE LATE HUNT FOR BIRDS
In Western Washington, waterfowling is now the only bird-hunting option in January, although opportunities stretch from the Canadian border to the Columbia River as long as the moderate weather holds.
East of the Cascades, cold weather has locked up a lot of northern water, so the best duck and goose opportunities are likely to be in the far south end of Central Washington's Columbia Basin.
In addition, eastside upland bird gunners may pursue pheasants until dark on Sunday, Jan. 13, and partridge (Hungarians and chukars) together with quail are fair game through sunset Monday, Jan. 21.
Eastside pheasant options have been enhanced in a number of locales with regular releases of ring-necks. There are designated release sites in almost all Eastern Washington counties and hunters can find them in the department's pamphlet at http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01420/wdfw01420.pdf.
Besides these hotspots, hunters can expect to find fair to good numbers of naturally produced birds near irrigated farm lands, especially around Moses Lake and Othello as well as in the lower Yakima River valley, outside the Yakama Nation boundaries.
To eliminate the need to contact landowners directly for permission to access, look for and hunt posted parcels and lands on which entry has been been secured through WDFW's Private Lands Access Program.
Hungarian or gray partridge are most often associated with dryland crops such as wheat. Chukar dwell only on steep rocky terrain such as the rim country of the Ellensburg Canyon. Quail, especially northern bobwhites, are found in large coveys hugging brushy thickets along almost every stream.
Goose hunters now will want to head for areas at and south of Potholes Reservoir including the Royal Slope and Scootney Reservoir before a hard freeze.
If ice has set up in the Drumheller Channels and Central Basin waters, head south to the Tri Cities and try the lower Hanford Reach and McNary Pool on the Columbia River as well as dry fields in adjacent uplands.
West of the Cascades, goose hunters can find overwintering snow geese, a plentiful and challenging quarry, this month in Skagit and northwest Snohomish counties. Look for pre-arranged access onto private farm fields organized under the department's quality hunt program on Fir Island, south of Mount Vernon, and Florence Island, south of Stanwood.
Duck and goose hunts close statewide Sunday, Jan. 27.
WINTER-RUN HATCHERY WATCH
With restrictions prohibiting inter-basin transfers of hatchery winter-run steelhead eggs to make up deficits if a hatchery does not get its needed spawners, it is more important than ever for enough adult fish to reach their artificial spawning destinations.
Under the state's steelhead management plan and individual hatchery genetics management plans, facilities are directed to spawn the earliest returning adipose fin-clipped adults they get back.
For more details in individual hatchery programs for winter-run steelhead, visit http://wdfw.wa.gov/hatcheries/hgmp/2002-2005_archive.html#pugetsound and http://wdfw.wa.gov/hatcheries/esa.html.
As of Thursday, Jan. 3, these are the numbers, reported by installation, of adult hatchery winter-run steelhead trapped as well as eggs already taken and other details:
Maritime Heritage Center Hatchery (Whatcom Creek): one adult reported, no eggs taken
Kendall Creek Hatchery (North Fork Nooksack River): 37 adults, 36,000 eggs taken (target 165,000 egg take)
Marblemount Hatchery (Cascade River - Skagit): 35 adults, 23,000 eggs taken (target 275,000 egg take)
Whitehorse Hatchery (North Fork Stillaguamish River): 43 adults, 56,386 eggs taken
Tokul Creek Hatchery (Snoqualmie River - Snohomish): 328 adults, 701,102 eggs taken
Soos Creek Hatchery (Green River): 57 adults, 28,000 eggs taken
Dungeness Hatchery (Dungeness River): 23 adults, 16,000 eggs taken
Bogachiel Hatchery (Bogachiel River - Quillayute): 880 adults, 306,000 eggs taken
Humptulips Hatchery (Humptulips River): 510 adults, 187,250 eggs taken
Forks Creek Hatchery (Willapa River): 371 adults, 200,000 eggs taken
Cowlitz Hatchery (Cowlitz River): 764 adults, no eggs taken
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http://pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.