The eight-day 2014 Skagit County brant hunt will start as scheduled Saturday, Jan. 11.
District wildlife biologist Chris Danilson reported that an aerial census conducted last week on Samish and Padilla bays in Skagit County found 6,486 brant present.
That exceeds the 6,000-bird minimum threshold number called for in Washington's brant management plan that must be present to allow this particular annual hunt to take place.
This year's Northwest Washington weekend brant opener will be followed by hunt days on Jan. 12, 15, 18-19, 22, and 25-26. The daily bag limit remains two brant, but the possession limit is now six.
While the main focus of the pre-season airborne count is on the numbers of Pacific Black and Western High Arctic (graybelly) brant in the two Skagit estuaries, the flight also extends north to the near shore marine waters off Whatcom County.
By now, ordinarily, the bulk of the birds that stay here over winter have settled in the two shallow inlets of Samish and Padilla bays. But last Monday's survey found an additional 3,956 brant still ensconced on the waters of several Whatcom County harbors including Lummi Bay, Danilson reported.
While general waterfowl regulations allow duck and goose hunters a great deal of latitude in where they may shoot many of their webbed-footed quarry, for this unique group of waterfowl the rules are much more restrictive.
Brant in Whatcom County waters are off limits to non-treaty hunting. Among Puget Sound goose hunting haunts, just the blacks and graybellys found inside Skagit County's lines are fair game.
The only other Washington venue where brant are for a short period legal quarry is on Washington's southwest coast at Willapa Bay. Pacific County's 2014 ten-day brant opportunity began Saturday, Jan. 4 with more openings coming on January 5, 7, 9, 11-12, 14, 16, and 18-19.
Brant hunters, besides having the basic suite of credentials including a basic Washington hunting license, the state migratory bird validation (now in lieu of a stamp) and the federal migratory bird stamp, must have a special written migratory bird authorization also issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
This $13.20 document, obtainable only through WDFW license dealers to qualified applicants, doubles as official permission to hunt brant.
Hunters who have never had a Washington special migratory bird hunting authorization for brant may apply for their first online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/permits/migratory/.
To fulfill the end-of-season reporting requirement, brant - and other special migratory bird species - hunters can either mail in their reports or log onto the department's Web portal, fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov/wa/migratorybird and make a digital accounting.
Reporting is annual obligation that hunters who hold any of these special written authorizations must do to maintain eligibility to receive the documents in the coming year.
In addition to ones for brant, separate written authorizations are issued to hunt band-tailed pigeons (statewide), snow geese in Goose Management Area One and sea ducks (harlequins, scoters and long-tailed) throughout Western Washington. For brant and other waterfowl, the report deadline is Tuesday, Feb. 15.
A THOUGHTFULLY PLANNED HUNT
Hunting of this population of unusual marine-oriented geese is now tightly controlled because of the unique circumstances of their existence.
While general water hunts last several months, the brant hunt season is limited to just a short string of days with highly restricted daily-bag limits. The numbers of human participants are carefully tracked as are the numbers of brant they kill, while critical habitat, such as grit (small rocks) scavenging areas, has been protected and remains undisturbed.
The Samish/Padilla wintering brant population contains the only known occurrence of the Western High Arctic or graybelly stock of brant on the entire West Coast of North America.
Washington's northern inland waters brant colony also, as a group, nests in the Canadian Arctic apart from the rest of the Pacific Flyway's black brant. The sprawling Yukon-Kuskowim and MacKenzie river deltas are key breeding grounds for most Pacific (black) brant on the North American continent, but until the mid-1990s the exact whereabouts of the Samish/Padilla group's nesting had not been pinpointed.
With the use of neck collars, color-coded leg bands and miniature radio transmitters, these birds were eventually traced to tundra nesting areas centering on Melville Island off Canada's mid-Arctic Coast.
This relative isolation from the greater Pacific Coast wintering population makes this group of birds vulnerable to over harvest, hence the tighter regulations.
Another facet of brant behavior that satellite radio tracking helped demonstrate is their preference toward migrating along continental shorelines rather than flying long distances over land. With a few exceptions, brant as a species do not venture very far from saltwater environments, especially the bays and inlets along their migration routes where eelgrasses, which are 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 here - that do not have major influxes of fresh water. These bays have a typically stronger salinity that favors growth of eelgrasses.
Another unusual behavior of brant is that outside of the nesting season they seldom come ashore. It is only for brief periods on winter days here during low tides that the land-shy birds approach gravel beaches and spits to pick up a daily ration of small gravel, which, in their crops, helps grind up the tough, stringy marine vegetation.
Several of these gravel sites in Skagit County have been declared reserves where hunting, which was customary, is no longer allowed.
But hunters do get a bit of a break in that the limited array of hunt days here and at Willapa Bay are selected for the occurrence of daytime-low tides that prompt brant movements to and from these gravelling sites.
Otherwise, the birds spend most of the days and nights 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.
Weather plays a key role in both hunter turnout and success, making this one of the more challenging waterfowl hunts in the Northwest.
Now that most of the beach side gritting areas are off limits to hunting, virtually all of the gunning for these geese takes place on or over the water on days when there's a good daylight side low tide that prompts the birds to move.
Many hunters take to small, low-profile boats taking with them strings of brant-like silhouette or full-body blocks they float as confidence decoys around their crafts often downwind to pull the echelons of low flying birds in close.
One Skagit County-based business pulls a large float out that serves as a base platform for brant gunning and some persons who have tidal ownership rights may hunt from fixed piling-mounted blinds.
Boat-borne brant hunters launch from several public ramps around Padilla Bay, including the Twin Bridges ramp under the State Route 20's crossing of northern Swinomish Channel. The other shallower, publiclly-accessible launch points are on the northeast side of March Point and at the town of Bayview. A fourth ramp, which is more difficult to use on low tide days, is located at Wildcat Cove in Larrabee State Park which requires possession of a Discover Pass and payment of a launch fee.
As of Thursday, Jan. 2 Western Washington state and cooperative hatcheries have reported the following hatchery winter steelhead returns and egg-takes. There are comparisons to last year at this time for reference.
Maritime Heritage Center Hatchery (Whatcom Creek) - 13 adults as of Wednesday, Dec. 18. Same time in 2012: one adult.
Kendall Creek Hatchery (North Fork Nooksack River) - 63 adults with 24,000 eggs taken, goal is 165,000 eggs. Same time in 2012: 31 adults, 28,000 eggs taken.
Marblemount Hatchery (Cascade River (Skagit)) - 40 adults with 68,500 eggs taken, goal is 275,000 eggs. Same time in 2012: 35 adults, 23,000 eggs taken.
Whitehorse Hatchery (North Fork Stillagaumish River) - nine adults , no eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 43 adults, 56,386 eggs taken.
Tokul Creek Hatchery (Snoqualmie River (Snohomish)) - 236 adults with 105,000 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 328 adults, 701,102 eggs taken.
Soos Creek Hatchery (Green River) - 48 total adults with 24,000 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 61 adults: 28,000 eggs taken.
Dungeness Hatchery (Dungeness River) - Two adults as of Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Same time in 2012, 23 adults: 16,000 eggs taken.
Bogachiel Hatchery (Bogachiel River (Quillayute)) - 241 adults with 316,400 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 880 adults, 306,000 eggs taken (target 155,000 egg take goal).
Humptulips Hatchery (Humptulips River) - 210 adults with 95,920 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 510 adults, 187,250 eggs taken.
Forks Creek Hatchery (Willapa River) - 103 adults with 120,000 eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 371 adults, 200,000 eggs taken
Cowlitz Hatchery (Cowlitz River) - 464 adults with no eggs taken. Same time in 2012: 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 outdoors blogs and contact him at http://bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.