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Harsens Island at St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area

Harsens Island at St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area
Phone:
810-748-9504

dnr-wildlife@michigan.gov

Hours of Operation

Open at no charge to the public.

This hunting location conducts daily drawings for free hunting zone permits throughout the open waterfowl season.

Description of the area

A short car ferry ride is required to reach Saint Clair Flats State Wildlife Area's Harsens Island, located on the historic waterfowling shores of the St. Clair Flats. This 3,355 acres of strictly managed waterfowl habitat is part of the largest freshwater delta in the United States. Mallards are the most prevalent species harvested on the managed area, but black ducks, pintail, wood ducks and Canada geese are several other species that are taken each year. It offers many different hunting opportunities for the waterfowl hunter; flooded agriculture, marsh areas, and open water to name a few. Along with the waterfowling opportunities, Harsens Island has scenic views along with many recreational activities that make it a unique area to visit.

PDF map of area

Hunting Information

  • Morning hunts: Daily 5:30 a.m. (Reserved hunt first and second weekend of duck season)
  • Afternoon hunts: Daily 11:00 a.m. (Reserved hunt first and second weekend of duck season)

Activities

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Birding
  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Nature trail hiking
  • Canoeing and kayaking
Coming soon.

Weekly waterfowl count dashboards

Weekly waterfowl counts are conducted annually, September through January. Use these interactive dashboards to view waterfowl counts across the Wetland Wonders for current and previous years. When the dashboard loads, you will have a total count of the Michigan DNR's Managed Waterfowl Hunt Areas (MWHA) for which counts are provided. The pie charts will show distribution across the areas during the currently selected week (week ending date can be changed using the date selector). Select a specific managed area at the top by clicking/tapping on it to see the numbers for that area. Use the navigation at the bottom of the dashboard to view further breakdowns of area waterfowl numbers.

2022 waterfowl counts

2021 waterfowl counts

2020 waterfowl counts

2019 waterfowl counts

2018 waterfowl counts

2017 waterfowl counts

2016 waterfowl counts

Table of contents

2021 annual report

General introduction

The St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area (SCFWA) is located at the southern tip of St. Clair County. The SCFWA contains the Harsens Island unit (including bottomlands and marshes associated with this island complex), the St. Johns Marsh Unit, and Dickinson Island.

The marshlands and islands within SCFWA are a river delta formation resulting from St. Clair River flow into Lake St. Clair. Located between the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers, Lake St. Clair has a total area of 430 mi2 and is a significant portion of the connecting waters between Lakes Huron and Erie. Approximately two-thirds of Lake St. Clair lies within Canadian boundaries. Waters of the Lake St. Clair / St. Clair River system are an annual ancestral migration route for thousands of ducks, geese, swans and various shore and wading birds.

SCFWA lands adjoining this river delta system provide habitat for numerous other terrestrial and aquatic species of wildlife. White-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, raptors, coyotes, red foxes, squirrels, rabbits, muskrats, various amphibians and reptiles, and neo-tropical migrant songbirds are some of the other wildlife species found within the SCFWA. The diverse habitat of this wetland delta system allows for suitable habitat for many different species. While SCFWA is widely known for its outstanding waterfowl hunting opportunities, other recreational opportunities exist such as upland hunting, trapping, boating, canoeing, kayaking, and wildlife viewing. SCFWA provides critical habitat for many rare, threatened, and unique species including sandhill cranes, black terns, osprey, bald eagles, king rails, eastern fox snakes, common loon, short-eared owl, snowy owl, yellow spotted turtle, and eastern bluebird. SCFWA provides an incredible amount of habitat value and recreational opportunities outside of its well-known waterfowl benefits.

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Area goals and management emphasis

Management goals and directions of the St. Clair Flats are guided by several commitments and documents. These range from the statewide level down to our local master plan. These are:

  • Department of Natural Resources (DNR) mission statement and goals
  • Wildlife Division mission statement
  • Wildlife Division Guiding Principles and Strategies (GPS) including ‘Commitments to Change’
  • Southeast Region Operational Plan
  • St. Clair Flats Wildlife Area Master Plan

Our local master plan details the direction of these documents as they relate to us and details what tasks and goals we will achieve to meet these directives. Additionally, it spells out the sections of the GPS that focus on our managed wetland areas.

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Wildlife production and use estimates

Warm, dry conditions during May likely helped wildlife production on the area, especially for waterfowl. There were far more juvenile wood ducks observed around the wildlife area than in 2020 and late summer mallard numbers were far higher than recent years. Mallard numbers at inland banding sites rebounded from their dip in 2020 as well, with normal numbers of birds hitting bait sites at multiple locations. Goose production on Harsens was down significantly, a welcome relief for our effort to grow corn in some zones. This is possibly due to a large increase in late season goose hunting success during January and February 2021; many geese banded on Harsens Island were harvested here during the late hunt, possibly reducing the number of local breeding pairs for spring. Sandhill crane production was about normal compared to recent years with several successful pairs around the area. Pheasant numbers continue to dwindle, though one young brood was seen this year.

There was no aerial deer count conducted on the island in spring 2021 due to Covid-19 related work restrictions. Observations during the summer mirrored 2020, with fewer fawns seen than expected. Again this year, large numbers of does were seen during the fall with no fawns. Deer harvest was extremely low, and no fawns were confirmed to be harvested.

  1. Number of breeding ducks = approximately 250
    1. Number of young produced = approximately 700
  2. Number of breeding geese = approximately 120
    1. Number of young produced = approximately 450
  3. Size of September 1st deer herd, whole island = approximately 300
  4. Size of pheasant flock on September 1st = approximately 12
  5. Other game = Coyote numbers are stable. Number of red foxes on the island is increasing. Squirrel numbers in uplands increased.

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Significant habitat management

Upland habitat

Relatively high-water levels still prevented our normal spring food plots in our upland areas. However, by late summer several fields had dried enough to allow us to mow the cattails and other weeds that had filled the openings and disk a couple of fields to start preparing for spring 2022. One upland turnip mix was planted but was mostly flooded out by early fall rain events.

Marsh units

Both units were left open to fluctuate with lake level, same as in 2020. With the dropping lake levels, a lot of stress from water pressure was removed from the dikes. We had no dike failures this year (compared to two in 2020) and never had water overtop the dikes. We were able to conduct our normal muskrat hole repairs during the summer on each unit. Each unit started the season approximately 5” shallower than on opening day of waterfowl season 2020. There was noticeably less wild rice production in both marshes than in 2019 and 2020, but overall production was still good, especially in the east marsh. The declining water levels began to limit access into zone 95; by the late split, there was little surface water outside of the Krispin drain itself.

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Land acquisition

No lands were acquired or divested on the St. Clair Flats Wildlife Area this year.

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Area maintenance

All of our normal area maintenance goals including signage, dike maintenance, and water control structure maintenance were met this year. We had one issue with pump 4 that required contractor assistance to pull the pump and repair it early in waterfowl season. Several failing culverts around the area were replaced. No water control gates or valves were replaced this year.

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Equipment

No equipment purchases noted for 2021.

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Special projects

No special projects noted for 2021.

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Recreational and educational activities

  • Waterfowl hunting
    • 7,437 user trips
  • Deer hunting
    • 336 user trips
  • Small game hunting
    • 0 user trips
  • Trapping
    • 8 permits
  • Educational tours
    • 110

Field trips and spring open houses were still cancelled this year. We were able to host a partner tour in August and our preseason open house in October entirely outside. Summer recreational use was down from the high of 2020, though still higher than in previous years. Large numbers of shore fishermen are always present around the perimeter of the area, but dog walkers, hikers, and kayakers continued to use the area regularly. As water levels have dropped, the boat launches at Snooks Highway and Decker’s Landing were reopened, reducing the amount of use our launches received during the summer.

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Trapping

Eight trapping permits were issued in 2021.

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Waterfowl banding and surveys

With our offices able to hire seasonal employees again this summer, goose and duck banding effort were expanded again. We were able to band geese at Harsens Island and a couple of mainland locations using local staff with support from Waterloo, Holly, and Point Mouillee. Additionally, our staff assisted with goose banding efforts at Point Mouillee. The total number of geese was down on Harsens Island this year. What geese were here were in some challenging spots to access, leading to lower numbers banded than we wanted to target.

Duck banding was successful, especially for mallards. Over 100 mallards were banded on Harsens Island for the first time in decades. We had many adult mallards using the area for most of August and were able to target them effectively. Mallard banding continues to be effective at our mainland sites as well. Wood duck banding was down, likely due to warm August temperatures and few migrating wood ducks before we had to pull traps. Years with cooler Augusts have more wood ducks here sooner, especially adult drakes and this year we did not get those temperatures until after we had to start pulling traps due to baiting conflicts with the early goose season. Ducks were banded with air cannons, floating traps, dry confusion traps, and swim in traps this year.

Harsens Island waterfowl banding totals
Year Mallards Wood Ducks Others Total Ducks Geese Total Birds
2017 342 310 1 BLxML 653 265 918
2018 309 226 N/A 535 293 828
2019 247 34 1 Black, 1 Hyb 283 361 644
2020 276 283 1 Pin, 1 Wig 561 0 561
2021 395 115 2 Black 512 269 781

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Hunting season report

Introduction

As usual, hunting pressure at St. John’s Marsh started heavy and tapered off as the season wore on. With the low duck numbers, especially low wood duck numbers, hunting success was lower than usual. The refuge units were opened December 5th this year. Language has been submitted to the Natural Resources Commission to change the refuge opening date to December 1st each year to reduce confusion and uncertainty year to year.

St. John’s Marsh was included in the pheasant release program again this year, as the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative was funded again in 2021 after being shut down due to Covid-19 related funding concerns in 2020. Pheasant hunting pressure was quite high, similar to 2019, though we heard little feedback from users in the field or at our check station on Harsens Island. We hope to expand our involvement in this program in 2022.

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Weather and habitat conditions

Both corn and buckwheat were planted at St. John’s Marsh this year. The corn was average for that area and the buckwheat crop turned out quite well. Crop and flooding conditions were very good for the season, but duck numbers were extremely low. The highest count of the year was October 1st with just over 600 ducks in all refuges combined, primarily mallards and green-winged teal. Wood duck numbers were extremely low all season at St. John’s. There has been a significant die-off of oak trees in a couple units and surrounding areas and the decrease of acorn production in the flooded timber units may be causing this decline. At the same time, wood duck numbers on Harsens Island have been increasing, so total abundance in the region is mostly unchanged.

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Migration and waterfowl numbers

A cold front at the end of September drove refuge counts up quickly. However, most of October was extremely mild and numbers stagnated instead of growing through the month. The onset of hunting pressure likely moved birds around the immediate region after the opener, partly explaining the drop in total ducks after the October 9th count. New birds trickled in from the end of October onwards, which almost always correlates with better hunting overall when compared to a big front and a big push of birds. Wood duck numbers were very high again early in the season, black ducks ended up much higher than normal at the end of the season, and green-winged teal were generally up. There were more ring-necked ducks on the area, but these aren’t usually seen in the farmed refuge as much as the marsh areas. Pintails were down significantly from 2020, as were gadwall. Because of mild temperatures and no meaningful ice development until the end of the month, refuge numbers grew slowly through November. New birds were arriving in small numbers daily, which kept the hunting good. Once we started to dewater and freeze hard in mid-December, numbers dropped quickly before leveling out around 5,000-6,000 prior to the late split. The hunting pressure from the split coincided with our next big freeze, pushing out remaining birds.

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Hunting season results

Waterfowl species harvest totals
Species Total % of Harvest Species Total % of Harvest
Mallard 5225 56.40% Scaup 41 0.40%
Green-winged Teal 869 9.40% Blue-winged Teal 40 0.40%
Pintail 630 6.80% Redhead 36 0.40%
Black Duck 597 6.40% Hooded Merg 31 0.30%
Ring-necked 564 6.10% Canvasback 8 0.10%
Wigeon 391 4.20% Unknown Duck 2 0.00%
Wood Duck 385 4.20% Goldeneye 3 0.00%
Shoveler 187 2.00% White Domestic 1 0.00%
Gadwall 150 1.60% N/A N/A N/A
Ruddy Duck 49 0.50% Geese 218 N/A
Bufflehead 48 0.50% Coot 8 N/A

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Cropland, marshland and water level management

After the extreme challenges of 2020 to our farming program, the excellent spring conditions we faced were especially welcome. A warm, dry May allowed us to get ahead of schedule for the first time in years. All corn, millet and sorghum planting went smoothly, but eventually the warm dry conditions slipped into drought conditions. Throughout June we had very little rain, which dramatically slowed corn growth. Unfortunately, this was followed immediately by some extreme precipitation, totaling over 12” of rainfall in the first two weeks of July. This further slowed corn development, flooded out what buckwheat had been planted, and delayed the second half of buckwheat planting until the end of July when conditions were dry enough to allow us to finish planting. Weather conditions normalized in August and September, but the damage to our small grain crop was done. Buckwheat yield was considerably lower than normal, and most fields were very weedy because of the stressed buckwheat plants being unable to outcompete weeds. Consequently, we decided to not harvest buckwheat seed this year, though millet harvest still occurred.

Our corn crop was assisted this year by the introduction of repellent flagging around several fields that historically receive heavy goose damage. Flagging was placed around portions of 25-27 and zone 30 this year. It was very effective at reducing goose damage in zones 25-27 but failed in zone 30. We will adjust this year and use this strategy again in 2022 and expand covered areas.

Overall, our corn yield was average, sorghum production was average, millet production was good, and buckwheat production was well below average.

Water levels are beginning to fall from the record highs experienced in 2019 and 2020. Lake St. Clair levels averaged between 6” and 12” below 2020 levels depending on the month. This reduced a lot of anxiety for staff on the area as there was far less damage and pressure on our impoundments.

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Volunteers and partners

This year we were able to operate much closer to ‘normal’ and our partners remain a critical part of that. Without everyone pulling together, we would not be able to operate the way we do, and we are grateful for all of our local support. The following is a list of organizations and agencies that have aided in the past year to accomplish our management goals:

  • Harsens Island Waterfowl Hunters Association - As our sharecropping partner, they provide equipment, equipment repairs and financial assistance for the cropping program.
  • St. Clair Flats Waterfowlers, Inc. - Provides us with significant financial support, volunteer hours, and hosts both the November youth duck hunt and Veteran’s Day Hunt. They have committed funds to support the replacement or repair of pump 3 and have several other area projects in development.
  • Michigan Duck Hunters Association, Blue Water Chapter - Provides financial and volunteer support.
  • Ducks Unlimited - Continue to work with us on project planning for St. John’s Marsh as well as replacement and improvement of pump three at Harsens Island.
  • MUCC District 8 - The Huron Point Conservation Club hosts the Saturday afternoon hunt during the early Federal September youth hunt. We were able to hold a draw for this hunt again this year and they held an offsite luncheon and educational day before the afternoon hunt.
  • Pheasants Forever - Habitat projects at Port Huron State Game Area resumed this year and similar mowing and planting projects are planned for St. John’s Marsh in 2022.
  • Audubon Great Lakes - The black tern monitoring program in partnership with Detroit Audubon continued this year and will continue in 2022. The east marsh mowing project will start in spring of 2022, with follow up treatments planned for 2023. AGL has committed grant match to support the replacement of pump 3.

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Economic benefits

The town of Algonac and the community on Harsens Island rely on tourism dollars to drive the local economy. Many businesses thrive on the business brought in during the summer by boating and fishing enthusiasts. Instead of the economic flow slowing after the normal summer boating months end, St. Clair Flats, St. Johns Marsh and the Harsens Island Managed Hunting Unit continue to draw in a regular stream of income to the local economy. Our managed operation on the island alone usually sees 6,500-8,000 hunter trips a year, apart from the thousands of trips made by hunters on the surrounding St. Clair Flats area. Increased hunter trips and especially increased daytime traffic certainly boosted this impact from the decreased activity in 2020.

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  • 11/11/2022 - Veterans preference drawing