Mother Nature has set a near-perfect table, and the Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks has set the dates, now we'll have to see if the 2012-13 duck season meets the expectations of Mississippi hunters.

On Wednesday, the Commission proposed a 60-day statewide duck season, the maximum allowed under federal frameworks, divided into three segments. Hunters get two three-day weekends early, Nov. 23 - Nov. 25 and Nov. 30 - Dec. 2, before the main 54-day split opens Dec. 5 and runs through Jan. 27, the last day allowed. The youth weekend is Feb. 2-3.

That provides a big window for waterfowlers, already excited by the prediction of a near-record fall flight forecast, plus a lack of duck habitat in the northern and mid-continent tiers of the Mississippi (River) Flyway.

"I am expecting a good season, no doubt about it, but obviously it will depend on the weather," said Jacob Sartain of Madison, an avid duck hunter who manages habitat for waterfowl on property in the south Delta. "We know ducks are at near record levels. And we know that we've had ideal summer growing conditions in Mississippi while the states north of us are suffering catastrophic drought. I hate it for them, but at the same time I know it will help us.

"When the ducks start migrating south out of Canada and the upper Midwest, there won't be much food and, unless the drought breaks pretty soon, there won't be much wetland habitat for them to winter on, no matter how cold it is, until they get to us."

His argument got support from Ed Penny, the director of wildlife and former waterfowl program coordinator for the state wildlife agency.

"Yeah, it's pretty dry on the flyway," Penny said Thursday, after presenting the staff's season recommendation to the Commission. "You go up the Mississippi River, and as bad as it is here, it's worse up north. Major tributaries like the Illinois River, and the oxbow lakes on the upper Mississippi, all prime wintering water for ducks, are in bad shape. The rivers are low and the backwater areas are just dry.

"So, ducks will have to fly a lot further. Now, will they stop in Mississippi? The timing of early arrival, you know that is when typically the only habitat we have for them here is our WMAs and rivers and private lands that are properly managed. The worry is that they may fly by us and head to the Gulf marshes."

Penny said while the drought that is hurting the American heartland could be seen as a blessing for Mississippi waterfowlers this year, it could be a curse for the future, as quickly as next year.

"The drought has led to a drastic reduction in nesting pond habitat in the northern states, although Canada offers some better numbers," Penny said. "A shortage of nesting habitat means a reduction in the hatch. As good as the 2011 nesting success was, and it is what is providing us the large number of ducks this year, the 2012 nesting will hurt in the future."

The daily bag limit on ducks will be six total, to include no more than:

4 mallards, 2 of which can be hens.
3 wood ducks.
2 redheads.
4 scaup, double last year's limit.
2 pintail.
1 canvasback.
1 mottled duck.
1 black duck.
The daily merganser limit is five, only two of which can be hooded.
The coot limit is 15.

The Commission also set the goose seasons, including the conservation order on light geese, at Wednesday's meeting in Jackson.

The regular season on all geese will be Nov. 15 - Jan. 27 with the following daily limits: Canada geese 3; snow, blue and Ross' geese 20 in aggregate; white-fronted geese 2; Brant geese 1.

Penny said the geese seasons were synced and set to end with duck season for simplicity. It was made possible when the Canada goose season framework was increased to equal the number of days provided white-fronted geese.

Goose hunters will get plenty of extra opportunity to take light geese - snow, blue and Ross' - under the conservation order allowed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They will be allowed to hunt them without limit during the dates open under the order: Oct. 1 - Nov. 9; Jan. 28 - Feb. 1; and Feb. 4 - March 31.