For the first time in six years duck hunters can go into the marshes on the opener Saturday knowing things are going to be better.

For the first time in six years there is optimism in the forecast. Better hunting is expected statewide. And it's not because duck numbers are up, They aren't. It's because living conditions on the marshes are better. There is room and food for ducks this year, where in hasn't been in the past.The waterfowl season - for ducks, geese and swans, primarily - opens at noon on Saturday. The duck season will close Dec. 3, the swan and goose seasons on Jan. 6.

Most of the hunting pressure will hit this weekend. And, assuming hunters hit what they aim at, hunters should have an opening twice as good as the previous one.

There are between two and three times as may ducks within state boundaries as there were one year ago, reported Tom Aldrich, waterfowl program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The rising level of the Great Salt Lake back in the early 1980s, caused serious flooding and the loss of food and shelter for ducks on once-popular resting areas. Because of it ducks either passed through Utah or made only brief stopovers.

The rapid drop in the level of the lake the past couple of years has created some dry ground and is allowing marshes along the shorelines to re-vegetate . . . and at a rate much faster than field experts expected. There were suggestions three years ago that it would take up to 10 years for the soil to lose its saltiness and be able to sustain abundant vegetation again.

There were signs of recovery last year. This year there was dramatic improvement. The results are that Utah marshes are again becoming attractive to ducks.

"The water level is down and access to the marshes is wonderful," said Aldrich. "Every marsh will have access this year.

"Bird use, too, has responded dramatically to the lower levels. There are double to triple the number of birds on the marshes, even on areas away from the lake front."

A count of ducks on the Ogden Bay Refuge showed a figure of around 150,000, which compares to only 50,000 at this date last year.

According to national figures, however, the overall duck population is still down. A count of summer breeding pairs in the northern parts of the U.S. and Canada showed mallards were down 4 percent over last year and 27 percent over the longterm average, pintail were up 5 percent over last year, but still down 52 percent over the longterm average.

Species showing an increase over last year were gadwall (up 23 percent), greenwing teal (up 12 percent), canvasback (up 22 percent), widgeon (up 3 percent) and shovelers (up 16 percent). All were, however, down over the longterm average.

"I expect the fall flight to be very similar to last year's in the total number of birds. Because of better conditions, relative to last year, more birds are going to stay in Utah for a longer period of time," Aldrich said.

The goose hunt, which has been the only bright spot during waterfowl season the past six years, is expected to be good again this year.

Reports show that the overall population of geese is down slightly in the southern areas, but up in northern marshes.

Also expected to be better this year is the swan hunt. Swan numbers have fallen dramatically in the past couple of years, again because of poor habitat conditions.

There were times when Utah had as many as 40,000 to 50,000 swans. Last year there were fewer than 2,000 counted.

And this year?

"We've got pond weeds growing on some of the deeper marshes, which is a favorite food for swans. We saw a flight increase last year and I think we'll see more this year," pointed out Aldrich.

The limit on ducks is four, but no more than one of the four can be a pintail, and no more than three can be mallards, of which only one can be a hen, and no more than two can be canvasback or redhead, or one of each.

The limit on geese is five, but only two of the five can be of the more plentiful Canadian species. To hunt swans, hunters must have a swan permit.

Aldrich warned hunters that there are currently about 10,000 pintails on the lakefront marshes, which could cause a problem with hunters who aren't sure of what they are shooting. They are allowed only one pintail.

Last year fewer than 20,000 Utah hunters duck hunted. This year, because of the improve hunting predictions, hunter numbers are expected to increase.