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By Steve McCadams
FIRST OF TWO YOUTH WATERFOWL HUNTS ARRIVES
Duck season ended last Sunday at sunset for most waterfowlers across
Tennessee. There’s a few select hunters, however, who will get two
additional chances at duck hunting these next two Saturdays.
The first of two Youth Waterfowl Hunts arrives Saturday for kids ages 6-16
years of age when accompanied by an adult. Each year Tennessee, along with
several others states throughout the Mississippi flyway, offer youth hunts
but some states hold them before the regular season begins.
Tennessee has traditionally held its hunts after the regular season and at
one time did it on a Saturday/Sunday but the wildlife commission, after
receiving permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a few years
ago, decided to stagger the youth hunt on two separate Saturday once
statewide season expired.
So, kids get a crack it Saturday with another hunt day slated for February
It should be a pretty good chance for kids to see and bag a few ducks as
several popular wildlife management areas such as Big Sandy, Gin Creek,
Dover Bottoms, West Sandy and Camden Bottoms see ducks return to the units
once hunting pressure dies down.
And, a few private hunt clubs invite kids to come too and that should
offer great hunting as well since ducks have returned to feed, rest and
roost without disturbance.
If you have any questions on the upcoming hunts log onto the TWRA website
at www.tnwildlife.org or pick up a copy of the Waterfowl Guide at any
local license agent.
LATE SEASON GEESE
Not many waterfowlers in West Tennessee partake of the so called “late
season” on geese but if you decide to give it a try here’s what’s
required: sportsmen are reminded that a free permit is required to
participate in the 2017 Light Goose Conservation season which will be held
Feb. 12-March 10.
The application for the free permit is now available on the Tennessee
Wildlife Resources Agency’s website under the waterfowl icon in the
migratory birds section of “For Hunters.”
The Light Goose Conservation season is for Blue, Snow and Ross’s geese.
The following provisions apply during the Light Goose Season only which
are unplugged shotguns and electronic calls. Shooting is allowed 30
minutes before official sunrise until 30 minutes after official sunset.
There is no daily bag or possession limit during this season except on
opening day and the second day of the season. The possession these two
days is the daily bag limit and to times the daily bag limit,
No federal or state waterfowl stamps are required to hunt during the
conservation season. Hunters must possess a Light Goose Conservation
Season permit and have a valid hunting license, but the hunting license
may be from any state.
SEASON ENDS FOR DREARY DUCK HUNTERS
Stop me if you heard this one; Tennessee duck hunters are about to close
the books on a tough season.
Although the Volunteer State’s 60-day duck season ends Sunday with a rare
cold front in progress, it has been a an uphill battle where above average
temperatures throughout December and January produced below average
It has been an unusual season in the opinions of most waterfowlers who
kept hoping normal winter weather would push ducks south and stimulate
movement from time to time. As the season winds down, cold windy days have
been rare these last two months, a scenario that hasn’t paid dividends to
Deep in Dixie duck hunters depend on Mother Nature to rock the boat from
time to time with a drastic weather change. Hunters want to see temps drop
overnight with a howling breeze straight off the Canadian prairies or
perhaps direct from the frigid Dakotas.
This season a lot of days were 10 to 15 degrees above the norm. Christmas
Day peaked at 72 degrees and set an all-time record! Since then a lot of
days have lingered in the upper 50’s and low 60’s.
January usually brings the coldest weather of the year and traditionally
duck numbers peak across West Tennessee in mid to late January. However,
when day time temps climb some 15 to 20 degrees above normal for several
days back to back the ducks grow complacent and don’t move around much.
Seems that’s the story this year as veteran waterfowlers agree it has been
one of the warmest seasons they can ever remember. Lately hunters have
seen insects hatching out and heard tree frogs croaking from the warm
backwaters where battling ice should be the norm.
Aerial surveys taken back on January 18 along Kentucky Lake’s Tennessee
National Wildlife Refuge may help tell some of the waterfowl saga. Earlier
in January duck numbers had a brief surge in the aftermath of a rare cold
snap and peaked at 244,000. That’s a hefty number for this area.
However, last week’s survey showed duck numbers had declined to 174,000.
The refuge lost over 70,000 ducks from early to late January, a likely
reflection of the extended spell of warm weather that saw ducks move west
toward the Mississippi River after some rains or perhaps fly back north to
Duck hunters in extreme West Tennessee had some improvement last week but
most felt a lot of ducks this season had chosen to linger in Missouri with
brief periods of movement into West Tennessee at times only to vacate
after a short stay.
Another indication of the warm season was the number of greenwing teal
seen and taken by hunters across the region lately. Traditionally
greenwing teal move out of this area by Christmas as they cannot tolerate
extended periods of bitter cold.
Singing in harmony as to a dull season have been hunters in Springville
bottoms, Big Sandy and Gin Creek wildlife management areas and most of the
blinds in Camden bottoms as well. There were a few blinds that bagged
ducks early in the season but the success rate fell off drastically once
the early ducks faded and no new ones took their place.
Seems there’s always a few blinds scoring well even during a slow season
but the lucky ones were in the minority this year. For most their success
Season started with drought conditions across the region back in late
November and that worked in favor of a few spots but really dealt a whammy
blow to others. Those who benefitted at the expense of others got a dose
of hard times themselves once season reached the half-way point.
Tennessee duck hunters weren’t the only ones winning a few battles but
losing the war.
Arkansas season’s fourth and final aerial survey this week revealed an
estimated population of just more than 1 million ducks in the state’s
Delta region, a total that included about 560,000 mallards. The numbers
are below both last year’s late-January survey and the long-term average
for the late-January time frame. Fluctuating temperatures and dry
conditions have dominated the 2016-2017 waterfowl season and likely have
played a role in this season’s low population numbers in The Natural State
said Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reports.
Yet every day is different in the duck blind. Things can change quickly
when weather invades but in reality, about the only thing hunters can
control is being there.
Once day the wind delivers ducks. The next day stagnant conditions and fog
rob hunters of nice sunrises as ducks don’t move and even if they did you
either couldn’t see them or they just don’t act right.
And so it is a long season that offered a wide window of opportunity from
late November through late January now draws to a close.
Meanwhile, there’s still a bright spot for youngsters as two special youth
hunts for kids ages 6-16 years of age will be held on February 4 and 11.
Watching a couple more sunrises through the eyes of a youngster is indeed
special and worthwhile.
DUCK HEAVEN OVER A HIGDON’S DECOY SPREAD
Build it and they will come. Ducks that is from the high heavens
descending rapidly. Wings cupped.
Like meteors the formation of distant specks fall from the sky, banking
downwind on one final approach, hovering over the massive decoy spread
showing no signs of indecision.
Dancing in the backwater of a Ballard County Kentucky pond are some
800---yes 800 of them---of the most beautiful decoys I’d every hunted
over. In my 55 years of waterfowling it was the biggest spread I’d every
Super magnum size greenheads with the unique non-glare flocked heads
looked real indeed. Apparently the wild ducks flogging our pothole in the
backwaters surrounded by a few cypress and tupelo gum trees thought so
They were clearly convinced a bunch of other ducks had located a buffet,
inviting them to the table. Darting in a unique path were several drake
and hen decoys swimming throughout the spread. Tied to a system of pulleys
on a contraption built right here in Paris called The Duck Thang, movement
added realism to an already great looking layout.
Elsewhere in the hole were Higdon’s Splasher Flasher, an upright decoy
flapping its wings. Feeder butts were also nearby, feet peddling and
shooting water up as though a duck was scrounging the bottom for morsels.
Their Pulsator style feeding duck also emitted a small wake throughout the
area as a powered bilge pump timer set to go on and off with a split
second delay further accented the layout. Tied to a dunking machine were
eight more, stopping and starting just the way puddle ducks would do.
It was indeed decoy heaven on earth. Several species were represented
throughout the gathering such as greenwing teal, black ducks, widgeon and
an occasional redhead. Dominating the decoy convention however were
handsome foam filled drake mallards that stood out and mimicked a real one
about as close as I’ve ever seen.
As a cold dark morning’s darkness lost its grip, Brooke Richard, a young
contest caller whispered “duck, duck, duck” as he uttered a feed call.
After a few notes of the waterfowler’s national anthem, the big mallard
winged smack dab in front of the blind about 35 yards away.
One shot and the duck splashed. The zero was gone off the blind and our
group of five hunters grunted with success. What a way to start the
Any day in the duck blind is a good one. Yet today was even more special
for me. I don’t often stray from my Tennessee blinds and venture to
distant lands due to the demands of guiding. Seems there’s always
something that needs attention but today was different.
Thanks to an invitation from Ben Higdon, co-owner of the Paducah based
Higdon Decoy Company, I was taking a busman’s holiday. Sharing the sunrise
were Paducah’s Drew Gray and Ben’s dad Mark, who founded the famous decoy
company some 15 years or so ago.
Nestled in the swamps not far from the confluence of the Ohio and mighty
Mississippi Rivers is where we scanned the skies, searching for meandering
flocks of ducks on this brisk December morning.
Not much wind but we didn’t need it; the motion within our pothole decoy
spread made it look like live ducks were on a feeding frenzy. There were
about a hundred motion decoys at work.
Within an hour we were approaching double figures as straps supporting our
bounty hung high in the blind right behind our individual shooting stalls.
Ben wrestled up bacon, sausage and eggs from a separate room where a
kitchen and heated area made it feel like home away from home.
I’d like to think our calling techniques helped fool the fowl, changing
their flight paths and grabbing their attention toward our little corning
of the world. No doubt it was a factor but at times we’d just look up and
find ducks already falling out from high altitudes toward our huge display
of plastic Judas floaters.
Our little symphony sounded pretty good. Hail calls screamed at high ducks
and fell soft and raspy when the fowl responded, swinging cautiously as
they window shopped at times.
Brooke loved to call speckle belly geese having guided some in both
Arkansas and Louisiana but his talents on the duck call had earned him
contest titles. He was now developing Hidgon’s new venture into the
waterfowl call business, working with Union City’s World Champion Goose
Caller Kelly Powers.
Complementing our morning was the companionship of a well-mannered black
Labrador named “Judge”. Dogs add another dimension to any hunt and Judge
lived up to his breed’s reputation.
Creeping through the treetops were rays of sunshine that accented the
decoy spread. Most veteran waterfowlers know a little sunshine works in
your favor, adding light to the dark confines of dawn and helping draw
attention to decoy spreads that cloudy, foggy days just don’t do.
Five gadwalls made a rapid descent and almost slipped by us before two
swings put them down and dirty over this early morning decoy Mecca. A
rapid volley proved lethal. No survivors. A few high fives followed as
Judge splashed his navigational route through the blocks.
Gadwalls are known for their uncertainty at times. Often illusive and
skittish, this bunch came in like they had leg irons on. No flaring. Up
close and personal.
Sharing stories with Mark had me going back in time and talking about old
hunters and duck and goose blinds come and gone.
Once a popular destination for Canada geese, Ballard County was like the
rest of the world south of the Mason-Dixon Line; geese no longer migrated
south to the area and famous hunt clubs had either vanished or switched
over to duck hunting.
By mid-morning our tally stood at 16 ducks with a couple still in the
weeds somewhere. To me it was a successful hunt before we ever fired a
shot. I stood in awe most of the morning after falling under the spell of
the decoy spread.
Having hunted ducks and geese throughout the flyway all the way from
Canada to Louisiana, I’d seen my share of decoy layouts, pits and blinds.
It was my first time to shoot over such an impressive array.
Any waterfowler suiting up over such a spread would have confidence. All
that’s needed were ducks in the air.
Before midday our outing fell prey to father time. After shooting photos
and making new friends the duck party ended but not before more pleasant
memories were filed.
Duck seasons bring folks together, establishing new acquaintances out in
God’s garden of frosty mornings, muddy boots and endless stories within
the confines of a camouflage duck blind. Bagging a few ducks was just a
DROUGHT CONCERNS DUCK HUNTERS
you see some camouflage clad, hip boot wearing individuals doing a little
two-step think nothing of it. It’s likely some duck hunters doing a rain
Tennnessee’s statewide duck season opens November 26-27 for a two day
segment but the lion’s share of waterfowlers across west and middle
Tennessee are in need of water.
The extended spell of dry weather has played havoc with many areas which
depend on rainfall to inundate shallow swamps and fields. At the present
time many duck hunters do not have sufficient water around their blinds as
opening day draws near.
Most of the wildlife management areas under the umbrella of Tennessee
Wildlife Resources Agency are in need of heavy rainfall. From Dover
Bottoms on Barkley Lake to the east to Kentucky Lake units and further
west toward Gooch and Tigrett, WMAs are below normal pool levels.
Bottom line is it just hasn’t rained. Most units rely on runoff to help
fill lowland areas but this fall it just hasn’t rained enough to do that.
Unless heavy rains arrive soon, many waterfowlers will not have adequate
water as blinds are either dry or inaccessible.
Areas that do have water are likely to attract a few ducks as they don’t
have many places to go. A few blinds in West Sandy have enough water to
hunt but there are a lot in the upper end that do not. Same goes for
Camden bottoms and other popular units.
Kentucky Lake has been low for the last few months and most of the WMAs
rely on gravity fed flow from the reservoir into the units. However, that
hasn’t happened this year.
The National Weather Service reported this week that much of the region is
some seven inches below normal rainfall for this period of the year.
Normally, in drought condition areas such as the open waters of Kentucky
Lake will be attractive to early arriving waterfowl but a lack of aquatic
vegetation across the reservoir this year has proven to be less appealing.
Duck numbers using the lake are down drastically.
Added to the drought conditions has been a long stretch of mild weather, a
scenario that hasn’t stimulated much of a migration just yet.
Tennessee is not alone as to its yearning for rainfall. Arkansas duck
hunters are in the same boat as their season opens this weekend. The U.S.
Drought Monitor reported last week that a majority of The Natural State is
either abnormally dry or in moderate drought. That translates into
lackluster conditions for migrating waterfowl and the hunters who pursue
Most of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s wildlife management areas
that are artificially flooded for ducks will remain dry on opening
DUCKS AT REELFOOT
The early duck season at Reelfoot Lake opens for a two-day segment on
November 12-13. Each year the early season is offered in the Reelfoot Lake
zone only. The regular statewide season opens November 26-27.
SEASON A GAMBLE FOR TEAL AND WOOD DUCKS
You could say waterfowlers hoping to catch the early migration of
blue-wing teal passing through Tennessee are rolling the dice.
It’s always a gamble when the wood duck and teal seasons open as the
window of opportunity is short. Teal blow through like the pass of an
Amtrak Train; fast and somewhat of a blurr as they go by.
Each year duck hunters get the opportunity to jump start the regular
season by making a few early escapades to the backwater swamps and sloughs
once the September seasons roll around. Short and sweet pretty much sums
The five day wood duck and teal combo opens Saturday. Hunters are allowed
six ducks but not more than two can be woodies.
After the five day combo there’s an additional four days tagged on the end
for a teal only segment. And, the early season on geese is still underway
too but draws to a close on Thursday, September 15.
Hunters are hoping for a cool snap that might trigger the migration of
teal. Known to push through the region quickly, a little weather change
can make or break the short season. Without it, empty skies could be the
lack of aquatic vegetation this year along Kentucky Lake is cause for
concern among the ranks. Wood ducks and teal thrive on the vegetation as a
good food source. The other microscopic morsels found within the weedbeds
are also attractants.
For some strange reason the grassbeds never materialized along the
backwaters of Kentucky Lake this year. Shallow flats and island rims in
times past have been clogged with various aquatics such as pondweed,
coontail moss, duckweed, hydrilla and milfoil that benefitted both
fishermen and waterfowlers.
Both have been disappointed in the lack of grassbeds this summer. Most
wonder why the grass did not return. Some say the high water last winter
washed a lot of it out. Others wonder if some agency has sprayed it but
there’s nothing to indicate anything other than an unusual twist of Mother
Nature as to its demise.
few swamps and back water areas scattered across West Tennessee usually
harbor decent broods of wood ducks but sightings along the main lake
itself this year are down dramatically.
Reasons for a decline in wood duck hatches and recruitment are somewhat
disturbing as well. However, wood duck reproduction is dynamic and varies
from year to year. Weather and water conditions have a lot of influence
throughout the spring and early summer as to recruitment.
Meanwhile the early season is always special and enjoyable to some in the
waterfowling community who love the chance to head out to the marshes and
share another sunrise with friends and future duck hunters.
It’s a great time to introduce a youngster to the sport. It’s not too cold
and it’s not really an all morning affair.
The early season is also a good time to help put polish on the pup. From
veteran dogs that haven’t been in a hunting scenario since last winter to
a new pup experiencing it all and going through the motions for the first
time, this early season offers a little on the job training for all
you plan to participate make sure all hunters age 16 and over in the party
have their Federal Duck Stamp. And, don’t forget to pick up the Tennessee
Migratory Bird Permit too.
Empty the buckets of all dove shells too as no lead shot is allowed in
your coat or buckets while waterfowl hunting.
The early season will also test your hip boots or waders for leaks, not to
mention stubborn flashlights. Will the boat motor still run and are the
running lights working properly?
It’s a shakedown for sure in the wee hours of the morning. A lot of time
and effort which the ducks don’t always appreciate!
DUCK NUMBERS HOLD STEADY…MALLARDS AT ALL TIME HIGH
Dog days of summer may be dominating right now but duck days of fall are
Waterfowlers are always thinking about their favorite sport but especially
when the word comes down from the prairie pothole region and Canadian
provinces as to the status of the fall flight forecast.
Everyone in the waterfowling community wants to know the news. Before
decent duck seasons there must be decent duck numbers headed south after
their spring hatch. Every year is different.
When there’s ample snow melt and the breeding grounds have abundant water
and habitat the ducks respond favorably. However, it’s a fragile scenario
as things can change and duck production is quite dynamic.
That’s why hunters hang their hats on the news from biologists each summer
who conduct the surveys and pretty much lay it all out as to what’s ahead
for duck hunters as the web footed friends head out on their southern
The annual survey, which has been conducted jointly by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service since 1955, puts the
breeding duck population at 48.36 million, slightly lower than last year’s
record population of 49.52 million, but still 38 percent above the
“The duck numbers are amazingly good,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of
Delta Waterfowl. “Mallard numbers are especially surprising, and show why
they are the most abundant duck in the world. They adapt to conditions
The 2016 survey marks the highest estimates ever recorded for mallards and
green-winged teal. Mallards increased 1 percent to 11.79 million, 51
percent above the long-term average. Green-winged teal populations grew by
5 percent to 4.28 million, which is more than twice the long-term average.
The news was not as good for pintails, which dropped for a fifth-straight
year. Pintail numbers declined by 14 percent to 2.62 million, which puts
the species 34 percent below the long-term average. Blue-winged teal
numbers fell 22 percent to 6.69 million, but remain 34 percent above the
“Gadwalls will likely take advantage of the improved water conditions we
had in late May and June, and mallard production should be helped by it,
too,” Rohwer said. “Mallards are strong renesters.”
Wigeon continued a strong trend, increasing 12 percent to 3.41 million.
Wigeon numbers are now 31 percent above the long-term average. Shovelers
declined by 10 percent, but still check in at 3.97 million, a strong 56
percent above the long-term average.
Among diving ducks, scaup increased 14 percent to 4.99 million, which
places them right at the long-term average. Canvasbacks declined by 3
percent to 736,000, but remain 26 percent above the long-term average.
Redheads, which have remained near record breeding numbers for the past
five years, jumped 8 percent to 1.29 million.
“It’s really clear that pintails overflew the prairies,” said Rohwer,
citing a 60 percent decline in breeding numbers in southern Saskatchewan.
“Pintails and bluewings didn’t find the seasonal and temporary wetlands
they prefer for breeding, so much of the population did not settle in the
prairies. When pintails overfly the prairies, production is always down.”
“In light of the dry conditions that were observed across much of the
northern breeding grounds during the survey period, it is reassuring to
see that the breeding population counts were little changed from last
year,” said Ducks Unlimited’s Chief Scientist Scott Yaich. “But, with
total pond counts similar to the long-term average, and with hunting
season and winter mortality being a relatively small part of annual
mortality, it’s not surprising to see that populations largely held
“What’s not reflected in the report is that there was fairly significant
improvement in habitat conditions after the surveys were completed,” said
Yaich. “In some key production areas, heavy June and July rains greatly
improved wetland conditions. This could benefit brood rearing and the
success of late nesting species, as well as give a boost to overall
production through re-nesting by early nesting species.
“Watching the changing habitat over the spring and summer this year
underscores the importance of two things: First, we must simply accept
that habitat and populations are going to vary over time. They always have
and they always will. Second, that’s why we need to keep a steady hand on
the course of our conservation efforts. Our job is to steadily make
deposits into the habitat bank account so that when the precipitation and
other conditions are right, the ducks will do the job that they do so
well, which is to produce more ducks and provide us all a nice return on
The spring surveys provide the scientific basis for many management
programs across the continent, including hunting regulations. Individual
states set their hunting seasons within a federal framework of season
length, bag limits and dates.
Tennessee’s season dates will be similar to last year. Statewide season
opens November 26-27 and resumes for the second segment on December 3
after a five day closure. It will be another 60-day season, ending on
January 29, 2017, which is the last Sunday in the month.
Steve McCadams is a professional hunting and fishing guide here in the Paris Landing
area. He has also contributed many outdoor oriented articles to
various national publications.