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2017-18 West Tennessee
Waterfowl Season

By Steve McCadams
 

EARLY DUCK SEASON...
COOL WEATHER COINCIDE


This week’s cool snap arrived right on schedule for Tennessee’s early wood duck and teal season. The short segment opens Saturday for a short window of opportunity for waterfowlers wanting to kick-start the winter season.

The season opens each year on the second Saturday of September with the first five days offering the combo of wood ducks and teal. Another four days were tacked on a couple of years ago but the additional segment is teal only.

Here in the Kentucky Lake area it’s hit or miss as to the timing of the blue-wing teal migration. Blue-wings are the earliest waterfowl to migrate and head south, blowing through the area in early September on a hit and run swing.

In times past both Barkley and Kentucky Lakes attracted a lot of teal and wood ducks when abundant acres of aquatic vegetation proved quite attractive as to feeding and resting areas. Unfortunately, the last two years has seen Eurasian watermilfoil, hydrilla, pondweed and coontail moss all but disappear.

The various species of aquatic vegetation were not only beneficial to waterfowl but fish too. Most lakers yearn for the return of grassbeds to the shallow waters for more reasons than one.

Meanwhile, wood ducks are known to raise throughout Tennessee and the backwater swamps and sloughs are perfect habitat for woodies. There numbers seemed to be pretty good but they sometimes linger in areas hard to access.

Some of TWRA’s wildlife management areas offer a little activity such as West Sandy. Reelfoot Lake is also popular for the early wood duck and teal season as the shallow lily pad infested backwaters appeal to teal and woodies.

Tennessee’s early season will be wood duck/teal September 9 through September 13, then teal only September 14 through September17. Shooting hours are one half hour before sunrise until sunset.

The limit is six ducks, but no more than two of the six may be wood ducks during the September 9 through September 13 segment of the season.

Tennessee residents must have either a Lifetime or Sportsman license or the Hunting and Fishing Combination license and a State waterfowl license. Nonresidents are required to have the appropriate nonresident license.

Youths 13 through 15 years of age must have a Junior Hunting license but are not required to have a State Waterfowl license. All hunters, sixteen years old and older, must have a Federal Migratory Waterfowl Stamp. All hunters born on or after January 1, 1969 must possess proof that they have successfully completed a hunter education course.

All migratory bird hunters (resident and nonresident) age 13-64 are required to have the Tennessee Migratory Bird Permit. This permit is available anywhere hunting and fishing licenses are sold.

The early season is a great time to introduce a novice hunter to the sport and put a little polish on a new retriever pup.


BIG DAY FOR BIG SANDY…DUCK BLIND DRAW RETURNS

On an average summer day the population of Big Sandy is 513. That number will quadruple every year on the first Saturday in August when the annual drawing day for duck blinds returns.

Parking is a premium. Traffic jams occur too.

Most of the visitors are dressed in camouflage, toting lawn chairs or even sporting a small tent to erect around the city park lot to hide from a sultry sun.

It’s quite a spectacle. Dogs are there too, walking along with their masters and viewing the sights. See and be seen. Swap a few tales beneath the shade trees about seasons come and gone.

Far away are cold crisp mornings when duck hunters rise early in hopes of seeing ducks descending from the high heavens. Right now it’s hot and humid but that doesn’t curtail the level of interest for this army of waterfowlers hoping to hear their name drawn.

Odds of hearing your name are about like winning the lottery. Yet all who show up are more than willing to face the odds. It’s just part of the deal.

Last year over 2,400 entered the drawing at Big Sandy where about 76 blinds are offered in Camden Bottoms, Gin Creek, Harmon’s Creek and Big Sandy. All units are under Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency management and officially referred to as wildlife management areas.

Elsewhere across the state waterfowlers are flocking to different locations depending on the geographic location of the wildlife management area. Locally, a drawing will be held at Henry County Fairgrounds for a few blinds offered in West Sandy WMA. Some 241 showed up for it last year, where 42 blind sites are up for grabs.

Over at Dover Bottoms WMA on Lake Barkley there were 1,084 registered in the draw for a small number of blinds. Other popular units across West Tennessee will have drawings such as Tigrett at Dyersburg Fairgrounds, Reelfoot Lake at the Reelfoot Lake State Park and Gooch at Obion City Park, just to name a few.

Registration will held from 7-10 a.m. Drawings begin at 10 a.m. on all units. A list of WMAs and drawing locations across the state are posted at www.tnwildlife.org.

While always popular, local waterfowlers got some bad news a few weeks ago when corn crops planted in several units fell victim to flooding. High water from Kentucky and Barkley Lakes encroached in lowlands areas, inundating freshly planted crops planned for wintering waterfowl.

The agency has been busy planting millet in place of the corn as it will be too late to attempt another corn crop in most areas are low elevation and vulnerable to flooding. Each year it is somewhat of a gamble on the planting and Mother Nature’s wrath.

As a result of the crop situation fewer people could enter the draw this year. No one really knows that for sure but in times past when catastrophe struck, fewer hunters showed up to participate knowing the season ahead might be tough due to a lack of food in the popular hunt areas.

Ducks flock to the flooded food during cold times, luring both hunters and waterfowl to the areas. Without food, odds are duck use will diminish.

Meanwhile, seems the enthusiasm level is always pretty high regardless of what happens during the planting season. A lot of folks just don’t have a place to hunt so they hope to get a blind for the season.

Others hope to get a blind and then sell it off to someone who didn’t get drawn. Not supposed to do that, says TWRA regulations, but it does happen so that further adds to the swelling numbers entering the draw.

Concessions and waterfowl related displays are all part of the festivity too. The Paris-Henry County Ducks Unlimited Chapter will again host the Kentucky Lake Waterfowl Festival in conjunction with the draw so lots of services and products targeted to waterfowlers will be on display.

Hunters are reminded to have the appropriate licenses and permits in possession before entering the drawings. Licenses are not sold on location.

While hand drawings will be held for the majority of the locations, a computerized drawing system will be used for blind sites on Bogota and Thorny Cypress Wildlife Management Areas in Dyer County, Gooch Unit E, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, White Oak (Lebanon Pond area in Hardin County) and the four units on the Chickamauga WMA (Candies Creek, Johnson Bottoms, Rogers Creek, and Yellow Creek) will again be conducted for this season. The application period is Sept. 6-27 for these areas.

While the computerized drawings might suite some folks, there’s nothing like showing up to one of these events and sharing hunting stories about the forthcoming season with some of your buddies.

It is indeed a sight for sore eyes!


RAIN TAKES TOLL ON WILDLIFE AREAS

Winter waterfowl seasons are still several months away but what happens this time of year in wildlife management areas under the umbrella of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has a lot to do with the status of the forthcoming hunting season.

The popular public hunting areas have crops planted in lowland acreage that provides food for wintering waterfowl. Thousands of hunters across the state flock to the units throughout the season after attending a big duck blind draw on the first Saturday in August.

For a lot of the units the news isn’t good. Here’s the scoop from TWRA:

Heavy July rains have dealt a harsh if not fatal blow to crops planted on some of West Tennessee’s Wildlife Management Areas managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. During the first week of July over ten inches of rain fell in some areas flooding newly planted crops on WMAs managed primarily for waterfowl.

“We have seen major corn crop damage to our units along Kentucky Lake and the Obion River,” stated Jim Hamlington, TWRA Region I Wildlife Program Manager. “WMAs that are a total lost include Gin Creek and Big Sandy in our Kentucky Lake units along with Gooch Unit A, Hop-In Refuge and Hwy 89 Hunting Unit in the Obion River watershed. Camden WMA along Kentucky Lake was just in the process of being planted, so if we are lucky and the water recedes quickly, maybe that seed will not rot in the ground”

According to Hamlington, once the water dissipates and the areas are dry enough to put farming equipment in the fields, TWRA Lands Management personnel will replant with early maturing crops such as Japanese millet so everything will be in order for this year’s waterfowl season.
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DUCK STAMPS ON SALE

The new 2017-2018 federal duck stamp is on sale now. The stamps, which cost $25, are valid from July 1 through June 30, 2018. Purchased by millions of waterfowl hunters, wildlife enthusiasts and collectors every year, duck stamps help raise money to purchase and protect wetlands for ducks, geese and other wildlife species.

“Duck stamps are one of the traditional ways hunters and others invest in wetland and waterfowl conservation,” said DU CEO Dale Hall. “We encourage everyone, whether they hunt waterfowl or not, to buy one or more duck stamps to help conserve our precious wetland resources. The federal duck stamp is a powerful tool for conservation in the United States. Every year the program raises more than $25 million used to purchase wetlands in the National Wildlife Refuge System. These habitats benefit waterfowl and countless other species of wildlife. It's an incredibly successful program and one we should be very proud of.”

The artwork for the 2017-2018 stamp was created by James Hautman, an artist from Chaska, Minnesota. His painting of Canada geese is the artist’s fifth win in the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. His previous works were featured on the 1991, 1995, 1999 and 2011 stamps.

This year’s junior duck stamp features a pair of trumpeter swans, painted by 12-year-old Isaac Schreiber of Duffield, Virginia. More than 3,000 junior duck stamps are sold annually for $5 each to help promote conservation education through art.

The duck stamp, also known as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, dates back to 1934. Since then, the program has raised more than $950 million to help acquire and protect more than 5.7 million acres of habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Waterfowl hunters age 16 and older are required to purchase and carry a duck stamp while hunting. A duck stamp also provides free admission to national wildlife refuges that are open to the public. Duck stamps are sold at post offices nationwide and at many NWRs and sporting goods stores. Electronic versions of the duck stamp can also be purchased online – visit www.fws.gov/duckstamps for more information.

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EARLY 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 it up.

    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 norm.

    A 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.

    A 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 concerned.

    If 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 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 hunted over.

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 too.

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 morning!

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 bonus.

 

    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.

 


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