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2017-18 West Tennessee
Waterfowl Season

By Steve McCadams


WATERFOWLERS EMBRACE WARM-UP

    The lionís share of duck hunters across West Tennessee have been hoping for a warm-up to they can a few more days of hunting in before season ends January 28.

    Since New Yearís Day most watefowlers have battled frigid temperatures and ice that took command of the hunting situation, prohibiting many of even reaching their boat launch areas or shallow water blinds.

    There have been a few decent days for some hunters who had access to open water or perhaps had a setup where battery powered or electric driven ice eaters kept holes open that appealed to desperate ducks searching for food and open water.

    For most hunters it has been tough sledding. Shallow back water blinds have succumb to thick ice. The weather roller coaster teased hunters with a day or two of mild weather only to slam dunk them again with a return visit of the Siberian Express.

    Added to the cold temperatures came a bona fide blizzard late last week that pretty much put the brakes on hunting for most. It got so bad that a ďwhite outĒ occurred last Friday and sleet mixed with snow lowered the ceiling to the extent hunters couldnít event see the sky!

    With the dramatic change came slick roads that were almost impassable. Just getting to and from hunt areas put everyone at high risk. Pulling a boat and trailer on icy roads is not fun.

    Since last week the ice man has returned, showing his ugly face and locking up most popular hunting areas for weary waterfowlers.

     At midweek temperatures bottomed out into single digits at night. Daytime highs never made it above the thawing range so more ice entered the picture, not to mention more snow.

    The good news is that a warming trend is on the way. Temps are expected to climb out of the cellar and reach the upper 40ís and low 50ís by this weekend. Sundayís high is forecast to be 57!

    So there is some relief in sight for worn out waterfowlers who have suffered from cabin fever and paced the floor these last few weeks. It has been an abbreviated season for most due to weather.

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BIG SANDY BLINDS REOPEN

Since the duck season opened back on November 25 a few blinds in the Big Sandy Wildlife Management Area have been closed due to a baiting issue.

TWRA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officials closed off several blinds that were deemed under the flight path of baiting. Federal regulations require an extending period of closure once the bait has either been removed or no longer lures waterfowl to a certain locale.

Unfortunately, several innocent blinds were victims of the baiting escaped by a select few, possibly even an individual.

Waterfowlers there were glad to hear the unit reopened to hunting on Wednesday of this week.

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BAITING VIOLATION DIMS DUCK OPENER AT BIG SANDY WMA

Opening weekend of the stateside duck season was a good one for some, fair for others and downright awful for a few. Thatís usually the way it goes across the region once season kicks in as there are always the have and have nots!

Mild weather greeting waterfowlers last weekend and has lingered ever since with above average temperatures, sunny days and light winds dominating the weather scene. Temps have been in the upper 50ís and low 60ís this week and are expected to last through the second season opener this Saturday, which isnít what duck hunters wanted to hear.

The extended stretch of mild weather hasnít stimulated any migration so duck numbers across the region havenít increased much lately since the initial early push of late fall.

For some hunters at Big Sandy wildlife management area it was a bitter opening weekend. Law enforcement officials with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed several prime blinds in the public hunt area after an alert of baiting.

As a result, law enforcement has closed a sector of the WMA until further notice. Popular blinds numbers in the unit closed to hunting are numbers 5, 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Itís a very unfortunate situation for several blinds who may be innocent of the violation yet still in the flyway of a baited area under USFWS guidelines. After all bait is removed the law stipulates the area much be closed for up to ten days.

The scenario is still under investigation by state and federal agencies.

Meanwhile, other popular public hunt areas such as Camden bottoms, Gin Creek, West Sandy and Dover bottoms reported fair opening day hunts with duck diminishing on the second day. A few blinds in West Sandy took limits of various species but mallard numbers were down.

Gin Creek hunters took several wood ducks and a few ringnecks. Camden bottom blinds took a mixed bag as well ranging from gadwalls to ringneck, greenwing teal, canvasbacks and a few mallards and diver species.

The open waters of Kentucky Lake were again without the support of aquatic vegetation in the shallow bays and flats this year. Without the aquatic grassbeds the early arriving species such as greenwing teal, gadwall and mallards have little reason to frequent the area.

Also down were diver species such as less scaup, bufflehead and ringhecks. As a result the open water shooting was below average.

Further west hunters fared better as the extreme western portion of the state around Dyersburg and the Whiteís Lake area caught early water from heavy rains a few weeks ago and were holding good numbers of mallards. Last year at this time many areas there were in need of water but this year it was a different story and the sector got off to a good start.

The second segment of season open Saturday for a 58-day straight stretch, offering waterfowlers a wide window of opportunity.
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EARLY DUCK SEASON...
COOL WEATHER COINCIDE


This weekís cool snap arrived right on schedule for Tennesseeís 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 itís 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 TWRAís 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.

Tennesseeís 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 SANDYÖDUCK 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.

Itís 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 itís hot and humid but that doesnít 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. Itís 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, Harmonís 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 Natureís 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 donít 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 didnít 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, thereís 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!

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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.

    Itís 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 thereís 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 thereís 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.

    Itís a great time to introduce a youngster to the sport. Itís not too cold and itís 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 havenít 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, donít 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?

    Itís a shakedown for sure in the wee hours of the morning. A lot of time and effort which the ducks donít always appreciate!

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DUCK HEAVEN OVER A HIGDONíS 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 Iíd every hunted over. In my 55 years of waterfowling it was the biggest spread Iíd 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 Higdonís 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 Iíve ever seen.

As a cold dark morningís darkness lost its grip, Brooke Richard, a young contest caller whispered ďduck, duck, duckĒ as he uttered a feed call. After a few notes of the waterfowlerís 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 donít often stray from my Tennessee blinds and venture to distant lands due to the demands of guiding. Seems thereís 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 busmanís holiday. Sharing the sunrise were Paducahís Drew Gray and Benís 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 didnít 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.

Iíd 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 weíd 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 Hidgonís new venture into the waterfowl call business, working with Union Cityís World Champion Goose Caller Kelly Powers.

Complementing our morning was the companionship of a well-mannered black Labrador named ďJudgeĒ. Dogs add another dimension to any hunt and Judge lived up to his breedís 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 donít 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, Iíd 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 thatís 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 Godís 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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