Wood ducks are one of only two species of waterfowl that breed in Kentucky of any consequence. In fact, the Bluegrass State is one of the top spots for this amazingly colorful, small and challenging duck to nest in the United States. The other native duck is the hooded merganser.
The first chance to get in on taking woodies rolls in about mid-September, before the birds start migrating. But wood ducks are also legal to take during the main duck season. At that time of year most of these birds are moving through as temperatures get progressively colder to the north.
They may be found in a number of places where standing water in various types of cover is available. Shallow water locations that freeze over aren’t going to attract many ducks of any kind, and wood ducks are no different in that respect.
As their name suggests, wood ducks are going to be in flooded timber areas, sometimes showing up out of the blue even on a secluded wooded farm pond where you normally don’t see ducks at all. Most of the time large, open expanses of water aren’t going to be the resting spot of choice for woodies. They tend to prefer overhead cover and smaller scale waterways rather than out in the middle of a major reservoir.
These cavity nesters find woodland streams abundant in Kentucky, use backwater areas of reservoirs or rivers and, when fall and winter rains keep water available, woodies stop in to rest and feed. Many times, these are the same type areas they will return to in early spring when nesting time approaches.
Waterfowl numbers fluctuate a good deal based on weather conditions during the spring breeding season. According to Rocky Pritchert, migratory bird coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, what biologists across the state saw in mid-summer indicates the potential for the 2010 season could be improved from previous years if all goes well.
“It looks like we had a good hatch,” said Pritchert.
“We had excellent habitat conditions in most regions and the number of broods we observed per square mile was the highest reported in the last 10 years,” the biologist added.
“I think that the good fortune we experienced was probably similar in states north of us, and ultimately everybody in the flyway should benefit,” Pritchert concluded.
Much is weather dependant when it comes to how many local woodies are still in the state or moving through from elsewhere in December. Birds migrating may hang around in Kentucky for a while, but those numbers will decrease as the winter wears on. The law generally allows three woodies in the total duck bag of six birds when the late season begins.
There are a variety of ways to pursue wood ducks that waterfowlers find productive. It simply depends on what you prefer. Most of the time seeking them out or waiting to pass shoot can both be productive approaches. Wood ducks don’t come along in waves of 20 or 30, but at times several groups of two, three or four may all be in the vicinity. There they get up and move around within a flat or bottom.
Shallow water resting and feeding areas can also attract birds. Those may be in some standing tree cover in the backs of coves, or newly flooded river backwater habitat available after a recent hard rain.
Woodies also use natural sloughs and swamps that always hold water and have a good bit of timber present or close by. These birds have to have some kind of cover, preferably stickups, bushes, weeds, cypress, or willows before they are comfortable in sitting down.
In this setting, where you have the option of walking in and setting up. For that reason you can choose whether to go with a small decoy spread or not, to be more mobile. Finding a swampy bottom and moving along slowly from one waterhole to another or hunkering down in a clump of bushes near a slough for a while can be productive as long as you have the right clothing and footwear and you don’t have a ton of equipment.
Some hunters do very well floating tree-lined creeks and streams, covering a good bit of territory and picking up birds either traveling the corridor or coming up off open pools.
Being aware of your surroundings is always a must in float situations. Careful shot choices are crucial when livestock, barns or even residences are in the vicinity.
Kentucky has a number of major river systems that course through the commonwealth, and any of them can hold groups of ducks. The Kentucky, Green, Licking and the Ohio can all be productive systems . They are all especially good late in the year because water rarely freezes on these rivers. Additionally, they all have a great deal of timber cover and smaller tributaries that snake up into farmlands and woodlands.
Wildlife management areas such as the Sloughs WMA near Henderson; Yellowbank WMA outside of Stephensport, right along the Ohio River; as well as Ballard, Boatwright and Doug Travis WMAs along the Mississippi River are specifically managed with waterfowl in mind. While some areas are open on these public lands by advance application, some are also open to “walk-in” hunting.
The bulk of the lands on these WMAs are some of the best public properties Kentucky has for holding waterfowl. Other private land hunting in this region is also available in Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton counties.
One of the top spots for ducks that’s located a little farther from the Mississippi in Hickman County is Obion Creek. It’s a 4,200-acre patch of ground along the creek bottoms. When holding water it can pull a good number of ducks into timbered areas. This large area will require some scouting, but finding a few woodies tucked away in the flooded timber during a wet winter is certainly a good possibility.
“Wood ducks don’t move in big flocks like mallards and blacks,” said Bill Balda.
Balda is a duck hunter and wildlife biologist who oversees Kentucky’s hunter education program.
“They are more widely spread over the landscape, and though they might generally follow a flyway, they don’t get up and move in big groups when they head south.
“Wood ducks also have the ability to fly along and pitch into very small bodies of water, and are able to get up and out of water surrounded by timber and other vegetation.