Bluegrass State Waterfowl Update

Here's the latest on what you can expect this season for ducks and geese throughout the Commonwealth. (Nov 2006)

When it comes to waterfowl hunting in Kentucky, the phrase "So much depends on the weather" couldn't be truer. The weather not only has everything to do with how many ducks and geese are available up north to make the fall migration, but also determines when -- and if -- the birds are here in good numbers during Kentucky's waterfowl season.

LAST SEASON'S RESULTS

During 2005, extremely dry conditions across most of Kentucky had wetland habitat conditions ranging from fair to poor, according to Rocky Pritchert, the Waterfowl Program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

"The general lack of rain through summer and fall left many natural wetlands dry, providing little habitat for fall-migrating waterfowl," explained Pritchert. "This poor condition of naturally flooded wetlands caused birds to concentrate on those shallow wetlands that were mechanically pumped."

Despite these poor habitat conditions, hunting during the early portion of Kentucky's duck season was classified as good.

"The 2005 duck season began on a high note, despite the mild and relatively dry conditions," said Pritchert. "While waterfowl numbers built slowly, they still were about 54 percent higher than those reported in November 2004 -- and 84 percent higher than the most recent 5-year average."

As the second split of Kentucky's duck season began in December, bird numbers continued to build, peaking out at almost 17 percent above the number observed during the same time period in 2004.

"Duck hunters continued to report relatively good success through the first 30 days of the season," reported Pritchert. "Subfreezing temperatures concentrated birds on reservoirs, rivers and other open water, most of which is open to hunting."

The New Year brought with it mild temperatures and moderate rains, opening up water and dispersing the ducks to other areas. Late January's duck numbers were only about one-half of those of the same period in 2005, and were the lowest observed in the last six years.

How you viewed Kentucky's 2005 goose season probably had a lot to do with which side of the William H. Natcher Parkway you spent most of your hunting time on. Despite favorable breeding conditions up north, the traditional western hotspots saw very few migrant geese making their way into Kentucky.

"Goose hunting was generally poor in Kentucky's two Canada goose reporting areas," said Pritchert, speaking of Ballard and Henderson-Union.

"The relatively low number of birds wintering on the management areas, along with above-normal temperatures, resulted in little bird movement."

In fact, numbers from the reporting zones indicated that hunters harvested only about 14 percent of the 9,300-bird quota assigned for the 2005-06 season.

Hunters east of the parkway found the hunting a little more favorable, thanks to Kentucky's burgeoning population of resident Canada geese. While Pritchert couldn't give an official estimate of their numbers, he felt comfortable in saying that we went over the 30,000-bird mark. Most of those birds are located in the eastern two-thirds of the state and can provide hunters excellent wingshooting opportunities when there are no northern birds to be found.

"Canada goose hunting across the rest of the state ranged from fair to good, depending on where and when you were hunting," explained Pritchert. "Good numbers of resident geese and foreign giants from other states were found in central and northern Kentucky."

The weather played a part in hunting success during mid-December through early January, when a prolonged period of subfreezing temperatures caused most ponds and small lakes to freeze. Temperatures turned warmer during mid-January, but the hunting continued to be fair to good through the end of the season.

WHAT TO EXPECT NOW

So just what does the 2006-07 waterfowl season have in store for Bluegrass State hunters this year? Once again, much of that depends on the weather! Habitat conditions in the northern breeding areas are highly variable.

With overall duck numbers at or near their long-term average, and favorable weather conditions up north, the stage could be set for an excellent waterfowl season for Kentucky hunters. The key will be getting the cold weather up north needed in order to push the birds south into Kentucky at just the right time --

And then, having enough water around to hold the birds here for as long as possible.

Even without the most favorable weather conditions, there are certain areas across the state where waterfowlers have the consistently best chance at getting in on some wingshooting action. From west to east, here are some spots to key in on this fall.

WEST

While warmer weather conditions over the last two years have caused poor goose hunting in traditional western strongholds like Ballard and the Sloughs WMAs, the duck hunting has been quite good at times.

Hunting on both areas is tightly controlled, and the requirements vary by unit. Several of the tracts require advanced applications, while limited walk-in opportunities exist at the Sloughs WMA.

Other areas worth noting in the west are Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which cover over 200,000 acres. More often than not, these two areas provide excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities.

Some bays on the Land Between the Lakes (LBL) side and some of the lakes' islands are designated as waterfowl refuges and are closed to hunting. Be sure and get a map of these areas before heading afield.

Another option for waterfowl hunters in the western portion of the state, is Peabody, covering over 60,000 acres scattered with strip-mine pits of all sizes. The area has a healthy population of resident Canada geese and can draw good numbers of mallards, wood ducks, scaup, ringnecks and gadwalls as well. Like many of these WMAs, Peabody has a few areas designated as waterfowl refuges, and all waterfowl hunting on the area ends at 2 p.m. each day.

Peabody also requires a $12.50 user permit, available wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold.

CENTRAL

Although waterfowl hunting in Kentucky used to be synonymous with a trip to the western end of the state, that's just not the case anymore, r

eports Pritchert. Over the last 20 years, the creation of numerous small ponds, lakes and wetlands has greatly improved waterfowl hunting in the state's central and eastern portions. Consequently, most of the waterfowl hunting opportunities in the central portion of Kentucky are found on private lands.

Conversely, when the weather turns foul and the temperatures drop low enough for these smaller lakes and ponds to freeze over, the public-hunting opportunities can be excellent. During these conditions, waterfowl will start keying in on the area's larger lakes and reservoirs, such as Taylorsville and Green River lakes, plus Lake Cumberland.

In this region, another strong waterfowl destination is the Ohio River. Both ducks and geese can be found using the river in abundance, but Pritchert recommends staying mobile. "The key to success on the Ohio River is keeping in mind that you'll likely have to move some to be where the ducks are."

That means regular scouting will be the key to successful hunting. Hunters should focus their attention on the numerous inlets and feeder creeks along the river.

EAST

The eastern portion of the state is blessed with numerous reservoirs and streams that can hold good numbers of waterfowl. The healthy resident goose population around Cave Run Lake has also greatly improved waterfowl hunting in the area. Although most of the lake is closed to goose hunting, the Licking River and many of the surrounding streams, ponds and lakes all reap the benefits of the local birds.

Other potentially good spots in the east are Yatesville, Grayson, and Paintsville lakes. When the mercury drops enough to cover local ponds and streams with ice, these reservoirs -- like their counterparts in the central portion of the state -- will only get better.

Overall, the outlook for Kentucky's waterfowl season is promising. Duck numbers should be similar to or better than last year, and geese numbers should show improvement. But when it comes to hunting waterfowl, the weather will be the deciding factor on how Commonwealth hunters fare this season.

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