Overview On Commonwealth Waterfowl Hotspots

December is prime time to find mallards, pintails, geese and more on our state's waterways -- from the Mississippi to the mighty Ohio, and other rivers as well. (Dec 2006)

"We started off with a bang last season -- a lot of bangs, I suspect. But toward the end of the season, we saw the harvest tail off, thanks to an early warming trend."

That statement from Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) Waterfowl Program coordinator Rocky Pritchert most likely sums up what most of last year's duck hunters experienced.

"We had a pretty hard freeze early on. That pushed a good number of birds into the Commonwealth in December. And our habitat conditions were good through the month over most of the state. So hunters were able to find plenty of opportunity and get in some consistently good hunting through the Christmas holiday period."

Then the weather started moderating and re-opened a lot of smaller bodies of water previously frozen. That's when ducks and geese spread out to the additional habitat, and made it tougher for hunters to locate and harvest them. Cold periods, when potholes, ponds and shallow-water impoundments are frozen solid, concentrate ducks on waterways like rivers and backwaters, or larger bodies of water like reservoirs.

"A big key to success on ducks is keeping tabs on where open water is when it gets sub-zero for an extended period," said Pritchert.

"If you can find places where a good bit of water is frozen, but a spot or two remains open, that's where a lot of the ducks in the area are going to spend time. When it thaws, they go all over the place."

Overall, Kentucky's reported duck harvest declined a little from the previous year, mostly due to the change in conditions toward the end of the season, dropping from 198,000 in 2004 to 187,000 birds in 2005. That's not a bunch, but some. Waterfowlers know that weather conditions play a big role, if not the biggest, in hunting success -- even more so than overall population numbers.

If harvest figures can help judge the health of duck populations, there has been a significant improvement in some duck numbers in recent years. Some species, however, have different nesting-habitat needs, which continue to concern resource managers. Currently, scaup, a species that comes through Kentucky during their migration, are on that list. Pritchert notes that hunters may see a reduction in the 2006 season bag of this species until the outlook improves.

Otherwise, there have been slight increases in the numbers of mallards, blacks, wood ducks, teal, gadwall, pintails, redheads and canvasbacks from a production standpoint. Overall, duck numbers are up around 14 percent, based on nesting-ground surveys.

But that doesn't necessarily mean harvest or success will show similar increases. Ideal weather is the key.

According to Pritchert, Kentucky's premier waterfowling areas should continue to offer similar opportunities. Since about two-thirds of Kentucky's duck harvest comes from the western end of the Commonwealth, you might suspect -- correctly! -- that the best public places for ducks and geese lie in the west.

BALLARD & BOATWRIGHT WMAs

Improvements in management and regulation to the Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) continue to better duck hunters' opportunities on this public area. This season, hunters who've applied to hunt the 8,000-plus-acre area will find some new approaches being taken in hunt setups. They should also benefit from additional habitat improvement work going on at the WMA.

"We're likely going to lengthen the hunting day and extend the time of when hunters have to be off the area to 2 p.m. this season," said Pritchert.

"We've been holding to the noon shooting hour closure on Ballard, but are going to relax that some. We have 2 p.m. closures on other WMAs around the region, which seems to have worked pretty well. We want to see how it does here.

"We are also going to discontinue pre-setting decoys around the public-use blinds, and allow hunters to be a little more versatile in setting up what they think is the best type of spreads for waterfowl.

"If ducks are doing better than geese at a given time, for example, hunters can go that route and concentrate more on what's in the neighborhood when they are there," said Pritchert.

The Boatwright WMA, also in the same vicinity, will initiate a daily blind draw process this season, rather than an apply-in-advance system as in past years. There are a couple of reasons for this change -- and a couple of new benefits for hunters, too.

One situation that frequently occurs with a pre-hunt draw system is that when the hunt date arrives, some hunters just don't show up.

In fact, the no-show rate is fairly high, and hunting opportunities are lost for other sportsmen. Blinds sit empty, and those who might have come down on the spur of the moment to perhaps get a fill-in spot, may not make the trip.

On Boatwright, hunters will be drawn for a blind on a daily basis from everyone who's there for the draw. There are several blinds available, and up to four hunters can occupy the same blind. If you decide you have some time to hunt, you can drive down, be in the draw that morning, and get to hunt without having to apply in advance for a date and location.

This is more attractive to some hunter's schedules than, for example, trying to set aside a weekend several months in advance. Things often pop up to sidetrack long-term planning. But with the day-to-day system, you can go when your time from work schedule lightens up, and have a very good chance of getting a place to hunt.

"I don't think we're going to be forced to turn down hardly anyone there for the daily draw on Boatwright WMA," said Pritchert.

"We want to try this approach on Boatwright and see if we can maximize utilization of the opportunity there. We'll do all we can to make sure everybody that shows up that morning gets a blind to hunt from," said the biologist.

Pritchert says that some of the hotter blinds on WMAs sometimes go several days without anyone being there to take advantage of them. If you scout, and keep in touch with the area manager, or a hunting friend who keeps up with bird numbers in the area, you improve your chances to do better at peak holding times.

BARKLEY LAKE VICINITY

Large waterways in Kentucky can sometimes be excellent for ducks when certain weather conditions occur t

o the north, and within the state. Pritchert reports that ongoing habitat improvement measures on the Duck Island Refuge have the potential to attract a larger number of ducks to the vicinity, when regional small ponds or flooded areas freeze over in colder weather.

On Barkley, permanent blind sites are assigned in advance to pre-drawn hunters. But if those blinds aren't being used on a given day, you can set up on those sites and hunt. Look around and notice what areas ducks seem to be using, and get as close as you can. Remember to stay clear of the refuge zones.

The larger waterways sparkle best when cold weather to the north encourages flights of birds southward, and those birds come to Kentucky only to find that they can't sit down and paddle around on puddles and backwaters in hardwood bottoms. That's when they'll turn to big lake coves for resting and feeding, or to spots on managed areas where water is being pumped in artificially to keep it open.

OHIO RIVER CORRIDOR

When cold weather comes calling and shuts down non-flowing waters, many waterfowlers turn to the Ohio River corridor for some superb duck hunting.

When adjacent land-locked holes of water freeze over down the length of this 600-mile waterway, ducks and geese will load up in the sloughs, creeks and on the main river. As long as you respect private landowner rights, you can slip into areas where birds are loafing and have some really high-quality hunting.

"You need to scout a little when you realize the conditions are favorable for the birds to be on the river," said Pritchert.

If the weather pattern is pretty stable, he said you could spend one day scouting and hunt the area within the next few days. Most of the time, the birds you've spotted will still be there.

"For best success, I think the modern duck hunter has to be a pretty mobile person and have several options open," said Pritchert.

"We have public lands and waters for people to use. But if they can supplement that with some private farm ponds or lakes, and be able to stay up on which ones are holding birds, that's the best combination.

"In central Kentucky especially, ponds in counties along the Ohio are great for ducks in December. But, you don't want to over-hunt those kinds of places -- for two reasons.

"One, the bird volume in this particular region, and in the east as well, is lower than to the far west. Second, birds will move off if you shoot a spot too often during the week. Leaving them alone is sometimes the best thing to do, to have a better hunt later.

"If you hunt public lands some and private lands some, you'll have a better chance of more consistent success on both throughout the entire season," said the biologist.

Watch for temporarily flooded fields or bottoms when heavy rains come. Lands like this found along the Ohio River can also be especially good when water gets over the banks in places, or inlets and tributaries spill over into overgrown fields or leftover croplands.

The mobile, adaptable hunter who can get permission for a day or two can cash in on spots that pop up overnight.

From the harvest chart, you can see that generally speaking, duck hunters have been more successful and in an upward trend for the last decade. Pritchert believes one reason why Kentucky duck hunters have done better in recent years is because of the increase in the resident goose population.

Sound strange? Well, here's why.

"This applies to several places, but probably the most in the central Kentucky region," he began. "There are a lot more homegrown geese around now than 10 years ago -- a lot. And here's what happens.

"Hunters can see geese pretty easily as drive around along country roads during the season. The birds are sitting on pond banks, out in fields feeding, or flying around and landing on certain bodies of water.

"When hunters get access to hunt these geese, and approach the pond, they often find a few or maybe several ducks there, too. Or a group strays in during the goose hunt from another pond. Ducks are there many times, but you can't see them because they're up near the bank, sort of hidden. They're smaller and they're harder to see.

"When we do aerial flight surveys during the season, you'd be surprised how many V-formations we see on pond surfaces that tell us a group of ducks are there. But you'd otherwise not know it from normal ground level observation, until they fly up in front of you," said Pritchert.

Some of our management areas have several small impoundments and creeks that run through the property. It might not be a bad idea to investigate those spots, too, for a slip-in hunt. Sometimes when you get up a little bunch of birds unexpectedly, they will come back in a little later, and give you good shots. You just have to keep your eyes open and hang around a while, or take a walk and come back ready next time.

PAINTSVILLE & CAVE RUN LAKE WMAs

If you go to the southeastern part of Kentucky, you can just about count on one hand how many waterfowl permits are sold each year. There's just not much duck hunting going on.

In the northeastern region, bigger reservoirs like Cave Run Lake and Yatesville Lake get some action when conditions are right, much of which happens in timbered coves on these waters.

If you can make the time to visit these lakes and motor around on them a little, it shouldn't take you too long to determine if birds are using these lakes for stopovers. What's great about these places is that there are hardly any special requirements for duck hunting other than the statewide season laws on these lakes, which gives hunters maximum versatility.

"There are times when flights of birds show up around these lakes and other nearby bodies of water, and they usually wind up lounging in the tree-lined coves for the most part," said Pritchert.

Most hunters will watch for a higher traffic pattern of movement, get in position to intercept, get settled and try to work passing birds into shotgun range. After a while, they may relocate to another embayment where they've noticed activity and hit several locations within a morning's time.

No matter which tactic you use, if you choose to hunt a public waterway or wildlife management area, it's imperative that you review the laws for each place. On larger WMAs, you'll generally find an area manager stationed on site, or a public lands biologist, who can help you with details and sometimes waterfowl usage reports.

Above all, keep tabs on the weather. A day or two after a good hard cold snap to the north is usually your best bet for finding migrating ducks and geese coming through. You just have to get out there and see if they show up sometimes, using

the best available knowledge you've got.

Complete late waterfowl hunting season information is published in the 2006-07 Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide, available online at fw.ky.gov under "Hunting," or by calling the KDFWR Information Center weekdays 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern, at 1-800-858-1549. You may also want to request the agency's Guide to Wildlife Management Areas, and perhaps the booklet on Kentucky's Boating and Fishing Access Sites for getting on public waterways this winter.

Last of all, please remember that cold weather dictates outfitting with a particular type of clothes and shoes, and that boating in cold weather means taking no chances. You don't want to be miserably uncomfortable out there. Should a problem come up, not a lot of other people are going to be on the water in December and January if you need help.

Have your equipment in good working order, and leave someone else with your hunt plan and an estimated return time. Be sure your personal floating devices are at hand, should anything unexpected occur.

It's not often that something other than the ducks and dogs wind up in the water. But better to over-prep a little than take unnecessary risks.

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