6 Hot Winter Duck-Hunting Picks In Kentucky

Right now, our state is loaded with prime places to find mallards, pintails, woodies and other species! Here's a half dozen quacker-attracting areas to consider this winter season. (December 2008)

The drought in the summer and fall of 2007 left many Kentucky duck hunters wondering what the coming season would be like -- especially if things stayed as they were.

It takes water to attract and hold ducks. And last year, heading into the fall season most areas of the Bluegrass State were in severe need of it.

Yet fortunately, as the onset of the December season arrived, the rains returned. Ducks could be found on numerous waterways throughout the commonwealth.

According to last December's aerial surveys of Kentucky's most-used rivers, lakes and wetlands, conditions and habitat were in good shape.

Divers and dabblers will spend some time in our state, feeding and resting until the next weather front moves them along.

But the latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) breeding population survey indicates that overall, most of the 10 most abundant duck species in North America will probably be down in numbers from last season.

Irregular weather patterns at crucial times can cause a noticeable fluctuation in year-to-year availability. But the trends for canvasbacks, pintails and scaup remain well below their long-term averages.

Despite efforts by federal and state resource managers to improve their populations, these species are still having a tough time of it.

This season, the overall number of ducks may be off somewhat. But there are still some good hunting opportunities for mallards, blacks, teal and woodies. The USFWS noted that all these species are still above their long-term averages, and in sufficient abundance to provide a decent season. The trick is to hunt the most likely spots -- and to hunt when the weather is most conducive to bringing birds into Kentucky.

Some of the better places for ducks will range from the commonwealth's major reservoirs to wildlife management areas (WMAs) geared to waterfowl, to larger rivers whose waters remain open when cold temperatures ice things over to the north.

Even though the state has water just about anywhere you look, reports last year from biologists who conduct regular inventory surveys on various waterways suggested that hunters are likely to find more ducks using certain areas.

To help increase your chances of success this winter, let's familiarize you with some of these spots.

BOATWRIGHT WMA
Situated along the Ohio River's flood plain in Ballard County, Boatwright WMA's 8,400 acres is one of the best potential places in Kentucky to find winter season ducks.

Named in honor of Mike Boatwright, a long-term Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission member who advocated waterfowl conservation during his tenure, Boatwright WMA is comprised of several larger and smaller management units.

Last season, reports of duck use on this WMA indicated that at the beginning of December, several thousand ducks were present.

And further into the month, their numbers increased as habitat conditions improved. At one point during the season, Boatwright's oxbows, swamps and river bottoms ranked second only to Ballard WMA in the Purchase Region for holding the best numbers of ducks.

Hunters need to check the regulations that apply on Boatwright, as on any wildlife management area. But needless to say, this is one of the state's best spots to find waterfowl.

The major management units -- including Olmstead, Swan Lake and Peal -- all lie four or five miles west of Barlow. Some units serve as refuges, while others are open by advance application or standby hunting. Other areas offer hunting through a daily draw system.

On the Boatwright WMA, area managers do a number of things to attract and hold ducks and geese, such as creating moist-soil units and using pumps and levees to raise and lower water levels to encourage vegetation growth and manipulate crops designed for waterfowl use.

These practices enhance the natural habitat already there and improve the odds that ducks migrating down the Mississippi Flyway may stop over for a time, to feed and recharge.

This gives hunters the chance to work their calling and wing-shooting magic.

BALLARD WMA
Arguably, the Ballard WMA and surrounding acreage provide Kentucky's best enticements for waterfowl. Duck numbers on the area and outlying sloughs and backwaters can push up to 100,000 birds, depending on success during the breeding season, the weather and the time of year.

Last season in mid-December, biologists took an aerial look at parts of this WMA and the bordering section of the Ohio. Their estimates were near 75,000 ducks.

Hunting on Ballard is closely regulated because a portion of it serves as a refuge for waterfowl. Advance applications for hunting are offered, as well as standby for hunters who check in by 5 a.m., local time. Those who were originally drawn for a blind through the quota system, but who don't show up, yield their spots to those "standing by" to hunt.

Be sure to check all the regulations for this area. Two to remember are that hunters are limited to 25 shells, and they must stop hunting by 2 p.m.

Lead-shot shells are prohibited for all waterfowl hunting. You will be hunting partially flooded crop fields, along wetland and moist-soil units, along ponds and sloughs and in other similar settings. Up to four hunters may occupy a single blind.

"We try to help hunters be as successful as we can," said Ballard WMA manager Charlie Wilkins. "But the weather really makes the hunting times better or worse.

"When the ducks are here, most blinds will see some action -- and at times, of course, some blinds more than others.

"As with most any other kind of hunting, it's the luck of the draw, combined with the mercy of Mother Nature," he said.

"We can help get you out there and give you some tips. And then we turn you loose on your own to set yourself up, do some calling and enjoy the hunt.

"The objective of public hunting areas like Ballard is to give people the chan

ce to experience things they otherwise might not be able to. And we try to make it as high-quality as possible.

"The rest depends on factors that we have little control over. But whether or not you knock down a duck or goose," he concluded, "there are worse ways to spend a morning than being in the field."

TRADEWATER RIVER
In the lower Ohio River and western coalfield region of Kentucky, WMA manager Mike Morton notes that when conditions are right, the Tradewater River in Hopkins and Christian counties is "pretty hard to beat" for quality duck hunting.

In Manager Morton's 30-plus years with the state wildlife agency, he has flown countless waterfowl surveys. This waterway, he says, provides consistently good waterfowl habitat -- and hunting. The agency owns a small WMA named for this waterway just south of Dawson Springs.

"Ducks use the Tradewater a good bit each winter," said Morton. "But as with any other public land, you want to make every effort to visit and scout these spots, even after the season is over, to learn the terrain and find spots that hold ducks."

He notes that a good portion of the waterfowl hunters he encounters -- whether on the more well-known waterfowl areas such as the Sloughs WMA near Henderson, or those asking about places in the region like the Tradewater, Peabody WMA and others with good waterfowl habitat -- just don't realize that success is directly related to doing their homework beforehand.

He suggests that if you can't adequately scout just before you hunt, then you should cover some water. View the hunts as not only hunting, but as opportunities to look and learn for the next season.

Morton also advises to employ a guide if you can, when it's "a show up and go" kind of situation. Waterfowl hunting on public-use lands is different from duck hunting on a private or leased area.

"There are some spectacular spots and opportunities along the Ohio River pools and islands," he said.

We have backwaters and sloughs, rivers and larger creeks and bottomlands that are in public ownership and open for hunting. But unless you can get in there and explore, the flying-blind approach is a real gamble."

The Peabody WMA is a good example. Tons of creeks and ponds are scattered over this WMA's thousands of acres. But which ones are getting used more heavily -- or hold birds that haven't been disturbed too much -- is hard to determine unless you check them out in advance.

"In winter, when we fly trend surveys, we take the same route so that we can compare what we observe year to year," said Morton.

"And we only see a portion of the waterfowl on a given waterway or series of lakes and sloughs. We're trying to get a general feel if populations seem to be better or worse, and it helps us verify estimates of certain species over a period of time.

"Sometimes hunters check in and ask us what we're seeing on certain waters or areas. And if we report fewer numbers of ducks than the last time they checked, they want to know what's going on.

"It could simply be the birds have moved to some spot we don't fly over -- or due to a front the day before we surveyed, moved on. Or any number of other reasons," the biologist said.

Several factors influence where the birds are, including rain and snowfall, hunting pressure, if the water is open and whether weather fronts are moving in.

If you intend to hunt a certain place that is flooded or frozen over when you finally get there, you won't have much luck bagging ducks. But if you've scouted several places with different types of habitat, after a while you'll learn how birds react to changing conditions and when.

For example, they may be forced -- or get nudged -- from a bunch of small ponds and drainage creeks on some WMA to a big reservoir or river nearby.

The more you know about an area -- such as where the deeper holes of water are, what spots flood up a little when a good rain comes a day or two before -- the better your chances to salvage a good hunting trip if Mother Nature throws you a curve.

DOUG TRAVIS & OBION CREEK WMAs
Just south of Wickliffe and down through Bardwell, you'll find an excellent chunk of ground and water for ducks called the Doug Travis WMA (4,141 acres) on the Mississippi River in Carlisle and Hickman counties, along with Obion Creek WMA (4,258 acre) located a few miles southeast on the Hickman/Carlisle county line.

Both areas have superb waterfowl habitat.

All along the Obion Creek drainage is good duck country. The KDFWR has secured two tracts along Obion Creek west of Columbus, and another closer to the Mississippi, south of Columbus in Fulton County. More than 8,000 acres of bottomlands, sloughs and wetland units are available on these two areas combined.

"Hunting in the Mayfield and Obion Creek bottoms is influenced a lot by what's happening on the Mississippi River during the season," said Morton.

"When flood conditions occur on the big river, we see a lot of waterfowl move into these bottoms," he said. "There, water spreads out and offers a lot of shallow wetlands that ducks use heavily."

When freezing conditions occur, ducks will tend to group up more and move to bigger waterways. But when milder conditions prevail, they'll prefer flooded timber along creeks and rivers.

Places like Travis and Obion Creek WMAs will require hunters to take some time and get on these areas for a good look around. There's a lot of territory to cover.

When you talk to area managers about the hunting opportunities, you'll understand a lot more of what they tell you if you've already been to these areas and know what's there.

To get a general idea of how these properties are laid out, it's not a bad idea to visit the KDFWR's Web site and download maps of these areas.

OHIO RIVER
No survey of duck hunting in Kentucky would be complete without some thoughts on the Ohio River.

Several pools of the Ohio provide a haven for ducks during December and January.

When you consider that the central and eastern parts of the commonwealth contain fewer habitats than do the west, this tremendous resource is a duck hunter's best bet.

Any spot along the Ohio where a power plant is located tends to concentrate ducks in the colder weather. Intersections with other flows, such as the Licking or Kentucky rivers, attract birds, too.

A day of running the water to observe can tell you much about where you should set up the next m

orning.

Areas around islands in the river are also landmarks for waterfowl traveling up and down the Ohio River corridor.

Remember that in Kentucky, cold fronts proceeding from the north will push birds ahead of them.

Sometimes the first big push of open-water ducks will come to the Ohio when smaller ponds and shallow impoundments in the north of the state start to freeze over.

Hunters need to remember that commercial river traffic on the Ohio may affect where and how to set their spreads.

In places where barges are frequently moved, securing your decoys may take a little more effort if you don't want to spend half the morning retrieving them from downriver. Also important is to outfit your boat as inconspicuously as possible to avoid being detected, especially by ducks that use the Ohio for longer periods.

"We've got what I call 'stayers' and 'travelers,' " said Morton. "The stayers hang around for a good part of the season somewhere on or close to particular waterways. Travelers are those ducks that pass through here for just a short time, and then move on.

"The stayers know the terrain and can pick up oddities pretty quickly. They are often hard to decoy if things look out of place.

"Of course," he noted, "some groups of ducks won't set wing to any decoying or calling. So hunters can't expect to get every flock that does a flyby to come into gun range."

Regardless of which area or waterway you choose to try ducks on -- one of these we've highlighted, or some other spot -- doing some homework and talking with the area manager or public-lands biologist is big step in the right direction.

You can do a lot of research right on the Internet at http://fw.ky.gov. But you really need to visit these spots and "recon," as Mike Morton says, to find the honeyholes within the WMA or on the lake or river you select.

Can't manage to do it before the season comes? Then do it after duck season is over! Just because hunting concludes doesn't mean the birds have all gone away. You can still learn a great deal to help you save time and raise your odds next year.

Finally, remember that when you hunt public places, you likely won't be alone.

Keeping some distance from the next group or setup is not only courteous, but will improve your own ability to work birds effectively -- even if the absolute best spot is taken when you get there.

"Lots of times," said Morton, "a bad day of duck hunting can change to a good day within a minute. And minutes later, into a great day.

"If you measure the quality of your time spent by what you saw and experienced and getting to hunt with friends -- getting out with your dog, and so forth -- rather than how heavy your game bag is at the end of the hunt, you'll get a lot more out of waterfowling than what taking a limit gives you."

That's sound advice, no matter what or where you hunt.

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