Best Bets For Volunteer State Ducks & Geese

Best Bets For Volunteer State Ducks & Geese

Tennessee duck hunters are hoping for an upswing in duck numbers this season. Will it happen?

Photo by Ken Archer

Having had relatively tough seasons for the last four or more years, died-in-the-wool waterfowlers are hoping for just a taste of the action seen in the glory days of Tennessee duck and goose hunting. Times and habitat have changed and so have duck and goose habits. Forced to change and adapt with them, hunters are learning ways to take a limit here and there.

Successful strategies may call for some nomadic hunting, as well as changing decoy spreads and even blinds. However they change their tactics, Tennessee duck and goose hunters hope for a better season this time around than we've seen in the past few.

THE WATERFOWL OUTLOOK

When biologists begin to make estimations of waterfowl for an upcoming season, one of the important factors they consider are the habitat conditions in Canada.

Following dry early spring weather, conditions in British Columbia ranged from fair to poor in the interior to good on the coast. Ducks Unlimited (DU) said conditions in the prairies remained unchanged from the last several spring reports and ranged from fair to poor in Alberta and Saskatchewan to very good in Manitoba.

Central and northern Alberta were experiencing the best conditions than they have had in years and waterfowl recruitment was expected to be good in that area. Conditions in the Western Boreal forest were largely good to very good. The outlook for southeastern Ontario had also dramatically improved, and conditions across eastern Canada were good to very good.

Waterfowlers interested in the conditions of the prairie region of the country during breeding season can track those conditions by visiting the DU link below. The Great Plains region frequently adds new information to the Web site about ongoing research efforts in the prairies. Currently, everyone can tune in for weekly updates on the status of nesting activity, updated maps of nest locations, and insight from the field crews each spring and summer.

Mike Checkett, a regional biologist for DU, said as mid-June arrived, nesting activity was peaking across the breeding grounds. Blue-winged teal continued their nesting efforts; mallards and even a few pintails continued to initiate additional nests. Gadwall and lesser scaup nesting activities were intensifying. Much of the Prairie Pothole Region of the U.S. and Canada had been receiving substantial rains in the first part of June. This is welcome news for late nesting species like gadwalls, shovelers and scaup as well as re-nesting attempts by early nesting species like mallards and pintails.

DU said that each week new information is added on what's happening across their research sites in North Dakota, and twice monthly, the status of radio-marked hen mallards in the Sandhills of Nebraska is updated with the latest insight from their researchers. Waterfowlers will find this a useful and interesting way to keep a "pulse on the prairies" during the breeding season. Updates can be seen on the following link:

http://prairie.ducks.org/research.

Checkett said the spring of 2005 represented DU's sixth year of research in the Dakotas on the factors influencing duck nesting success. Over that time, DU has been able to monitor more than 9,000 duck nests and 600 non-game bird nests. The results have confirmed the important influence the amount and arrangement of grassland have on the success rate of ducks and other grassland nesting birds when attempting to hatch nests. A project description can be found at

www.ducks.org/News/PrairieResearchContinues.asp, and all updates can be accessed via the following link:

http://prairie.ducks.org/research.

When it comes to what hunters can expect this fall, Checkett added that no matter how many ducks are expected in the fall flight to be winging their way south, weather and habitat conditions both continentally and locally will have the most influence on individual hunting opportunity and success.

On the hunt, Checkett said his last year was actually quite good. He was lucky to have been able to hunt in five different states. He prides himself on being mobile and scouting public areas. To be successful last year, he said you really had to chase the birds.

Checkett said nowadays you must be mobile. Also, you must be better at everything. Better calling, better camo blind, and better decoy sets that do not look like average decoy spreads need to be in your arsenal. These birds have never faced the pressures that they do in the present. Checkett believes this seems to be impacting some of their behavior.

Do not be afraid to experiment. Hunt during the midday; use decoys of species other than mallards; hunt over three of the most realistic magnum decoys you can afford; get low to the ground using a layout blind or something as simple and fast as a grass mat and lie on a levee.

His best advice for young guns is not to pressure themselves. Limits never should be expected. Remember, duck populations are cyclical and follow the drought/wet cycles on the prairie nesting grounds.

Likewise, how far south the ducks go and the distribution of wintering ducks is very much dependent on the weather and current habitat conditions.

You should be selective on the days you hunt. During tougher years, make sure you watch the weather and try to be out hunting when fronts are moving through. Even in the tough years, there are flight days where everyone seems to find success.

He finished by saying you cannot shoot ducks from the couch: You need to get out in the field if you're going to have any shooting at all.

FROM THE FIELD

Richard Simms, an outdoor writer and television host out of Chattanooga, spends his waterfowl days all over Tennessee. Simms said he can't help but believe we're in a long-term warming weather pattern that will continue to impact Southern hunters significantly. His opinion, he admits, is based solely on gut feeling, but he said ducks don't migrate because they want to. They only migrate when they have to.

Simms can be very specific about last season. Last season, he killed 1.78 ducks per hunt day (he hunted 23 days, all or part). That was the second-lowest average since he started keeping detailed records seven years ago. His highest average was in the season ending in 2001 when Simms ended the season with an average of 3.36 ducks per day. The lowest was 1.45 per day in the season en

ding in 2003.

The veteran waterfowler said he isn't doing a thing different now than he did in the past. In good times and bad, he maintains the same basics. You scout hard, you hunt hard, and don't give up because on the right days, good fortune will shine on you. He said 90 percent of the game is just showing up.

On the very last day of the season, he and four friends hunted one of their favorite areas that had actually yielded very little. Two guys had been to the exact same spot two days prior and seen a grand total of four ducks. Lo and behold, Simms said the stars aligned just right and the five of them limited out in about an hour. That one day made it real easy to forget the other 22 tough days.

Simms has this advice for duck hunters. His first rule is not to call. He's a firm believer in diligent scouting and staying mobile. If you run a lot of gas through the boat and find the places the ducks want to be, you won't need to call them. He said we don't have enough ducks in East Tennessee to depend on hailing the occasional flyby. You have to find where a dozen ducks are feeding and "get under 'em." If you do that, you stand a better chance of scaring them off with a bad call than calling them in with a good call.

The same is true of robo-ducks for him. If he's hunting an area where he knows ducks have been feeding, Simms will shun the robo-ducks. However, a good jerk string decoy will always be a duck hunter's best friend.

Are duck hunters spoiled? Simms said absolutely. He started duck hunting in 1969. Those first few years if they killed a duck, they had an incredible day. Nowadays if you didn't limit out, Simms said many folks think you might as well have stayed home in bed, and that drives him crazy.

He has been tainted by the "quantity over quality" syndrome. However, Simms struggles to remember that even in his worst years, he's having incredible success by East Tennessee standards from a few decades ago. In many ways, Simms said the good old days really weren't that good.

Renowned Kentucky Lake guide Steve McCadams keeps as keen an eye on updates from USFWS, DU, and the Canadian Wildlife Service as anyone. He said some areas of Saskatchewan, where many of Tennessee's and the Mississippi Flyway ducks (mallards) originate, appear to have had good water, and nesting efforts/habitat have been good this year.

McCadams thinks many Tennessee and Southern hunters, along with other members of the Mississippi Flyway states, would embrace a reduction in season lengths and bag limits in hopes of improvement, i.e., less hunting pressure, as the ducks are called and shot at for 60-day segments in all the states from the time they reach the continental U.S. to Louisiana.

While the jury is still out as to why duck numbers have been down, McCadams said weather (snowmelt) is still a major factor and we've had two to three years of relatively mild conditions. And this past year, two-thirds of the Tennessee season competed with flooding along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Because the weather didn't get cold enough to freeze much of this backwater, places like southeast Missouri and western Kentucky, along with extreme west Tennessee along the Mississippi River, played host to big numbers of ducks that stayed put.

With many ducks changing their flight patterns, in addition to hanging around the flooded areas and not venturing up the river bottoms of west Tennessee, they have also begun to feed at night and rest up in the daytime. That's a transition that McCadams said some feel is in response to hunting pressure both here and elsewhere in the flyway.

Many waterfowlers question the numbers on fall flight forecasts during poor seasons. Breeding ground forecasts can suggest that there will be good numbers of ducks, but Tennessee hunters may not see those ducks. McCadams said weather is still the big factor and ducks will return to Tennessee in good numbers when freezing up north occurs and those big rivers to our north don't flood out.

Last year, McCadams had an overall pretty good season with many ducks taken before Christmas, about the halfway mark. They had some blustery weather at times and bagged big numbers and a variety of species. Still, the season was unpredictable, especially during the second half, as warm weather and light winds dominated the waterfowling scene. Certain indications, like greenwing teal flights lingering in the area up through Christmas and the lack of diver species, were hints that warm conditions didn't stimulate a major migration to Southern states.

To combat these tougher times, McCadams is always experimenting but at the same time, relying on 35-plus years of scanning the skies and trying to read the ducks. He watches their behavior closely and how they react or don't react. McCadams is using spinning wing decoys less than he did four or five years ago, as he thinks the mature ducks (mallards) have wised up.

Still, he wants movement in the spread, so a variety of jerk strings, swimming decoys, mallard machine-type setups enhance his spreads, especially on those calm days. Other than that, he hasn't changed much but will occasionally try smaller decoy setups in temporary blinds in areas that ducks have been using.

McCadams recommends that any young or novice caller spend time with a veteran caller both in the blind and around the back yard. Learning the variety of sounds from an experienced caller, namely the hail call, lonesome hen call and feed call, will get the novice started on the right path and shorten the time it takes to have successful outings.

He said knowing what sounds to make is one thing, but knowing when to use them is another. McCadams has seen his share of decent sounding calls flare ducks or let them scoot off only because the caller didn't know how to read the birds and use the right call at the right time. He said the tendency for most young or novice callers is to overblow at ducks. Sometimes a hunter's excitement overrides judgment, instead of letting the decoy spread do the work while the call just gets their attention and keeps the ducks at ease.

Jason Edmonds, a waterfowl guide from West Tennessee, spends more time chasing geese than ducks. He said the downside of goose hunting today is that it's so weather driven, and he really believes the glory days for migrators are over. Edmonds said there is still hope because hunters can key on the growing population of resident geese in Tennessee. When the big birds do migrate down, they get with pockets of resident geese and offer additional opportunities.

The goose man spends most of his Tennessee season hunting places along refuges, saying they are more key now than the traditional spots. From what he observed guiding and hunting for Canada geese north of Chicago the rest of the season, Edmonds said snow cover is definitely the key to making geese move. He said temperatures could drop to 5 degrees and they'd stay put, but once the snow arrived, they'd be on the move and ready to migrate south.

Tougher times even call for varied strategies in goose pits. Edmonds said he's added realism to his goose spread for

increased success. He uses Higdon Motion Decoys to add life and is big on using that flocking material on their heads. That's the black velvet adhesive that gives them a dull, black look that doesn't reflect sunlight like conventional decoys. He said it makes a difference. Throw in some flagging, and you have life in the spread.

Regardless, Edmonds said Tennessee hunters are definitely better off to target resident geese and take the push of migrators when they come. There will still be a few that blow through. Even up north where geese have plenty of habitat and plenty of food, Edmonds said weather is key. Use the fronts and especially snow to your advantage. Snow makes them move, so you'll just want to be between them and where they want to feed. A pit setup between a refuge and a feeding ground is a starting strategy. Sometimes, you'll have to wait all day on them to move -- but they will if the right conditions exist.

You can reach Steve McCadams at stevemc@charter.net or on the Web at

www.stevemccadams.com.

You can hunt with Jason Edmonds by calling Ultimate Waterfowlers at (847) 487-9603 or (731) 571-8989.

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