Best Bets For Volunteer Ducks & Geese

Hunting ducks and geese has become anything but easy in recent years. Here's a starting point to finding your birds. (November 2007)

Photo by Robert Sloan.

You can't go duck hunting -- even in good spots -- more than about three times before you realize that there are no sure bets for taking waterfowl in Tennessee (or the rest of the country for that matter). The secret to duck and goose hunting success is being out there, gaining experience and spending time in the blind. The rest will just happen.

We've taken some time to look at what hunters can expect from this year's fall flights and prospects from around the country and specifically here in Tennessee. We've also thrown in a quick look or two at where you can find ducks and geese in solid numbers in the Volunteer State. Keep in mind, though, that a good spot to hunt ducks under the right conditions is only part of the equation for duck-hunting success. No matter what the fall flight or the weather is like, the guys who shoot the most ducks are the guys who are out in the blinds regardless of what weather Mother Nature throws at them.

FALL FLIGHT OR NOT?

Each year, I like to touch base with Ducks Unlimited's media relations biologist Mike Checkett for the first look at how the fall flight may be shaping up. Although the USFWS May pond and breeding pair counts were incomplete as far as analysis goes at this writing, Checkett said the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish conducts its own long-running waterfowl survey each spring by means of roadside counts along standard survey routes. Although their survey roughly correlates with patterns observed in the May Survey, there is annual variation between the two.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department's 60th annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 3.2 million birds, down 13 percent from last year but still 51 percent above the long-term average.

The survey, conducted May 7-11, showed duck indices were down or unchanged from 2006, depending on the species. Mallards, pintails, gadwalls, widgeon, scaup and ruddy ducks were about the same as last year. Green-winged teal (35 percent) and canvasbacks (30 percent) had the most significant decreases. However, all species except pintails remained above the 1948-2006 average.

The 2007 water index was up 39 percent from 2006 and 43 percent above long term. Mike Johnson, game management section leader, cautions that the index is based on basins with water, and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands.

"Our survey crews indicated that many wet basins held very little water at the time of the survey, and that a high percentage of ponds that had small amounts of water would soon be totally dry without the addition of significant precipitation," he said.

Reports suggest South Dakota is experiencing significantly improved water conditions, due primarily to late winter and early spring precipitation. In addition, reports from Canada indicate that for the third consecutive year much of the prairie pothole region and parklands continue to experience good to excellent water conditions.

An analysis of the July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production, and a better insight into what to expect this fall, Johnson said.

"Our observations to date indicate that production may be reduced in much of the state due to dry conditions and reduced wetland availability for brood production," he added. "However, fall weather always has a big impact on the success of the hunting season."

Checkett knows weather is the key to duck movement. He added weather and habitat conditions, both continentally and within a specific region, influence waterfowl migration and subsequent hunter opportunity and harvest.

Last year, Checkett said Tennessee did very well when early fronts and snowstorms pushed large numbers of birds south. Hunting became cold quickly as temperatures rose after Christmas and unseasonably warm weather lingered throughout much of January.

What happens in Canada in the spring affects what happens in Tennessee in the fall and winter. Checkett said the Atlantic Provinces migration was in full swing by early April in Atlantic Canada, as large numbers of waterfowl returned to their breeding grounds. Wetland habitats are in very good shape throughout the region, boding well for this year's breeding effort.

In the north-central U.S., early spring precipitation greatly improved habitat conditions across much of the Great Plains states. Good wetland conditions are present in the eastern Dakotas, southern Minnesota, and southern and western Montana. Waterfowl habitat conditions in the central Dakotas, northeastern Montana and northeastern Minnesota remain variable, but are generally rated fair.

With all that said, Checkett noted that hunters should still expect the biggest push of ducks with the first cold fronts containing snow when the hunting opens.

TENNESSEE -- SPECIFICALLY

Tim White, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's waterfowl program coordinator, said there hasn't really been a lack of success the past couple of years overall. Last year was down a bit in some parts of the state, but overall our harvest was okay. He added our midwinter count two years ago was the highest we have ever had.

This past midwinter count was lower, but that was because of extremely mild weather in late December and through mid-January. The past three years have seen good wetland conditions in the prairies and reproduction has been good. Overall, hunting was not as good this past season as it was the previous year, but it was still fairly good at times when water conditions and weather conditions were favorable.

"There is no doubt that ducks are going to stay north of us if we have mild winters or dry river bottoms," White added. "Global warming sure does seem to be a reality to me . . . whatever the cause, it is happening."

For this year, White said the prairies are wet again and reproduction should be good. There will likely be a 60-day season, bag limits may change on scaup, pintails, widgeon or canvasbacks if their numbers are down, but it appears all will be in good shape except maybe scaup.

Again, White said there hasn't been a problem with the fall flights coming out of the prairies, but it is true that weather plays a huge factor in our duck hunting. The past season saw record mild temperatures during the majority of our season and mallards stacked up in Missouri and northern Arkansas. White said hunting was still good around Reelfoot and along the Mississippi River corridor,

but Kentucky Lake was slow, as were most points east after the first two weeks.

White said it is mostly a factor of mild weather and dry conditions that have influenced our hunting and duck numbers historically, and that is still the case. We need three ingredients in order to have good duck numbers and good hunting.

First, we need good reproduction.

Second, we need cold weather in December and January.

Third, we need good rains to flood our river bottoms and wetlands to hold the ducks when they arrive.

Two years ago saw a confluence of all three ingredients, and Tennessee had record numbers. Last year, we had cold weather early but dry conditions, and when the rain came, it was with unseasonably (record-setting) mild weather. Hunting was not so good. Two years ago, weather was very cold and ducks came in record numbers, but we were bone dry. None of our rivers were flooded. Ducks stacked up on refuges and private lands, but didn't stay long because of the drought. Those hunters who had water had a banner year.

What can we expect this year? White said duck numbers should be good, but weather is an unknown. If we are wet, our hunting will be good. If it's cold up north, our hunting will be good. If we are wet and it's cold up north, our hunting will be great. White said, on the whole, the best news is that the prairies are wet because everything else depends on that.

Hunters are under the impression that duck numbers aren't what they were, but White said duck reproduction on the prairies should be excellent. We will know more when the May pond count and breeding mallard pair counts come in. They determine whether we will have a liberal or moderate season, but he said he can tell us now, things look good and he doubts any changes are coming other than minor tweaks to bag limits for some minor species like scaup.

Hunters have also questioned whether refuges should be opened up to hunting. White said the refuge system we have built is responsible for our ability to hold ducks and there are no unhunted areas in the state anymore. ATVs, go-devils, etc., have allowed us to get into all areas that ducks use.

If ducks are sitting somewhere on private property during duck season, somebody is hunting them. The refuges provide some food, but mostly provide a place where ducks can congregate and not be disturbed. Many fly out at different times during the day to feed, loaf and provide opportunities for hunters in the area.

White said if we open refuges to hunting in any way, that disturbance will drive the ducks away and there is nowhere they can go to keep from being shot. He said the answer to improving our hunting across the state might be to add more refuges. Look at the hunting around any refuge and you will see that it's pretty good. Ducks also jump from refuge to refuge and provide hunting opportunities along the way.

State waterfowl refuges serve the same purpose as federal refuges, and White has not heard anyone in the agency who advocates hunting on refuges. He said it would be wrong ethically, and it would kill our duck hunting while only providing one or two good hunts. Our duck hunting is better because of the refuge system.

"I am a hunter, and I get frustrated when my hunting is not good (which has been the case three of the past four years)," White said. "But I know that hunting the refuges would not improve hunting on private lands and (in fact) would have the opposite effect."

As for geese, White said the migratory flocks of Canada geese (called interior Canada geese) are stable, but they don't migrate very far south any more. In Tennessee, we harvested less than 2,500 migratory geese last year. More than 90 percent of our goose harvest is resident geese.

White added the migratory flocks have changed their migratory patterns. Many different factors are at work here. They are much more able to find food up north because of warm winters and no-till farming. Secondly, they encounter resident Canada geese along the way and tend to stop and interact with those flocks. Third, they have interbred some with the resident flocks and may be losing some of their instinct to migrate.

Whatever the cause, White said we don't get any significant numbers of migratory Canada geese in Tennessee and most of our goose hunting is due to resident flocks. The resident geese are really a valuable waterfowl resource. White noted they provide plenty of goose hunting here in Tennessee, maybe more than when the migratory flocks used to come down. The resident geese are more widespread across the state and hunting is very well distributed, in Middle and East Tennessee particularly. Our resident flock has been fairly stable over the last several years, and we have about 50,000 statewide.

YOUR BEST BETS

Reelfoot Lake

"The last two years have been pretty good here at Reelfoot Lake," said longtime waterfowl guide Billy Blakely. Based on that, he said he hopes this season brings some of the same luck. Right now, thanks to this past summer's drought conditions, Blakely expects big things during the 2007 duck season. The lake is low, and the better news for duck hunters is Reelfoot is the only water in town, with other wet spots dried up. Blakely said that situation usually means dynamite hunting at the Quake Lake.

Blakely said from his years of experience, the best two periods to find yourself on a guided hunt at Reelfoot are in mid-December and the second week of January. The veteran guide said he can look back at his hunting journal and see these two periods almost always have a guaranteed cold front associated with them.

At Reelfoot, Blakely said hunters should time their hunting around any kind of front, and it doesn't always have to be a cold one. Hunters used to key their shooting around prevailing northern winds, but Blakely said warm fronts late in the season would often push ducks back up the Mississippi Flyway to Reelfoot. He laughed and said you now look for ducks to move on warm southern winds. You can experience Reelfoot by calling 877-Blu-Bank to book a hunt with Blakely, or visit the Web site at www.bluebankresort.com.

Kentucky Lake

"If we have cold weather, we'll have ducks," said guide Garry Mason at Kentucky Lake. Looking forward to the upcoming hunt, Mason said it's always his policy to have a good outlook. He added it's hard to complain about the opportunity to hunt every day. With duck hunting, he said we're always the eternal optimists before the shooting starts and then the eternal pessimists when the season is over. Mason said the early reports from friends in places like South Dakota find wet conditions pointing toward good duck numbers this year. However, as Mason also pointed out, rain makes ducks -- but we need real cold weather to see them.

Mason said the first week of the season traditionally offers some good duck shooting on Kentucky Lake. After that, he said he really likes the hunting around the last week of the season in late January. As a matter of fact, the last few youth hunts associated with the first weekend of Fe

bruary have offered some of the best opportunities of the year the last few seasons. Mason said it's not only an exceptional hunt, but also a sight to see when the kids have some good shooting.

Weather patterns that hunters should key on for Kentucky Lake are associated with cold fronts, cold fronts and then warm fronts, Mason said. He explained that cold fronts have always been key, but in the last few years, with the warmer late duck hunting, the latter part of the season can be good as ducks move back up the flyway. He said it's nothing for ducks to fly a couple hundred miles to avoid a warm spell and return back to a comfort zone. To experience the best that Kentucky Lake has to offer during cold and hot hunting, call Mason at (731) 593-5429.

Resident Geese And More

The reigning State Champion Goose Caller J.R. Adkins said he's excited about the prospects of the upcoming goose hunting. Based on the good spring hatch, he thinks hunters are in for a good season in 2007.

Adkins said he personally likes the last two weeks of the goose season best. The biggest reason is that in the recent years, we didn't have any serious cold fronts until after mid-January. Another factor is that there's reduced hunting pressure late in the season, and it's also the time that we start seeing a few migrators in the mix. Adkins said you don't start seeing any banded birds until after the middle of January.

As for resident geese and weather patterns, Adkins said local birds don't move very early when it's real cold. Mild weather is best for resident shooting as they'll stay on routine feeding flights and can be more easily patterned. Still, Adkins likes to see a few big cold fronts because of the opportunity it brings for migrators but knows super cold fronts hurt resident goose movements. That's a little of both worlds. J.R Adkins is a member of the Bass Pro Shops hunting pro staff; this fall and winter, he will do seminars at the Bass Pro Shops Sevierville store.

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