Best Bets For Tennessee Waterfowling

The Volunteer State's duck and goose hunting has had many ups and downs the last few seasons. This year looks better than average -- if all goes well. (November 2008)

With the word from the spring duck surveys on the prairies not the most positive one on record, Volunteer waterfowl hunters have plenty to be concerned about with the fast-approaching duck and goose seasons.

If we've learned anything about hunting and fishing in this state, you can't always predict what's going to happen. With duck hunting, that couldn't be more true than in the last five or six years. We've seen up and down seasons, some dry runs and some very unexpected successes.

What it all boils down to is it's still just hunting. You can't kill them sitting on the couch, and the last time I went duck hunting it wasn't all about the kill anyway. It's time to straighten things out a bit, get in the blind -- some ducks just might show up.

THE NUMBERS GAME

Duck season is about predictions and, in modern times, budget cuts. It doesn't take a genius to know that the future of duck hunting lies with what we do now to protect duck habitat. That lesson was learned decades ago. Let's look at the status of current waterfowl populations based on what's happening in the prairie potholes that produce ducks for hunters in the fall.

Back in the summer, Ducks Unlimited (DU) responded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) release of its preliminary report on mid-continent breeding ducks and habitats, based on surveys conducted in May and early June. DU said total duck populations were estimated at 37.3 million breeding ducks on the surveyed area. This estimate represents a 9 percent decline over last year's estimate of 41.2 million birds but remains 11 percent above the 1955-2007 long-term average.

DU added that one of the most important elements in duck breeding success is the amount of water present in portions of prairie and parkland Canada and the north-central United States. Total pond counts for the United States and Canada combined showed 4.4 million ponds, a 37 percent decrease from last year's estimate, and 10 percent below the long-term average.

DU said the mallard population was 7 percent below last year. An estimated 7.7 million mallards were on traditionally surveyed areas this spring, compared with last year's estimate of 8.3 million birds. However, mallard numbers were similar to the long-term average.

The positive news coming out of this year's survey continues to be for redheads, green-winged teal and scaup. For the second straight year, redheads remained more than 1 million birds (66 percent over the long-term average). Green-winged teal populations remained similar to the level in 2007 and were 57 percent more than the long-term average.

Scaup numbers appear to have stabilized at similar levels for the last eight years remaining at 3.7 million in 2008, similar to the 3.5 million surveyed in 2007. Breeding scaup numbers remain 27 percent less than their long-term average, however.

DU said as expected, some breeding populations declined as habitat conditions deteriorated from 2007 to 2008. Although six of the 10 commonly surveyed species showed no significant change, four species declined appreciably. Notable declines were in numbers of breeding canvasbacks (down 44 percent from 2007), northern pintails (down 22 percent), gadwalls (down 19 percent) and northern shovelers (down 23 percent).

Canvasbacks were at an estimated 489,000 breeding birds in the survey area, 14 percent less than their long-term average. Pintail numbers declined to 2.6 million, 36 percent less than the long-term average. Despite declines from 2007 in numbers of gadwalls and shovelers, populations remain well over long-term averages (both up 56 percent).

"Severe drought occurred across much of the north-central U.S. and prairie Canada -- much of the core pintail breeding area," said Ducks Unlimited's chief biologist Dale Humburg. "The poor habitat conditions likely will lead to limited pintail production and recruitment into the fall flight."

American widgeon numbers, at 2.5 million, remained similar to 2007 levels and the long term. Although blue-winged teal populations did not change significantly from 2007, they remain well over the long-term average (45 percent over long-term averages).

"Pintails and scaup continue to be well below their long-term averages and remain a significant concern," Humburg said. "Habitat changes are believed to be the primary causes of decline for both these species. DU and partners continue targeted research programs on scaup and pintails that we hope will improve our understanding of the conservation actions that will help these species recover."

Humburg added habitat is the core factor driving the health of duck populations and the size of the fall flight. Habitat also is a key for waterfowl in migration and for hunters. This year, spring and early summer flooding in the Midwest and South, drought in the prairies and extremely dry conditions in parts of the west coast, could affect migration and hunting habitat.

The worst news for ducks and DU in Tennessee came this summer as well. DU said while duck season was still months away, Tennessee's waterfowl were under siege by way of budget cuts to the state's waterfowl programs. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission met June 18, cutting its 2008-09 budget by $4.5 million. Of that, $500,000 came from Wildlife Division programs, half of which was waterfowl related.

"It's not too late to change this. We urge Tennessee sportsmen to contact their commissioners and ask them to reinstate funding for Tennessee's waterfowl programs," said Ross Melinchuk, Director of Public Policy for DU's Southern Regional Office. Among the cuts is $154,000 for Ducks Unlimited's habitat conservation activities on the Canadian breeding grounds where two-thirds of Tennessee's waterfowl originate.

"That's the most significant aspect of this in my opinion," said Ron Fox, Assistant Executive Director of TWRA. "The money that we were spending through DU's Canadian program was being placed at the only spot that we could affect habitat that contributes waterfowl to Tennessee. A Ducks Unlimited cut is something that, if it affects their ability to deliver programs on breeding grounds, the impact will be long term. It might not be something you see the first year, but it will eventually affect waterfowl migrating through Tennessee."

Melinchuk said the cut would affect Ducks Unlimited's ability to deliver programs on the breeding grounds. "Ducks Unlimited matched that $154,000 more than five times with grants and contributions from other partners -- we do it every year. Loss of TWRA's very generous contribution eq

uates into an $820,000 cut in on-the-ground conservation this year alone. Again, this is work that would have been done on the breeding grounds where Tennessee's ducks come from, so unfortunately, waterfowl and waterfowl hunters in Tennessee will be affected."

Ducks Unlimited is asking Tennessee sportsmen to contact TWRA commissioners to voice their opinion about this issue if changes weren't brought about at the final budget-setting meeting held in August.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Waterfowl guide Garry Mason has spent his share of time hunting ducks in West Tennessee -- more than three decades. He's also the Northwest Tourism Director for the state. To say he knows West Tennessee and its waterfowl areas is way beyond an understatement.

Mason has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of duck hunting over the years, but the one thing he always takes away from the sport is the time in the duck blind and field. It's invaluable and a part of transitioning from a duck-hunting novice to a veteran.

Summing up last season's up-and-down flights of ducks, Mason said the hunting was surprisingly good at times. He added most would agree that they had as many ducks in the area and on refuges around the middle and western parts of Tennessee as we have seen in previous years.

With a cold front that made a good push just before the November opener, Mason said ducks landed in the Volunteer State just in time for a good opening weekend. With the weeklong break until the next opening day in December, things settled down a bit through most of the month until the Christmas holiday.

"Some skeptic waterfowlers still say we don't have as many ducks as in the past, but a drive through any of the Tennessee national wildlife refuges on Kentucky Lake last year would have seemed to prove otherwise," Mason added. "Miles of shorelines were lined with mallards, teal, gadwalls and other species of waterfowl for most of the winter months, and although we did not have many fronts coming through to move those birds, the food in the hunting areas such as Tennessee wildlife management areas across the state was as good as or better than ever."

Mason guides on Kentucky Lake primarily but hunts many public spots throughout the region. As he pointed out, there are public opportunities out there even in these crowded modern times. He said WMAs, such as Camden, Gin Creek, Big Sandy, Bogota, West Sandy, Dover Bottoms, Gooch, Tigrett and Reelfoot Lake, are areas where waterfowl hunters who may not be lucky enough to have their own place can hunt.

If you're new to the sport, you may not be aware annual blind drawings are held across the state on the first Saturday in August. If drawn, the hunter has usage of that particular blind for the season as long as he is in the blind before shooting time each day. If the blind holder is not in the blind before shooting time, the blind becomes public for that day on a first-come, first-served basis.

Mason added WMAs are sometimes crowded in the area where the blinds are located; however, for the hunters who do not mind a little scouting and some work, there are places where those hunters can either walk in or use a boat blind setup. Always keep in mind, though, that any hunter who is not using one of the draw blinds must stay 200 yards away from other hunters on a WMA.

When it comes to attracting ducks, Mason has been using the tools of the trade for years. He hunts mostly on the open waters of Kentucky Lake where huge spreads of decoys are a necessity. Three hundred and fifty duck decoys and 60 goose decoys will round out his spread during the season. He will move decoys around about every other day or two to simulate resting birds.

Most of their good duck days are those that nearly all waterfowlers think are blue bird days. Mason said ducks go to big, open water to rest and raft up during the middle part of the day, and a good, clear, crisp day is just what the doctor ordered on open water for a great day of duck hunting.

Mason is never short of new technology from season to season and likes to have the best there is to offer flights of migrating ducks. His spread will consist of three or four spinning wing decoys for movement.

"I use the Mallard Master Pro Decoy by Quest Outdoors every day during the season as well as the Aviator during the calm days when there is not much wind," Mason explained. "Quest Outdoors Mallard Master Feeding Frenzy Feeding decoy is one of the best feeding decoys on the market today and mimics feeding ducks on the water."

The waterfowl veteran said the best times of the season lately have been on opening weekend, through the Christmas holidays, and the last three weeks of the season. He primarily kills mallards, gadwalls, pintails, teal and divers, such as bluebills, ringnecks, redheads and canvasbacks when limits allow. (There is no open season on canvasbacks this year, however, because of recent population declines.)

The best weather patterns he's experienced are cold fronts for the most part, but a warm front during late season from the south can spur waterfowl to head back north, giving Tennessee hunters another chance at them.

Mason offered these tips to beginning waterfowlers and veterans alike. He said learn to call from other hunters who are good callers and then head out to your favorite refuge and watch, listen and learn what the ducks do and say when they are around other waterfowl. Decoy placement can also improve by watching waterfowl in the wild.

"Having seen my sons and other young men who hunt with us become great waterfowl callers and hunters has been one of my greatest lifelong thrills," Mason said. "Never let the number of waterfowl that you kill be the primary goal on your waterfowl hunting agenda, but enjoy each day for the experience."

You can experience duck hunting with Mason by calling him at (731) 593-5429 or (731) 693-7770.

THE INSIDE WORD

Ducks Unlimited's Mike Checkett is one of the most knowledgeable people I've run into when it comes to ducks and their habits. He said the lack of an increase in duck populations is consistent with a delayed spring and decreasing ponds in key duck nesting areas.

The dry conditions will limit this year's reproduction effort, so he expects a fall flight similar or smaller than last year. He added fall flight numbers could be misleading concerning hunter success. Weather and habitat conditions both within the flyway and your state have the greatest influence on hunting opportunity and success.

"I've hunted in restrictive seasons during 1988-93 and had some of the most notable days ever," Checkett said. "The advantage of longer seasons is the possibility of hitting it right sometime during the season increase."

Again, Checkett said, weather and habitat conditions both within the flyway and Tennessee have the greatest effect on hunting opportunity and success. Spring and summer flooding has had a huge influence on habitat conditions in

the Midwest and in some Great Lakes states. Most of the Midwest's bottomland will have no corn or crops in general, as spring management has been affected. That includes many private clubs and state and federal management areas.

The unfortunate news for Midwestern farmers and hunters could be good for us. Checkett said cold fronts could push birds out of traditional northern habitats and provide Tennessee with good hunting. But, he added, only Mother Nature knows for sure when the biggest push of ducks will occur.

As for geese, Checkett said resident populations of giant Canada geese should be in good shape this year with at least average production. Overall, it was a late spring in the north country, which generally means poor goose reproduction.

"There should be plenty of ducks to shoot this year if Mother Nature cooperates," reiterated Checkett. "As typical, our hunting success in Tennessee will depend more on timing of weather and fall habitat conditions. Timely cold fronts should still provide us good hunting."

Checkett's main concern is on the future. He's worried about the next few years. He said we took a huge hit (millions of acres) on grassland habitat in the core breeding areas this year and will continue to over the next few years.

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