Reelfoot & Kentucky Lake's Double-Play Ducks
October 04, 2010
At times, you can find a good waterfowl hunt anywhere in Tennessee, but for
consistency, Reelfoot and Kentucky
lakes are hard to beat.
Photo By R.E. ILG
There's only one thing that'll pull me away from my winter smallmouth fishing -- and that's a good push of greenheads. Waterfowlers are some of the most well connected hunters. If ducks are on the move south, we know it.
At times, you can experience a good duck hunt almost anywhere in Tennessee. However, when you're looking for consistency, the Volunteer State's waterfowl double play resides in the west in the form of Reelfoot and Kentucky lakes. These two bodies of water are on the duck travel map and noted as rest areas. You can hit them both in a day if you like or split your trip up based on bird movement.
When ducks start to book trips to this double-play destination, it's time to load the truck with everything it'll hold from guns and gear to decoys. Like beacons, these traditional duck-hunting outlets draw both hunters and waterfowl for an unconventional rendezvous.
Outdoor writer and television personality Wade Bourne travels all over writing and filming about the best duck hunting the country has to offer. But he'll quickly tell you that there are several reasons that he feels have drawn him to freelance at Reelfoot Lake.
Bourne said Reelfoot is a public body of water and open to all who have appropriate licenses. He added it is the epicenter of waterfowl concentration for Tennessee, with both federal and state refuges nearby that hold birds. And despite its reputation for being a "closed society," Reelfoot does hold possibilities for freelance hunting -- when conditions are right. Bourne isn't always looking specifically for any type of weather or time frame to point his truck and duck boat toward Reelfoot's famed waters.
"I head to Reelfoot whenever I can," Bourne said. "Best conditions are when there's a strong cold front pushing from up north. Also, I like to hunt Reelfoot when other areas in West Tennessee are dry. When heavy rains come and the bottoms flood, that's where the ducks go. But when the bottoms are dry, the birds concentrate at Reelfoot."
About the public hunting opportunities and regulations for hunting at Reelfoot, he said he always advises first-time hunters at Reelfoot to go with a guide to get a feel for the lake. That said, freelancing is available in two forms -- blind-hopping and boat-blind hunting.
Blind-hopping is like it is on other management areas. If a blind isn't occupied by legal shooting hours, it's open to the public for that day.
Bourne said to keep in mind that guides' blinds rule the best spots, and they're occupied virtually every day. There are also many blinds in not-so-good spots that may be unoccupied, for obvious reasons. However, by moving and watching, blind-hopping can provide freelancers with some good shooting.
The veteran waterfowler said boat hunting is a little tougher. There are holes and areas back in Reelfoot's swamps where a freelancer can find good hunting, but these are chancy at best. First, these spots are very difficult to find for hunters not familiar with Reelfoot. Secondly, boat hunters may not set up within 200 yards of a fixed blind. Bourne said you should take a laser rangefinder to measure distances.
However, two conditions when boat hunting is best are when the water is high and ducks are working in the swamps, and when a freeze is locking up shallow-water areas and ducks are moving to open water. Then, some fantastic shooting can be had along the edges of the main basins of the lake where open water can be found. Bourne looks for a spot that is protected from the wind, tosses out decoys and hides the boat in adjacent reeds or other vegetation.
For the best freelance opportunity, Bourne said his best advice is to go with a mud boat/motor, like a Go-Devil or Mud Buddy. An outboard will work on Reelfoot, but it will take a beating, and it can't get in the hard-to-reach places like a mud boat. He said to get a map and locate the public launch sites. Next, wait until dawn to go out, so you can see where you're going and where ducks are working, then just go exploring.
Big spreads aren't important when working small holes or shoreline areas. Bourne hunts with two-dozen of what he calls "good-looking decoys." He also takes waders to be prepared to leave the boat and wade in to where he sees ducks working. Wading can be very treacherous in a soft bottom, but if you're tough, Bourne said, you can make it. He recommends using a wading staff to keep from falling, and carrying a few decoys in a backpack.
TO CALL OR NOT TO CALL?
Bourne said being in the right spot is better than being a world champion caller. Good calling is always a plus, but at Reelfoot, if you get in the right place, quiet close-in calling will be very effective. He said the famous "Reelfoot highball" is needed only on open water or in holes under crossing areas to attract passing ducks' attention. If you get into a hole where the ducks want to be, calling is almost an afterthought. Another of his tactics in small, secluded holes is to rig a jerk string or use some type of motion decoy to impart ripples on the water.
When it comes to variety, Bourne said Reelfoot attracts a broad range of puddle and diving ducks. Predominant species killed changes with the time of year. Early on, gadwalls, teal (bluewings and greenwings) and mallards are the predominant species in the bag. And later on, he said it turns to mostly mallards. Hunters on Reelfoot will also bag widgeon, wood ducks, pintails, spoonbills, black ducks, scaup, ringnecks, canvasbacks, redheads and other species.
What's his best tip for Reelfoot success? If they're not working where you are, go somewhere else. Bourne also said that even on Reelfoot, there are times when hunting is good and when it is poor. Best chance for success -- again -- is when a big cold front is blowing in new birds from up north.
Mike Hayes has gained a reputation over the years almost as strong as that of Reelfoot itself. His Blue Bank Resort and accompanying restaurant is as revered as the duck hunting. This reputation also helped him land a spot on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission. From the resort's beginnings in the 1940s when his grandmother ran the hotel at Reelfoot and his father built Blue Bank Resort in 1958, Hayes has been around duck hunting. Mike guided his first group of hunters when he was 12 years old.
You could call Mike Hayes a workaholic, but you could also call him a duckaholic at certain times of the season. He said usually right around Christmas is when he leaves some of the responsibil
ities of running Blue Bank Resort with others and takes to the duck blind. That's when he said they traditionally get a big push of mallards and that's what he waits for each season. The week or so before the winter holiday is when bunches of mallards normally arrive with the last big migration of the season.
Hayes likes foggy mornings and those associated with the first good cold front just before things start to ice up. The first 15 to 20 minutes of shooting time is always good at Reelfoot. After that first solid volley, some hunters hang it up for the day, but Hayes will stay in the blind for what the rest of the morning provides. He said between 10 and 11 a.m., the mallards that have rested on the surrounding refuges get out and look for other food sources. That's when you get the less pressured birds moving around, and Hayes said he's had some really great shooting at midmorning flights of greenheads -- and that's what he lives for between hosting customers from all over the country seeking what Reelfoot has to offer.
For somewhere around three decades, Steve McCadams has been guiding for ducks and geese on Kentucky Lake. Last season was somewhat of a comeback year as duck movements were up and down with plenty of highlights. McCadams said last year got off to a good start as the late November and most of December period saw good numbers of ducks in the area.
He had a good December, thanks in part to several early cold fronts that descended before Christmas, sending new ducks and stimulating movement from ducks already in the Kentucky Lake zone.
"Cooler weather and relatively dry conditions across much of the West Tennessee area and along the Mississippi River is a good scenario for me on Kentucky Lake," McCadams explained. "We always have water here and when it's dry elsewhere our duck numbers increase dramatically so that makes for good hunting here. I saw large numbers of green-winged teal and gadwalls linger in the area up past Christmas with a nice increase in mallards and pintails early in the season."
The veteran guide also said although the second half of season has a good reputation for high duck numbers (especially mallards) and cold weather, it seems Kentucky Lake hunters benefit from a cold front and a brisk north wind whenever they get it. Whether it's early, midseason, or late in the year -- the ducks move when the weather changes, so you can't really say late is good or midseason is slow. He said it's a gamble to some degree and the last two years have had their best duck weather coming in December instead of January.
What is the primary target from his river blinds? Hunters there bag a variety and that's one of the nice things about open-water hunting on Kentucky Lake. Some days they'll bag 10 species of ducks. Mallards top the list, but early in the season, gadwalls are there in big numbers, along with green-winged teal, scaup, buffleheads, shovelers, widgeon, wood ducks and pintails.
As colder weather enters the picture, McCadams sees a mallard increase as gadwalls move south and wood ducks leave. Then he begins to see other species such as black ducks, ringnecks, goldeneyes, canvasbacks and redheads move in.
Top weather patterns for McCadams also include a spitting snow, and any drastic change that leads to dark, dreary skies -- those are the conditions that tell the birds to get up and feed. He thinks they sense the low pressure and Mother Nature sets off an alarm in their biological clock that says feeding time is here because tomorrow things might be scarce.
The day after a cold front has passed usually means high skies and cold, sunny mornings with a bone-chilling wind. McCadams loves that scenario as new ducks are in the area and the mallards work better and respond to calling on clear days.
"I do indeed use large decoy spreads for open water as I am attempting to get the attention of ducks moving up and down the river or going cross country," McCadams said. "Large spreads, coupled with calling techniques, help lure the ducks to my spot."
There are times when he uses smaller spreads or temporary setups to hunt weary ducks that have been in the area a spell, but the big spreads pay the most dividends. McCadams also uses a lot of floating geese mixed with full bodies, half-shell and silhouettes on sandbars. It gives wary ducks a false sense of security to land and feed near geese. Additionally, the bigger decoys add bulk to the spread.
As for geese, over the last 20 years McCadams is seeing fewer migrate to the area. Still, if we get drastic weather changes in January, Kentucky Lake inherits geese from the north and it can happen in a very short time -- a day or two, or even overnight if the weather is right.
McCadams said popular public areas there are Camden Bottoms, Harmon's Creek, Big Sandy and West Sandy WMAs, along with some areas south of I-40 and the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. Hunters can set up small decoy spreads and hunt from shallow shorelines or boat blinds or sometimes find unoccupied permanent blinds in the WMAs, especially during the weekdays.
Jackie McCrary is the freelancer supreme of freelance hunting for ducks. If they're in an area, he'll figure out a legal way of getting to them and taking his shots. McCrary journeys from northeast Tennessee each year to hunt what Kentucky Lake has to offer and he doesn't care which species are in town when he gets there.
McCrary travels light, with 25 diver decoys and no more than 10 or 20 puddle duck decoys. He said he'd rather have a few detailed dekes that really look good as opposed to a bunch of poor looking, "nothing" decoys. McCrary's going to hunt whatever bird is in the area, and he said if you're where they want to be, you don't need many decoys.
McCrary said he believes that the guides have the best spots -- "Heck, they live there." But there's some good hunting to be had for the freelancer willing to put in some work.
McCrary sets up his boat blind in coves and other areas based on his scouting efforts. If the ducks aren't there on that morning, he moves quickly to another spot.
"Kentucky Lake holds ducks," McCrary said. "Most of the time, there'll be something there."
What McCrary likes about Kentucky Lake is its proximity to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. He said ducks moving down those waters could end up at Kentucky Lake. And it's bred into them to know where to go. McCrary said you can hunt right between the surrounding refuges and migration routes when you're on Kentucky Lake. You can count on a pretty good waterfowl hunt where there's a fairly huge waterfowl population. There's always some kind of shooting to be done from divers to puddle ducks.
THE EARLY WORD
In a July press release, Ducks Unlimited announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released its preliminary report on western breeding ducks and habitats, based on surveys conducted in May. Overall, duck populations increased 14 percent since last year with an estimated 36.2 million breeding ducks on the prairies. Habitat co
nditions were also slightly better than last year, thanks to a warm winter and good precipitation.
"Overall, this season should be a little more productive than last year," said Dr. Bruce Batt, DU's chief biologist. "The increased populations along with timely precipitation this spring and summer, should help assure good conditions for a strong nesting effort and good wetland conditions for brood rearing."
For Tennessee's Double-Play Ducks, call Steve McCadams at (731) 642-0360 to hunt Kentucky Lake, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out his Web site at www.stevemccadams.com
To hunt Reelfoot Lake, call Mike Hayes at Blue Bank Resort at (877) 258-3226.
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