Best-Bet Waterfowling In Tennessee

Doing your homework is critical for getting in range of ducks. Here are some tips on where to start looking. (December 2007)

Photo by Paul Tessier.

How many times have you heard, "If it were easy, everybody would be doing it"?

Waterfowl hunting in Tennessee is like that. Nowadays, successful duck hunting is about getting in the way of ducks or being where they want to be more than anything else. Getting in the way of ducks is about doing your homework. Networking and weather watching are starting points.

Let's see if we can get you on the right track and headed in the direction of ducks in the Volunteer State. We talked about Kentucky Lake and Reelfoot Lake in last month's issue; this month we're going to get a little off the beaten path for waterfowl and in the way of ducks and geese.

BLACK BOTTOM DUCKS

In the land of giants like Kentucky Lake and Reelfoot Lake, there are areas that are making a name for themselves as quality duck destinations. Last season, I punched the address to Black Bottom Guide Service into my Garmin, and I could swear my GPS had lost its mind. It said I was heading for Brazil, but I was still heading due west on I-40.

The duck hunting south of the border in Mexico and even farther south into Argentina is fabled, and something I've always wanted to do. When I made it to the computed destination, the unit said I had my wish: I'd arrived in Brazil -- Brazil, Tennessee, that is.

The warmer than normal December temperatures couldn't have been far off from any hunting in South America this time of year. I met up with head guides Brad Kent and Greg Hinson at their duck camp and settled in at the lodge for the night and the much awaited shooting at daylight. It was a six-hour-plus drive across the Volunteer State, but very different from a long trip way down South.

Black Bottom Guide Service is located near the towns of Trenton and Eaton in West Tennessee. Eaton, formerly known as Buckner's Bluff, was established in 1827, and named in honor of John H. Eaton, Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson. It's located on the right bank of the Middle Fork of Forked Deer River. Before the days of railroads, it was an important shipping point for Dyer, Obion, Gibson and Carroll counties, as keel and flatboats, and occasionally small steamboats, were navigated on the Forked Deer.

The first blind I hunted from with Black Bottom Guide Service was on a stretch of water near one of the original, main shipping channels. It's now located along a major stretch that ducks like to use as a travel corridor bordering the Horns Bluff Waterfowl Refuge.

At daybreak as shooting time arrived, bands of ducks could be seen crossing high above the blind -- more than I could see in a season hunting at home in East Tennessee. The birds were moving from roosting areas back into the refuge to feed for the morning.

"It's a typical case of ducks following ducks," explained Kent as the strings of mallards and gadwalls refused to pay attention to our duck calls. He was sure we'd get some shooting as they filtered back into the waters of the Forked Deer to rest after feeding. He was right. Not long after Hinson whipped up some great-tasting sausage and egg biscuits on the blind stove, the first of the woodies began coming back in and offered passing shots. We took advantage. The wood ducks were soon followed by handfuls of mallards at repeated intervals.

Unlike many guide services I've frequented, these guys weren't about waiting out the ducks in a single blind for the day. The beauty of Black Bottom Guide Service is that they have six blinds to take your chances in if ducks aren't working to their satisfaction. Just before lunch, we loaded the take and our gear into the johnboat and headed back to the lodge for a warm lunch. Less than an hour later, we were back at it and changing locations.

Hinson said they prefer to book normally no more than two or three groups in town per day. That way, they can rotate everyone to more productive blinds if necessary. Our afternoon hunt would be located in a blind known as "The Trick" along flooded corn immediately adjacent to the Horns Bluff Refuge itself.

The story behind The Trick's name is this: When Kent and Hinson went to inquire about leasing the property from an old black gentleman, the man was a little apprehensive until they offered up some cash to lease the prime spot. The man accepted the offer, saying, "Go ahead and put your trick in the field."

The name stuck.

As afternoon turned to evening, Kent said the "witching hour" was at hand. That's when the ducks begin to move from the refuge and hit the flooded corn for their late-day feed. We'd seen a scattering of ducks in the mid-afternoon hours, and then the last hour of shooting time featured several flights of mallards, gadwalls and even woodies making their way into gun range.

The second morning of the hunt found us greeting the shooting hour and three mallards at dawn in "The Pit." The old underground fuel tank had been converted into a fine pit blind. For the early portion of the late season, there were also still plenty of gadwalls and wood ducks trading back and forth between refuges and making their way into the flooded corn surrounding the pit blind.

"We don't sell duck hunts," said Kent reloading his shotgun. "We sell southern hospitality." The biscuits and gravy Hinson threw together in between flights of ducks and volleys were a testament to that fact. The pass-shooting and decoying mallards were even better than the day before, and we elected to hunt The Pit again after lunch. The second afternoon had the sky filled with more mallards and more opportunities.

By the day's end, we took our share of the ducks in the area. The big numbers weren't quite there yet in the young season, but I saw more waterfowl in two days than I'll see all season in East Tennessee. The big plus was that hunting with Hinson and Kent was more like a buddy hunt than a guided trip. They're old-fashioned and down to earth, the kind of hospitality you expect in the Volunteer State. You can hunt with Black Bottom Guide Service this season by calling Hinson at (731) 692-3107 or (731) 414-8561.

DALE HOLLOW DUCKS?

Dale Hollow Lake near Celina made a name for itself nationally, thanks to its excellent smallmouth bass fishery. To expect it to be a decent, let alone a quality duck destination, seems almost ridiculous. Each year during the opening weekend of the late duck season, I'm on Dale Hollow chasing smallmouths in the Billy Westmorland-Horse Creek Dock Smallmouth Bass Invitational Tournament. It's hard giving up the duck opener each year, but I live and bre

athe smallies.

What makes it harder is listening to the repeated volleys of shotgun blasts right after daylight from makeshift duck blinds on the lake's many flats. Hunters there have shots during the season at everything from mallards to an array of divers on this big open water. To be honest, the lake has as many puddlers as it does divers.

Danny Stone is a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) creel clerk and has made his own name smallmouth bass fishing on Dale Hollow. However, Stone will quickly tell you his first love is duck hunting. He shot his first mallard at Dale Hollow when he was a kid and has been hunting its waters for 40 years.

Stone said it has to be cold to push ducks to Dale Hollow's open waters and flats. He said the numbers of divers have diminished over the years, but you can still shoot bluebills and others each season. The most bluebills he saw in an area last year were between 400 to 500 birds. When January's temperature approaches the zero mark, he said mallards will pile in and you can get a limit every day when the weather cooperates. They dry feed in the corn fields around the lake and fly in to rest.

Some of the best hunting on the Hollow is in the Kemper Flats, Lilydale and Irons Creek areas. Stone said it's best to scout them out and see which flats they're feeding on and then roll in with a bundle of cane and put up a makeshift blind on points and flats for success. The mallards and gadwalls move onto flats and are attracted by the milfoil in these areas.

Stone said the first two weeks of the season can be good, but the best hunting is with a cold January. He said all you need are a couple dozen decoys and the will to go. Low lake levels are also key and layout blinds are also suited for hunting flats. Stone said the slow days are also good because it's all about getting out and seeing the sunrise and working retrievers.

CHEROKEE LAKE MALLARDS AND THEN SOME

Cherokee Lake near Morristown is home of the Cherokee bass or the better known hybrid striped bass. This was the original water where hybrids were bred from a cross between stripers and white bass. Cherokee is also a viable duck and goose hunting destination all late season long. The lower end of the lake is where you'll find most waterfowlers hunting off points and in coves for mallards, divers and incoming Canada geese.

Duck hunter Ronnie Lovell from Morristown and a partner had a big blind on Cherokee Lake for years that they maintained on an island near Timber Crest subdivision right downstream from Point 18. They put big spreads of decoys out in the amount of 75 to 100 mallard decoys and about 50 bluebill and goldeneye decoys.

They generally killed everything, but most of the incoming birds were mallards. From his Cherokee hunting, Lovell has mounts of canvasbacks, bluebills, goldeneyes, black ducks, buffleheads, teal and geese that were all killed on Cherokee Lake. He said the season always gets better as the winter gets colder in January. That's when the ponds and other small waters started freezing, and the duck numbers always go up on the lake. You can see big migrating flocks way up high, too, coming in from the north.

As far as geese hunting goes, it's still a resident-goose population on Cherokee Lake; landowners constantly complain about the mess the birds leave in yards. Geese use Cherokee as a resting spot as they fly back and forth to feeding areas, especially in the fall and winter. A few floaters, some decent calling and some full-bodied dekes on the flats will get you your goose shots on Cherokee Lake.

HE NUMBERS GAME

Tim White, the TWRA's Waterfowl Coordinator, said that traditionally, there are peak times for ducks to appear in Tennessee. He said the waterfowl refuges in West Tennessee usually see peak waterfowl numbers somewhere around Jan. 1, give or take a week. They typically build through Christmas and hold steady through New Year's, but many factors can throw all this out the window, including unseasonably warm or cold weather. If you had to bet, the first day of the new year will be our peak.

We all know that West Tennessee is the duck mecca in the Volunteer State, but there are duck enthusiasts across the Tennessee Valley. The Old Hickory Lake area and Dale Hollow Lake actually see their share of ducks. White said most of the ducks in Middle Tennessee are Mississippi Flyway ducks. Very few ducks from the Atlantic make it that way. The waterfowl biologist said waterfowl numbers in the Atlantic Flyway have been down for decades. To put it mildly, White said the Mississippi Flyway is the 500-pound gorilla of the flyways.

Cherokee Lake in East Tennessee can hold some pretty good waterfowl numbers at times in the form of both geese and ducks (puddlers and plenty of divers). Moreover, East Tennessee has its share of black ducks when it comes to those with a price on their heads. White said black ducks in East Tennessee are produced in the same areas as the black ducks that come to Middle and West Tennessee. They are primarily from the Boreal Forest region of Ontario, Canada. He added most of the Atlantic black ducks are produced on the coastal areas of New England and on up into the coastal areas, and somewhat inland in Canada.

Most of the inland population of black ducks comes down through Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky into Tennessee. White said they spend much of the time in the southern Lake Erie marshes, and we depend on cold weather to send large numbers of blacks on down into the Volunteer State. He added there are probably a few black ducks here that come over from the Atlantic Flyway, but most of ours are produced north of the Great Lakes.

MAY POND SURVEY ANOTHER POSITIVE FOR THIS SEASON

The good news for duck hunters this season is from Ducks Unlimited (DU), which notes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released in July its preliminary report on mid-continent breeding ducks and habitats, based on surveys conducted in May. Overall, duck populations increased 14 percent since last year with an estimated 41.2 million breeding ducks on the surveyed area. As a result of winter snowfall and good precipitation, habitat conditions are similar or slightly improved compared with conditions in 2006.

"The 14 percent increase in breeding numbers for the 10 surveyed species is consistent with what Ducks Unlimited's field biologists have observed across the U.S. and Canadian breeding grounds this spring," said Ducks Unlimited's Executive Vice-President Don Young. "Excellent brood-rearing habitat is present in many areas and brood survival is expected to be above average."

One of the most important elements in duck-breeding success is the amount of water present on the prairie breeding grounds. When the survey was conducted in May, total pond counts for the United States and Canada combined showed 7 million ponds, a 15 percent increase from last year's estimate, and 44 percent higher than the long-term average.

The mallard number is 10 percent higher than last year. An estimated 8 million mallards are on the prairies this spring, compared with last year's estimate of 7.3 million birds. Mallard numbers are 7 percent above the long-term average.

"The increase in mallard populations continues to keep them at levels near the North American Waterfowl Management Plan goal," said DU's Director of Conservation Operations Dr. Scott Yaich. The most positive news coming out of this year's survey is that redheads, canvasbacks and northern shovelers are at record highs, and increases were also seen in two of three species of concern. Nine of the 10 surveyed species increased this year.

Do some scouting, keep your fingers crossed for cold weather to the north, and maybe some of them will get within shotgun range on your next Tennessee duck hunt.

Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com

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