Gearing Up for Volunteer Ducks

Gearing Up for Volunteer Ducks

Despite hard times for duck hunters, there are still some great waterfowling opportunities in Tennessee -- if you hunt 'em up.

By Larry Self

As bad as the 2001-02 duck season was for Volunteer waterfowlers, no one could have predicted that last season would be worse.

But for most of us, it was. When it comes to tough times for Tennessee ducks, hardcore hunters go to work.

Despite hard times for duck hunters, there are still opportunities out there - you just have to hunt for them. Getting duck season on the right track may just require a little more effort than it did in the 1990s. The high times of the previous decade attracted a good many hunters to the sport of waterfowling, and with good reason. Now that things have changed, the dedicated souls that like time spent in the duck blind as much as pulling the trigger are left to figure things out. For dedicated waterfowl hunters, here's where to look during the upcoming waterfowl seasons.

At the close of May, Ducks Unlimited (DU) released the much-anticipated Spring Habitat Conditions in North-Central United States Report. Although spring conditions on the breeding grounds do not have a one-to-one correlation with fall hunting, a good rating is certainly better than a poor rating.

Conditions were not good at the end of the winter, but the report sent out by Tennessee DU March chairman Ross Malone noted that conditions improved vastly with spring precipitation. The report stated spring precipitation on the Northern Great Plains significantly improved habitat conditions for waterfowl production.

Following spring snowmelts, conditions were rather bleak across large areas of the northern prairies, but snowstorms in April and rain events in May improved habitat conditions from poor to good in much of the region. DU's update indicated some of the moisture came late and large numbers of waterfowl had migrated north of the improved habitat conditions. This appeared to have occurred specifically in northern Nebraska, South Dakota and parts of Minnesota. But good waterfowl production is expected in much of Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska Sandhills and western South Dakota. Canada goose broods began appearing in early May in all of the states and mallard and pintail broods were evident in late May in Montana and the Dakotas. The summary was that 2003 was shaping up to be a better than average production year on the northern Great Plains.

Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg

Ed Warr, a TWRA wildlife biologist concentrating on waterfowl, says biologists did not expect a great season in 2002. Unfortunately, they were right. There was poor reproduction due to weather, but the population was borderline high enough to justify a liberal season.

This year's improved breeding conditions may well result in more liberal season lengths this year, but Warr says that if duck numbers fall in the future, hunters can expect more restrictive seasons.

Warr says some hunters will disagree, but days in the field are what kill ducks, not bag limits. The harvest declines if you cut days over bag limits since most hunters do not reach their daily bag even in excellent years.

As far as any changes in public duck hunting opportunities go, Warr said that the computer duck blind drawing issue brought to life last year is dead, and he doubts the commission will resurrect it.

He notes the Kentucky Lake and areas west have the best duck hunting. Warr has not heard of any plans for permanent draw type blind sites for the new waterfowl areas in east Tennessee, although such sites are planned for west and middle Tennessee.

You haven't experienced quality duck hunting until you've experienced Reelfoot Lake. It's one of those special places where duck hunting is a way of life. From the November opener on through mid-January, Reelfoot revolves around flights of ducks. Veteran duck hunting guide Bill Bynum bides his time in Reelfoot's revered duck blinds from opening day until closing day. Volunteer duck hunters have quickly learned that the November opening day isn't something they should overlook in the hopes that colder December weather will automatically result in better hunts. Bynum says the first hunts in late November can be good opportunities for hunters interested in secondary ducks. November turns up the first flights of migrating birds, and that means shots at gadwalls, wood ducks, teal and the occasional early mallard.

Bynum says you won't need a lot of decoys during the November stint. "There's no sense in working yourself to death if you don't have to," laughed Bynum. He says he lets ducks tell him what to do and how much to call. In a high-competition area like Reelfoot Lake, you have to do something different and that's Bynum's strategy. Most guys are doing a lot of loud calling, but Bynum listens to the birds. If they're vocal, he's vocal.

Bynum also bases his tactics on the season's hatch and breeding success. He says if we've had a bad hatch, you're probably hunting mature birds. The last couple of seasons haven't featured a lot of young ducks, and that makes things tougher for everyone.

"I killed some ducks last year that we had to marinate for a week and a half," joked Bynum.

Last year while in the blind with Bynum, we had ducks buzz us at daylight back in a classic Reelfoot pocket. We took advantage of the opportunity, dropping gadwalls and mallards in the dekes. The action was over as quick as it started, but Bynum had faith in what the midmorning had to offer and we bagged more ducks after breakfast.

Bynum says his midday duck hunting is like his deer hunting. By midday, some hunters go back to camp, but that decreases the competition and reduces the amount of overcalling the ducks hear. Ducks coming back from feeding areas can then be easier to work. Plus, Bynum knows that migrators that left north of Reelfoot at daylight get tired, overheated, and may be looking for a place to rest. His plan is to be there when they arrive.

As the season goes on, Bynum says, there are large blinds on Reelfoot with large decoy spreads. He's looking for an edge, however, and that means doing the opposite of what other hunters do. He always leaves plenty of space for ducks to set down.

One thing that he picked up on last year with the mature flights of birds was the mallards were pairing up earlier than normal. The flights coming in were obviously made up with a drake and a corresponding Susie in the flocks. Bynum changed his spread to match what he was seeing and it paid off heavily. The natural look wor

ked because the birds were seeing the same thing on the water they were seeing in the air.

Bynum is a believer in using quality loads for taking ducks. Last year he tested Remington's Hevi-Shot and was pleased. He says Hevi-Shot was like going back to lead magnums with its excellent pattern and good down-range energy. Bynum honestly believes it cut his cripples by 50 to 60 percent. According to Bynum Economics, if cost is a concern for hunters, they should consider it often takes one load of Hevi-Shot as compared to three loads of steel to kill a long-range mallard.

While competition at Reelfoot can be fierce for flights of ducks, Bynum says there are still public opportunities to be found. Hunters can always hunt from boat blinds or temporary blinds that have to be removed after the hunt. He says to respect permanent blinds and other hunters by observing the restriction that you set up at least 200 yards from existing blinds. Public access can be found at a variety of ramps.

The Tennessee River does two things as it heads north into Kentucky. It divides middle and west Tennessee at a place called Kentucky Lake and it draws ducks to hunters. Guide Garry Mason reflects on the 2002 season as being nearly the same as the 2001 hunt. The two opening weekends were definitely the highlight of an otherwise tough year. Thanks to the timely arrival of two cold fonts, one on November's opening weekend and the other during December's opener, Mason says they took ducks like it was supposed to happen.

"The second opener in December was almost as good as the first one," recalled Mason. "They were more like old-time duck hunting."

That first November opening hunt was as good a duck hunt as he's been a part of. On the flip side, the hard cold fronts that followed pushed ducks on south earlier than normal. Mason believes the cold also kept them from filtering back up from states like Mississippi and others to feed. He spoke with hunters from Mississippi that said they had a great year.

Mason is concerned about what he's seeing in duck hunting.

"If we as hunters continue to say the sky is falling, it's going to fall on us," said Mason. "All the complaining will lead people to believe the fall flight predictions." But he also likes the preliminary reports from sources like Delta Waterfowl that say the potholes were wet during the breeding season and to expect as good or better production than last year. Mason and others would love to see lower bag limits, not fewer days in the field.

Regardless, he'll be out there on Kentucky Lake as long as the season lasts. Gearing up for him in the early part of the season means relatively fewer decoys and relatively more calling. He'll employ fewer than 200 dekes on his open-water spread and will call ducks all the way into the decoys in the early season, giving the birds confidence that those floaters are real.

Later in the season, he'll beef up the spread with more than 350 decoys and add a lot of motion.

There's plenty of public access on the waters that divide Middle and West Tennessee. Mason says hunters can find good hunting at the Big Sandy and Gin Creek WMAs, where temporary blinds can be set up 200 yards from permanent blinds. There are walk-in areas as well, but remember: Nothing can be left overnight. Public access can also be found at Harmons Creek and White Oak Creek, as well as the Birdsong and Danville areas. A little farther north, hunters can find good boat blind access opportunities on Lake Barkley. The Dover Unit there also allows for temporary blinds and walk-in hunters.

For Barry Bales, founder of the East Tennessee Waterfowl Association (ETWA), the 2002 season was both positive and negative. His take on it was there were more ducks in east Tennessee than the poor season of 2001, but they were just harder to do anything with. He says they seemed intent on going to some predetermined spot, not to be swayed by any decoy spread or any amount of calling.

"I personally saw more large groups of ducks than the year before, specifically vastly greater numbers of pintails and, to a lesser degree, more black ducks," said Bales. He knows the wild card is always the weather, and we had the kind of winter everyone had hoped for the previous year. But for some reason, hunters never saw the really big pushes of ducks expected from many feet of snow dumped on the northern parts of the flyway.

ETWA is in its second year of existence and is getting off the ground to help improve waterfowl opportunities in the less noted flyways of east Tennessee.

"At our last meeting, we elected officers and are putting the infrastructure of the organization in place," explained Bales. "We want to be concerned with habitat, not paperwork and pencil pushing; but in order to get off and running as a serious, viable force in waterfowl and wetlands conservation, there has to be a certain amount of business sense about it. We are in the process of hammering out by-laws, applying for tax-exempt status and planning a membership drive."

The fledging organization is also continuing talks with the TWRA and Tennessee Valley Authority about public and private habitat projects and hopes to be working on a habitat improvement project in the not-too-distant future. Bales wants this to be the watermark of the group serious about re-organizing duck hunting between the flyways.

"The waterfowl hunting opportunities in east Tennessee are extremely limited," said Bales. "There are very few wildlife management areas in east Tennessee, and the ones that are suitable for waterfowl hunting are even fewer and farther between."

The good news and the hope of the organization is that there are numerous areas that could offer good waterfowling if real work was done on them.

Bales and others have high hopes for the potential lying in southeast Tennessee. That's where true habitat with suitable plantings and water manipulation seems to be ahead of the rest of east Tennessee, according to Bales. He cites the waters from Watts Bar Lake to the Alabama border as having the greatest drawing potential. Those better areas also draw more hunters, leading to the kind of overcrowding in which duck hunters vying for hotspots sleep in their cars all night, basically camping out on a spot.

In east Tennessee, where waterfowling involves much more hunting than shooting, Bales still has hope for a good season in 2003. Bales sees the spring news out of the prairie potholes as possibly bringing more flights of ducks even to the eastern reaches of the state. ETWA wants to be seen as proactive and will monitor fall flight predictions and biological reports each year to help them make recommendations on the season dates and bag limits to the TWRA and commission.

East Tennessee isn't the duck mecca that our western brothers enjoy, but those in between the flyways live with it and still have their moments when weather and flights of ducks come together.

To hunt on Reelfoot Lake with Bill Bynum, call him at (731) 588-1070 or at Bleu Bank Resort at (877) 258-3226.

To hunt Kentucky Lake with Garry Mason, call him at (731) 593-5429.

For more information on the East Tennessee Waterfowl Association, call Barry Bales at (423) 422-4484.

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