Wood Ducks In The Commonwealth
April 07, 2011
These spectacularly colorful birds are a treat to hunt in Kentucky. But you need to know how and where to find them.
Wood ducks are one of only two species of waterfowl that breed in Kentucky of any consequence. In fact, the Bluegrass State is one of the top spots for this amazingly colorful, small and challenging duck to nest in the United States. The other native duck is the hooded merganser.
The first chance to get in on taking woodies rolls in about mid-September, before the birds start migrating. But wood ducks are also legal to take during the main duck season. At that time of year most of these birds are moving through as temperatures get progressively colder to the north.
They may be found in a number of places where standing water in various types of cover is available. Shallow water locations that freeze over aren't going to attract many ducks of any kind, and wood ducks are no different in that respect.
As their name suggests, wood ducks are going to be in flooded timber areas, sometimes showing up out of the blue even on a secluded wooded farm pond where you normally don't see ducks at all. Most of the time large, open expanses of water aren't going to be the resting spot of choice for woodies. They tend to prefer overhead cover and smaller scale waterways rather than out in the middle of a major reservoir.
These cavity nesters find woodland streams abundant in Kentucky, use backwater areas of reservoirs or rivers and, when fall and winter rains keep water available, woodies stop in to rest and feed. Many times, these are the same type areas they will return to in early spring when nesting time approaches.
Waterfowl numbers fluctuate a good deal based on weather conditions during the spring breeding season. According to Rocky Pritchert, migratory bird coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, what biologists across the state saw in mid-summer indicates the potential for the 2010 season could be improved from previous years if all goes well.
"It looks like we had a good hatch," said Pritchert.
"We had excellent habitat conditions in most regions and the number of broods we observed per square mile was the highest reported in the last 10 years," the biologist added.
"I think that the good fortune we experienced was probably similar in states north of us, and ultimately everybody in the flyway should benefit," Pritchert concluded.
Much is weather dependant when it comes to how many local woodies are still in the state or moving through from elsewhere in December. Birds migrating may hang around in Kentucky for a while, but those numbers will decrease as the winter wears on. The law generally allows three woodies in the total duck bag of six birds when the late season begins.
There are a variety of ways to pursue wood ducks that waterfowlers find productive. It simply depends on what you prefer. Most of the time seeking them out or waiting to pass shoot can both be productive approaches. Wood ducks don't come along in waves of 20 or 30, but at times several groups of two, three or four may all be in the vicinity. There they get up and move around within a flat or bottom.
Shallow water resting and feeding areas can also attract birds. Those may be in some standing tree cover in the backs of coves, or newly flooded river backwater habitat available after a recent hard rain.
Woodies also use natural sloughs and swamps that always hold water and have a good bit of timber present or close by. These birds have to have some kind of cover, preferably stickups, bushes, weeds, cypress, or willows before they are comfortable in sitting down.
In this setting, where you have the option of walking in and setting up. For that reason you can choose whether to go with a small decoy spread or not, to be more mobile. Finding a swampy bottom and moving along slowly from one waterhole to another or hunkering down in a clump of bushes near a slough for a while can be productive as long as you have the right clothing and footwear and you don't have a ton of equipment.
Some hunters do very well floating tree-lined creeks and streams, covering a good bit of territory and picking up birds either traveling the corridor or coming up off open pools.
Being aware of your surroundings is always a must in float situations. Careful shot choices are crucial when livestock, barns or even residences are in the vicinity.
Kentucky has a number of major river systems that course through the commonwealth, and any of them can hold groups of ducks. The Kentucky, Green, Licking and the Ohio can all be productive systems . They are all especially good late in the year because water rarely freezes on these rivers. Additionally, they all have a great deal of timber cover and smaller tributaries that snake up into farmlands and woodlands.
Wildlife management areas such as the Sloughs WMA near Henderson; Yellowbank WMA outside of Stephensport, right along the Ohio River; as well as Ballard, Boatwright and Doug Travis WMAs along the Mississippi River are specifically managed with waterfowl in mind. While some areas are open on these public lands by advance application, some are also open to "walk-in" hunting.
The bulk of the lands on these WMAs are some of the best public properties Kentucky has for holding waterfowl. Other private land hunting in this region is also available in Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton counties.
One of the top spots for ducks that's located a little farther from the Mississippi in Hickman County is Obion Creek. It's a 4,200-acre patch of ground along the creek bottoms. When holding water it can pull a good number of ducks into timbered areas. This large area will require some scouting, but finding a few woodies tucked away in the flooded timber during a wet winter is certainly a good possibility.
"Wood ducks don't move in big flocks like mallards and blacks," said Bill Balda.
Balda is a duck hunter and wildlife biologist who oversees Kentucky's hunter education program.
"They are more widely spread over the landscape, and though they might generally follow a flyway, they don't get up and move in big groups when they head south.
"Wood ducks also have the ability to fly along and pitch into very small bodies of water, and are able to get up and out of water surrounded by timber and other vegetation.
"They can drop in vertically and go out the same way, flying throug
h trees and brush with no problem.
"Most other ducks can't do that, which is why they choose more unobstructed water bodies to land on and mill around in rather than small streams and dense hardwood stands where water is backed up or flooded," Balda added.
One more excellent possibility for quality duck hunting is in the Clarks River National Refuge when conditions are right. Owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this chunk of river bottom is situated along some 18 miles of the river running through McCracken, Graves and Marshall counties.
It has quite a bit of exactly the kind of habitat Balda described. Over 7,000 acres of land lies here, with the potential to become 18,000 acres as the federal government continues to pursue additional parcels to protect this wetland resource for habitat and wildlife. Almost 35 percent of the territory is classified as wetland and 43 percent forestlands, a good combination for wood ducks that prefer that mix for nesting and feeding.
River corridors such as the Green River in mid-western Kentucky, the Kentucky River in central Kentucky and the Licking in the northeastern quadrant of the state are all crucial waterways for wood duck production. These rivers traverse some of Kentucky best agricultural lands, as well as large stretches of woodlands that give wood ducks good nesting opportunities, cover for their young in early summer and good feeding and winter layover habitat in winter.
There are many access places for those who want to drift hunt these rivers, or ease along to anchor at the mouth of a feeder creek where flooded croplands or timbered areas are found.
First light is generally best for wood duck movement and you have to remain ready at about any instant in heavily wooded areas. These small birds come through quickly and are sometimes tough to see before they are right on top of you. Or they may spring up from around downed logs, limbs and stumps at any second.
"Remember that wood ducks don't need that big glide path like a goose and won't be traveling in large numbers," Balda emphasized.
"This often means ponds or small creeks with grown up banks, overhanging limbs, and fallen trees are what these birds look for.
"They are shy and secretive, and make other duck species look very calm in comparison, so you have to approach with that in mind," he said.
In years when Kentucky's fall stays really warm wood ducks coming down from northern states will often find hidden away waterholes and stay around until the weather changes and sends them on their way.
Large farms that have six or eight ponds at the edge of the woods, ponds in hollows, or creeks running through the property are good places to find birds lounging. Those that have some vegetation in the water or along the shoreline and don't get a lot of human traffic are more likely the ones this timid duck will choose.
"It can be hit and miss in the late season on woodies in Kentucky. We are on the fringe of the climate range for having the last birds to leave and holding some of the late migrating birds from the north by the time our season opens," Rocky Pritchert said.
"When the other species start showing up in any volume, wood ducks are probably going to have pushed on out. It's just their nature," he offered.
"If you're out and observe a bunch somewhere, you better plan to be there early the next morning if you can, because chances are, these guys are going to be up and gone at the next cold front.
"Most of our home-grown birds progressively move south as the weather changes, and most are going to wind up in Florida, the Gulf Coast states and southern Texas and spots like that when we see that first prolonged, hard thermometer drop," the biologist noted.
A final well-known spot for good wood duck hunting is Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. This huge area has a number of small waters, bays with timber, shallow standing water and miles of shoreline to investigate for wood ducks. Easing along the shore, pulling up on the bank and walking back into areas where water is standing or where small ponds exist may yield some quick shooting action that's off the beaten track.
The KDFWR produces the Kentucky Public Hunting Area Guide. This publication is available online at www.fw.ky.gov. It lists all the public lands the agency owns, as well as including the acreage of each of these lands. Even more important for waterfowl hunters, the percentage of those properties that are wetlands is provided.
Those with more swamps and backwaters or year-round standing water are obviously going to have better potential for waterfowl. Since wood ducks can be practically anyway in Kentucky, scouting those tracts with more water, or lands adjacent to rivers or larger creeks will improve your odds of success.
You also can contact a public lands biologist with the KDWFR in the specific region you want to hunt and get more details about the lay of the land, ponds or lakes on the public hunting areas and any special details about hunting them.
All these tracts will be non-toxic shot only areas. Some may have other work for waterfowl being done, such as moist soil units and water level manipulation, which is also an added bonus to attract wood ducks.