Photo by Ken Archer
You can sum up the secret to taking ducks along the Tennessee River in one word: weather. Good weather means no ducks, and bad weather translates to numbers of the birds. Really bad weather for a long period of time can mean plenty of ducks.
I had one of my worst days of duck hunting ever along the Tennessee River on the Swan Creek WMA under clear skies, temperatures in the 40s, and hardly any wind. We sat in the blind, told jokes, reminisced about hunts we had enjoyed before and took only two gadwalls for the four of us from before daylight until 10 a.m.
On one of the best duck hunts I ever had, the wind blew hard all night, and rain came down mixed with sleet. Some of the moisture still fell as we walked back to a small creek just off Alabama’s Tennessee River in the heavy fog, using a hand-held GPS to guide us. We put out a few decoys and waited on shooting time to arrive.
Even before we could see that morning, we heard mallards cackling and the high-pitched whine of wood ducks’ wings as they flew through the night. When the magic shooting hour approached, flights of ducks passed and decoyed every 10 to 15 minutes. Within an hour and a half, three of us had limited-out and headed home with enough birds for a delicious supper.
Bottom line is, if you plan to go duck hunting in Alabama on a weekend, start watching the Weather Channel on Wednesday. A storm coming from the north packing hard winds and cold weather tells you it is time to load up your decoys and patch your waders. But if you see a warm front moving in from the south, check your TV Guide for any good football games taking place on Saturday. You can still go hunting, but do not expect the ducks to join you!
That said, to get an overview of Tennessee River duck hunting on wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges, Alabama Game & Fish talked to the men who get paid to know what Alabama ducks are up to — the game managers of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
JACKSON COUNTY WATERFOWL MANAGEMENT AREAS AND REFUGES
Ben Davis of Hollywood is a wildlife biologist in District II for Alabama’s DWFF and primarily concerns himself with the waterfowling areas in his district. Davis said that this year will see some changes made to try and improve waterfowl hunting.
“We’re totally weather dependent,” Davis conceded. “If we have good periods of cold weather, we’ll have plenty of ducks. But if we don’t get the cold weather, duck hunting can really be tough. If we have very few days below freezing during the season, then the ducks just don’t show up.
“The habitat along the Tennessee River is in a really good shape for ducks with the milfoil and agricultural crops that are produced along the river,” he continued. “Food and water are abundant for the ducks. The river and the backwater areas provide ideal habitat. But we’ve got to have bad weather up north to push the ducks down to us here in Alabama.”
Even though Davis knows that weather plays a major role in the duck availability along the Tennessee River, he also believes that no-till farming has had a detrimentally impacted duck hunting in the Yellowhammer State.
With regard to the types of birds that show up in the Jackson County WMAs and refuges, Davis explained that gadwalls, coots, ringnecks and scaups make up the majority. At times, however, large numbers of mallards also appear.
“We have a tremendous number of wood ducks,” he added. “However, they usually migrate early in the season. Nonetheless, this last year we did have a good number of wood ducks that stayed in our area because of the mild winter.”
Most waterfowlers hunt from blinds, which may be on boats, whether temporary or permanent. However, a growing number of watermen don waders to enter the flooded timber in some of the creeks. For success at this type of hunting, you must scout before you hunt and know exactly where you are likely to find the ducks.
“The Wheeler National Waterfowl Refuge plays a very important role for ducks all up and down the Tennessee River,” Davis emphasized. “This sanctuary does quite a bit of farming and managing for ducks, and the wildlife refuge holds a tremendous amount of birds over the winter.
“But,” he continued, “one of the reasons Jackson County has quality waterfowl hunting is because of two state refuges: North Sauty and Crow Creek. Jackson County has three waterfowling WMAs besides the two refuges, all of which are intensely managed for waterfowl.”
The refuges do not permit any hunting, and the state controls hunting on the WMAs to prevent pressuring the ducks so much that they leave the region.
Crow Creek Refuge contains 2,496 acres with the North Sauty Refuge having 5,200. Crow Creek WMA holds 2,161 acres, Mud Creek WMA 8,193 acres and Raccoon Creek 7,080 acres.
“Crow Creek Refuge actually connects with Crow Creek and Raccoon Creek WMAs, while the North Sauty Refuge is just southwest of Scottsboro,” Davis reported. “On the Jackson County waterfowling WMAs, we’ve started instituting a policy of no hunting Mondays through Thursdays after noon to provide a time for the ducks to be able to come back to the refuge and feed, loaf and rest. But, you can still hunt all day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
According to Davis, because of the warmer winters we have had the last few years, most of the ducks that come to the refuges stay during daylight hours since they have no hunting pressure. Davis hopes that by closing the refuges to hunting after noon during the week that many of the ducks holding on the refuges will begin to come to the WMAs, making them more available for harvest by sportsmen. The area managers at the Jackson County WMAs continue to look for better ways to improve the duck hunting on these tracts, even though they cannot do anything to improve the weather for duck hunting.
THE BIG DRAWING CARD
Wheeler National Wildlife Waterfowl Refuge, 34,500 acres of waterfowl heaven just outside of Decatur, attracts 40,000 to 60,000 ducks that migrate there each winter. They spend the waterfowl season feeding on crops and dodging hunters. Mallards make up the majority of these ducks, with good numbers of gadwalls, widgeons and others completing the mix. Although the sections around the refuge are hunted heavily, no shooting actually takes place on the refuge.
On the other hand, Swan Creek WMA, just
across the road from the refuge, is one of North Alabama’s premier waterfowling tracts of public property.
At Swan Creek WMA, you can have permanent blinds. But you must go through a drawing process each year to get one of these prime regions to place your permanent blind.
Steve Bryant of Elkmont is the area biologist for the DWFF District I.
“You have to have a floating blind with Styrofoam flotation, and that Styrofoam has to be enclosed in either metal or wire to prevent muskrats from tunneling into the Styrofoam and making it unstable. The blind also must be able to completely hide a boat and motor. The blinds are then inspected.
For the blinds that pass inspection, the owner will be given a card with a number that’s the same as the number on a tag that has been placed on the blind by the inspector. Cards are then taken to the registration area where the hunter signs his name to the card and presents his driver’s and hunting licenses to verify his identification. All cards are then put into a cage for the drawing of blind sites. Usually there are more than 200 applicants for the 50-designated permanent blind sites.”
Generally, 53 cards are drawn for the blind sites, which gives three alternates a chance at a blind, if a hunter fails to put a blind in at the site that he has drawn. But you do not have to have a permanent blind to hunt at Swan Creek. You still can hunt from conventional boat blinds or wade hunt.
“Although Swan Creek is right across U.S. Highway 31 from the national waterfowl refuge, hunters need to realize that hunting at Swan Creek isn’t like hunting on the refuge,” Bryant cautioned. “Ducks adapt to hunting pressure really quickly, and we get quite a few ducks feeding at Swan Creek at night. However, the next morning, once the shooting starts, the ducks are gone. If we get a really cold, overcast day, our hunting is usually pretty good, but on those bluebird days, our hunting won’t be that productive.”
Many Alabama hunters think that if you can take ducks at Swan Creek, you can take ducks anywhere because of the really tough hunting on many days. The Dewatering Unit contains 1,200 acres of the WMA’s 4,000 total acres. On opening day, expect to see 200 to 300 hunters at Swan Creek. After opening day, you find about 100 waterfowlers on the weekends. Even on the bluebird days with the lousy hunting conditions, 25 to 30 diehard watermen are out there taking their chances.
Unlike the Jackson County WMAs, Swan Creek (Morgan County) and Mallard-Fox Creek (Lawrence County) permit full-day hunting, seven days a week. Although most hunters use boat blinds, there are productive areas for wading, particularly in the early season.
|swan creek wma ducks harvested in 2004-05|
|Green Wing Teal||10.5|
|Blue Wing Teal||1.0|
“Although there are some areas where you always can wade hunt,” Bryant noted, “there are places that aren’t feasible to wade, especially later in the season.”
One oddity from recent seasons is a fairly high number of teal being harvested along the Tennessee River during the regular duck season. These early ducks are the first to migrate, often showing up around dove season in September.
“We shouldn’t be harvesting as many teal as we do during the regular duck season,” Bryant agreed. “I believe this is a fairly good indication of how warm the weather’s been up North during the winter. The teal just don’t seem to be migrating to our area until much later in the season.”
With regard to the best time for duck hunts on the North Bama public lands, Bryant pointed to the week from Christmas through New Year’s Day.
“Our hunter numbers seem to drop off toward the end of the season,” Bryant added.
The hunters who harvest the most ducks in North Alabama most years live within an hour or less of the Tennessee River and can make fairly quick decisions about the days they hunt. They can react quickly to the approach of a sudden cold front or the onset of frigid weather farther north.
For the rest of us, Alabama does have other good duck-hunting options along the Tennessee River. The most consistent duck action comes from our resident wood ducks. Just find some flooded timber areas on small tributaries of the big river, Wading into these regions can save the waterfowling season for you regardless of the weather’s twists and turns.
The Tennessee River is one of Alabama’s most productive waterfowling areas and calls hunters to its shores every winter. As we have pointed out, if the weather is nasty enough those hunter do not go home empty handed or disappointed.