By Larry Self
As good as the mid-1990s were to Tennessee duck hunters, the turn of the century led to leaner years. It’s almost as if we are paying for the high times we’ve had in Volunteer duck blinds. We haven’t been alone in the down times for waterfowlers. Things have been tougher even in the most hallowed grounds of American duck and goose hunting.
When things get tough, they say the tough get going. Instead of waiting on ducks to come to you, it’s time to go to them. A new strategy for success may just lie in the smallest of avenues. In Tennessee, looking harder for waterfowl may mean seeking out some smaller waters to find your birds.
To be sure, the traditional spots are good bets under normal circumstances. You’ll still get your shots there all season, but for additional opportunities look at smaller waters. As tough as things have been the last three seasons, let’s see how some veteran waterfowlers have changed strategies in seeking out ducks off the beaten flyway.
Joe Hopper is the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s wetlands waterfowl coordinator, but more than that, he’s a duck hunter. The veteran waterfowler sees duck season through the eyes of a hunter and a biologist. Hopper’s experience is valuable because he has hunted ducks through the good years and the lean years alike. He knows what it’s like to sit in a blind staring at blank skies, and he also knows the smell of gunpowder. Like many of us, Hopper has worked for his shots at ducks from year to year.
Everybody who shoots a shotgun at ducks knows of the stories from Camden Bottoms and other areas like Gin Creek where some of the best draw blinds are located.
Hopper points out, however, that in addition to the most popular draw hunts, there are numerous less-well-known wildlife management area (WMAs) hunts across Tennessee that feature some waterfowling during the season. The TWRA’s 2004 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide is an excellent source for researching which WMAs allow duck hunting and their particular regulations.
Hopper noted that three come to his mind as offering some of the best overlooked hunting.
First on his list of top WMAs with non-draw hunts is the small Bogota WMA located adjacent to the Obion River in Dyer County, approximately eight miles northwest of Dyersburg.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the 500 acres of moist-soil habitat and flooded agricultural crops provide foraging habitat for mallards, gadwalls, pintails, green-winged teal and shovelers. Hopper said it’s also home to a good duck-hunting opportunity.
Middle Tennessee hunters are familiar, as are most of Tennessee’s duck hunting population, with the opportunities at registered blinds on the Old Hickory WMA, particularly in Unit I and Unit II. Old Hickory’s Unit III (from River Mile 267 upstream to the Old Lock 6 at River Mile 281) has some good hunting of its own. Unit III is open the same as the statewide seasons and features hunting from temporary blinds only. Decoys must be picked up each day, but that’s a small price to pay for opportunity.
Hopper said the hunting is good on this upstream side of Old Hickory all the way to Cordell Hull Dam. He said Unit III is really good during a freeze-up when outlying areas ice over. The best access to the hunting upstream can be found at the Rome Ferry ramp in Smith County.
Third on his list of available but relatively unpressured WMAs is found at the AEDC WMA in Coffee County.
AEDC is better known for its whitetail hunting than waterfowl, but the chance for duck hunting does present itself each season. Hopper said a wade-in area still exists right off I-24 just outside of Manchester. The area is known as Hunt’s Creek and even features some viable flooded timber shooting. Hopper advised hunters to stay clear of the main channel if wading the creek. But the best opportunity will be in the timber on foot.
One last tip that Hopper passed along is to inform hunters that they can hunt from a boat blind on any major riverine system. You can be right up against the bank, but if you get out to hunt from the ground on private land, you’ll need permission from the landowner. Check WMA regulations because many that don’t have permanent blinds only allow hunting from temporary blinds.
One way of increasing your duck hunting success is to take advantage of what the season gives you. Trent Allman, a Knight & Hale Pro-Staffer from Union City, said that after a rain, the hunting opportunity on any of the several TWRA watersheds in West Tennessee can get very good. He said birds travel off the main lake to these resting areas after a good rain. Most of the watersheds are small and allow easy hunting from a boat equipped with a boat blind. Some of the smaller, shallow pondlike areas will feature seed moss and attract a lot of widgeon and gadwalls. Other watersheds are deeper – from 10 to 12 feet or so – and attract several different species.
Allman also said there are some really good hunting opportunities on many West Tennessee WMAs. He said it’s a matter of doing the research and getting out a map to do your homework. One example he gives of prime hunting on public waters is found along the Obion River. Those willing to do the work will often take a boat in by river and then wade into backwater areas. Some hunters even take in two boats, one for getting there by river and then a smaller one to get back in sloughs.
Traditional hunting strategies change when you start getting off the beaten path.
Allman noted that first of all, rather than a permanent blind, you are much more likely to be sitting in a boat blind anytime you have the comfort of blinds on larger waters like Reelfoot Lake and Kentucky Lake.
Shooting backwater ducks in this manner isn’t as easy as it sounds on paper. You have to put your time in scouting. Allman said it requires a lot of pre-work if you’re going to get your limit.
Two key areas to keep in your sights are the waters around the Hop-In Refuge. The Gooch WMA and Obion River WMA are well situated. Allman said the river units of the Gooch WMA offer some good backwater gunning and the waters of the Obion outside the refuge are a drawing card to ducks coming and going.
“Get them while they’re there!” Allman said.
Most of these smaller out-of-the-way places can’t take a lot of pressure and you can shoot them out quick. Allman said if you know the area and have new ducks coming in that may not be around long, forget about pressuring them – get your limit and then get out. Last year, he watched around 400 to 500 teal using a backwater hole.
Decoying will differ slightly on these watersheds and backwater spots. Allman said if you can get in with a boat blind, you could utilize two to three dozen magnum decoys. If you wade in, you’ll be limited to about a dozen standard-sized decoys.
When you’re where the ducks want to be, you won’t have to do any real serious calling. Allman said keep it to a minimum if they’re coming in regularly and follow normal calling protocol if you don’t have a lot of birds hammering you.
You may not shoot or even see a limit of ducks each and every time off these beaten flyways in West Tennessee, but Allman said you wouldn’t have to spend the night in a blind in order to get a spot. The key to this kind of success is getting out in the late evening and watching to see where the birds are going so that you can be where they want to be.
Veteran waterfowler Jackie McCrary of Greeneville remembers when East Tennessee duck hunting was at a prime in the early 1980s. Those days seem to be gone, and McCrary has gone nomadic with them. He travels across Tennessee to Arkansas and to Illinois each season in search of where the ducks are, and he usually finds them.
“Public places can be tough, but most people are lazy,” McCrary said. “It’s work, but sometimes it pays off.”
He said you have to get out and look for ducks. Scouting is just one key to the homework puzzle. McCrary utilizes maps to learn the lay of the land and water.
“You’ll want to get a duck’s-eye view,” explained McCrary. “See what they see.”
By that, he means getting airborne. If you can afford to buy gas to travel to out-of-the-way duck holes, you can afford some airplane fuel. If your hunting group pitches in, it’s not that expensive. He said you could do a flyover of your entire hunting area in about an hour and a half. What you learn from the air about natural flight patterns and hidden holes can be cross-referenced with a good topo map and a plan of action put into place.
McCrary said some of the big duck-drawing areas like Kentucky Lake have a lot of overlooked opportunities. Kentucky Lake, for example, is loaded with creeks feeding that river system and the creeks are often loaded with ducks. McCrary carries a small spotting scope during the season when scouting a new area.
He said to never go by what you think looks good – go to areas that the ducks think look good. You can tell if a spot looks good to ducks: The ducks will be using it. With the spotting scope, he can watch them from a distance without spooking them and be there the next morning to greet them.
“I guarantee you could get by with just two decoys,” McCrary said about packing light. A lot of times getting back into an area can be a hike or a trudge down a muddy sandbar. His trekking essentials include his shotgun, necessary shotgun shells, a good dog, and a dozen decoys or less. Mallard decoys are the most universal and McCrary said he gets it done with them for puddle ducks as well as divers. If you find a spot that ducks like, you won’t need many decoys.
McCrary said what makes public hunting best is when you find the ducks and there’s no one else there to mess things up. Then you’ve accomplished something. Going against the grain of traditional duck blind hunting makes you learn. McCrary said not to let the zero days bother you and to remember the good days because you’ll always have your memories when the hunting is slow.
There was a time in East Tennessee when the small John Sevier Lake on the Holston River above Cherokee Lake was a guaranteed duck shoot. Then came the pressure, fewer birds, and the deal was off. The area isn’t dead, but it isn’t what it used to be.
J.R. Adkins, a Knight & Hale Pro-Staffer from Rogersville, still finds what he’s looking for on the Holston River, but he looks at another aspect of what ducks need from their environments. In doing so, Adkins has applied a little water strategy for taking black ducks and other species on the river. His key for hunting ducks between flyways is to find where the birds like to go after they feed.
“Most fields don’t have gravel,” Adkins explained. “Ducks need gravel.”
That’s why he’s keying on backwater resting areas near gravel bars and shoal situations. Adkins’ success isn’t happening on the main river. He’s hunting forks of rivers and sloughs on the tributaries to the Holston River. These narrow, overlooked bends and forks are where he’s killed respectable numbers of ducks the last three years when everyone else was wondering where the ducks were.
Adkins doesn’t time all of his hunting around fronts, but takes particular notice of northern winds that blow ducks in. He’ll definitely be on the water the day after a big northern push comes through.
An important element in making this kind of hunting last the season is to avoid overshooting the holes. He said he might spend four days a week watching and scouting areas for duck movement and then hunt them two days per week. The holes can be finicky and assuredly aren’t places you can pound on a daily basis.
Many of the birds Adkins is putting in his sights are pushed from the main river by other hunters. He’s learned that a lot of the incoming flight birds are drawn to these spots by the resident ducks using them. If you push out your local ducks by overshooting the hole, you’ll limit your success.
These little hotspots draw blacks, mallards, woodies, teal, widgeon, gadwalls and shovelers into Adkins’ gun range. He said it’s usually close-quarter shooting that doesn’t call for the big duck loads like No. 2s or BB shot. Adkins loves what the Hevi-Shot loads in a No. 6 can do to ducks decoying into his holes. Most of his shots are well within 35 yards, and the small shot size doesn’t tear up ducks’ breasts destined for the smoker.
His little river or creek gear includes only the essentials. Adkins packs a light field bag, his calls, shotgun, and only a dozen decoys that include a couple or three goose floaters as confidence birds.
When fall duck fight predictions are accurate and when the numbers are really here, duck season can be a simple prospect. Get up early, cook up some breakfast, get in the blind and wait for daylight’s shooting to start. That recipe may need a little adjusting when the season opens again this year. A little extra effort may pay huge dividends regardless of how many days we have in the field.
Developing a new strategy for d
uck season doesn’t mean burning down the old faithful duck blind or selling your dozen upon dozen decoys on EBay. It’s simply approaching this waterfowl season with a new work ethic. Going the extra mile may not mean a limit of ducks every day, but it could make the difference between shooting and looking at bluebird skies.
Finding little water and the ducks that it holds means getting mobile and becoming nomadic. The mobile duck hunter lightens his load from gear to decoys and does his homework to see what areas will be holding the birds based on current conditions and the lay of the land.
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