With excellent habitat and some cold weather up north, Kentucky waterfowl hunters should enjoy some good hunting this fall.
Over the past decade, states across the country have reported an increase in the number of waterfowl hunters. John Brunjes, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department Migratory Bird Program coordinator, calls this the “Duck Dynasty effect.”
“We’ve remained stable to slightly increasing in duck and goose hunting interest, but some states have seen a 400 percent jump the last few years in interest in waterfowling,” said Brunjes. “I also think that because we’ve been fortunate to be in excellent shape in terms of duck production the last year or two especially, it has increased opportunity in areas where 20 or more years ago, not a lot of birds could be found.”
Several species of waterfowl that pass through Kentucky are at all time highs, and if the weather cooperates, the 2017-18 season should be quite good, especially with this year’s longer season and increased bag limits.
“Wet prairies in spring have such a positive impact on nesting success and production,” Brunjes said. “We’ve been lucky that’s happened in recent years, and though our bag limits have been pretty liberal over the last several seasons, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believes we can harvest a little higher percentage of some species and cause no additive mortality.”
The most recent harvest figures available from the USFWS show Kentucky reported 129,300 ducks taken in 2015, which was a 15 percent increase from 2014 totals of just over 100,000 birds. Brunjes believes the 2016 season will have very similar numbers, once 2016 season harvest data is available.
Mallards, gadwall, teal, wood duck and wigeon were the most common species taken, yet a fairly wide variety of other species were also shown in the statewide bag for 2015, including black ducks, scaup, hooded mergansers, shovelers and pintails.
For the first time in 30 years, Kentucky hunters can take two black ducks in the daily limit; however, pintail numbers have trended downward, so hunters will return to one pintail per day for 2017.
Brunjes suspects that an option may be offered from the “feds” in upcoming seasons to lengthen the duck season in Kentucky. He notes, however, that the state must take care when adding days, especially on the end of the current season, to avoid a detrimental harvest of breeding birds beyond the end of January.
“We can probably get a few more days around the Thanksgiving time early opening, but going later in the winter could be removing birds that will be nesters the following spring,” said Brunjes. “We are charged with balancing good management of resources with opportunity, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Kentucky permits a youth-only duck hunting weekend in early February in the western end of the state, but harvest during that time does not show a noticeably negative impact on ducks due to limited participation.
On the goose side, hunters can expect the same success as in recent years. While Kentucky still gets some birds coming down the Mississippi Valley Flyway and from the St. James Bay area, the majority of birds hunters see are “temperate nesting” populations in Kentucky. These are Canadas that stay in the Commonwealth year ‘round, except for a small number that are born the spring before a season, which do migrate back to the St. James Bay to nest, but then return and stay from that point on.
“The changes in agricultural practices in states to our north, and weather patterns caused a shift over the last two-three decades in goose behaviors,” said Brunjes. “In the distant past, we saw our top waterfowl areas in the west holding thousands of Canadas over winter migrating south, but today it’s a completely different story. We get some birds here down the flyways, but largely the birds taken in our state now are what we used to call “resident” birds, and most of those are taken in the central part of the state on grain fields where remnant food is or that are flooded and close to big farming operations.”
These birds are scattered across the landscape and move about back and forth from open water to cornfields, until hunting pressure forces them to new locations.
Shelby, Oldham, Franklin, Fayette and Scott counties, according to Brunjes, hold excellent numbers of local birds because there are many larger private lakes and golf course waters that attract Canadas as roost locations. Birds get up off those waters and move to nearby farms to feed. When cold weather freezes small bodies of water, geese move to rivers, or private lakes where water is kept open with fountains or aerators.
The super cold weather consolidates smaller bunches of geese into larger groups, and even pulls in ducks.
Donald “Duck” Scothorn and Lenny Wilson have learned that even small open potholes of water can be very productive when weather conditions are favorable. The two have built their own ground pit in a cornfield near an acre or so waterhole not far off the Ohio River in northern Kentucky.
“We just thought it looked like a good place for ducks, with a little timber cover close by and we would see birds passing through there and coming up sometimes off this small pond, so we put in a little time and effort and started hunting it,” said Scothorn.
The location keeps water for most of the year, so the pair conducted some vegetation control so ducks could see the decoys and provide shots. They mostly shoot mallards, but black ducks and a few geese come in at times, especially when they are able to keep the water open.
Brunjes hunts the Ohio River a good bit, and suggests trying the section from Cincinnati to Ashland. When temperatures drop, he says that hunters can expect to see a lot of duck activity up and down the river.
“Spots close to power plants are always good for ducks, and what I often do is just get in my boat and ride the river and look for sitting birds in advance of the day I can hunt,” said Brunjes. “There’s a lot of talk about weather and how it affects waterfowl, but I can tell you this — I’ve hunted days I thought the weather was just right and come home empty, and I’ve tried days that conditions were supposedly bad, and limited out. You just have to go, as long as it’s safe, because you never really know if they are going to still be there and move, or have re-located.”
The northern Kentucky part of the Ohio attracts good numbers of ducks both early and later in the season, and is a natural travel lane for waterfowl. There’s less fishing and pleasure boating in the late fall and winter, and waterfowl can sit down on the main river, or up numerous tributaries if they prefer, and not be disturbed.
“I’d also have to recommend making a visit to our premier waterfowl wildlife management areas at Ballard, Boatwright and the Sloughs,” Brunjes said.
There are quota-hunting opportunities during the season, as well as walk-in and standby hunting on these areas. These areas hold thousands of ducks in the peak of migration, and hunters can expect these public areas to give up limits of birds pretty often. Hunting during the week can greatly improve chances of getting a blind assignment on the day of the hunt.
Duck hunters in south-central Kentucky may want to scout Cedar Creek Lake. Harvest figures and counts indicate good numbers of ducks are found there, even though the body of water is much smaller than say Kentucky or Barkley lakes. It’s a more intimate setting that some hunters prefer and can be bank or boat hunted from a stationary craft.
“I think if hunters will put in a little effort, be observant of waterfowl movement and keep on top of the weather pattern changes, we will have plenty of ducks and homegrown geese in the central and western thirds of the state for the season,” said Brunjes. “We’re really lucky to be in this good of shape with so many different species, and are riding an improved trend hunters can take advantage of.”
Tips for Ducks
Biologists who fly over various waters all season long doing waterfowl counts get a unique perspective most hunters never will. According to Brunjes, it has changed his approach to setting up for ducks, particularly, when he’s on the ground prepping a site for a morning hunt.
“One thing I’ve noticed, and used to do it myself, is that most hunters position their decoys in a very uniformly spaced manor, maybe every 5 or 6 feet apart and cover most of the water out in front of them where they want birds to land,” said Brunjes. “When we spot them from the air, it rarely looks like that when we find groups of actual birds.”
Ducks tend to clump in small groups that leave open gaps, rather than in neatly spaced patterns that hunters seem to enjoy in set ups. Also, it is important to leave room for incoming birds so they don’t have to avoid other birds as they land.
Another key is to set up so that birds are able to land into the wind in a way that provides shots in front rather than behind. Always set up with the wind at back or crossing to provide better shots.
Special Habitat Improvement Project
The Sloughs WMA along the Ohio River near Henderson was noted as one of Kentucky’s most utilized areas for wintering waterfowl. Management work is conducted on this area to help set the table for waterfowl to re-fuel on migration, and upon spring return trips to the prairie-pothole nesting region.
Available this year, another 70-acre wetland has been developed by the KDFWR, Ducks Unlimited and North American Wetland Conservation Act at a cost of $220,000. The state fish and wildlife department shared the cost equally with the other entities to get the project completed in time for birds to benefit this season.
New pumps have been installed and levees created to provide shallow water habitat for waterfowl, which can be manipulated to keep water open for birds as resting and feeding areas.
“We are fortunate to have many partners in wetland conservation helping us do on the ground work for ducks and geese in Kentucky,” said Brunjes. “Hunters benefit, as well, and this type of work is a direct example of the support of sportsmen and women, working with their state agency.”