From mergansers to mallards and more, here are some hotspots where you'll find our state's best wing-shooting for ducks and geese this season.
Though good numbers of ducks and geese visited our state last season, high-water conditions kept them spread out and hard to pattern for many hunters. Let's hope we won't have as much flooding this season.
Photo by Lee Leschper
"Challenging!" That is how Rocky Pritchert, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), described the Commonwealth's 2004-2005 duck season.
Just what made the season so challenging? First, there was a lot of water. The lakes and rivers stayed up for a long time. There were good numbers of ducks, but because of the high water, the birds were scattered. Next, the high waters did more than just scatter the birds. It also played havoc on traditional hotspots like Ballard and Sloughs wildlife management areas (WMAs), both of which border portions of the Ohio River.
"We were flooded most of the season," said Mike Morton, area supervisor at the Sloughs WMA. "In fact, this was the highest 'in-season' flood we have seen since 1991."
The high waters kept the permanent blinds on both areas unusable for all but just a few days of the 2004-2005 waterfowl season. Hunters were forced to hunt the floodwater from boats, and Morton described hunting the vast expanses of water as "unpredictable."
In addition to the ducks being scattered, a 2004 production described as "fair" made things even more challenging by resulting in a greater percentage of adult birds in the population. And more adult birds means more birds that have survived a duck season and are not as apt to make a rookie mistake.
"These birds were experienced," Pritchert pointed out. "They had been shot at before, and consequently became harder to work."
The end result was a season where hunters who put in the effort to find the places that the ducks were concentrating had good success. Those who did not move around felt the frustration of another season sabotaged by Mother Nature.
Last year's duck season wasn't the only season that challenged Bluegrass State waterfowl hunters. The same high-water conditions that made duck hunting difficult adversely affected the goose hunting as well. Add to that the fact that production in the northern breeding grounds was a bust, and then you can begin to understand what Commonwealth goose hunters were up against.
The Ballard reporting area, which includes the Ballard WMA and the surrounding area, logged just 500 Canada geese harvested out of a 6,700-bird quota. Likewise, the Henderson-Union reporting area, which encompasses the Sloughs WMA, saw approximately 600 geese taken out of a 2,600-bird quota. Morton called the harvest "a new record low."
For hunters in the Western Coalfield, central and eastern portions of the state, the goose season was a little more promising, thanks to Kentucky's estimated 35,000 resident Canada geese. These local birds, combined with migrants from the Southern James Bay population (SJB), provided hunters with what Pritchert described as "fair to good" hunting.
So just what will this year's season hold for Kentucky's waterfowl hunters? As usual, much of that depends on the weather. As this issue went to press, the breeding ground surveys had not yet been completed, but initial reports reveal a mixed bag of conditions similar to last year. Some portions of the breeding grounds are holding water and are in good shape, while other areas continue to see drought conditions and are providing poor habitat for nesting waterfowl.
Even with just a "fair" production, however, keep in mind that overall duck numbers are close to their long-term average for the past 50 years, and well above the levels seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Given the right weather and water conditions, Kentucky's duck season could provide some excellent shooting action this fall.
The goose season looks a little more promising for this year, as initial reports show conditions are looking more favorable in the northern breeding grounds. Warmer temperatures have resulted in an early snowmelt, allowing the birds to begin nesting sooner, and providing better overall breeding conditions than in 2004.
As with duck hunting, a good goose season depends heavily on the right weather conditions. A year of normal precipitation and some unusually cold weather up north could be just what the doctor ordered to provide Bluegrass State hunters with some fantastic waterfowl hunting this winter.
So just where should Kentucky's hunters go to get in on some excellent waterfowl hunting? Chances are they won't have to travel far because some great opportunities exist in every region of the state. Here are this year's top picks for waterfowl hunting action in your area.
It is nearly impossible to carry on a conversation about waterfowl hunting in Kentucky without the mention of Ballard WMA. This 8,373-acre area, 30 miles west of Paducah in Ballard County, is synonymous with excellent waterfowling -- and for good reason. Its prime location along the Ohio River, along with its agricultural base and refuge areas, provides an ideal resting spot for migrating ducks and geese.
Hunting on Ballard WMA is tightly controlled, and hunters must apply during September to ensure they are able to hunt from one of the KDFWR's permanent blinds on their specified dates. However, those who did not put in for the drawing, or those who failed to draw a blind, still have an opportunity to hunt the WMA as a standby. Standby hunters fill the blinds of those drawn hunters who have not checked in by 4:30 a.m. Central Standard Time (CST). All standby hunters must be registered by 5 a.m. CST on the day of the hunt.
Hunting on Ballard is allowed from one-half hour before sunrise until noon, Wednesday through Sunday. The area is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. No more than four hunters may occupy any blind, and each is limited to 25 shotgun shells per day. For more information on hunting Ballard WMA, contact the area office at (270) 224-2244.
For Purchase Region hunters not wanting to deal with the hassle of applications and standby hunting, Pritchert recommends Obion Creek WMA in Hickman, Fulton and Carlisle counties. The 3,521-acre bottomland hardwood swamp can hold good numbers of waterfowl when conditions are right, and the area provides hunters with a unique opportunity for a flooded-timber hunt.
Obion Creek WMA is open to waterfowl hunting under statewide reg
ulations, except that shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to 2 p.m. For more information on Obion Creek WMA, contact the local KDFWR office at (270) 753-6913.
GREEN RIVER REGION
Moving east into the Green River region of Kentucky, hunters will find another legendary waterfowling hotspot in the Sloughs WMA. Covering a total of 10,600 acres spread over five separate management units in Henderson and Union counties, the Sloughs terrain consists of alternating ridges, sloughs (as the name implies), woodlands, brushy areas and open fields.
As with Ballard WMA, waterfowl hunting on the area is tightly controlled, and varies from unit to unit. The Duncan II and Crenshaw tracts are set up in a similar fashion to Ballard WMA and require an advanced application where hunters are drawn for two- or three-day hunts. Blinds that are not occupied by one-half hour before shooting time are filled by standby hunters on a first-come, first-served policy.
The Grassy Pond-Powell's Lake Unit and portions of the Highland Creek Unit went to a new drawing system in 2004. Hunting blind sites on these two units have now been assigned for the entire season to a waterfowl hunter and a partner who take part in the October drawing. Hunters who are drawn and assigned a site are responsible to clean, prepare, camouflage and make the site ready for the waterfowl-hunting season.
According to Morton, this new system should make for improved hunting facilities and opportunities for public hunters throughout the season. "If the drawn hunters do not claim their assigned blind site by one-half hour before shooting time, blinds are open on a first-come, first-served basis to other hunters daily."
Waterfowl hunting on the Jenny Hole Unit and a majority of the Highland Creek Unit remains open to a "walk-in" or "boat-in" hunting system. However, hunters or hunting parties are required to maintain a 200-yard spacing from others.
Pritchert was also quick to point out that hunters in this region may want to consider nearby Peabody WMA as well. The 60,000-acre area in Ohio and Muhlenberg counties is dotted with numerous water-filled strip pits that can hold waterfowl throughout the season. The area also has the added attraction of a healthy population of resident geese that can produce some shooting action when the migrants are still holding tight up north.
Hunting Peabody WMA requires the purchase of a $12.50 user permit, which can be obtained wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold. Shooting hours on the area are from one-half hour before sunrise to 2 p.m., and there are three refuge areas within the WMA that are closed to all access from Oct. 15 through March 15. For more information on hunting Peabody WMA, contact the regional KDFWR office at (270) 273-3568.
In the central portion of the state, much of the waterfowl hunting activity is focused on the streams, rivers and farm ponds that dot the landscape. When the weather turns cold, however, and these small bodies of water begin to freeze, the ducks and geese will head for big, open water, such as that found on the Ohio River. More and more hunters are realizing the Ohio's waterfowling potential. Spanning the entire length of the Commonwealth's northern border, the river provides hundreds of miles of hunting opportunity.
As a starting point, Pritchert recommends looking at areas where larger rivers and streams enter the main channel of the Ohio River. Conditions change frequently on the river, and as a result, hunters are encouraged to scout regularly and remain mobile.
One other point to keep in mind for those hunting the Ohio River is safety. While safety is always a factor regardless of where you are waterfowl hunting, it is even more so when the hunting takes place on a big river. Factors such as strong current, drift, passing barges and locks and dams can all increase the risk of having a good hunt turn tragic. When it comes to choosing a boat for big-river hunting, the bigger and wider, the better.
While northeast Kentucky is not traditionally known for its waterfowl hunting, opportunities do exist to harvest several ducks and geese in that region of the state. One reason for this is the expanding resident goose population around the Cave Run Lake area. The 8,000-plus-acre impoundment is part of a designated goose refuge that was developed by the KDFWR and U.S. Forest Service in order to provide a place for both migrant and local geese to rest and feed.
Despite the fact that goose hunting is off-limits at Cave Run, the lake is open to duck hunting under statewide regulations, and regularly offers opportunities at mallards, blacks, scaup, buffleheads and ringnecks. Hunters seem to find their best success in the lake's headwaters and tributaries.
In this region, Pritchert also recommends giving both Yatesville and Paintsville lakes a try.
Yatesville Lake is in Lawrence County, on Blaine Creek, a tributary of the Big Sandy River. It covers just over 1,700 acres at winter pool. The portion of the lake north of the mouth of Greenbriar Creek Branch, including the branch itself, is closed to all waterfowl hunting. The rest of the lake is open to waterfowl hunting under statewide regulations.
Paintsville Lake, located southwest of Yatesville Lake in Morgan and Johnson counties, is approximately 1,100 acres and is also open for waterfowl hunting under statewide regulations.
Similar to the Bluegrass Region, hunting in the Northeast Region is best when the mercury drops enough to start freezing over smaller ponds and streams. This tends to concentrate the birds on the larger reservoirs and rivers in the area. For more information on waterfowl hunting on Yatesville and Paintsville lakes, contact the local KDFWR office at (606) 686-3312.
The Southeast Region, like its counterpart to the north, doesn't have the reputation as a waterfowl mecca. Its lack of a major agricultural base, and its distance from the main flyway, limits the concentration of waterfowl in the area. Once again, freezing temperatures can change that by accumulating local ducks and geese on the area's major lakes and reservoirs.
In this region, Pritchert believes that Lake Cumberland holds enormous potential for waterfowl enthusiasts. When most people think of Lake Cumberland, they think big: big water, big boats and big stripers. In fact, its size is both a blessing and a curse to hunters. The big, open water makes it slow to freeze, but it also makes pinpointing the birds a difficult task. For those hunters who are willing to spend some time and effort in the form of scouting, Cumberland can be a great place to put some ducks and geese in the freezer.
As with hunting the Ohio River, hunting on Lake Cumberland requires an added degree of safety because of its sheer size. Hunters unfamiliar with the lake would also be wise to carry a GPS unit to ensure they can find their way back to the boat ramp.
For more information on waterfowl hunting opportunities o
n Lake Cumberland, contact the local KDFWR office at (606) 376-8083.
Overall, the outlook for Kentucky's waterfowl season is promising. Duck numbers should be similar to last year, and geese numbers should show improvement. When it comes to waterfowling, though, the weather will be the deciding factor on how Commonwealth hunters fare this season.
Another year of above-normal precipitation and temperatures could produce a challenging season similar to last year. On the other hand, normal precipitation and some cold weather up north could produce some excellent waterfowling opportunities. Regardless of the weather, though, you can't shoot them if you are not out there, so get out this season and give one of these top areas a try.
Kentucky's waterfowl season dates and bag limits are set by the nine-member KDFWR Commission, based on the framework set forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Remember that regulations for WMAs often differ from those statewide, so be sure and pick up a copy of the 2005-2006 Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide to check the dates and regulations for the area that you are going to hunt. The guide is available from local license vendors, or can be found online at
All Kentucky waterfowl hunters are required to carry a hunting license, state waterfowl permit, and federal duck stamp while in the field.