From Ballard and Sloughs wildlife management areas and beyond, here's where to find some of the commonwealth's top early-season hunting for dabblers, divers and geese. (November 2008).
Last year, hunters saw varied conditions across the state. Depending on when and where hunting took place, their success ranged from excellent to very bad. But overall, bird numbers were high, and success was good.
The drought last year was a major concern for many Kentucky waterfowl hunters. Fortunately, for the most part, it was only a negative factor during the early seasons and actually turned out to be very beneficial in many areas.
"The drought was extreme enough to cause a number of Kentucky's natural wetlands to dry completely," stated Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) waterfowl biologist Rocky Pritchert, in the annual Kentucky Waterfowl Habitat and Hunting Season Report.
"Deeper manmade ponds, small lakes and larger reservoirs had water levels well below normal through the summer growing season. The dry conditions created a nearly ideal situation for wetland recharge.
"Wetland basins, perimeters and other areas exposed by the drought often emerged in a lush growth of wetland vegetation, something not observed since 1988.
"These areas created a bounty of natural duck food and would provide excellent duck habitat if flooded again during the migration period."
Luckily, most of these areas did refill with water, returning most of them to water levels normal or near normal for that time of year
"Ducks responded to the improved habitat and used these areas extensively throughout the winter period. Overall, duck numbers obtained from surveys of major wintering areas ranged from 41 to 110 percent above the most recent five-year average.
"Kentucky's total count from the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey was the highest duck count reported in over 45 years."
Geese didn't fare quite as well. Generally, last year's resident goose reproduction was not reported as good. Part of the reason was attributed to a very late extended cold spell in April. Migrant geese were again much more limited than in years past.
Hopefully, this year's conditions have been more favorable for resident goose reproduction, and the fall and winter weather will lead to ample numbers of migrant ducks and geese.
With that wishful line of thought, here's a look at three locations in the state where you can set your sights on some great waterfowl hunting this season.
BALLARD & BOATWRIGHT
For several years, the number of migrating Canada geese has been in decline in western Kentucky.
The traditionally great hunting in the Ballard and Boatwright wildlife management areas has suffered greatly, leading to a bold step by the KDFWR in 2007.
The KDFWR obtained approximately 3,100 resident geese from Michigan and released the birds onto the Ballard and Boatwright WMAs during June and July, when these birds have molted and are unable to fly. Staff from both Kentucky and Michigan banded juvenile geese prior to releasing them.
Many of the birds stayed on or near the WMAs, and several were later harvested during the winter hunting season. The early goose season was closed in the area to protect the newly acquired birds. Hunter opinion in the area was reported as positive, and the KDFWR was considering releasing more birds in 2008.
Last year on Ballard WMA, hunters bagged a total of 2,802 ducks and 261 geese. The geese were a combination of Canada, blue/snow and white-fronted geese. On Boatwright WMA, the waterfowl harvest in 2007-08 consisted of 2,993 ducks and 192 geese — again, a total of the same species mentioned for Ballard.
Both the Ballard and Boatwright WMAs are located in Ballard County. Collectively, these two areas amount to over 16,000 acres, divided almost equally between the two locations.
On the areas are numerous lakes, ponds, sloughs and other wetlands. Extensive management, along with the proximity to the big river systems, makes this a haven for resident and migrant waterfowl alike.
Hunting regulations and areas open to hunting vary greatly on the properties. Some areas require advance application, and many areas are designated as waterfowl refuges or otherwise closed to hunting.
Additionally, all or portions of a property may be closed due to flooding during the season.
You can obtain more information on hunting regulations, conditions, and advance applications by visiting the area office, or by calling (270) 224-2244.
The Sloughs WMA in Henderson and Union counties was once one of the best waterfowling locations in the entire state. But like the Ballard area, it has seen a dropoff in the number of migrating Canadas. According to Pritchert's report, the number of geese wintering on Sloughs WMA last year increased slightly from the year before, but still remained below the most recent five-year average,
However, the WMA still entertains a good number of ducks each year, and other goose species are beginning to compensate some for the lack of migrating Canadas. Typically, there are a good many resident geese in the vicinity of Sloughs WMA, but of course they don't always make it onto the property.
The WMA is also seeing increased numbers of snow geese and white-fronted geese. In fact, Pritchert said that on many days throughout the winter, white-fronted geese actually outnumber Canadas on Sloughs WMA. In early January, white-fronted geese numbered as high as 6,000 birds. The numbers of snow geese at the Sloughs property peaked at about 10,000.
To resident and passing waterfowl, the Sloughs WMA offers many attractions. The property totals 10,600 acres and is home to numerous ponds, sloughs, and frequently flooded areas.
Adjacent to the WMA is the Ohio River, and just across the river in Indiana is Hovey Lake Fish and Wildlife Area, which is managed to attract waterfowl. Crop fields surround the entire Sloughs area, and there's no shortage of natural vegetation either.
Furthermore, property manager Mike Morton and his staff manage the property extensively to attract and hold waterfowl. Each year, a tremendous amount of water is pumped to fl
ood areas on the property. A waterfowl refuge located on the WMA also provides a resting location, so hunting pressure doesn't push the birds away.
At Sloughs WMA, there are numerous spots to hunt. Some are available only by special drawing, while other locations are open to freelance hunting by both boaters and walk-in hunters.
More information is available by calling the property office directly at (270) 827-2673.
CAVE RUN LAKE
Pritchert said that hunting at Cave Run Lake was "excellent" last year, and the lake "held a large number of birds throughout the winter period."
Of course, he was referring to ducks only, since goose hunting is not allowed on the lake proper. However, that doesn't mean there is no goose hunting to be had there.
Geese use the lake primarily as a resting and roosting area and fly out to area fields during the day to feed. With adequate scouting to learn their daily flight paths, hunters can often set up to intercept these traveling birds. The southern section of the lake area is generally less crowded than the northern end, but much of the surrounding property is privately owned, so prior to hunting, you'll have to do your homework.
Most of the geese you'll see at Cave Run Lake are resident birds, either from our own increasing Kentucky flock or resident giants, down from neighboring states to the north.
In years with harsh winters, the lake will even see numbers of migrant geese from the southern James Bay population of birds.
Ducks are usually numerous on Cave Run Lake each season. Though there are good numbers of the most common mallards and black ducks, there's also a very good diversity of other species. Hunters may see teal, gadwall, pintail, buffleheads, scaup, goldeneye, widgeons and others.
When hunting Cave Run Lake, the importance of scouting can't be underestimated. The lake is large, and birds are often quite spread out.
Often they will stay in patterns for a few days and then change them completely.
There are two scenarios that really boost the bird numbers — and the hunting excitement. When there are flood conditions and the water backs up into the timber, duck numbers increase substantially.
Another event that increases hunter odds is when there is a hard freeze and smaller area waters freeze up.
When access to these waters is reduced, waterfowl looking for open water head to Cave Run Lake in high numbers.
For more information, contact the KDFWR at 1-800-859-1549.€‚€‚€‚