5 Bluegrass Destinations For Duck Hunters
October 04, 2010
From redheads to pintails and more, here are five public land places to intercept fast-flying ducks no matter where you live in Kentucky. (December 2005)
Photo by John R. Ford
Although Kentucky on the whole has relatively small amounts of land suited to waterfowl hunting, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) is working to make the most of the territory it does have to manage for ducks and geese.
Hunters can find quality hunting on public lands, some of which require advance application to hunt, but there are others where walk-in or boat-in hunting is allowed. This season should offer a variety of opportunities for the gunner who does a little homework, stays in touch with public land managers, and can be ready to go when the birds arrive.
One of the initiatives new KDFWR Commissioner Dr. Jon Gassett has identified for the agency is to work even more diligently to add more public lands to the coffer, some of which would certainly be acreage that can be used by migrating waterfowl. Kentucky has the potential to increase the availability of habitat, which translates to more public hunting lands. Yet finding funds to purchase high-dollar property remains an ongoing challenge. Groups like Ducks Unlimited have funded joint acquisition and habitat improvement projects with the KDFWR and have contributed greatly to the waterfowl hunting Kentuckians now enjoy. But more can be done.
In recent years, duck hunting in Kentucky has become the waterfowling sport more hunters have found success pursuing. Canada goose hunting certainly remains an option, especially with several expanding resident goose flocks in different spots around the Commonwealth. But what biologists are studying may be a shift in migration and use patterns on Kentucky lands and waters, which is having a noticeable effect on goose hunting opportunity. Fewer geese have come down the flyway as far as Kentucky the past few seasons, mostly believed to be the result of warmer winters, but duck hunting has been stable and in some cases is improving.
Most Kentucky hunters know that within the Commonwealth, there are two duck hunting zones the KDFWR identifies. But they really only serve as two separate areas in relationship to youth hunting days that the state offers to younger hunters. Duck hunting season dates and limits now apply statewide, so there's no difference in bag limits or times to hunt regardless of whether you're in the eastern, central or western parts of the Commonwealth.
Kentucky gives junior hunters in the western third of the state two days to hunt waterfowl before the normal season opens, and in the eastern two-thirds, a couple of days extra in February after the season closes. Otherwise, there's no difference in regulations between the two zones. It is likely that these special youth hunting days will be an option for hunters 15 and under statewide this season, rather than be split into two days per zone. If that occurs, the two "duck" zones may no longer be necessary.
Hunters should be aware that goose hunting zones, however, are set aside with specific dates and limits and each of the five are different. This is simply to maximize and tailor management of different migratory and resident flocks to prevent overharvesting and to treat each group of birds individually, rather than lumping all flocks together under one management plan. Geese are more intensely managed than ducks because the flyway and areas they use divide them more distinctly. Some populations are higher, others lower.
Breeding success in the north does not occur at the same rate in all areas; therefore, flock numbers can greatly fluctuate from year to year. Regulating the hunting of these birds (mostly done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as separate groups makes the most sense, although it sometimes makes laws complicated for those hunting in several different areas. Hunters have to watch closely what is allowed and what's not depending on where they go.
By far, the best and largest amount of duck and goose wetland habitat is found in the western third of Kentucky. Much of the work now being done on public lands and some private property is the development of moist soil units for waterfowl. True-blue duck hunters have likely noticed more of the hunting opportunities on wildlife management areas geared to waterfowl are now becoming associated with flooded natural vegetation areas.
There is still some grain cropping for corn being provided to attract waterfowl use, and when done right, developing shallow impoundments that encourage growth of natural vegetation also works very well in holding ducks during the winter period.
On Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the KDFWR now has the ability to flood a good deal of acreage and keep open water over vegetation. The series of moist soil units, as biologists call them, augment other plantings and give ducks and geese a wider variety of what they need to flourish, and refuel on trips south when it gets cold.
"This approach is really a supplement to set a well-rounded table for ducks and geese, in conjunction with the corn growing that goes on around and on the Ballard WMA," said Waterfowl Program assistant Russ Kennedy.
Mitigation money from the construction of the Olmsted Dam project has been used to put in an elaborate water pump system and other habitat improvements that give WMA staff the ability to flood and draw down water in many areas on the refuge. When Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, there is some chance to keep water around for ducks and geese, thanks to this pump and levee system. Birds kept on the WMA help hunters there get more shot opportunities.
Since there has been more duck action than goose action over the last few seasons, the KDFWR recently upped the limit of shells a hunter on Ballard can carry from 15 to 25. The 15-shell limit was designed to literally force goose hunters to be selective in their shot choices. One of the worst situations in goose hunting is when hunters sky bust, or shoot at birds well out of range. It simply makes them wary and harder to call for everybody. Few geese ever fall from the sky when 60- and 70-yard shots are taken.
Now that more ducks are using the area, and the duck daily limit is higher than the usual two-bird limit for geese, hunters may need a few more shells to take a limit of ducks on the WMA, plus knock down a couple of Canada geese as well. Managers took that into account and now allow hunters a little more margin for misses.
There is standby hunting available on Ballard (and Boatwright WMA next door), so if the drawn hunting party doesn't show, which happens pretty routinely, you can get in somewhere to hunt. It is possible this year on Ballard WMA, and perhaps within the entire Ballard reporting ar
ea, hunters will be required to report their goose harvest by using the telecheck system currently used for deer, turkeys, otters and bobcats. If you take a goose, you might want to double check that in the hunting season regulation guide book ahead of time. Goose harvests will have to be recorded. There just may be a new way to do that this season. Stay tuned.
The Sloughs WMA near Henderson, also on the Ohio River, is the second destination duck hunters should consider. Sloughs hunters have good success on ducks when water and weather conditions are right. Of course, there's no way to predict that, so you have to check a day or two ahead to make sure the water isn't frozen and if birds are using the area. That's a good idea for any public or private land where you plan to try to hunt ducks. Most of the time in December, a freezing over problem doesn't exist in Kentucky, but if a cold snap sets in, you'd better find out just to be sure.
The Sloughs WMA offers limited public blind hunting on several units without advance application. Most blinds that are assigned by a pre-season draw are open first-come, first-served, if the hunter assigned doesn't show up 30 minutes before shooting time that day. It's a fairly safe bet you can find a place to hunt on one of the units that is not a refuge or used for quota hunts, especially if you make a trip there and check in with the area office the day before. The WMA staff does everything they can to accommodate as many hunters as they can, and still maintain a safe and quality hunting environment.
Hunters can expect mostly flatland sloughs and swamps hunting scenarios, near open fields and some woodlands. Approximately 2,000 acres is waterfowl refuge. At peak times, Sloughs has been known to hold up to 30,000 geese and 10,000 ducks. Pray for the right conditions. When things are right, you can really score on this WMA.
GREEN RIVER LAKE WMA
More to the central and southern section of the state, the Green River Lake and WMA has also usually been good for duck hunting in past years.
"So much is dependent on weather, but when we get a little flooded and the water stays open, it can be pretty darn good," said WMA manager Larry Dennis.
"We have some moist soil units that provide good duck habitat in the early part of the season, (and the September wood duck season), then if that slows down, hunters usually have some success on the lake itself," Dennis said.
"We generally tell people to check the beaver ponds and units in the bottoms for activity. Hunters can use blinds not occupied by a half-hour before shooting hours on the WMA or around the lake, or can fashion a temporary blind along the shore of the lake as long as they stay 200 yards away from other blinds or hunters.
"You can boat hunt as well," Dennis said, "if you keep the proper distance from other parties.
This season should offer a variety of opportunities for the gunner who does a little homework, stays in touch with public land managers, and can be ready to go when the birds arrive.
"We mostly get mallards on the area, but if a front or something pushes a big bunch of birds through, we may see just about every species in the book.
"It's really a matter of hitting it right. You'll probably see ducks during the season most any day you come, but obviously, some days the number of birds is much greater and the success much higher when a wave comes down," he concluded.
Dennis recommends calling the area office for a quick update, especially on whether the water is open. If the bottoms are frozen, lake hunting is really the only option, and may make a difference depending on how you're outfitted.
Dennis reminds hunters that like on several public duck hunting areas, hunting hours are over at 2 p.m., prevailing time on his WMA. Since hunting areas on the Green River area lie in two different counties (Taylor and Adair) and in two different time zones, be sure you're watching the clock for where you're located so you know when to call it a day.
LEWIS COUNTY WMA
KDFWR biologist Richard Mauro in the Northeastern Wildlife Region suggests duck hunters consider the Ohio River as a fourth possible destination for mallards, blacks, pintails and teal this winter. Hunting along the river can be very productive as hunters move along from spot to spot, or locate a pocket of activity, perhaps around a loafing or feeding area or agricultural field and set up along the bank.
"The Lewis County WMA backs up to the Ohio River, and birds using this waterway often spread out onto a couple of ponds and wetland-type areas on the WMA," Mauro said.
"There is some bank hunting space available, or hunters can hunt from boats in the vicinity of the WMA and find some decent duck hunting for this part of the state.
"Hunters can expect to pick up mallards, black ducks and pintails," Mauro said, "but they must check the season dates and limits very carefully to be sure what will be included in the bag this season."
Sometimes pintails and canvasbacks (perhaps other species) are not open for taking the same length of time mallards are, and there may be a reduction on hen mallards to one bird per day this season. Always remember that laws change from year to year, especially for waterfowl hunting. Don't assume bag limits and dates are the same as last year, or you will virtually be assured of doing something in violation. This is a good time, too, to say that if for some reason you can't find a Kentucky Waterfowl Season Hunting Guide at the local sporting goods store or gun shop, call the KDFWR directly and request one be mailed to you.
You've got to review what's changed before you get out there, and see what special regulations may apply if you hunt on a state-owned or managed area. There's almost always something more to follow than just what statewide hunting laws require. Permission is required to get out on private land along the Ohio River, unless it's WMA property. Make sure you know where you are, and stay clear of structures close to the shoreline as you move here and there.
TAYLORSVILLE LAKE WMA
A final top spot to check out this season is Taylorsville Lake WMA and the lake itself. This area gets pretty good duck traffic at times and some geese when it gets really cold up north. And this WMA doesn't have a whole lot of special rules to keep track of. Other than staying out of the refuge portion east of the Van Buren ramp, hunters can pretty much go where they want and set up for the day.
Depending on how the ducks are moving, kicking out a spread in a cove or woody stickup area, or farther out on the lake, may be the right ticket to some pretty good early-morning action.
Taylorsville Lake, although located close to the Louisville metro area, doesn't receive a tremendous
amount of duck-hunting pressure in the winter as you might expect. If the birds are down, those who are adaptable and can set up quickly may get some pass-shooting, or get birds to work with a little patience and skill.
Getting prepared for a public-land waterfowl hunt, once you learn about a couple of spots that traditionally hold waterfowl, isn't terribly difficult. But it does take some pre-planning if you've not done it before.
Before you go to a WMA to hunt, visit the area and become familiar with the layout and where the duck-hunting spots are. Try to talk a few minutes with the area manager. Sometimes they are hard to catch because they're out managing their area. But most of the larger WMAs do have someone on site, and he or she can give you some tips about setup and what you need. As is the case with any type of waterfowl hunting anytime during the season, if the birds simply aren't there, an on-site person will tell you.
Before you go to a WMA to hunt, visit the area and become familiar with the layout and where the duck-hunting spots are. Try to talk a few minutes with the area manager.
In the case of the Green River WMA, and other select public lands, a map is available from the KDFWR (some online at fw.ky.gov) that will be really helpful in orienting you, and even identifying where blinds are located in some cases. It would be good to have that in hand when you call or stop in and talk to the area staff.
Winter weather conditions can change pretty quickly sometimes, and in some cases may cause a "close off" of some areas to vehicular traffic. If you think there's a chance that may have happened, say flooding, for example, call and check what the procedures are should that occur. Hunting may still be permitted, but maybe by boat only or wade in. It may save you a whole lot of hassle.
In December, Kentucky can experience some pretty good duck-hunting opportunities. These may continue on into January, if it gets cold up north and stays seasonal in the Bluegrass State. When you see that combination, it's time to make a call or two, get your hunting buddy who can get off work easily to make a scout trip, and be ready to go at a moment's notice if you can.
Any of these highlighted spots have the potential for a good, sometimes a great day or two of hunting, but you have to do your homework. Be adaptable to what you find when you get there to maximize the opportunities.
For complete regulations on public lands seasons, statewide seasons and where Kentucky's wildlife management areas are located, contact the KDFWR Information Center toll-free at (800) 858-1549 weekdays, or go online to
http://fw.ky.gov. The 2005-06 Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide is usually available Nov. 1 and is free of charge.