Here's a look at three of our state's best WMAs for black ducks, mallards, redheads and more! Is one near you? (December 2009)
Kentucky's long-time ardent waterfowlers have found in recent years that hunting ducks in December and January has been much more productive than chasing Canada geese. Weather and habitat changes over the last decade have changed the face of waterfowling from what many sportsmen knew years ago.
And since duck hunting has proved best to pursue on most of the state's suitable public lands versus geese, it makes good sense to consider a visit to some of the better wildlife management areas this month and see what you can find.
Kentucky offers about a dozen different locations that attract ducks under certain conditions. Yet, no matter where you choose, the key is scouting ahead of time, watching the weather and being flexible enough to get out there quickly. You'll find action when it's cold to the north, flooding occurs and "freeze-overs" happen on the smaller, still water ponds and lakes. It may be in timbered backwater, or on big, open expanse of lakes across the Commonwealth.
Let's peruse what's available at a few of the most consistent duck holding wildlife management areas (WMAs) Kentucky has, so you can go in knowing how to plan for a morning or two this season when things get right. We'll select one area from east, central and western thirds of the state and compare how these spots stack up.
The very first thing duck hunters must do is to get a hold of the current Waterfowl Hunting Season Guide. It spells out season dates and all other restrictions or special processes hunters have to follow for duck hunting on public lands. You may also want to give the WMA manager a call for any spot you want to try. He or she will be the best source of immediate condition information.
GRAYSON LAKE WMA
In eastern Kentucky, Grayson Lake WMA is the first decent-sized hole of water south of the Ohio River corridor that ducks come across in their southern migration. The nearly 8,000-acre waterway in Carter and Elliott counties is covered with a good bit of timber, and is prone to some flooding of embayments, which draw ducks of various types under cold weather conditions to the north.
Grayson Lake WMA does not have a great deal of development along its shoreline, nor much wintertime fishing activity to disturb waterfowl that swing in for a few days before moving on. The lack of well-developed interior roads knocks back the number of hunters as well. It's not a bad spot to try when conditions are favorable.
About the only thing to stay clear of here is the marina near the dam, Deer Creek Fork of the Lake and the shoreline of the KDFWR's summer conservation Camp Webb. Otherwise, woody coves or main lake banks are available for boat hunting, or there are some spots you can set up on land in standing water bottoms on the area.
Scouting the area by boat is an excellent idea. Most waterfowl that use this area are going to be travelers -- there for a while then gone again as the weather changes. If smaller waters north of the Ohio River freeze for a few days, the potential of finding ducks moving down to Grayson Lake increases. Some will hang up in the Ohio River, while others will come a few miles farther looking for somewhere to sit down when the thermometer dips past their comfort range.
Grayson Lake WMA is sort of like a water oasis in the northeast quadrant, which means some birds will drop in just because they've not come across much else after they pass the river. Other than Cave Run, Grayson Lake WMA will produce the best duck harvest numbers for a reservoir- type hunting location in the eastern end of Kentucky. But you have to pick conditions that seem most favorable, and then go and try it. There's no other magic to it.
For other details, call the area manager and biologist's office at (606) 474-8535. They may be able to steer you in the right direction and advise how things have gone since late November.
TAYLORSVILLE LAKE WMA
Last year, the KDFWR opened up the portion of Taylorsville Lake WMA east of the Van Buren boat ramp, which had previously been a designated waterfowl refuge. This move gave hunters more quality territory for duck hunting, though a number of decent spots can be found along the lake's shoreline.
Unlike many lakes owned by the Corps of Engineers, on Taylorsville, blind setup is first-come, first-served for temporary hunting locations. No advanced draw system, which is one less hassle. Here, as with Grayson Lake WMA, hunters have some choices depending on where they observe ducks on any given day.
Many waterfowlers will choose to back into a woody bay and drop a decoy spread. When birds are showering down out into open water, calling from the main-lake shore under a well camouflaged boat or ground blind might be a better approach. Sometimes hunting from the boat allows you to readjust when you need to, move around and see more activity.
Remember that you'll be required to shut it down by 2 p.m., on Taylorsville, which really isn't much of a restriction on hunting there. You will want to investigate the Salt River bottoms that feed Taylorsville for bird use, other creeks and any flooded ground that might be available over the 10,000 acres or so of this WMA and lake.
Taylorsville WMA is easy to access from state routes 44 and 248. The area manager's office in on-site there, or you can call (502) 477-9024 for an update on waterfowl activity. It's always worth a call beforehand in the middle of a three- or four-day cold snap to see what has developed. Things can change very quickly either way.
"The later in December it gets, the better chances that mallards, blacks and whatever else we get will move into our area," said manager Bill Mitchell.
"There are a good number of large and small farm ponds in the immediate vicinity that ducks will use sometimes, but a quick freeze-over will send those birds elsewhere, usually to bigger water like the lake.
"Watching for actually fairly bad weather for people, at least, and a bit of a prolonged stretch of it, is an important factor to hunter success. At times, it might also pull in a few geese as a bonus. It's just hard to predict what we'll see in a given season," Mitchell said.
DOUG TRAVIS WMA
More than 4,000 acres of some of the best Kentucky duck habitat can be found on the Doug Travis WMA along the Mississippi River in Carlisle and Hickman counties. The Mississippi is a superb corridor for ducks to follow along when December arrives, and the parade won't stop each time a cold snap hits on through the rest of the season.
The table is well set with croplands, moist soil units created for waterfowl, bottomland hardwoods, cypress sloughs and, of course, river water running right alongside. If you were a duck, you'd go there on your way south.
Because this (and other WMAs in the western end) is suited so well for waterfowl use, there are some special requirements for hunting on Travis WMA. Permanent blinds have to be registered through a random drawing in September or October each year.
On five of the lakes in the area, blinds are pre-assigned through the draw at locations determined by the agency. However, sites not claimed an hour before sunrise may be used by other hunters, provided no more than four occupy a single site. There are a few parts of Travis WMA closed to waterfowl hunting.
The Travis WMA is one of those classic duck-hunting spots that can either be outstanding, or absolutely terrible based on the weather and water conditions. Many WMAs set up for waterfowl hunting are like that in Kentucky. It's the nature of the game.
Area managers in some cases, though, continue to work to be able to manipulate or pump water into certain fields and flooded habitat to keep those spots as attractive to migrating birds as possible. It's an expensive venture, but it helps when shallow water areas either freeze or dry up during the season with being able to roll in more water as necessary.
To contact the manager of Travis WMA, call (270) 488-3233 for more information. You may want to inquire about other duck-hunting opportunities in the vicinity. Sometimes one area is being used more by birds than another at various times during the season.
The best thing a duck hunter can do is wish for really cold, nasty weather. When it's here, you must be ready to go on sometimes very short notice!