Kentucky's Hot Early-Season Waterfowl Hunting

Kentucky's Hot Early-Season Waterfowl Hunting

Here's where you'll find our state's best early-season action for Canada geese, wood ducks and teal. Is a top area near you?

The shooting action can be fast and furious around crop fields and pastures during the early goose season. Photo by Tim Herald

By Tim Herald

Kentucky waterfowlers have some of the most diverse early-season hunting opportunities of any group across the nation. In September, Bluegrass State duck and goose hunters can pursue Canada geese, wood ducks and teal. Early waterfowling has been good the last few years and the trend should continue for 2003. The resident Canada goose season generally opens on the first Wednesday in September and runs for five days, and the special wood duck and teal season traditionally begins on the third Wednesday of September and also lasts for five days.

Rocky Pritchert, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) waterfowl coordinator, says, 'Overall, the wood duck population in Kentucky is stable. Annual populations vary dependent on breeding habitat conditions, but they are not nearly as impacted by this as prairie nesting ducks." The breeding habitat in 2003 is in good condition, so there should be plenty of wood ducks this year.

Speaking about last year's harvest, Pritchert stated, "There are no hard harvest figures yet, but information from the waterfowl survey indicated that 2002 was a good production year for Kentucky wood ducks. The age ratio was about three young for every adult harvested. The overall number of wings was down from 2001, but I do not know when those wings were taken. The decline may have occurred during the regular season in November and December and not in September."

Teal hunting is almost completely dependent on the migration. Blue- winged teal are generally the first ducks to migrate, and the majority that pass through the Commonwealth are seen in September. With the five-day season, early Kentucky teal hunting can be hit or miss. A strong cold front to the north a few days before the season can push large numbers of teal into the Bluegrass State, but unseasonably warm weather often holds the birds north of us.

Limits during the early wood duck and teal season are four birds per day, of which no more than two can be wood ducks.

As of press time for this magazine, the 2003 resident Canada goose survey had not been completed, but Pritchert said, "Results of the last three years of spring breeding resident Canada goose survey indicate numbers have declined the past two years. Above-normal temperatures during the 2001-02 winter resulted in a poor migration. Resident geese provided most of the harvest opportunity that season."

Spring 2002 was a poor production year due to unseasonably cold temperatures and extensive flooding during the nesting period. Summer banding during 2002 efforts netted substantially fewer goslings than the previous two years, providing further proof that 2002 was a poor production year. Based on this information, biologists do not anticipate resident numbers to increase much from the estimate of 27,311 for 2002.

"That is not to say you cannot find good goose numbers in some locations. There are regional differences, especially those associated with large urban sites. Urban areas and other protected sites are not affected nearly as much as rural areas and usually fare a little better. The few goslings we saw last year came from protected locations," said Pritchert.

The limit during the early resident Canada goose season is two geese per day.

Wood duck hunting can take place in many different habitat types. Rivers, creeks, swamps, lake coves, backwater and ponds all hold woodies in September. Scouting is key.

Various hunting methods can be employed successfully as well. Traditional decoying can work virtually anywhere hunters have seen wood ducks on a regular basis. Float-hunting creeks and rivers can also be productive, but hunters should keep in mind that it is illegal to shoot from a boat that is under power of a motor. Canoes are the craft of choice for many float-hunters because of their low profile, shallow draft and ease of propulsion, along with being quiet. Many hunters cut a bit of vegetation to use as camouflage on the front of their canoes so they appear to be naturally occurring bunches of brush floating downstream. Jump-shooting on foot around small streams and ponds can also be very effective during the early wood duck and teal season.

Teal are generally hunted on more open settings. Shallow mudflats on lakes, open ponds and open marshes are favorite haunts of these little speedsters. Decoying works very well for teal, and they seem to come in to imposters willingly, especially if they are set up where the teal have recently fed.

Pritchert says that the best wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the state for early duck season are Obinion Creek WMA, Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Ohio River Islands, the Sloughs and Yatesville Lake WMAs. The biologist said the reason he recommends these areas is that they always hold good populations of local wood ducks and have good nesting habitat. Most of these public areas are open to hunting and there is documentation of consistent harvest for each. Pritchert says he has also seen teal using all of these WMAs in September.

Obion Creek WMA is a 3,521-tract located in Hickman, Fulton and Carlisle counties. The habitat in the WMA is perfect for wood ducks, and it is primarily managed for waterfowl. There are bottomland hardwood swamps, sloughs and an old-growth hardwood forest that floods seasonally. The WMA is owned by KDFWR and the contact number there is (270) 753-6913.

The Kentucky and Barkley lakes region is a huge area that encompasses Kentucky Lake WMA (3,500 acres), Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area (107,000 acres) and Lake Barkley WMA (5,429 acres). These public lands are located in Calloway, Marshall, Lyon, Trigg and Livingston counties. Hunters should concentrate their efforts around islands, mud flats and lowlands at the rear sections of bays. The big lakes attract teal in good numbers when they migrate through.

There are waterfowl refuges in the area, and hunters need to be aware of these protected locations. The contact number for LBL is (270) 924-2000.

Ohio River Islands WMA is primarily managed for waterfowl and is made up of 1,375 acres in Livingston County. Stewart, Twin Sisters, Pryor and Rondeau islands, and a large marsh area located between Pryor and Twin Sisters islands, all are open to early-season hunting. The WMA is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the contact number is (

270) 753-6913.

The Sloughs WMA, located in Henderson and Union counties, is 10,600 acres that are primarily managed for waterfowl. The terrain consists of alternating ridges and sloughs, woodlands, brushy areas and open fields. This is one of Kentucky hunters' most popular early duck season areas. The WMA is owned/leased by the KDFWR, and the contact number is (270) 827-2673.

Yatesville Lake WMA consists of 17,764 acres of land at summer pool and is located in Lawrence County. The WMA is made up primarily of wooded, hilly terrain with broad bottoms. There are significant wetlands that intersperse the hardwood forest. Wood ducks can be found in the wetlands, shallow backs of coves and where streams enter the lake. Teal are usually found in the wetlands and shallow backs of the more open coves. The WMA is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but is managed by KDFWR (606) 686-3312.

Resident goose hunting can be good statewide, and almost every major reservoir that is open to hunting can offer hunters an opportunity., "Family groups of geese begin to start flocking together again in late August. Often they can be found on the large bodies in early morning or returning to them just before dark. If hunters scout birds out, it may be possible to set up near their use areas. You will probably only get under them once. They will move off after you hunt. More consistent success requires you to scout out new areas each day," said Pritchert.

Versailles resident and veteran goose hunter Brook Haynes hunts crop fields in central Kentucky and has great success. "I prefer a corn field that has been recently cut for silage. It doesn't take geese long to find these food sources, and they usually hit them first thing in the morning until they have eaten all the available food. If you have scouted a field and set up where you saw the geese the day before, you should have a quick and successful hunt. We often take a six-man limit within the first 45 minutes when we have a field that the geese are using regularly," Haynes said.

Haynes also recommends watching cut alfalfa fields and farm ponds that contain a lot of aquatic vegetation. "We have had some really good hunts on 1- to 2-acre farm ponds. The geese fly into the ponds and feed on plants growing in the water as well as grazing in the adjoining pastures. They may also spend the day without leaving because they have the pond to loaf in and around," the Woodford County hunter stated.

Rocky Pritchert agrees that central Kentucky is one of the state's hotspots for resident geese because of the cropping practices in the region, but the biologist warns, "One thing hunters must be careful of is that they cannot hunt geese over dove fields. I would also suggest that no one hunt geese within proximity of these areas either. Baiting regulations differ for doves and waterfowl. While it is legal to manipulate a field for doves, it is not for waterfowl, nor is it legal to take birds going to or coming from bait."

Early goose season runs concurrently with dove season, so this is a real concern, and hunters should be very careful to be sure to hunt legally.

Pritchert's picks for Kentucky's top WMAs during early goose season are Grayson Lake, Barren River WMAs and Kentucky and Barkley lakes. He says Grayson Lake WMA has a growing resident population with little hunting pressure. Likewise, Barren River WMA has a growing resident population and the Kentucky Lake/Lake Barkley area has a fairly large resident goose population and most of the area is open to hunting.

Grayson Lake WMA has 10,598 acres of land at summer pool that lie in Elliot and Carter counties. Though the area is mainly hilly and steep, there are some gently sloping uplands and flat creek bottoms. The WMA is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is managed by KDWM. The contact number for the local office is (606) 474-8535.

Barren River WMA is 10,100 acres of land at summer pool and is located in Barren and Allen counties. The terrain is hilly to gently sloping, with woodlands and cleared bottomlands that are maintained for wildlife. The WMA is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley area info is listed above in the wood duck and teal section. Geese will congregate in the shallows, especially where cleared sloping land meets them.

Regular late-season waterfowl hunting privileges on many of Kentucky's WMAs are obtained through draw hunts. Check the KDFWR's Waterfowl Hunting Guide for exact details on each, but here are the draw dates. The blind location draw for Lake Barkley will be on Sept. 15. The draw for Green River Lake WMA will be held on Sept. 27, and Taylorsville Lake and Barren River WMAs will both have their draws in October.

Rocky Pritchert said, "New this year, we will be taking applications only by telephone for the hunts on Ballard, Boatwright and Sloughs WMAs during September. Procedures will be the same as that for the quota deer and pheasant hunts. (Check your hunting guide.) There will be a $3 application fee to cover the costs of operating the system. Applicants will be able to talk to an operator who will prompt them through the application. Hunters will still be able to indicate a preference for dates just as they have done in the past."

As you can see, Kentucky waterfowlers can find good early-season hunting from north to south, and east to west. Early Canada goose and wood duck and teal seasons are a great time to be outdoors, and a wonderful opportunity to introduce youngsters to waterfowling without enduring the harsh conditions that can be common during the late season. This year make the best of our great hunting opportunities and take to the fields and wetlands during September's special duck and goose seasons.

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