Zeroing in on Our State's Best Waterfowling

Zeroing in on Our State's Best Waterfowling

Here's a rundown on what to expect this season for ducks and geese in each of our state's zones.

By Paul Moore

The past couple of years, waterfowl hunting in Kentucky has definitely been less than stellar. Although last year saw conditions improve somewhat, successful hunting days were sparse and bird movement was very unpredictable. Bird numbers were down some, but weather played the deciding role in actual hunter success.

Last year, waterfowlers experienced a mixed bag of activity and success. The duck season started off well, but then the weather turned cold, things iced up and the hunting action slowed considerably. The first couple weeks of the season provided the most consistent days for seeing good numbers of birds. After that, duck hunting became quite unpredictable.

Goose hunters fared no better. Goose migration numbers were below normal in the traditional areas. Migrating geese staged farther north due to the lack of snow cover to push them farther south. Rocky Pritchert is the Wetlands Systems and Migratory Bird Coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

"Geese were able to find food in more northern areas, so we didn't see the numbers we have in years past. We did have a fair push of birds down toward the latter part of the season, but again, that was relatively small compared to what we've seen in some past years."

The season before last, many hunters complained that there was not enough cold weather. Well, last year we got plenty of cold weather. Trouble was there were no northern snows to keep birds coming our way. All the cold weather did for Kentucky was freeze up small areas and force ducks to the big waters or even out of the state.

Duck hunting was difficult at best. Due to a poor breeding season last spring, the fall migration was composed of a lot of adult birds. This made for a very wary group of ducks, which had been dealing with hunters for several weeks before they reached Kentucky. These ducks often staged in large protected or inaccessible areas and did not venture out much to come within range of eager hunters.

Be sure to check the latest federal regulations on waterfowl hunting before going to your favorite lake, pond or field. Photo by Tom Migdalski

Another negative factor for hunters was the high water we had during the season. Ducks tend to follow the river when it extends out of its banks and floods the low areas. As the water receded, many ducks followed the water right on out.

This season will hopefully see a rebound of new birds in the fall migration, which may be the case if early indications from the breeding grounds hold true. Habitat conditions for ducks were actually better than first anticipated. Coming out of last winter, things were not looking good on traditional duck nesting areas. The below-normal snowfall through the winter and the precipitation patterns were indicating dry conditions throughout the range.

However, things improved tremendously throughout the spring. Biologists were confident returning birds would be able to find suitable nesting habitat for successful brooding. There were some very timely spring rains that should have improved overall habitat conditions and increased pond levels greatly. This is especially true for the more western areas of the breeding grounds. The eastern areas were dryer.

Many people are expressing concern that some of our wetland breeding areas, particularly the prairie pothole region, may be beginning to go through a dry phase.

The only problem with record highs is there is only one way to go, which is down. It would be logical to expect that these areas would sometime again go through a drying-out period. "Sooner or later, several years are going to stack together that have below-normal precipitation patterns and we'll go through another drying cycle," Pritchert said.

However, he says that a drying phase, if it happens, "shouldn't be viewed as a doom-and-gloom type thing. These wetlands need to go through these dry periods every so often to maintain their productivity. If they stayed flooded all the time, they would become relatively sterile."

A dry period allows new vegetation to grow, which will make the area more fertile. It also allows invertebrates and other animal life to flourish. The ground replenishes lost nutrients.

Ducks are adaptable and have always survived while coexisting with wet periods and dry periods. During years of dry conditions, ducks travel farther north to find more permanent water. They are less productive following these longer flights, but they still survive and reproduce. When the more traditional southern breeding areas once again become wet, the ducks return and reproduction rebounds.

The greatest threat during dry cycles is loss of habitat. When these areas dry out, they are often tiled and manipulated so they will not flood again. This allows these areas to be used for agriculture or other purposes. It is vital to protect these areas to maintain a healthy population of waterfowl.

Breeding conditions for geese appear to have improved from last year and should hopefully result in more young geese in flight this year. Last season was not a good one for geese. Very late nesting in northern breeding grounds resulted in poor production, and goslings, which were not old enough to make the fall migration, perished in the winter. Resident goose nesting was hampered by cold rains and high water conditions, which caused gosling loss due to exposure. The heavy rains also destroyed entire nesting areas by flooding them.

When biologists went north last year to conduct their annual goose nesting surveys, they had 8 feet of snow to contend with when they arrived at base camp. This year, they were actually able to move supplies and other items into base camp on time. Early snowmelts on the breeding grounds usually result in early nesting, which translates to more successful broods and a higher component of young birds in the fall migration.

Resident goose numbers were down about 15 percent last spring. There are two main reasons for the decline in numbers. Hunter harvest was one factor in the decline. With migrating goose numbers below normal, resident geese were targeted more by waterfowlers. The poor nesting success last year was another critical factor.

This year should see an improvement in resident geese numbers. Although we had a lot of spring rain and high water, the timing of when it arrived was much better than last year.

Last year, there was a dry period in February and then heavy rains at the end of March and into April, which is the time period wh

en geese are incubating. This year, we had high water early before nesting began. This forced the geese to nest much higher and resulted in more successful nesting.

"I think we're going to have good production from what we were seeing with goslings and such. I didn't see any nests flooded out on the survey this year vs. last year, when I saw a number of nests with water in them," said Pritchert.

Improved breeding production and some favorable weather could greatly swing hunter success this year. At least, that's what waterfowlers are hoping. Here are some top spots across the Commonwealth to find some of our best waterfowling.

Kentucky and Barkley lakes are hard to beat in this region. They are large bodies of water and they attract and hold good numbers of ducks and geese. They offer very diverse hunting opportunities. There are areas for both shallow-water hunting and deep- water hunting. Sportsmen have the opportunity to shoot both puddle ducks and divers in the same area. Goose hunting opportunities exist as well.

Hunting at the twin lakes is done mostly by boat, but some walk-in hunting is available, too. There are areas where blinds may be constructed, but are assigned through a pre-season draw. Other areas may be hunted with portable blinds, while some areas are closed to waterfowl hunting. Hunters should check for special regulations before hunting.

The Peabody Wildlife Management Area (WMA) has become a favorite target of hunters in this region. It offers plenty of room for waterfowlers to spread out and get away from crowded areas. There are opportunities for both jump-shooting and decoy hunting. Hunters can walk in, wade, use blinds or boats.

The Peabody WMA lies in Muhlenberg, Ohio and Hopkins counties, which are three of the top duck counties in the state. The various lakes, ponds and sloughs at Peabody are prime for passing ducks. Peabody has around 60,000 acres within its borders and over 200 different bodies of water ranging in size from small potholes to large final-cut lakes. There have been as many as 10,000 ducks reported on the property at one time.

The predominant goose species at Peabody is giant Canadas from our resident flock. However, most years, the area gets a fair amount of migrating geese from the Southern James Bay Population (SJBP). The resident geese that make their home at Peabody WMA function as live decoys and pull in migrating SJBP birds from their southerly flight.

Peabody WMA has some areas closed to waterfowl hunting, which are used as waterfowl refuges. These areas provide a place for ducks and geese to remain protected and feel safe. This helps to hold birds in the area. A special permit is required to hunt Peabody and is available anywhere hunting licenses are sold. There may also be special permits required for geese, so hunters should check current regulations before hunting.

The Bluegrass Region is tough, because there are not a lot of public-use areas for waterfowl hunters. One of the primary targets is Taylorsville Lake, which has around 3,000 surface acres. Hunting at the lake can be good at times and very frustrating at other times. Hunters really need to pick and choose when they hunt the lake to ensure optimum success.

The best time to hunt Taylorsville is during freezing conditions. The entire region surrounding the lake is dotted with numerous farm ponds, watersheds and other wet areas. Ducks have a tremendous opportunity to spread out through the Bluegrass Region, which can mean tough hunting for waterfowlers. However, when the mercury drops and these small waters lock up, the birds are forced to the big waters of Taylorsville to find open water. This is the time period when hunters can find outstanding duck hunting on the lake.

Taylorsville requires advance application to construct permanent blinds. Most hunting is done with boats and portable blinds. Some areas are closed to waterfowl hunting.

The Ohio River is another good area in the Bluegrass Region. Because there are not a lot of public-use areas in this region, many hunters find their best waterfowling opportunities on the river. Both ducks and geese can be successfully hunted all along the river, but hunters should come prepared with a large, sturdy boat and other gear for winter river conditions.

Cave Run Lake, located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, has nearly 8,300 surface acres. This lake attracts its fair share of waterfowl throughout the fall and winter months. The area attracts a good number of ducks, but that figure is increased exponentially when high water backs up in the timber. Pritchert says there is "outstanding duck use that occurs during that time period."

One feature that makes Cave Run Lake so attractive to duck hunters is the variety of species they may encounter there. On any given day, a hunter may see mallards, gadwalls, pintails, widgeons, black ducks or teal. Divers such as scaup, goldeneyes and buffleheads also frequent the area.

The northern end of Cave Run receives the most hunting pressure. When hunting conditions get right on the lake, the northern end can become quite crowded. Hunters wanting to find a little more space to spread out should try the southern end of the lake.

There is no goose hunting allowed on the lake itself, but there are areas near the lake where hunters can usually find a place to hunt. Some local hunters are traveling to the new 1,161-acre Lewis County WMA located near South Shore. The area is predominately Ohio River bottomland and is subject to seasonal flooding, which provides excellent wetlands habitat. Around half of the property is cropland and the other half is forested. Geese often feed in the cropland areas and then fly out to the river or other areas for the night.

Both Lake Cumberland and Dale Hollow lakes have good numbers of waterfowl using them during the season. The situation at these reservoirs is similar to that of Taylorsville Lake. Waterfowl use and hunting success increases dramatically during freezing weather when smaller waters in the area lock up.

Cumberland is a big body of water and is often overlooked as a waterfowl area. It's a difficult lake to hunt at times because of being so deep, but winter surveys always indicate a good number of both ducks and geese use the area.

No discussion of waterfowl hunting in Kentucky would be complete without at least mentioning the far western end of the state, where some phenomenal hunting occurs each year. Every waterfowler in the state knows of the reputation of Ballard, Boatwright and Sloughs WMAs. These areas are always targeted by hunters and provide a good amount of hunter success annually.

Obion Creek WMA is one area in the west that doesn't seem to get mentioned as oft

en. The 3,521-acre bottomland property is located in Hickman, Fulton and Carlisle counties and lies adjacent to the Mississippi River. The area consists of hardwood swamps, sloughs and moist soil areas. The WMA is subject to seasonal flooding and provides some excellent waterfowling opportunities.

"I think Kentucky has some of the finest duck hunting in the flyway," said Rocky Pritchert. However, he says hunters need to remain versatile and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities when they occur.

"We are a migration state. We are not really a wintering state. We continually see a turnover of birds through the early parts of the season. Sometimes, late in the season, we will see some birds come back north again. Bird numbers can change considerably from one week to the next."

The majority of hunters will agree that we have good duck and goose hunting in Kentucky most years. However, the weather has not been our ally over the past couple of seasons. Maybe this year we'll see weather conditions improve and a better migration of birds through our state.

Many of these areas may have special waterfowl hunting restrictions or regulations not mentioned here. Always check for the latest information on special regulations or closures before hunting. Information can be found in the waterfowl-hunting guide, on the Internet at www.kdfwr.state., or by calling the KDFWR information line at (800) 858-1549. Most of the WMAs have an area manager and can be contacted directly.

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