Small decoy spreads and proper scouting lead to big results when you're hunting ducks and geese along the Kentucky River watershed. Here's where you should try now!
"Take 'em!" Field hunting for geese in the Bluegrass Region can be very productive during December. Photo by Tim Herald
By Tim Herald
When most hunters think about quality waterfowling in Kentucky, they automatically conjure up images of Ballard, Mayfield Creek and the bottoms near Hickman. These traditional areas are often among the Commonwealth's best, but there is another area that consistently produces good duck and goose hunting for those who are willing to put in a little more work. The Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky is often an overlooked hotspot for enthusiasts pursuing Canada geese and a variety of ducks.
A good variety of waterfowl can be taken in the region, with Canada geese, mallards, black ducks and gadwalls making up the majority of the harvest. Green-winged teal, wood ducks, ringnecks, northern shovelers and pintails often find their way into the bags of Bluegrass Region hunters as well.
WHERE TO HUNT The one negative to hunting in the Bluegrass Region is that much of the hunting is on private property. Pothole ponds, small creeks, sloughs and harvested agricultural fields provide the most consistent shooting, but at the right times, public areas such as Taylorsville Lake, the Kentucky River, Cedar Creek Lake, Wilgreen Lake and Elmer Davis Lake can provide red-hot hunting.
Wilgreen Lake (169 acres) is located in Madison County near Richmond. Taylorsville Lake is the Bluegrass Region's largest lake (3,050 acres) and is located in Spencer, Anderson and Nelson counties. Elmer Davis Lake (149 acres) is in Owen County near Owenton, while newly impounded Cedar Creek Lake (784 acres) is in Lincoln County. Hunters should refer to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) hunting and fishing guide for special regulations for each lake. For instance, there is a no-hunting refuge area on Taylorsville Lake, as well as a blind draw, and Elmer Davis Lake has a maximum outboard motor restriction of 9.9 horsepower.
Farm ponds and potholes produce more birds in the Bluegrass Region than any other habitat type. James McCloud, a Madison County resident and avid waterfowler, remarked, "The size of the best ponds varies from one-half acre to 5 acres. I have been on limit shoots on small potholes where gunners could cover all the water from one location. Once birds start using a pond, the main key is limiting hunting pressure and not shooting them out of a spot. When we hunt a hole, we generally try to leave the place alone for at least a week before hunting it again. It helps to have quite a few locations to hunt, so that after a hunt you can let the birds regroup and start to feel comfortable once again."
Small waters with good aquatic vegetation are places to concentrate your efforts. Ducks and geese also use ponds in and around cattle pastures quite frequently. Waste grain from livestock and hay out in pastures will be heavily utilized food sources throughout the season. The more remote and undisturbed a pond is, the more birds typically use it.
In extended periods of extremely cold weather, ponds in the Bluegrass Region freeze solid. During these times, ducks and geese move to creeks and small rivers like the Dix River in Lincoln, Garrard, Boyle and Mercer counties. Elkhorn Creek in Scott, Fayette, Woodford and Franklin counties often produces quality waterfowling during "freeze-ups" as well. Unless you are float-hunting, you must have permission from landowners to access these streams and hunt from their banks.
When all the small water freezes, the Kentucky River and the lakes mentioned above can experience dramatic increases in waterfowl numbers and become real hotspots for hunters. The Kentucky River, from Madison and Clark counties all the way to where it empties into the Ohio River, provides hunters with many good locations to set up decoy spreads and hunt ducks and geese. Sandbars, creek mouths and the insides of bends are places that typically hold birds and should be the first spots hunters scout.
On lakes, hunters should concentrate their efforts around shallows near headwaters, the heads of coves, grassy points and around creek mouths. If water levels are high, areas that flood into willows or standing timber can produce fantastic puddle duck hunting.
Field hunting for Canada geese can be excellent in central Kentucky as well. Early in the season resident geese are the mainstay, but as the season progresses, the area often experiences large influxes of migratory geese. Picked corn fields, winter wheat, soybeans and grassy pastures are the most-used food sources. When temperatures are relatively warm, Canada geese will concentrate on grasses and wheat, but when the mercury plunges and stays below freezing, the geese will switch over and hit corn fields for the added calories that corn provides.
SCOUTING IS KEY Long-time central Kentucky waterfowler Hank Patton says there are two keys to consistent success for ducks and geese in the Bluegrass Region: scouting and mobility.
"In the Bluegrass Region, we are generally hunting smaller populations of birds than those found on more traditional migration routes, such as the Mississippi River corridor. To be successful, hunters will put in more time scouting than they will actually hunting. You must find the small concentrations of ducks and geese and target each group specifically," Patton said.
Patton advises to scout as frequently as possible, at least several afternoons a week. "The group I hunt with scouts somewhere almost daily. It is nice to have a group of hunters working together because one or two people can usually look around almost every day. If I can't scout one day, perhaps someone else can. Along the same lines, we all have different areas we scout, so we can cover a lot more ground. We talk in the evenings, and if someone finds a good bunch of birds, we try to make plans to hunt them within a day or two."
With a group of hunters working together, a large area often covering a number of counties can be scouted on a regular basis.
"When scouting lots of places, hunters have to be mobile. We don't construct permanent blinds on ponds or in fields. We have to be mobile and move to hunt the birds wherever we find them. Our success has increased dramatically since we started using low-profile, portable layout blinds. We can take them anywhere we find birds, set them up quickly and be hidden in virtually any landscape," he said.
"Just finding birds on a pond or in a field doesn't ensure success. You need to set up exactly where you have observed the birds feeding, loafing, etc. The p
ortability of layout blinds makes this easy, and playing the wind is the only other factor to consider."
DECOY SPREADS Bush Gess, an avid waterfowler from Fayette County, advises that once a location is chosen, make sure your decoy spread is set properly.
"Most times you don't have to have a huge decoy spread. A couple of dozen duck decoys and three- to five-dozen goose dekes are usually more than adequate. You just need to make sure that they are set where the birds will approach with the wind in their faces, either in front or from the side of the decoys."
A good rule of thumb to go by on decoy spread size and makeup is to tailor your decoys to what you found while scouting. If there are 40 mallards and gadwalls using a pond, a spread of two- or three-dozen puddle duck decoys will appear realistic and most likely be the most productive.
"We often target ducks and geese and put out a dual spread. We try to match the numbers, species and placement of our decoys to what we have seen while scouting. Even if we are targeting ducks, we always put out a few goose imposters. Goose decoys are highly visible, can be great confidence decoys for ducks, and you never know when a few geese might fly by that you want to try to work in," said Gess.
Small mobile spreads are one real positive aspect of waterfowling in the Bluegrass State. Hunters don't have to spend thousands of dollars on huge amounts of decoys to enjoy great action. A helpful hint when acquiring a spread to use in the region is to concentrate mostly on mallard and Canada goose decoys, but having a few gadwall, teal and black duck decoys to add to your set when appropriate can make your spread much more realistic.
Concerning decoy placement, Bush Gess suggests, "Using a U- or V-shaped duck spread with the opening where you want to shoot works very well. Often I will place groups of decoys as blockers in spots on a pond where I don't want birds to land. Your decoys should not only attract birds, but they should also direct them into sure gun range. For field geese, we use an elongated U pattern or a W. You always want to have a hole for the birds to target as a landing zone, and shooters should be close to the hole.
"If the birds overshoot our landing zone, we simply pick up our layout blinds and reposition where we can take the right shots. You can use a basic plan, but to really be consistent, you have to be flexible. If the first two groups of birds go by out of range, move immediately, or you will watch birds pass you by all morning."
CALLING STRATEGIES Well-traveled waterfowler and central Kentucky resident R.D. Hamilton shared his thoughts on calling ducks and geese in the Bluegrass Region.
"Calling ducks in this area is much different than in most places that I have hunted. The soft stuff is what really draws ducks in here. Most hunting is done over small water, so loud, aggressive calling will often blow ducks out. You are probably hunting ducks that want to come to your spot anyway, so a little encouragement will go a long way. Once you have the attention of a group of ducks, tone it way down. Feed calls and single quacks work well, and low-volume come back calls are the ticket when birds swing out and away. If you feel you are losing a flock, you can get on them pretty good with pleading come back calls.
"A lot of folks overcall ducks around here, and many times no calling works better than hammering on them. I don't call to ducks when they are flying toward the spread or if they are directly overhead. When birds are really close, I will offer only drake mallard calls or nothing at all."
Hamilton's advice for calling geese is to follow the real birds' lead.
"If a flock of honkers approach your location silently, I suggest only offering them a few clucks and feed calls. If a flock is on the horizon, call loudly to get their attention. If they turn your way, listen to what they say and follow suit. If they are excited on their approach, call aggressively all the way to the gun barrel. If they tone things down as they come in, do the same.
"Goose calling is not rocket science. If you can make the right noises, simply mimic what you hear. When birds are talkative, having a group of hunters making lots of goose noise will help. If you have 60 to 70 goose decoys out, three or four hunters calling can make a lot more noise, which is more realistic than having only one caller. Additionally, flagging geese is often just as effective as calling. Flagging usually will get a distant flock's attention quicker than your loudest calls."
OTHER ESSENTIALS Since Bluegrass Region waterfowlers can be successful by using smaller scale spreads and a couple of calls while utilizing natural vegetation or relatively inexpensive portable blinds, duck and goose hunting in the area does not have to be a rich man's sport. The only other things needed are a shotgun with non-toxic shells, a license with waterfowl permits (including the Federal Waterfowl Stamp) and maybe a good retriever.
Any quality 12-gauge shotgun with 3- or 3 1/2-inch chambers will work best for both ducks and geese. Non-toxic shot such as steel, bismuth, tungsten matrix or Hevi-shot in sizes ranging from No. 4 to BB is best for ducks, and No. 1 to BBB works best for geese. When gunning over small water that generally produces close shots, chokes such as Skeet and Improved Cylinder throw wider patterns and produce more birds in the bag. When hunting rivers, lakes and fields, hunters may consider moving to a modified choke for added effective range. Remember, shooting steel shot through a choke will equal one choke tighter than shooting lead through the same choke.
A well-trained retriever can be a great conservation tool while waterfowling. Birds that would otherwise be lost will be brought to the bag, not to mention birds shot over open water are handled much easier by a retriever than by a hunter relying on the wind to blow them ashore or one attempting to retrieve them with a fishing rod and topwater lure.
This winter, don't overlook Kentucky's Bluegrass Region for quality duck and goose hunting. The area might not be as renowned as western Kentucky for waterfowl, but with minimal equipment, some well-planned scouting and a little attention to detail, you might just experience some of the best waterfowling of your life.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Kentucky Game & Fish