No matter where you live in the Volunteer State, there's good public duck hunting nearby. (November 2009)
Daylight began breaking through the eastern tree line as Chuck Smith stuck his call to his lips and released a cacophony of duckspeak into the cold morning air. Not long after that, the shrill cry of a wood duck echoed into the early light and was soon followed by the morning's first flight of woodies. The trio of hunters crouched low, waiting for the birds to work their way into the standing timber.
Tennessee hunter Chuck Smith shows off the first duck of a WMA limit.
Photo by Phillip Gentry.
When the group of four ducks was within range, the hunters raised their 12 gauges and were rewarded with two of the brightly colored birds. Not a bad start to a morning duck hunt, all things considered.
Young, who's from Little Creek, on the outskirts of Nashville, was lucky to be hunting today. A last-minute change of plans had left him and two of his hunting partners with time to hunt, but no time to plan. Fortunately for his group of hunters, some good public duck hunting was available just a couple hours' drive from their homes, so they packed up and spent the previous afternoon scouting out a likely spot on one of Tennessee's numerous public duck-hunting areas. Now, here they were with two birds already in the bag and only a few minutes of legal shooting light elapsed.
Tales like this one are not unusual. The state of Tennessee provides, to varying degrees in various places, good duck-hunting opportunities across all four regions of the state. To help hunters home in on some good duck-hunting opportunities across the Volunteer State, we obtained some advice from wildlife managers in each region. Here's what they had to say.
Paul Brown is the waterfowl supervisor over Region I. Though he oversees a number of WMAs in western Tennessee now, he spent more than 20 years managing the Reelfoot WMA, which he considers one of the best -- perhaps the best -- hunting locations in the state of Tennessee.
Brown suggests the best way to hunt Reelfoot or any of the state WMAs that have permanent blinds is to spend a day familiarizing yourself with the blind locations, then return first thing the next morning. Many WMAs conduct a hand-held drawing for permanent blind sites sometime in August. Being drawn gives the permittee the right to build or maintain permanent blinds on public land and gives them first right to hunt the blind throughout the season. The permittee must occupy the blind at daylight on the day he intends to hunt or the first person or party occupying the blind after legal shooting light has the right to hunt that blind the remainder of the day.
"Blinds that are not occupied at daylight are available on a first-come, first-served basis," he explained. "During the week, only about half of the blinds get hunted anyway and you can slip quietly into an unoccupied blind and hunt it. Hunting in the standing timber at Reelfoot isn't like (hunting) other locations: Ducks will fly just about all day long and you'll have plenty of hunt time even if you miss the first hour getting into a blind. Most of these blinds will already have decoys out and shooting lanes cut. Just be respectful and leave the blind in better shape than you found it."
Access to these blinds is exclusively by boat. Based on prevailing water levels, public access may be used, but your scouting should include an adequate place to launch. Many overpasses and side roads will allow access to remote regions of the northern section of Reelfoot, as well as the possibility of some public access. Walking in or wading in to permanent blinds is not feasible.
"Up until this past season when ice storms made a complete mess of the west side of the lake, there was some of the best walk-in hunting you could ask for," said Brown. "Some of these little open-water areas in the timber held a lot of ducks and very few people took advantage of them. Now, with all the trees and limbs down in the state woods, access is all but impossible."
Brown discourages hunters from attempting to free-lance hunt from boat blinds in areas where permanent blinds already exist.
"Reelfoot has 45 to 50 draw blinds, plus around 140 permanent registered blinds," he said. "These blinds are already located in the best spots on the lake and the law says you have to be at least 200 yards away to hunt. That's still going to put you too close to hunt when someone else is in that blind and you're not going to be in the right place to hunt ducks coming to that area anyway."
For weekend-only duck hunters, Brown suggests setting up on the south end of Reelfoot along the shoreline of a long point sticking out into open water. By bringing along a string of 12 to 15 diver decoys, hunters can have a decent hunt for diver ducks -- ringnecks, redheads and bluebills. Though not as consistent as the other end of the lake, there are even days when a hunter may be able to get a limit of puddle ducks that straggle by.
"The diver duck hunting often gets overlooked," said Brown, "but hunters need to be careful as the open water can get pretty rough on that end of Reelfoot in a hurry."
Access to the south end of the lake is available by launching boats from a number of public ramps, including Reelfoot State Park.
Reelfoot Lake is not, of course, the only public land with good duck hunting in this part of the state. Dan Fuqua is the wildlife manager for Northeast Region I.
"Each area has its own merits and each hunter has his own ideas of what is the best duck hunting," he said. "We have areas that are usually planted in crops and flooded, such as Camden, Barkley, Big Sandy and Gooch. These areas have draw blinds, and I'd recommend hunting from the blinds on most of these WMAs to be successful.
"Then we have areas that are natural food source areas, such as Reelfoot, Tigrett, West Sandy and White Oak. Some are walk-in and some need boats. Most areas have multiple accesses. Some have timber hunting that are dependent on high water to bring the ducks in."
Fuqua suggests the best thing to do is to check out these areas in a given season and then decide how you want to hunt the following season.
"The duck blind drawings are held on the first Saturday in August and you must be present to draw, so if you want to hunt in fields with crops, you need to attend a drawing."
Another waterfowl wildlife manager for TWRA's Region I is Carl Wirwa, whose office is located in Alamo, Tennessee. Wirwa manages several of Region I's WMAs, and like
Fuqua, pointed out that there are a variety of terrains and features to choose from, mostly depending on water levels and hunter access.
"The 7,000-acre Tigrett WMA in Dyer County is one of the best in terms of success rates, but is also the most complicated to gain access to," said Wirwa. "The best advice is to have a day or so to explore the area and just get familiar with (the locations) the ducks are using. In general, the best way to hunt Tigrett is from a small boat with a blind. You can paddle or use a go-devil type motor. Outboards can only be used for short distances. The submerged vegetation in the mostly swampy areas can stop up a water pump pretty quick."
Another of Wirwa's suggestions is the Bogota WMA, which is also in Dyer County. This area is completely dependent on over-bank flooding from the Obion River. Hunters should check the COE river levels at the Bogota gauge before planning a hunt there. Wirwa says that any level over 18 to 19 feet will be enough to make the area huntable. Because of frequent rising and falling of the water level, waterfowl hunting is extremely good during high water.
Like Bogota, Moss Island WMA is also dependent on the Obion River. However, unlike Bogota, Moss Island water levels are also affected by the Mississippi River. Wirwa suggests the Mississippi river gauge at Memphis should be around 28 feet in order to have adequate water to hunt.
"Moss Island is a beautiful 3,000-acre bottomland hardwood area," said Wirwa. "Both Bogota and Moss Island are accessible by boat and each have wading accessible areas."
In Region I, the mallard is without a doubt the most prized duck, but hunters can often take their pick of wood ducks, teal, pintails, gadwalls, shovelers and a host of other ducks migrating on their way south for the winter.
Detailed information pertaining to season dates, access areas and any special restrictions can be found by calling the Region I office at (731) 423-5725 or checking the TWRA Web site at www.state.tn.us/twra/ waterfowl. WMA maps, complete with permanent blind locations indicated, can also be found on this site.
Wildlife manager for TWRA's Region II is Russ Skoglund, who works out of the Region II office in Nashville. While the setup for Region II is less complex than Region I, there is still some great public waterfowl hunting to be found.
"There are only four WMAs in Region II with waterfowl hunting," said Skoglund. "In order of best to least in any given water conditions would be Cheatham Lake, Old Hickory, Woods Reservoir and Haynes Bottom WMAs."
Cheatham Lake WMA in Cheatham County has registered blind sites, which are drawn for on the first Saturday in August. It also has some flooded timber walk-in areas, which are listed as Harpeth Island, Marks Creek and Bluff Creek. These areas are not restricted to either registered or staked temporary blind sites. Cheatham Reservoir and the associated walk-in areas are closed to waterfowl hunting on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.
"Old Hickory WMA has drawn registered blind sites with a few temporary blind sites," said Skoglund. "The WMA is broken down into three units. The vast majority of the sites require a boat to access them."
The access points for both Cheatham and Old Hickory are from the existing public boat launch sites around each reservoir. Cheatham and Old Hickory have a combination of open-water sites and flooded potholes that on any given day can attract mallards, widgeons, gadwalls, blacks and green-winged teal.
Woods Reservoir WMA, which borders Coffee and Franklin counties, also has registered blind sites and is mostly open-water shooting. The area is especially attractive to rafts of diver ducks, and subsequently hunters are more successful if they use strings of diver decoys rather than typical puddle duck sets. Public access ramps are also available at Woods.
Haynes Bottom WMA in Montgomery County has registered blind sites located in flooded potholes. Most of these sites require a boat for access. Normal bags for Haynes include mallards, widgeons, gadwalls, blacks and green-winged teal. Haynes Bottom is closed to waterfowl hunting on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.
For additional information about duck hunting available in Region II, contact the office in Nashville at (615) 781-6622 or visit the TWRA Web site.
Farther east, Region III is overseen by wildlife manager Ben Layton from the office in Crossville. Layton is quick to point out that the terrain and wildlife are not nearly as conducive to duck hunting when compared with the western part of the state, but there is some good duck hunting to be found.
"Our two most popular WMAs are at Chickamauga and Cordell Hull," explained Layton. "Chickamauga is broken down into several units, such as Yellow Creek and Johnson Bottoms. These areas are swampy creek bottoms with some standing timber that ducks naturally find attractive. The area gets a good bit of hunting pressure during the season at peak times, and we've even had to limit the time that hunters could arrive prior to the hunt. Probably the better option of the two would be Cordell Hull. There are a number of public blind sites on Cordell Hull and that keeps hunters spread out better."
Special regulations apply to the days and times for duck hunting on Chickamauga. No blinds, decoys or blind materials may be left overnight on any of the Chickamauga units.
Like the other areas of the state, drawings for blind sites on Cordell Hull are held before the season in August. Layton says hunters have an almost 100 percent success rate for drawing blinds, as they typically have more space than applicants. Unlike regions I and II, specific blind sites are not issued. Applicants must register their locations on a map and then construct their own blinds. Like the other regions, registered blinds that are not occupied at beginning of legal shooting light are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
"Cordell Hull is a more open-water hunt than Chickamauga," said Layton. "The hunt area is adjacent to the Cordell Hull refuge and hunters are trying to work birds coming to and from the refuge. The bag is usually a mix of puddle ducks -- mallards, wood ducks, gadwalls -- with a few divers mixed in and the occasional resident Canada goose."
Access to Cordell Hull is available through public boat launches around the Army Corps of Engineers lake. For more information on duck hunting in Region 3, contact the Crossville office at (931) 484-9571.
Many hunters consider eastern Tennessee's Region IV the "least duck hunter friendly" part of the state. According to wildlife manager Dan Gibbs, most of the duck hunting in the area is either done from the shoreline around open water public lakes or on private lands. He indicates that the hottest waterfowl hunting typically occurs during the early September season for resident populations of Canada geese on the Chota Unit at Tellico Lake in Monroe County.
"That's where we transplant a lot of our nuisance geese that we trap in other locations," explained Gibbs. "Chota is a refuge during the main waterfowl seasons, but there may be some increased goose populations that spill over to the lake at Tellico."
He goes on to explain that the TWRA has not managed any area in Region IV for waterfowl hunting in the past but has plans to begin management of the Lick Creek Bottoms WMA in Greene County in the next couple of years.
"Lick Creek has a lot of flat land that is a couple of miles removed from the local refuge rather than right next to it like some properties. Plans are to plant crops attractive to waterfowl and even provide some water-control devices to manipulate water levels once the season is in," he said.
Until then, the majority of public waterfowl hunting takes place along Norris Reservoir, the Clinch River and Tellico Lake. Hunters can expect to see mostly resident goose populations unless winter weather conditions force migrating birds across the eastern part of the state later in the season. Gibbs indicates those situation can often heat up the duck hunting for several days for those who time the migrations right.
Before You Go
All waterfowl hunters are required to have the following in order to hunt waterfowl in Tennessee: the appropriate license(s) -- hunting/fishing combo and a waterfowl license or a sportsman's license, a federal duck stamp, and a Tennessee Migratory Bird Permit (HIP permit). Non-residents must have adequate non-resident licenses. A WMA permit may also be required. For legal hunting dates this year, check the regulations before your hunt.