Will duck hunting in Tennessee be better this winter? Let's see where recent duck and goose trends are taking us.
By Larry Self
Tennessee duck and goose hunters have experienced high times when it comes to bag limits and numbers of days in the field in recent years. Despite the liberal seasons, however, ducks and migratory geese have failed to materialize in large numbers.
So, duck hunters are adapting.
Many waterfowlers don't always worry about getting a limit. For many duck hunters, just the opportunity to get in the blind and get in a few shots is all that's needed to make a successful duck hunt. Others are more satisfied with quick hunts and bragging rights.
Regardless of where your pleasure lies, limited is a word Volunteer waterfowlers hope to not hear this winter. Let's see where recent duck and goose trends are taking us and if season dates and opportunities are going to improve or decline in Tennessee.
AN EXPERIENCED OUTLOOK
Joe Hopper is the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's new wetlands-waterfowl coordinator, but wetlands management has been Hopper's realm for years, and he's stood in the waterfowl coordinator's shoes before. More importantly, Hopper is a duck hunter from way back. His first hunting trip to Reelfoot in 1948 is one of his fondest memories - a trip filled with so many ducks that it spoiled him.
The point is Hopper knows ducks. He saw enough during the 2003-2004 waterfowl season to proclaim it as one of the worst ones on record for him and many other waterfowl enthusiasts.
"We just didn't have the birds last year," Hopper said, adding that it is his belief that too much emphasis is placed on breeding pairs and mallard numbers only. Hopper said a lot of attention is placed on the annual May Pond Survey to gather the statistics, but not enough is done to determine the success of nesting. He believed the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is very indicative of the duck population and where a lot of information can be gathered about survival.
In comparison, the Midwinter Waterfowl count in 2002 showed an observed mallard population of 2,807,409 birds in the Mississippi Flyway and a corresponding number of 327,426 in Tennessee alone. This past winter in 2004, the Mississippi Flyway had a count of 1,548,460 mallards and 177,113 in Tennessee. The midwinter count for all ducks in 2002 was 7,230,834 birds in the Flyway and 467,408 in Tennessee. The 2004 counts for all ducks paled in comparison with 5,812,783 in the Mississippi Flyway and 256,290 in the state. Hopper said his interpretation of the data indicates a dramatic reduction of mallard recruitment and other species in the spring and summer of 2002 and a further reduction in the spring and summer of 2003.
Under tough conditions, try a solo hunt or two on small water away from crowds. Kelley Powers finds success here doing just that. Photo by Larry Self
THE PAST AND PRESENT
Hopper said Mississippi Flyway technical personnel began reviewing waterfowl harvest and population problems at the February 2004 meeting.
Prior to the last two waterfowl seasons, Hopper noted Tennessee hunters were faring much better. For example, the average annual all-duck harvests in Tennessee during 1961 through 1965 were 57,240 birds. From 1986 through 2002, the average increased to 208,316 (a 3.6-fold increase). The average annual harvests of ducks in Tennessee during 1996 through 2002 were 342,241 birds. This is a 5.9-fold average increase in harvest in Tennessee as compared to the 1961 through 1965 average. For 2001 and 2002, the average Tennessee duck harvest was 338,293.
THE REFUGE ASPECT
The answer to why more birds have become available to Tennessee duck hunters in modern times is easy for Hopper. For him, it's definitely the development of the state's "mini-refuge" system. He said prior to the 1980s, many people weren't convinced of the importance of setting aside wetlands. Through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the subsequent state Wetlands Acquisition Act, Hopper said the agency was able to complete some necessary projects.
From his years of observation, Hopper said for ducks to remain in a particular location within the Flyway, they must have at least three dependable ingredients: water, food and protection.
If any one of these three ingredients is missing, the birds will move on until they find all three.
Back in the 1980s, Tennessee identified wide gaps in the refuge system, particularly along the main waterfowl corridor - the Mississippi River. An initiative was implemented to fill these gaps, and all of the Mississippi River projects have been completed except one, according to Hopper.
Prior to this initiative, most of Tennessee's ducks were on two federal refuges. Another plan dispersed large concentrations of birds in any single location by developing the small mini-refuges along other riverine systems. Hopper said this dispersion accomplished two major objectives. It made the birds more accessible to hunters, and decreased very large populations in one area.
As hunters scramble to find answers to low waterfowl hunting success, many ideas or theories are born. The one that worries Hopper the most is the recent suggestion to open Tennessee's refuges to hunting.
"If they open up the refuges, the birds are going to leave," Hopper warned. "It'll destroy everything we've done since 1985." He added TWRA refuges are too small to provide public hunting without destroying the purpose of the refuges. Some federal refuges may be large enough to provide limited hunting, but they must have sufficient acreage that will always provide protection for the birds. If those habitat characteristics are not provided, and disturbance is allowed, Hopper believes refuges will lose birds, probably to other states.
There were years in the last decade that the Volunteer State actually wintered more ducks than Arkansas on more than a couple of occasions. Hopper feels for sure without refuges or protective areas, most of our waterfowl probably would winter in Louisiana.
He said our refuge system was not haphazardly done, and it's working for Tennessee.
A MODERATE SEASON?
Still, Hopper feels duck numbers aren't where they were. There's good news and bad news coming for the prairie pothole regions that are the origin of most of our migrating ducks. He said nobody really knows for sure what this upcoming season will bring. There are a couple of flyways asking for another split seas
on. Zones and splits of seasons were slated to be discussed at this past summer's Tech Session. From what Hopper has heard, some states are requesting additional splits and others are opposed.
The best news Hopper could share is his optimism. He's experienced the heyday of duck hunting and now one of its lowest points. From his years of experience observing ducks up and down the flyways and in the breeding grounds, he said it just takes one year to turn things around. A good wet year, and things can be right back to the hunting we had in the 1990s. Hopper said a fine example is how the populations boomed the very year after the drought ended in the mid-1980s.
Hopper said at the late winter meeting it was agreed that changing the seasons sharply each year would not offer a good indication of harvest change effectiveness since it takes more than a season to know if results or positive or negative. That means we shouldn't expect to see a liberal season like previous years to be changed to a restricted season in just one year. Hunters can expect a moderate duck season if any changes are made to the framework at all.
When you turn to geese, the picture isn't all that different. The number of migratory geese coming south has been slowing in recent years, and Hopper said dark geese like Canadas have moved north. They're just not in Tennessee like they were in previous winters and the goose capitol of southern Illinois is no longer home to throngs of Canadas.
Where the migrators are failing hunters, resident or nuisance Canada geese have been filling the gaps for years. Hopper is in favor of split early seasons like those found in Middle and East Tennessee because of the option of additional opening days. Opening days tend to be more successful, as geese have been undisturbed and settled into patterns before all the shooting starts.
A final option for goose hunters and duck hunters alike, that Hopper hopes takes hold, is the light goose opportunity. Toward the end of last season, Hopper observed hundreds of speckled-belly geese in the Reelfoot region of the state. The ever-populous snow goose is adding an additional potential opportunity. Hopper said thousands of them are beginning to travel the western end of the state and hunters even in Middle and East Tennessee are reporting more of these waterfowl.
MAKING WATERFOWL OPPORTUNITIES
Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason said days in the field and time in the blind are more important than the number of ducks he kills. He doesn't want to lose the opportunity that he had in the 1980s with shortened seasons. Mason said duck hunting is a camaraderie sport and is not just about killing.
The veteran guide said the last few seasons have been tougher, but there were also some periods with good numbers of ducks. During the slow times, Mason alters his tactics to appeal more to what he calls "off species" of ducks - anything other than the king mallard. His spreads are now laid out to attract more wood ducks, bluebills and other divers. Kentucky Lake hunters see a lot of woodies early on and then more and more mallards appear as the season progresses.
The size of Mason's spread hasn't changed; he employs 300 or more duck dekes and 50 to 60 goose decoys when hunting the Tennessee River and West Tennessee bottomlands. He is actually backing off on the mounted spinning wing decoys and going more and more to surface decoys with flapping wings that splash water and add action and life to the spread.
Mason really likes what he's seen at the onset of the last two seasons and the closing two weeks of those hunts. The youth hunt last year was his best hunt with 10 kids shooting 58 ducks out of his Kentucky Lake blind. He's altered his time in the blind by staying later than usual. Mason's normally out of the blind by 2 o'clock when hunting the river, but stays most of the afternoon when hunting bottoms. The afternoons have offered better shooting on some days than the morning hunts.
Calling is another area Mason has changed with tough duck conditions. He's calling less in the early portion of the season and picking it up after more mallards and puddlers arrive after Christmas. He said the key to successful calling regardless of the conditions is learning to read a flock's reaction to the call.
Based on the last two seasons, Scot Marcin expected Volunteer hunters to get another 60-day, six-duck liberal season. Marcin himself wouldn't mind a restricted season if it let duck numbers rebound. He's more upset when a retriever fails to make a clean fetch than not shooting a limit of ducks.
Marcin, a retriever trainer and outfitter from Middle Tennessee, does most of his hunting on Old Hickory Lake, one of the better midstate destinations for ducks and geese. He said the Upper Unit of Old Hickory is where you get into puddlers like mallards and others. When divers show, you'll want to find yourself on the Lower Unit. Marcin said if it weren't for wood ducks on Old Hickory the last two seasons, there would not have been much of a duck season. Ringnecks and gadwalls can also be Old Hickory staples when mallard numbers don't come in.
Marcin said he plays a little different game than a lot of duck hunters. If he can't call the birds in, he doesn't want to shoot them. With few numbers and more mature birds, they've become call-shy. To combat the situation, Marcin has put up his loud single-reed duck call and gone with a softer double-reed Duck Commander call.
The biggest modification Marcin has made in recent seasons, however, has been to drop his decoy spread numbers from 200 to as little as a dozen dekes. He said it's not necessary to put out 200 decoys to kill two ducks when few new ducks are hitting the area. Marcin also believes we'd do better in tough times to throw the "flappy wing" decoys in the closet and go back to jerk cords.
Watts Bar Lake is located in the midsection of East Tennessee and is an often-overlooked duck and goose opportunity. The big waters there are also where you'll find duck and goose man Scotty Smith of Smith Outdoors when he's not wintering in Arkansas. Tougher seasons have changed Smith's hunting as well. He said he's discovered some primetime hunting now occurring from the hours of 10 a.m. until 2 o'clock in the afternoon as ducks come back from feeding areas. In the past, the morning could mean a limit and an early return home.
Smith said he now does more running and gunning to get on birds. He gets the most out of his layout blinds hiding out on sandbars as ducks return to open water during the day. Windy days call for blind repositioning, as ducks hole up in rocky coves seeking cover and in the back of deep hollows.
With smaller flights of ducks, Smith has eased back on his decoy numbers. Additionally, switching to run-and-gun style calls for two dozen or fewer dekes. When the big-water divers like redheads come to town, he adds diver decoys to his mallard look-alikes to add a lot of white to the spread to take advantage of other species.
ducks in East Tennessee is different from most of the country. The ducks that make it here have heard almost everything else, so Smith elected to change to a competition-type call. He takes an Echo Boss single-reed call to open-water situations simply to take advantage of its volume.
Smith finds himself picking and choosing his hunts mostly on weekdays to avoid pressured birds. He's also learned ducks visiting East Tennessee tend to blow through with real bad weather. You'll want to be on the water for prime opportunities in front of cold and snow fronts. Smith is expecting and prepared for a moderate season this year.
Call Garry Mason at (731) 593-5429.
Call Scotty Smith at (865) 748-0656.
Contact Scot Marcin at (615) 582-7112 or on the Web at www.delta-dreams.com.
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