Overlooked Strategies for Tennessee Waterfowling

Sometimes straying from the beaten path is the best way to find consistent duck shooting. This guide provides some overlooked strategies for Volunteer waterfowl.

Last year, waterfowl flight predictions suggested we would have large numbers of ducks during the season here in Tennessee.

We didn't.

Last year's difficult hunting conditions may foreshadow an even tougher season this year.

Even so, there are still opportunities to take Tennessee ducks. From bottoms in West Tennessee to pockets on Kentucky Lake and sloughs on Reelfoot Lake and high-water hunting on the Mississippi, extreme conditions call for extreme measures. Let's look at how a few Tennessee waterfowlers deal with tough situations from changing weather to changing opportunities and the prospect of a tough season.

This section is titled "The Reelfoot Area" rather than "Reelfoot Lake" for a reason. As fantastic as the hunting on Reelfoot Lake can be for hunters with access to the lake's system of permanent blinds, there are other spots on and around the lake that provide some good duck hunting. In the January issue, we'll address the legendary open-water tactics on the lake itself, but for now, let's outline some overlooked strategies.

You know the old adage "When things get tough, the tough get going." Well, outdoor writer and promoter Rob Somerville has a different outlook when duck season takes a turn for the worse.

"When things get tough, the less calling the better," said Somerville. "The ducks have been hollered at from Canada all the way down the Mississippi Flyway."

Photo by Jim Spencer

Summerville and his fellow hunters also shut down the motorized decoys after the hunting pressure has built up, because he believes that ducks learn that motorized decoys simply mean "get shot here." And another important tactic is to alter the look of your spread for a fresh approach. Somerville says you should also rest your spot occasionally to let new groups of ducks get in the habit of using it as a resting zone.

Finding duck success often means getting away from heavily pressured areas. On Reelfoot, most of the best locations have permanent blinds, but success can be had in cut grass patches, groups of lily pads, and even on open water, according to Sumerville. He notes that areas such as Champey's Pocket, Keystone and secluded ditches can fetch up your limit. His best advice for freelance hunters is to remember that waterfowlers must be a minimum of 200 yards off a permanent blind, and courtesy calls for you to double that yardage.

Although you have a chance to harvest wood ducks, teal, gadwalls, widgeons and blackjacks on and around Reelfoot, for most Mississippi Flyway duck hunters, mallards are far and away the most sought-after species.

Every duck-hunting locale in the country has its own short list of specialized techniques. In the region of far West Tennessee, Somerville has found that the most unique tactics employed by local hunters have to do with calling. Reelfoot Lake is known for "high-balling" ducks in with a loud come-back call. But local hunters for some time have also used their mouths to call in ducks successfully by emitting a loud "aiinnkk." It definitely works for call-shy ducks.

While it's known for its great open-water hunting and duck shooting in pockets found in the ditches, the Reelfoot area is also full of other opportunities. Somerville says that flooded fields around the lake can be red-hot at times - which is not that surprising when you consider that you are placed strategically around the flyway. Hunting is found not only on the "Quake Lake," but also on the Obion River, the Forked Deer River and the Hatchie River. Several state and federal refuges draw ducks to these areas. In extreme conditions, it's important to keep ice out of your hole during freezing weather. Somerville likes the sunny days for lake hunting and during low-water stages; a motor similar to a "Go-Devil" is needed to get you to the ducks.

"Tough times call for mobile measures," said hunter and outdoor writer Brodie Swisher. "By late season, the ducks will be here, it's just a matter of finding them."

His strategy is a simple one. Get away from the permanent blinds and "run and gun" with a boat blind. Being mobile allows him to run up and down the river, checking creeks and pockets off the Tennessee River for ducks. He feels that in the late season, ducks seem to have a "here today, gone tomorrow" mentality. The key is to scout until you find the ducks in secluded creeks or bays. Hunters who are mobile can move with the ducks as they begin feeding, resting and roosting in another area.

Swisher also pays a lot of attention to the headwaters. When "new" water moves into an area, flooding timber or fields, the ducks won't be far behind. "Get muddy for mallards" is the idea here, he says. He adds that puddle ducks will draw to "mud-churned" water, so by following the headwaters, you'll likely be following the ducks. Again, his strategy emphasizes mobility.

Swisher has found that several pockets off the Tennessee River, just below the Kentucky state line, cut deep into the LBL Forest, offering secluded hideaways for migrating ducks. Several of these pockets tend to get overlooked by local waterfowlers. Hunters can also look for creeks and bays off the portion of the Tennessee River that lies adjacent to the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. Every year, thousands of ducks will winter in the refuge. Hunters who have legal access to places close to the refuge can often find success with ducks flying to and from the refuge.

When you talk Mississippi Flyway, again you're talking mallards, and Swisher says mallards seem to be the bird of choice around the Kentucky Lake area. However, he adds that a large number of gadwalls, along with an abundance of divers, make Kentucky Lake home. But again, few things compare to hunting mallards in the timber from his perspective. Light decoy spreads and a soft approach to calling often work well. Many hunters make the mistake of overcalling. Granted, aggressive calling has its place, but that place is not near timber-decoy spreads of a dozen ducks. As Swisher says, it's not natural to hear tremendous noise coming from a few ducks, so if real ducks see small decoy spreads and hear a lot of noise, they'll be suspicious.

"Just give them enough to let them know you're there," advised the champion caller. "If they want to hear a little more, then give it to them, but start off with a non-aggressive approach."

Swisher finishes his calling instructions by saying that the place for more volume is with big water, large decoy spreads and high winds. On t

he Tennessee River and Kentucky Lake, the winds can be brutal and that requires a lot of sound just for the ducks to hear you.

Last year the mallards were scarce, to say the least, and Swisher joined a couple of friends who had found a bunch of bluebills trading up and down the river. Although divers aren't the table fare that mallards are, they did offer nonstop shooting action for hours, and that's something that came few and far between last season. The opportunity taken is an example of Swisher's strategy of staying mobile and moving with ducks regardless of the species. You have to hunt the ducks that are around, or you'll spend a lot of time looking at an empty sky.

The Big Sandy WMA plays host to a large number of ducks as they trade from Kentucky Lake and the Big Sandy River, as well as coming from the refuge. Again, hunters will want to watch for headwaters moving into the WMA as well as other areas such as the West Sandy WMA. The hunter with a Go-Devil motor can get away from the crowds and into the ducks in these WMAs, according to Swisher.

Swisher says that extreme cold causes hunters to move out to the rivers where current keeps the waters huntable. He likes to look for areas with limited "open" water available to ducks, such as on the lake. Look for the spots that will be the last to freeze. The ducks will concentrate in large numbers in these areas until freeze-up, and then they're forced out to the river.

He also takes advantage of some of the smaller waters in West Tennessee when the extreme cold hits. The Obion River will host large numbers of ducks when things begin to freeze. Some awesome gunning takes place near the Hop-In Refuge as ducks are forced to leave the refuge and seek open water along the Obion River.

One of his personal favorite spots to kill a limit of mallards is the Hatchie River. When the river spills the banks, the mallards will be there. Swisher says this is the place for the mallard purist. The Hatchie offers adequate current to keep it open despite frigid temperatures. The mobile hunter can set up a boat blind and decoys near eddy waters in one of the river bends and get ready for some awesome gunning for greenheads. Going up or down the river from Highway 14, hunters should find ample numbers of ducks.

Duck man Jeff Martin got my attention last year when I viewed a video of one of his hunts. His newly formed guide service, featured in the video, didn't focus a lot on talk and bragging, just duck hunting and shooting action. Given what we saw last year in limited waterfowl numbers, Martin had to change his strategies along with everyone else.

When times get tough, he says to put your duck call in your pocket. Like hunters in the Reelfoot area, Martin relies on a mouth call by pulling ducks in with that "aiinnnkk" call on still days. Another tactic for his crew is to go to huge decoy spreads with a lot of motion decoys. As they've come down the flyway and particularly the Mississippi River, the ducks have been called to and shot at over all kinds of smaller spreads, and even some big spreads. The ducks are nervous, to say the least. The one type of place they've been safe is refuges. And a refuge will have vast numbers of ducks on it. Martin's theory is that with a large spread and lot of action in that spread, you can attract ducks by imitating what they see in a refuge. Like most hunters, I've driven through or by refuges after a morning's hunt to see what's there. Just as Martin has it pictured, there are always big numbers rafting together and there's almost always some kind of movement as ducks pick up and leave, land or just simply stretch their wings - constant motion.

"The man with the prettiest decoys kills the most ducks," added Martin. It's customary for him to repaint each decoy before they go on the water for the first time and in between seasons. He also adds a coat of polyurethane to them to bring out a shine. Decoys don't work if ducks can't see them. When it comes to hunting the Mississippi River, Martin isn't going based on hearsay or where he's killed ducks in the past.

Instead, he spends a great deal of time scouting. The places where he encounters large numbers of ducks are where he's going to hunt later. Like most area hunters, Martin is aiming to find mallards for 90 percent of his targets. Throw in a few canvasbacks and the occasional bluebills for additional gunning. Top choices for locating greenheads and others are behind islands, off chutes and sloughs away from the main river channel. These thicket-like areas provide cover, but looks alone are not enough to convince Martin that he should set up in a place. He lets the ducks decide where he'll hunt. His theory is that it's best to go to them than to wait on them to come to you.

For the best Mississippi River hunting, Martin prefers high water. He keeps a constant check on the flood stages in Memphis. A mark of 17 feet or better will put him on the river. The duck hunting is best when water levels get in the switch willows and over grasses on sandbars. Martin's not necessarily looking to hunt flood stages but is prepared for high water. His decoys have 30-foot lines attached, for example.

And he says you have to keep your equipment maintained to hunt the tough conditions encountered on the big river. Always keep safety in mind with high water and extreme conditions. Martin doesn't go out without checking the weather, carrying a heater and some type of communication like a cell phone or radio. You want to be prepared for trouble. His other tips include picking up your decoys every evening in low temperatures and a recommendation not to trim your motor up during frigid weather to avoid freeze-ups.

There are two Corps of Engineers ramps in the region that allow public access to the Mississippi and her ducks. One is the Ed Jones ramp west of Halls off Highway 88 and the other is the John Fullen ramp in Ashport off Highway 19.

At the time of this writing, the quality of the 2002 waterfowl season was nothing more than speculation. The hard truth is that the drought in the Prairie Pothole region and light snowfall for the region last winter may have marked the end of years of plentiful water in the breeding grounds. Organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl both were releasing information that hunters should expect fewer duck numbers than during the last six or seven years.

The best news out of all the speculation came in a news release from Dr. Bruce Batt, DU's chief biologist. He shed light on the current effects of the 2002 drought. He said, "As a result of all that moisture during the 1990s, as well as habitat conservation programs across the continent, most waterfowl populations are at fairly healthy levels. So, if we are going into a drought cycle, we're far better off than we would have been at the end of the last drought in the early 1990s."

The high times drew new duck hunters to the sport, while the dry period prior to the early 1990s saw fewer hunters involved. By now, seasons have been set and we know what dates and limits we have to work with. Regardless of fall flight predictions, the number of ducks over your decoys or how many limits you shoot, it's still hun

ting. And if you're true to your sport of duck hunting, the opportunity to set foot in a blind and spend time with friends and that faithful retriever should be enough.

Rob Somerville hunts Reelfoot Lake often. He recommends David Keefe's Reelfoot Lake Inn as a resort and guide service. They can be reached at (731) 253-6845.

Brodie Swisher is an outdoor writer and he is an NRA Great American Game Calling Challenge, Hunter Division, World Champion, taking the crown in 2002. You can reach Swisher at brohunts@aol.com.

Jeff Martin is co-founder of Twin Rivers Guide Service out of Halls and can be reached at (731) 635-7223, (731) 693-8750 or on the Web at www.tnlinks.net/~twinrivers. He also manages Presidents Island WMA.

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