Nomadic Waterfowling in Tennessee

Sometimes when the duck hunting is tough, the best thing to do is to go to the backwater birds.

Photo by John R. Ford

By Larry Self

If you were born to chase ducks - and during the last two seasons Tennessee hunters have had to do a lot of chasing - you've got to be nomadic at times. Success in tough times means hunting the fronts and learning to be on the move. When ducks don't come to you, you might as well go to them or do something different to draw them in. There's not a duck hunter among us who hasn't ventured outside his home waters or done something against the grain. You get word that hunters are killing ducks elsewhere, and then you'll become nomadic overnight.

Nomadic has a lot of definitions by duck hunter standards. It may simply mean rigging up the boat blind for mobility or calling a buddy in a nearby county. Whatever your methods for finding or luring in waterfowl, we've pulled together a few tips and tactics to help you find success on the outskirts of the better-known duck-hunting areas in Tennessee.

Brodie Swisher is NRA Great American Game Calling Challenge Hunter Division World Champion, a freelance writer and hunting guide who's adapted a nomadic style of hunting in recent years. He says the past two years of waterfowl hunting have indeed made him a wanderer when it comes to his duck-hunting pursuits.

"We bad-mouthed the 2001 duck season so much and ended up getting an even worse dose in 2002," laughed Swisher. "Ducks were rarely where I've killed them in the past, and if they were, they were in a much smaller supply."

He usually finds himself heading out to the Tennessee River for its plentiful options when things get ugly and ducks become scarce. One pocket or bay may be duckless, yet a quick run by boat may put you in fast and furious duck action. When things get tough and ducks are hard to come by, he believes you must find areas that have had little to no hunting pressure. He has a preference for shallow water/mud flats in the backs of bays. The places ducks have been consistently using but are untouched by most hunters usually have more restricted access and require a little legwork.

Swisher says times like these call for a walk-in hunt on a flat where he throws up a small, low-profile brush blind, uses small decoy spreads and sits back and waits for the action to unfold. He notes the downside of such spots is that they are likely a one-shot deal. The ducks have been coming to that particular spot because they have been left alone. After a morning of pounding, they will quickly find refuge in another bay.

A run-and-gun style means downsizing your decoy spreads. For speed, he mounts a boat blind to his duck boat and has blind material for a quick set along the lake or river's edge. The idea is to be mobile and able to pick up at a moment's notice.

As most hunters know, Kentucky Lake is home to the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge and thousands of migrating ducks and geese. By hunting fringe areas around the refuge, Swisher says you can often catch ducks trading back and forth from feeding, resting and roosting.

The mouth of Eagle Creek, for example, welcomes many ducks when the weather turns sour. He says Lick Creek, Short Creek and Standing Rock Creek are all areas a nomadic will not want to overlook in the search for ducks trading to and from sanctuaries.

There are also a number of hunting opportunities within WMAs that offer flooded-timber hunting. He also says to look for hotspots in Big Sandy WMA, as well as West Sandy WMA.

"I don't know how many times I've heard hunters talking of ducks knowing where and where not to go," said Swisher. "Simply put, ducks will quickly figure out they are tired of exploding brushpiles and will dodge every blind they come across, often alighting several hundred yards out of range of blinds and the frustrated hunters inside them."

With a little common courtesy, the nomadic waterfowler can use "walk-in" tactics to hunt such areas. That means never hunting within 200 yards of another hunter or blind and respecting their opportunities with working ducks. That's a strategy Swisher abides by in his rambling duck tactics.

For increased success, he suggests hunters should alter their gear for nomadic hunting. You'll want to keep a folding saw in your boat or gear bag. A good saw is all you need to turn bushes into a duck blind in a matter of minutes. The key is to blend the blind in with surrounding brush or trees. In tough times, Swisher says hunters willing to get out and run up and down the lake and river in search of birds will get the bonus hunts. If you find ducks, they'll likely be there again in the morning. The rest is up to you.

Kelley Powers has claimed national fame with his world championship goose calling. He's won everything you can win when it comes to calling championships, but he'll tell you his roots are in duck hunting.

"Duck hunting has been strong in our family as far back as anyone living can remember," said Powers. He started duck hunting with his brothers, father and grandfather when he was around 7 or 8 years old in the bottoms of West Tennessee and says in the Powers family it just seemed a sin if you missed a single day of duck season.

Last season, I was able to spend some time in the blind with Kelley and his brother John on their "duck refuge" in West Tennessee between Spring City and Martin. I expected the flight of mallards overhead in the early light, but the sound of Kelley blowing his goose call backing up John's duck-calling efforts caught me off guard. But the goose call certainly seemed to help convince the mallards that they wanted to come in to our decoys.

"I like to use the goose call whenever it can be effective," explains Powers. "It's kind of like a card game - you always save your trump card just in case you need it."

Over the years, he has observed that when an abundance of waterfowl concentrate in one area, they feed actively during the early morning and late afternoon hours and become even more active before major weather and barometric changes.

That means most of the time they're feeding heavily and making a lot of noise. His approach is to scout around to get an idea of the average number of birds in groups in nearby areas, then set a decoy spread of similar size where he is hunting. Ninety percent of the ducks he and his two brothers shoot are under conditions in which a goose call was used simply to enhance realism.

Kelley points out that with a spread of 400 duck

decoys and 200 Canada goose floaters backed by three or four guys who are blowing only duck calls, the setup will lack realism. The circling ducks are viewing a large number of geese hanging out with noisy feeding ducks - but the geese aren't making a sound. That's not natural.

"Sitting statues will kill you, especially when the conditions get tough," added Powers.

Obviously, having an established duck-hunting spot between duck draws like Reelfoot and Kentucky lakes has its advantages. But the ducks didn't just show up overnight. Being in the excavating business has helped the Powers family to "custom develop" farms for attracting waterfowl, explained Powers.

Furthermore, he has done a lot of flying to study the way certain waterways look from the air and how far they can be seen at certain altitudes. He says waterfowl go from one body of water to another - kind of like a giant connect-the-dot game from the air. For that reason, he pays particular attention to the topography of the land so the bodies of water can be seen from the "major flyway."

By planning to attract waterfowl to waters that are visible, they create a mini-flyway of their own.

Powers believes that a successful day is seldom caused by a single factor; several favorable conditions usually exist on a good hunt. But many of these conditions can be under the control of the hunter.

"I feel luck is derived from (things that were done right)," said Powers. "This can be as simple as the decoy spread and calling or as complicated as the food source, field design or overall appearance of what you are offering, and so on."

In East Tennessee, the hunters in many areas outnumber the ducks. That's why it takes a little extra effort to do more than blow a duck call at empty skies when you go hunting.

Mickey Brown of Greene County is a traveling duck hunter who knows what it takes to find success. Part of his tactics includes enlisting the eyes of winter crappie and bass fishermen for his duck reports. Make enough contacts and you could have your own network of on-the-water scouts. Brown says they see a lot, and once they know you're not after their fishing hotspots, they'll share information on the waterfowl they see.

Like any duck man, Brown changes his hunting patterns based on weather fronts. Brown has learned that most ducks like to ride fronts, so he watches them closely. In areas away from heavy migration routes, patterning the weather may be a spur-of-the-moment thing. Fronts that come up from the South and meet a colder blast of air will sometimes pull ducks into East Tennessee from the Atlantic as well as the Mississippi Flyway.

With extremely limited public hunting in the eastern portion of the state, some of the more accessible waters offer overlooked opportunities. From late November through much of the season, weather fronts can drop a lot of ducks on big water. Brown marks Douglas and Cherokee lakes as having easy access and as being fairly easy to maneuver. The chances of taking mallards, gadwalls, teal, scaup and other divers increase on into December.

"I like to travel light and quick," said Brown. That means he keeps his gear as light as possible. He has set up and changed locations as many as six times in a day in order to get it right or his limit, he recalls. He always puts out small numbers of decoys unless hunting specifically for divers. Here's a typical hunt scenario for this traveling hunter.

Brown and a hunting partner were on a familiar stretch of water on Douglas Lake and a couple of flocks flew over without giving them the time of day. Then an unexpected pair of bluebills buzzed in and was quickly dispatched. Nearly two hours later, it seemed as though those were the last two ducks in East Tennessee. The two hunters picked up their gear and made their way down the lake, jumping around 30 birds near a bluff. You got it - they threw out six dekes and saw nothing for another hour. His uncle was practicing for a bass tournament on down the lake and was due a cell phone call. The fishing part of the Brown family said he was looking at a raft of about 200 ducks that would pick up and fly to the same spot every time a boat would pass.

With a new enthusiasm, the would-be assailants begin to scramble to an almost unheard of opportunity in East Tennessee. The problem was that spot number three was home to 30-foot water depths, and Brown's decoys were rigged with 12 feet of line. Brown quickly began to cut lines and rigged up three magnum decoys with longer tethers.

Shortly after they hid their boat, they were happy to see a crappie fisherman come pass them. That angler pushed ducks right to them. The cycle repeated itself for 20 minutes as other boats passed by. The pair ended the morning with two bluebills, five mallards, three gadwalls, one black and one widgeon. Brown says he now always has three dekes rigged with 50 feet of line.

Whether you choose to hunt as a nomadic waterfowler, are fortunate to draw a key blind or have prime property in the middle of a flyway, the spring and summer news coming from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) offers hope for the present duck season. In late spring, the USFWS announced that the breeding grounds and potholes in the continent's duck factory were far wetter than expected at the beginning of the spring breeding season. Late snowfalls and much-needed rains attributed to the turnaround and gave some optimism that production might be on the positive side.

In July, long before the season's first shots at mallards, the USFWS released their "May Pond Report" and the news was even more encouraging. The 2003 May Duck Breeding Populations and Habitat Survey offered more hope for ducks and duck hunters for the 2003-2004 waterfowl season.

The increases in duck numbers and breeding conditions, as indicated by pond counts in the survey areas, show things were incredibly good in regard to breeding success when compared to 2002.

Total duck numbers increased to 36.2 million birds compared to 31.2 million last year. Mallards increased from 7.5 million to 7.9 million. Blue-winged teal are up from 4.2 million last year to 5.5 million - a 31 percent increase over last season. Green-winged teal increased 46 percent from last year to 2.7 million, the second-highest level since 1955. Pintails increased 43 percent to 2.6 million, but still remain 39 percent below their long-term average - an average that has been steadily decreasing with each year of dramatically reduced numbers.

Canvasbacks increased 15 percent from last year to 558,000, and scaup increased 6 percent to 3.7 million (but still remain 29 percent below their long-term average). Shovelers are up 56 percent from 2.3 million to 3.6 million. Redheads are estimated at 637,000, up from 565,000 last year, while gadwalls went from 2.2 million to 2.5 million. A big plus overall is that the increases are seen in each of the 10 most common duck species.

"The fall flights should

be greatly improved as a result of these conditions," noted Ducks Unlimited executive vice president Don Young when the report was released. "But as always, hunting success in any given location is very much affected by regional and local weather conditions. . . . "

If you've duck hunted long enough, you've seen the cycles, the heydays and the off years. In 2001, the national duck population was high - but the birds didn't show up here. In 2002, we had the weather, but not the birds we needed.

But hunters were in blinds and boats with retrievers and their buddies at their sides - and that by itself is a big part of duck hunting. Whether you shoot ducks in West Tennessee or hunt them in Middle and East Tennessee, it's not just the pulling of the trigger that makes this one of the grandest sports. You can't beat breakfast in a duck blind or ice frozen in your beard. Birds or not, we're going - see you there!

Contact Brodie Swisher for more information on hunting adventures in God's Country at (731) 644-2419 or email at

Contact Kelley, John or Tripp Powers of Final Flight Outfitters at 866-FLIGHT9 or by e-mail at

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