September 28, 2010
By John Cochran
Keith McCutcheon, a waterfowl biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF) gets paid to study ducks and geese in North Alabama. If you want to know about wingshooting these birds in that part of the state, he is the man to ask. Right now the biggest question is what happened to the Tennessee River ducks last year, and are they likely to be absent again this season?
"Basically the ducks spread out a lot last year, and the migratory birds that we expected in November and December didn't show up until January," McCutcheon explained. "Many of the ducks just didn't come to Alabama at all."
Also, the later in the season the ducks decide to migrate, the less likely they are to migrate at all.
"Last year we received a flight of mallards in early January that we normally get in early December," McCutcheon added.
Fortunately, with Alabama's duck season lasting until the end of January, hunters still found some good shooting on the Tennessee River toward the end of the season. But the November and December hunting was less than productive for waterfowl.
In North Alabama, the Tennessee River and its reservoirs provide the mainstay of duck hunting for the region. Also, fortunately, there are a lot of options for public wingshooting along the waterway. The 34,500-acre Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, always draws large numbers of waterfowl and hunters. There are also two waterfowl refuges operated by the state along the river and its tributaries. These are the 5,200-acre North Sauty Refuge, near Scottsboro, and the 2,496-acre Crow Creek Refuge, near Stevenson in Jackson County.
Additionally, the DWFF manages six wildlife management areas (WMAs) along the Tennessee River valley specifically to benefit waterfowl and duck hunters. These are Crow Creek, Mallard-Fox Creek, Mud Creek, Raccoon Creek, Seven Mile Island and Swan Creek WMAs.
Photo by Michael Mauro
Although hunters often ask which WMAs attract the most ducks, McCutcheon is diplomatic about replying to the question.
"The answer to that question depends on the types of ducks you want to hunt," he noted. "But right now, because of their sizes, Raccoon Creek WMA, Mud Creek WMA and Swan Creek WMA seem to pull in the most ducks.
"The number of ducks on any WMA fluctuates throughout the season. We never know which one will have the most ducks on any particular weekend. When you try to pick one of the best WMAs in North Alabama to hunt, you also have to realize that hunting pressure dramatically impacts the number of webfeet that you can call into range."
Thus a large WMA with intense hunting pressure may not have as many birds as a smaller public tract that gets less use.
Most waterfowlers on the Tennessee River hunt ducks traditionally with blinds, decoys and duck calls. These tactics are most effective on the hundreds of backwater sloughs all along the river and in the de-watering areas planted with grain. Some duck men have boat blinds, while others use their boats simply to get to the area they want to hunt. They then set out decoy spreads along the shore and hide in the cover along the bank.
PICKING YOUR DUCKS
Because of the varied conditions found along the Tennessee River and the different situations favored by the duck species, it is possible to pinpoint the type of duck you want to pursue.
"More widgeons hang out at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and the Swan Creek WMA than at any other area along the Tennessee River," McCutcheon said.
On the other hand, for mallard hunting, McCutcheon suggested either Mud Creek WMA or Raccoon Creek WMA for the most success.
"Traditionally Swan Creek has more early-season teal coming through this region than we have in the Jackson County areas. Jackson County seems to pay off best later in the winter, and the western WMAs seem to produce better earlier in the season," the biologist surmised.
For that reason, targeting Mud Creek and Crow Creek WMAs in December and January makes sense. These two areas are also tops for getting some shots at ringnecks.
In the case of gadwalls, pretty much any area of the Tennessee River may attract them. Still, McCutcheon suggested that the Jackson County WMAs as your best bet.
Finally, if pintails are the quackers you want to put in the game bag, plan to hunt the big waters of the main river anywhere along its course.
THE SIMPLE DUCK HUNTER
I consider myself a simple duck hunter. I don't have a retriever or large numbers of decoys. Nor do I use a boat for a blind or to motor to where I plan to do some wingshooting. It boils down to the fact that I really don't want to mess with all the paraphernalia required to be a hard-boiled duck hunter. My duck equipment consists of six decoys, a pair of waders and a duck call.
For hunters who fall in the same category, McCutcheon also has some tips.
"Hunt the main river from the city of Guntersville all the way up to Scottsboro. You find many backwater spots in this stretch of water where you can put out decoys (and) have the ducks drop into these little pockets where you can take them. You see a wide diversity of ducks in this region."
Another option, according to McCutcheon, is to hunt on the WMAs.
"We have plenty of sites on most of the WMAs where a hunter can walk in, set up his decoys, and have some pretty good shooting. If I planned to walk in and hunt, I'd choose Raccoon Creek WMA. This region has a lot of water and a wide variety of ducks. The WMA runs parallel to the river and has many more places where you can walk in and hunt than do some of our other WMAs."
If you prefer wading out into a green-tree reservoir to hunt, McCutcheon recommended you try Mud Creek WMA.
Serious waterfowlers - the folks with retrieving dogs, 50 or more decoys and a boat blind - may want to concentrate their ef
forts on the Swan Creek WMA. This WMA has a lottery-style drawing system for assigning blind locations. You put your name in the hat for a chance to be drawn for one of 50 permanent blinds. This is the only public area along the river that has permanent blinds.
If you don't draw one of the permanent blinds, you can still use your boat blind to hunt ducks on this WMA. Boat blinds must stay at least 150 yards away from the permanent blinds.
If you plan to hunt along the main river channel, McCutcheon recommended searching for shallow-water areas off State Highway 35 in the upper reaches of Guntersville Lake. In the vicinity of Scottsboro and to the south of the town there are large stretches where the lake floods out of the old river channel, creating shallow-water areas. These shallows support an abundance of milfoil, which is attractive to ducks.
"If the weather is cool, and we've had plenty of rain, instead of hunting the river I would hunt one of the WMAs," McCutcheon added.
The shallow-water areas around South Sauty and outside of Goose Pond are both good during these conditions.
"In this section of the river, you see more canvasbacks than on any other section of the reservoir," McCutcheon explained. "You also see quite a few gadwalls and a real wide variety of ducks.
"During the early part of the season, some of the WMAs may not have enough water on them to attract the ducks," McCutcheon added. "However, the ducks on the main river will always be there - especially in low water."
FLOAT FOR DUCKS
According to McCutcheon, you can float-hunt for ducks on a number of small creeks that feed into the Tennessee River. Many times, when the main river becomes really choppy as the weather turns bad, ducks crowd up in the small creeks. This creates good conditions in which to float for some outstanding hunting.
"You can float-hunt for waterfowl on the Paint Rock River, the Flint River, the Elk River, Second Creek and Big Nance Creek," McCutcheon reported. "On the Flint River and the Paint Rock River, put your boat in the water off U.S. Highway 431 and float to the mouths of the creeks. You can expect to take wood ducks, mallards, widgeons, gadwalls and black ducks utilizing this floating-shooting technique."
This tactic works well in the late season. Just remember that when you are actually hunting, you cannot have your motor running on the boat.
ACE IN THE HOLE
Alabama's ace in the hole for productive waterfowl hunting is the wood duck. These quackers stay in the Cotton State throughout the year.
"We have wood ducks in all 67 counties in the state," McCutcheon stated. "The wood duck is the most-abundant bird in Alabama and is especially popular with the early-season duck hunter. Wood ducks are here in the state, regardless of whether the other ducks come down the flyway or not."
THE CRYSTAL BALL
When McCutcheon peers into his crystal ball to predict what type of duck season North Alabama hunters could expect, he provides more questions than answers because of the variables involved.
"I wish I could predict the season," he said. "To predict the duck migration, you would have to know the number of ducks that would come down the flyway and what weather patterns would move the ducks."
The Tennessee River could have either high or low numbers of ducks, depending on regional weather as well. Last year, when the United States had a high population of birds, the weather stayed warm up north. As a result the Tennessee River got few birds. That could occur again this year. On the other hand, frigid weather in the Midwest could flood northern Alabama with waterfowl.
McCutcheon suggested contacting the biologists on the various WMAs to check on duck populations there before heading out on a hunt.
"Another great place to get information on what the ducks in North Alabama are doing is on the Internet at www.waterfowler.com," McCutcheon commented. "Duck hunters go to this Web site and tell each other what they're seeing in different areas of the state, as well as in other states."
To learn more about Alabama's waterfowl hunting or to request a map for the WMA you want to hunt, write to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 64 North Union S., Montgomery, AL 36130, or visit their Web site: www.dcnr.state.al.us.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Here is an overview of the state wildlife management areas located along the Tennessee River and its tributaries.
The Swan Creek WMA covers 8,870 acres in Limestone County near Decatur. The area biologist is Steve Bryant. He can be contacted at (256) 353-2634 or (256) 232-8266.
Mallard-Fox Creek WMA contains 1,483 acres in Lawrence and Morgan counties near Decatur. Steve Bryant is also the biologist for this area.
Seven Mile Island WMA comprises 4,685 acres in Lauderdale County near Florence. Daniel Toole is the area biologist. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 1314, Florence, AL 35631.
Mud Creek WMA covers 8,193 acres in Jackson County near Scottsboro. Area biologist Keith McCutcheon can be reached at (256) 437-2788.
Crow Creek WMA stretches over 2,161 acres of Jackson County near the town of Stevenson. Keith McCutcheon is the area biologist.
Raccoon Creek WMA is also located in Jackson County, on a total of 7,080 acres. Keith McCutcheon also covers this tract for the state.