September 28, 2010
By Anthony Campbell
From Pickwick Lake upstream to Guntersville, the waters of this north Alabama waterway offer excellent places for waterfowling each winter. Let's see how the wingshooting for ducks stacks up this year.
The weather was so bone-chilling cold that we had to break ice to put out the decoys. It was late in the season and a lot of other hunters had already called it a year on Guntersville Lake. We, however, were young and foolish and so we hunted. And what fine hunting it was!
For the better part of a week, with the ice steadily advancing across the lake day by day and temperatures in the teens at times, we continued to hit the river. If you could find an open pocket of water where a creek fed into the main reservoir, you found ducks. You could also find them on the edge of the ice on the big water.
We all caught colds, like our mothers said we would, but we drank Alka Seltzer Cold cocktails before dawn each morning and kept on hunting until we just finally couldn't go another day. But we hammered the ducks.
Species that fell included gadwalls, mallards, shovelers, wood ducks, goldeneyes and hooded mergansers. We didn't get skunked on a single outing.
That memorable week of duck hunting happened more than 10 years ago. There's a lot more hunting pressure on the Tennessee River now than there was then, but the region still has the potential to produce red-hot duck hunting, especially when the weather gets bone-chilling cold.
North Alabama is near the southern terminus of North America's annual waterfowl migration. As a result, the success of our season depends to a great extent on getting cold weather up north to push the birds far southward.
Photo by John R. Ford
"The birds don't come to north Alabama just to have somewhere to go," said Keith McCutcheon, the District II wildlife biologist who spent 14 years as the Jackson County waterfowl biologist. "They come here because they have to. They come here when cold, rough weather to the north pushes them here."
The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF), Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other conservation organizations have done a lot of work over the years to make sure the habitat in North Alabama is in good shape when the birds do get here. There are state wildlife management areas (WMAs) and national wildlife refuges (NWRs) encompassing thousands of acres of first-class duck habitat along the Tennessee River. On top of the annual planting and flooding of crops like corn and millet for ducks, the milfoil and hydrilla beds in Guntersville and Wheeler lakes also provide excellent feeding habitat for waterfowl.
"We've done a lot of work," McCutcheon said. "But you have to remember that the states above us have done a lot of work too, and unless we get the weather, the birds don't have a reason to come and use our habitat."
The cold weather really hasn't materialized the last couple of seasons. The hunting has been a mixed bag as a result.
"The hunting hasn't been consistent," McCutcheon agreed. "You find birds here and there, but the hunting has been difficult."
The biologist went on to say that mild weather actually causes two problems for the North Alabama waterfowler. For starters, we don't get as many birds coming down from up north. We have what McCutcheon termed "a delayed migration." Fewer birds in the area means fewer opportunities for hunters.
The second factor is how the birds behave once they get here. If the weather is mild, they are content to raft up in the middle of the reservoir and feed on aquatic vegetation or get on the backwater of a refuge and feed on weed seeds. They simply don't have to move around much to meet their nutritional needs.
"What the ducks feed on varies depending on the weather," McCutcheon added. "Their metabolism varies depending on the weather. They don't need the 'hot foods' like corn and grain sorghum if it's warm. And they're not going to commit suicide to try to get on the WMAs and get those foods if it's warm."
David Hayden, assistant chief of wildlife for the Alabama DWFF, said he got mixed reports on last year's Tennessee River waterfowling too.
"What I generally heard about last season is that a few guys had real good seasons," Hayden said. "A few guys felt like it was fair. A number of people felt it was a poor season."
Hayden agreed that what North Alabama needs to set the stage for a good season this year is an extended period of cold weather to the north.
"It's better for us if it gets cold and stays cold awhile up north," he said. "We need water bodies to freeze north of us and some snow on the ground to cover up food in the fields."
If that happens - and you are doing your homework by scouting regularly to see where the ducks are hanging out - you can enjoy excellent duck hunting on the Tennessee River.
In addition to thousands of acres of state-run WMAs managed specifically for waterfowl along the Tennessee River, there are thousands of acres of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) land open to public hunting.
WHERE TO HUNT
The majority of successful Tennessee River duck hunters use aluminum johnboats and big decoy spreads on the river. But there are still walk-in places on both the WMAs and the main river where you can travel by foot with a sack of decoys on your back and have a good chance of killing ducks.
In general, the eastern half of the Tennessee Valley - the areas around Guntersville and Wheeler lakes - offers the best hunting. There's not much duck hunting potential on Wilson Lake or Pickwick Lake.
"The areas west of Florence just don't seem to get the duck numbers that Wheeler and Jackson County get," Hayden said. "You don't have the backwater areas there that you have around Mud Creek or Raccoon Creek. Part of the riverbank is sheer bluff in that area, but there are some areas, particularly around islands, with some shallow water and duck hunting potential in the western part of the river."
The area is probably not worth traveling to if you're a roving waterfowler, Hayden continued, but there is some hunting available if you live in that part of the state.
The main waterfowling WMA on the western part of the Tennessee River is 5,745-acre Seven Mile Island, along the shores of Pickwick Lake near Florence.
There's not a lot of waterfowl management activity on this area, as far as planting crops and flooding them goes, but there is a lot of river shoreline with coves and sloughs where waterfowl congregate. Wood ducks and gadwalls are frequently harvested in those sloughs. Canada geese can also be found there at times.
The WMA joins the Florence city limits on one side, along Cypress Creek.
Traveling east or upstream from there will put you in the Decatur vicinity, one of the top waterfowling locations in the valley. Wheeler NWR encompasses thousands of acres of prime duck habitat in this area and concentrates lots of ducks in good years.
No hunting is allowed on the refuge itself, but waterfowling is permitted on two adjoining WMAs - Swan Creek and Mallard-Fox Creek. Swan Creek covers 6,850 acres, including a 1,200-acre dewatering unit. Mallard-Fox Creek has 1,483 acres. The harvest on both WMAs consists of mostly mallards, gadwalls and ringnecks.
The state has a drawing for blind locations and allows 50 semi-permanent blinds to be located on the Swan Creek dewatering area each winter. The hunting isn't restricted to those who have blinds there, and some free-lance duck hunting is allowed as well.
In addition to the dewatering arm, Swan Creek features several large bays just off the river that are magnets for ducks. They include Swan Creek Bay and Beulah Bay.
Both bays are frequently nothing more than mudflats with a shallow layer of water on top. It is a labor-intensive way to pursue the sport, but you can slog out on the mudflat in waders, hunker down on a stump and shoot passing birds.
The WMA managers say Mallard-Fox Creek WMA, across the river from Swan Creek, does not receive nearly as much hunting pressure, due to its inaccessibility. Most hunters use boats in the area. There's a dewatering area, but no crops are planted in it. A good bit of the hunting takes place on the river.
Since it's illegal to duck hunt on Wheeler NWR, new hunters to the area need to be sure they know where they are. The Keller Bridge on U.S. 31 is the dividing line between the refuge and Swan Creek WMA.
If you can gain access to some private land in the Decatur area, you might just find a duck honeyhole. Decatur-area waterfowl guide Tim Baker reports having ducks decoy to dry crop fields when conditions are right.
Even though the area doesn't see a large number of snow geese, he uses "white rag" spreads and decoys both ducks and geese.
"We don't have a lot of snow geese in the area, but the birds migrating in have seen them all down the flyway," Baker said. "When they see the spreads, they just think, 'Hey, there're our buddies, the snow geese,' and they come right in. Hunters who have never seen it work are just amazed by it."
Between Decatur and Guntersville Dam are several small creeks with duck hunting potential for wingshooters who don't mind long boat rides. Small waterways that feed into the Tennessee and can be float-hunted include Cotaco Creek, Dry Creek, the Flint River, Greenbriar Cove and the Paint Rock River.
For this type of float-hunting, a trolling motor and dip net are invaluable aides for retrieving downed ducks. The trouble with floating the creeks is that there aren't very many access points where you can put in. That reduces the hunting pressure but also makes the flows difficult to hunt.
When it comes to a destination for duck hunting, Jackson County, in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, is hard to beat. There are 25,000 acres of publicly owned, state-managed waterfowl habitat in that county alone - 17,454 acres of waterfowl WMAs and 7,700 acres of waterfowl refuges.
"The Jackson County waterfowl management areas have probably gotten too good a name," said David Hayden. "We get a lot of folks from Chattanooga and Atlanta who come to hunt, as well as our own Alabama folks. It gets a good bit of public pressure and you have to work at hunting it to find good places."
The hunting areas include Mud Creek WMA (8,193 acres), Crow Creek WMA (2,161 acres) and Raccoon Creek WMA (7,080 acres). The refuges, where hunting isn't allowed and ducks congregate in large numbers, are Crow Creek Refuge (2,496 acres) and North Sauty Refuge (5,200 acres).
Raccoon Creek is perhaps the crown jewel of the public WMAs in the region. It's been the site of an ongoing DU Matching Aid to Restore States' Habitat (MARSH) project that has tripled the size of the dewatering area over the last several years.
"Raccoon Creek has the potential to really turn on every year, especially for mallards," McCutcheon noted.
Enlarging the facility means there's room for more hunters on the area, although it can get somewhat crowded at times. Another problem is getting the crop planted in time to mature before the growing season ends.
"It's always a problem, McCutcheon agreed. "It isn't like normal farming. You've got to drain it, dry the area out and then plant it. If you have rain during that time when you're trying to dry it, it can be a real struggle to get it planted."
A wet spring and early summer this year gave the biologists fits with the planting.
Mud Creek is the largest of the Jackson County WMAs and has more diversity of habitat than the others. It includes a dewatering area (Wannville), a large bay off the main river and a greentree reservoir.
The Wannville dewatering area covers about 185 acres, which is small in comparison to Raccoon Creek, but it can be a good spot in which to shoot ducks at times. The greentree reservoir is 200 to 300 acres of flooded timber.
"It's primarily a walk-in situation,"' McCutcheon said. "The hunting isn't always real strong on the greentree reservoir. It's one of those places that's good to keep an eye on, because a lot of ducks can be killed there at times."
The best times to hit the dewatering areas and the greentree reservoir are when it's cold and the water level on the main river is rising.
"When the water gets high on the main river, it submerges the aquatic vegetation," McCutcheon explained. "The mallards, gadwalls and pintails aren't going to dive for it. They only stay around it as long as they can tip up and feed on it."
Once the water gets too deep for them to reach the vegetation, the ducks head for the WMA's flooded crops and trees.
"Keeping an eye on the water level is a real important tip," McCutcheon noted. "It's a good time to get off the main reservoir and into these other places."
Jackson County's third WMA is Crow Creek, and it, too, is de
pendent on rising water levels.
"It's basically a hardwood bottomland," McCutcheon said. "The time to hunt it is when the water gets up and out in the woods. It doesn't get quite as much hunting pressure as the other areas."
In addition to those areas that are managed for waterfowl, there are thousands of acres of TVA-owned land, mainly in the Guntersville area, open to public duck hunting. The bulk of the pressure on these lands is during the early season. But the hunting is usually at its best later in the season, when the weather is at its roughest, and the number of ducks in the area is at the peak.
Hunters who can get out during the week probably stand a better chance of getting their first-choice spot. With the pressure that's on this area now, it's a good idea to have several spots in mind so you have a backup plan if someone beats you to a spot.