With excellent habitat and some cold weather up north, Tennessee hunters should enjoy some good waterfowl hunting this fall.
By Scott Carver
For most people, the thoughts of piling out of a warm bed well before dawn on a cold, windy morning isn't very appealing.
Add a cold lake or frozen oxbow, with blowing snow that pelts faces while traversing through darkness on the way to a duck blind, and most people would think a person is downright crazy. That, however, is the life of a waterfowler.
Ducks can be a finicky lot, as they are driven by weather patterns well to the north of Tennessee. Bitter cold weather in Canada leads to great hunting further south, as migrating ducks and geese travel south in search of more hospitable surroundings.
At the same time, unseasonably mild temperatures can leave Tennessee frustratingly void of waterfowl, as the birds have no reason to leave current situations in the north. Actually wishing for cold, bitter weather can seem a bit strange, but to have a good duck season, that is exactly what Tennessee hunters hope for.
In North America, waterfowl hunting is a numbers game. These numbers are affected by weather, amount of water and amount of suitable habitat.
According to Jamie Feddersen, Migratory Game Bird program leader with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, duck numbers are looking very steady for the upcoming season.
"Most waterfowl populations are abundant and healthy," said Feddersen. "Many species, such as mallard, green-winged teal, gadwall, redhead and northern shovelers, have been seeing record numbers over the past few years. All those species I listed are at least 50 percent above their long-term average population numbers. However, we also have a few species that are still experiencing slow decline in their population numbers, such as northern pintail and scaup."
This is good news for Tennessee hunters, as a lot of ducks will hopefully turn into a lot of shooting. Of course, that is completely dependent on the weather.
"Tennessee hunters harvest, on average, 207,000 ducks each year, with the top four being 94,000 mallards, 38,500 gadwall, 20,500 wood ducks and 18,100 green-winged teal," Feddersen said.
For a state not mentioned in the same breath as Louisiana and Texas when it comes to ducks, those numbers are impressive, and Tennessee hunters have something to be excited about for the upcoming season.
WHERE TO GO
Of course, to be successful, hunters have to have a good location to hunt. Fortunately, Tennessee is blessed with public hunting opportunities, both natural and man-made. According to Feddersen, for public hunting areas to be productive during the winter, the equation actually begins to unfold in the summer.
"The most consistent locations in Tennessee for waterfowl hunters also depends on weather, both during the summer and then in winter — summer for creating habitat; winter for getting birds into Tennessee," Feddersen said.
Simply put, ducks need water, and dry weather during the spring and summer months means little or no duck habitat in some places, and migrating waterfowl will keep moving through Tennessee to more suitable areas in other states. Last year's drought is a prime example. Many timber areas that were typically flooded were dry, or had very little water. Rain in late November and December did help what could have been a very bad situation during the season, and hopefully Tennessee hunters will not face the same situation this season.
West Tennessee gets the nod for consistency for waterfowl in Tennessee due to its proximity to the Mississippi Flyway.
"I would say the most consistent area in Tennessee for waterfowlers is the area in West Tennessee from Kentucky Lake to the Mississippi River, with most any of the river systems in West Tennessee being good," said Feddersen.
As such, Reelfoot Lake comes to most people's minds. Located in the northwest corner of the state, this 15,000-acre lake was carved out by a series of earthquakes, creating a virtual outdoor paradise. Every Tennessee waterfowler needs to hunt Reelfoot at least once, whether hiring a guide or putting in for one of the season-long quota blinds. Of course, there are many other places to hunt in western Tennessee, especially considering that this area is part of the Mississippi Flyway.
"On public areas, Barkley Wildlife Management Area is probably the most consistent because 20 out of 25 blinds will harvest about the same number of ducks," said Fedderson.
Hunters can also expect good hunting at Camden in Benton County, and Southfork Waterfowl Refuge, a smaller piece of public land in Madison County, depending on rainfall.
Other regions of the Volunteer State can also offer good waterfowling hunting, especially with a little homework. Hunters in these areas should focus on farms, if permission can be obtained, particularly ponds and lakes near cut cornfields and agricultural operations. Ducks view these secluded areas as resting places that offer food, water and relief from booming guns, especially during the late season. Creeks near these farms can also offer excellent opportunities for hunters willing to canoe or kayak into secluded areas.
For hunters without access to a farm or other private land in middle and east Tennessee, there are some public land opportunities. In Region 2, hunters looking for a "sleeper area" should focus on the Old Hickory WMA on Old Hickory Lake. This area is often overlooked, as many hunters focus on the more popular western portion of the state, but the success rate is steady on this WMA. While hunting is permitted only from registered blinds, hunters can expect to get in some great shooting, especially if the wind is blowing out of the north. There is also a "wheelchair-bound only" blind for handicap hunters.
In Region 3, the Yellow Creek Unit of Chickamauga WMA is a traditionally good area to target, but those looking for a non-draw area should consider Watts Bar Lake. Watts Bar is spotted with numerous islands, some named and some unnamed, which are used as resting places for migrating and resident birds.
This hidden gem produces consistently each season, particularly near the mid-lake section. Hunters should note that only temporary blinds are legal on Watts Bar, and decoys are not allowed to be left overnight.
Fort Loudoun WMA in Region 4 is also a location that duck hunters should consider, but there are many other good locations spread throughout the state. A good place to start is the TWRA Waterfowl Guide.
Tennessee is also blessed with an abundance of geese, both migratory and resident populations, and 2017-18 should be another good year. Unfortunately, many landowners in Tennessee don't look at this as a blessing. Many areas have become overrun with resident goose populations and landowners, golf course managers, property developers and some farmers view these birds as pests. Geese are attracted to cut cornfields, tender grass and water. Early season is also a great time to get a dog some work in preparation for the duck season. Additionally, bag limits and seasons are liberal in Tennessee, and obtaining access to private land to hunt early geese is much easier than later in the year. And, early goose season is a great time to introduce youngsters, as the weather is typically much milder. Furthermore, geese, because of their sheer numbers, tend to be a little more cooperative, at times, than ducks. Hunters should keep in mind, however, not to hunt too close to residential areas, thus risking a citation.
There was a time when duck numbers had been decimated to dangerously low levels, but this winter, while the rest of the world sits in front of a fire wishing for warmer days, Tennessee hunters will be in a duck blind enjoying the fruits of decades of waterfowl management.
More importantly, many of these hunters will be introducing their children to this endeavor, thus ensuring that future generations see the importance of managing waterfowl, which were once nearly hunted out of existence in some parts of the country. Just as important, take the opportunity to teach that young hunter the importance of wetland and habitat preservation. So put on the heavy coat, load your dog, fire up the burner and enjoy just one more facet of the outdoor smorgasbord that Tennessee has to offer.