By Chris Jennings
More than two weeks remain in the 2016-2017 regular duck season, and Tennessee hunters are facing another obstacle due to warm temperatures and strong south winds. Fortunately, an ice storm just north of the state line may push waterfowl back into the Volunteer State and send duck numbers skyrocketing once again.
Dan Fuqua is the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) waterfowl biologist in West Tennessee and reports that during the most recent cold snap, many of state's refuges were holding more ducks than he'd ever seen.
"We flew on Monday and everything was still frozen. Every refuge had large numbers of ducks," Fuqua says. "White Lake was holding more than 200,000 ducks, 75 percent of those being mallards."
Snow and ice throughout the northern stretches of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley had ducks abandoning shallow habitats like agricultural fields and moving towards the refuges. Fuqua estimated that there were nearly 525,000 ducks on the state-managed properties alone.
"Just from personal observations, this season has been very hit or miss," Fuqua adds. "We have good numbers one day and then they are gone."
This fluctuation in duck numbers is being reported throughout the region.
Gary Pogue, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's West Tennessee refuge complex in Dyersburg, attempted to fly a waterfowl survey on Wednesday, but was grounded by high winds. However, even the ground surveys they did complete reflected a significant drop in numbers.
"The weather isn't helping hunters. Twice this season it's been 78 degrees on Thursday and then 9 degrees on Sunday," Pogue says. "That type of fluctuation is difficult for hunters because the birds stay on the move."
Pogue reports that the low water conditions in the fall on the refuge limited its capacity to attract early migrators. He feels that West Tennessee was passed over early in the season by pintails, greenwings, and shovelers due to the drought.
"Prior to the first cold snap, 90 percent of the ducks we were holding were mallards," he says. "That's a good indication that we got passed over. After the first cold snap, we picked up a lot of birds from the south."
Pogue adds that West Tennessee ducks hop from state to state across southern Illinois, southeast Missouri, western Kentucky, and northeast Arkansas seeking the best feeding habitat. Ducks will continue to move up and down the Mississippi Valley, even more so with the changing weather.
"It's nothing for a duck to pick up and fly 200 to 300 miles, especially with a strong south wind," Pogue says. "If a duck takes off from the coast, it can show up here by late afternoon on a south wind. This time of year, that's what the birds are doing in this region."
Further east, Steve McAdams, a veteran waterfowl guide in Paris, Tennessee, reports that the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge was holding nearly 250,000 ducks along Kentucky Lake, a number that is 274 percent above last year's count at this time and 94 percent above the five-year average. Unfortunately, the warm conditions this week have slowed the hunting action as the ducks have dispersed with the south winds.
"We did bag some redheads, black ducks, mallards, shovelers, canvasbacks and green-winged teal last weekend," McAdams says. "No doubt the extended spell of warm weather is a big factor as ducks are not having to move around and search for food in these conditions. Things can change quickly this time of year so we're all hoping for a quick rebound once this balmy weather breaks."
Pogue reminds hunters that this time of year is unpredictable, and the only way to know where the birds are, is to be out there.
"What's happened this week is that the birds are moving to the north and up against that ice line, but they may be right back," he says. "It's just been a crazy year. But you can't kill them sitting at home."