Migration Alert: Kentucky Waterfowlers Struggle with Low Water and Duck Numbers

Dec. 21, 2017 – Mississippi Flyway – Kentucky

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor 

Duck numbers on Kentucky’s few managed wetlands are far below where they normally are in mid-December, and biologists think the majority of ducks that pass through the state have already come and gone. However, with an arctic air mass bringing frigid temperatures to states to the north, new birds are still trickling into the state.  

“There are just not a lot of ducks to play with,” says Wes Little, a waterfowl biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The vast majority of the state’s duck hunting occurs in its westernmost counties, and its top public duck-hunting destination, the Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Ballard County, “should be holding about 100,000 birds,” Little says. Instead, the WMA had only about 23,000 ducks earlier this week. However, numbers have increased recently to 42,500 ducks, more than 80 percent of which are mallards.

“That’s still really low for this time of year,” says Josh Hager, a wildlife biologist at Ballard WMA. “Hopefully we can get another push from the north,” Hager says.

Many of the ducks on Ballard WMA, Hager notes, “have been there a little while,” but even so, the daily bird-per-hunter average “hasn’t gone down from what it normally is. The birds are still huntable.”

Other popular waterfowl hunting areas are also holding below average numbers of ducks. Sloughs WMA, in Henderson and Union counties, currently has between 6,000 and 10,000 ducks, while Boatwright WMA, near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Ballard County, has about 15,000 birds.

“We also have a few smaller WMAs with a handful of birds,” Little says, and the “Green River Lake and Barren River Lake areas got a fair push of birds last week.”

Unfortunately, low duck numbers aren’t the only challenge facing Kentucky waterfowlers this season. Just like other parts of the Mid-South, the Bluegrass State has had a very dry fall, and a lack of wetland habitat is limiting where ducks can go. Little suspects many migrating waterfowl bypassed the state because of the water shortage.

“We’re definitely dry,” Little says. “The dryness has really killed us, and we’re in pretty bad shape. We have several blinds at Sloughs WMA with no water, but fortunately Ballard WMA is in better shape.”

The Ohio River is the primary source of water for Ballard WMA, Hager says, but “it is very low, and it’s affecting how much we can pump.”

Rain is in the short-term forecast for Western Kentucky, but not enough to dramatically change habitat conditions. A big cool down is expected this weekend, which should help move birds that are already in the area.

“What we really need is some snow,” Little says. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

Facing a water shortage and low duck numbers, hunters are going to have to be flexible and do their homework to find success. “Those who are consistently successful work at it,” Little says. “They do a lot of scouting and don’t let the ducks see the same thing over and over. You’ve got to do something different.”

Despite the difficult hunting conditions, the news for Kentucky waterfowlers isn’t all bad. Goose hunting opportunities are increasing, as more and more snow geese and white-fronted geese are showing up in the state’s western counties.

 The Sloughs WMA is currently holding about 50,000 snow geese, and the “white-fronts are doing well there,” Little says.

The Ballard WMA and surrounding lands have a “few thousand white-fronts and a handful of Canadas,” Hager adds. “This region, in the last five or six years, has seen an increase in speck numbers, and they’re gaining popularity with hunters.”

And for those who were lucky enough to get drawn for one of Kentucky’s limited sandhill crane permits, Little has good news. “Sandhill cranes are flooding into the state,” he says.

Find and submit migration reports to the DU Migration Map.

Paul Davis is a writer and photographer with a lifelong passion for the outdoors, including waterfowl, turkey, and deer hunting. He resides in southeast Missouri and will be providing migration, habitat, and hunting information for Mo., Ark., Tenn., Miss., and Ky., through the 2017-2018 waterfowl season