By Paul Davis
A warmer than average December, coupled with extensive dry conditions resulting from limited rainfall, has made hunting tough for most waterfowlers in Tennessee, but there may be a welcome change on the way as hunters ring in the new year.
“This is the longest stretch of hot weather I can remember for late December. It’s been in the 70s for multiple days,” says Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Region 1 waterfowl biologist Patrick Lemons.
Ducks in such conditions "need to move so little when it’s warm. It’s basically beach living,” Lemons says.
Duck numbers across west Tennessee, Lemons reports, remain below average for this time of year. “Some of the refuges up around Reelfoot have around 5,000 ducks, which is just not that good,” he says.
Longtime guide Ben Parker knows as much about duck hunting around Reelfoot as anybody and agrees, saying “this has probably been the slowest start to a duck season I’ve ever had.”
“We don’t have very many ducks,” Parker adds. “I haven’t seen that many ducks go past us, so I hope that 90 percent of them are north of us still.”
Still, there are some ducks in Tennessee, Lemons says.
“There’s still surprising green-winged teal numbers around, plus other early migrants like shovelers, pintails and gadwalls,” Lemons reports.
The lack of mallards is not surprising, he says. “You look at where the snow line is, and it’s halfway up Minnesota right now,” Lemons says. “What I’m a little worried about is if they don’t get a strong cold front that actually puts some ice up there, north Missouri and north Illinois will close to hunting and they’re still going to have abundant food and water.”
Indeed, a quick check of population surveys at just three north Missouri conservation areas shows nearly 420,000 ducks, mostly mallards.
Tennessee’s White Lake Refuge currently is holding around 30,000 ducks, Lemons reports, while “Eagle Lake had pretty good numbers of ducks a week ago.”
Additionally, Lemons says, “Shelby Forest hunters have had some success in the better units on the draw area. That’s flooded cypress hunting.”
Duck numbers have also been pretty good along the Tennessee River, according to Lemons. “That’s been pretty consistent most of this year, and that’s been traditionally what you see in a very dry year. At those WMAs, it’s easy to get water. You open a gate, and it comes in from the lake.”
Many areas remain dry, however, and significant rainfall is needed. “There’s just not a ton of water in the system,” Lemons says.
If the rains come, he says, the “table has been set” for the ducks at the state’s wildlife management areas. Right on cue, a strong weather front is predicted to hit Tennessee on Saturday, with heavy rain and a major drop in the temperature by Sunday, Lemons says.
“It looks like an impressive little front, and folks think we may see some bird movement on the front end with that rain. Maybe it’ll shake loose on Sunday.”