By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
Kentucky’s duck hunters are having a better season than a year ago, but the hunting has gotten tougher lately as birds have spread out and movement has stagnated.
“There doesn’t seem to be any big numbers in any specific spot,” says Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ top waterfowl biologist, Wes Little, when describing current duck populations in his state. “They’re just so scattered because of all the sheet water.”
And, just like other states in the region, Little says Kentucky saw an earlier-than-normal migration of birds, many of which have since moved out.
According to Little, the most recent waterfowl survey showed about 6,000 birds on Doug Travis Wildlife Management Area (WMA), while Sloughs WMA “has been steadily around 10,000 or 11,000 ducks all season.”
In talking to hunters on Lake Barkley, Little says there’s little activity. “Though last week, hunters on the north end of the lake were killing a few mallards,” he adds.
Kentucky’s top public duck hunting area, Ballard WMA, was holding around 49,000 ducks during the last survey, according to biologist Josh Hager.
“That’s average or a little above for this time of year, and mallards make up more than 90 percent,” Hager says.
Boatwright WMA was holding almost 50,000 birds two weeks ago, but the number has dropped to around 21,000, which Hager says is “a little low for right now.” He suspects the numbers are actually higher, but habitat conditions make counting ducks difficult.
“There’s so much habitat in our area,” Hager reports. “About every acre that can be flooded is. It’s hard to get a good number on Ballard and Boatwright because there’s so much private stuff that they can be on at any given day or time, and so much of the area has flooded timber. We can only count what we can see.”
Little says the warm weather lately hasn’t helped hunters any, though it has kept wood ducks around, a rarity for Kentucky this late in December.
Without a strong push of new birds lately, Little and Hager agree that hunters have been forced to contend with wise birds, which in many areas have become nocturnal.
“They’re starting to act a little stale at this point,” Hager says, noting that ducks have been sitting on refuge pools and flying out late.
John Gannon, owner of Kentucky Bayou Outdoors, agrees. “Stagnant, stagnant, stagnant, big time,” he says.
Gannon hunts in the Hickman region, in the southwest corner of the state. He says a perfect example of stale, wise birds can be found on the Long Point unit of Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, a scant half mile from one of his top hunting spots.
“The north end of the Long Point unit is holding quite a few birds right now. Unfortunately, they are extremely nocturnal,” Gannon says.
All three Kentuckians agree that a change in the weather is needed, and while it may not bring many more birds down the flyway to the Bluegrass State, it would help to get ducks already there moving.
“These birds are sitting fat and sassy right now and don’t have a need to move,” Hager says.
“If we get some storms rolling in, birds will do different things,” Little adds. “Even with stale birds, when it’s been sunny and warm like it has been lately, if a storm comes in, it will make them move around.”
Gannon is looking to dropping temps to get birds on the move. “We just need cold, and we’re looking forward to January temperatures,” he says.
In the meantime, savvy hunters can still find success.
“In Kentucky, if you’re adaptive, you’ll still find ways to kill birds,” Little says. But you may have to change tactics. “If you sit in your blind during these poor stretches, you’re not going to kill ducks. The hunters getting out in new spots and using different decoy spreads are still having success.”
While hunters are often encouraged to downsize their decoy spread as the season progresses, Gannon reports success by “going bigger” to stand out from the rest. “I’ve gone to a lot bigger and brighter spreads, with lots of white and black decoys … those are my favorite,” he says.
Kentucky’s duck season will continue through January 31, followed by a two-day youth season February 1–2.