Migration Alert: Optimism Remains as Winter Weather Descends Upon Kentucky and Tennessee

Dec. 23, 2020 – Mississippi Flyway – Kentucky and Tennessee

© Michael Furtman

By Paul Davis, WF360 Mid-South Migration Editor

Like much of the Mid-South region, waterfowl hunters in Kentucky and Tennessee are facing lower-than-average numbers of ducks, and while hunting has been a source of frustration for many, things may be turning around.

“All the way across Kentucky, we still have low numbers,” says Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources biologist Wes Little, who oversees the state’s waterfowl program. “They’re just not here yet. Last week’s public land waterfowl survey showed maybe 30,000 to 33,000 ducks.”

Mallards account for about 75 percent of Kentucky’s duck count, with pintails, gadwalls, and divers making up most of the remainder. Little says that snow and white-fronted geese are trickling into the state, along with a few sandhill cranes.

Oddly enough, hunters are still shooting decent numbers of wood ducks, when Little says those birds “should be long gone.”

Surveys, he points out, do not take into account private lands, so overall duck numbers will be higher than reported.

While Little says that Kentucky’s public land habitat is in great shape, the birds that have been in the state have become quite stale and somewhat nocturnal.

On Ballard WMA, the state’s top waterfowl destination, biologist Josh Hager reports low duck numbers. “Our numbers are way down here on Ballard and on Boatwright WMA,” he says.

In north-central Kentucky, Clay Hudnall with Field Proven Calls reports poor hunting, with few ducks around. “It’s been a ghost town, and it’s pretty slim pickings right now,” he says.

With all that said, it appears western Kentucky experienced a nice push of new birds on Monday.

“Things turned around here Monday,” Hager says. “Monday was the best flight day we’ve seen this year, and maybe for a couple years.”

Hager reports an influx of pintails and mallards with “big, high groups moving around. It’s looking better than we’ve seen in a while.”

How long the push will last is anyone’s guess, Hager says, but he’s cautiously optimistic.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, the situation is very similar, with generally low duck numbers across the western portion of the state, an area with a strong tradition of waterfowl hunting.

“Everybody is singing the blues this year. I don’t know if it’s water or weather or a combination, but it has not been that great,” says Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency waterfowl biologist Patrick Lemons. “Our duck numbers are below average in west Tennessee, but they’re not terrible.”

Mallards make up the majority of birds, though Tennessee is seeing more gadwalls and fewer teal than normal.

Lemons reports that White Lake Refuge near Dyersburg is the state’s hotspot, with 80,000 ducks, mostly mallards and gadwalls. He has also received reports of some dabblers moving into the Duck River unit of Tennessee River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and the Big Sandy area.

Farther south, Lower Hatchie NWR manager Ashley Cathey reports only 5,000 ducks, which is well below average.

“That’s pretty bad,” says Tipton County game warden Jake Yoes. “There’s hardly any ducks on these refuges. I checked our WMA refuges the other day, and I’ve never seen so few ducks.”

Generally low water conditions also abound in most areas, making hunting tough.

However, just like in Kentucky, northwest Tennessee also saw a new wave of ducks on Monday, sparking hope for better days ahead.

“I did get a report that there was a pretty good migration Monday at Reelfoot,” Yoes says. “A buddy there said they were seeing lots of high ducks moving in.”

Ben Parker, owner of Parker’s Outfitting on Reelfoot Lake, agrees. “We’ve been living off gray ducks, but on Monday we shot a lot of mallards. Monday was the first day that resembled the main duck season. Up until now, it’s been an early morning shoot and then it’s over.”

More water and colder weather are both needed, biologists say, to improve bird numbers and hunting.

“I think we need some water in the system. A big two-inch Christmas rain would do us wonders,” Lemons says.

Little adds, “We need North Dakota to lock up, and northern Missouri and Illinois to see some ice to force them down. We are in great shape; we just need some new birds.”