Migration Alert: Stale Ducks, Limited Numbers Have Kentucky Waterfowlers Frustrated

Dec. 27, 2018 – Mississippi Flyway – Kentucky

Photo © Michael Furtman

By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor

Just like their neighbors in surrounding Midwestern states, Kentucky waterfowlers continue to face difficult hunting conditions and below-average numbers of birds.

“The hunting has been tough here,” says Field Proven Calls’ Clay Hudnall, who hunts mainly in north-central Kentucky. “We don’t have many birds around due to the mild temperatures we’ve had.”

The Ohio River is high, Hudnall adds, “but not high enough for any backwater.”

The state’s top public waterfowl-hunting area, the Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in far Western Kentucky, hasn’t had normal bird numbers all season, according to Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources biologist Josh Hager, who oversees the area.

“It’s been pretty slow. We’re holding just over 20,000 ducks,” Hager says, but that is about half of a typical late December count. “About 40,000 would be normal, and we should be seeing up to 60,000 before the season is over with.”

Hager explains that even bird usage of the WMA has been off this year. “The season started out weird,” he notes. “The birds have been concentrated in refuge areas, and we never really had any good bird use on some of our units, even before we started hunting them.”

Unlike farther upriver where Hudnall hunts, the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi River has created extensive backwater habitat, which has scattered ducks that are in the area. “They’re staying in the timber and don’t want anything to do with our moist-soil units or open areas,” Hager says.

Like many duck hunters in the Bluegrass State, Hager describes Kentucky’s birds as stale. “They’re not flying much, and they are feeding nocturnally,” he says, noting that the recent full moon only made the problem worse. “Our neighbors aren’t seeing ducks until well after shooting time in the evenings, so they’re feeding all night and flying back to sit on the refuges all day. They’ve got it figured out.”

Kentucky Bayou Outdoors owner John Gannon, who hunts in the bottoms around Hickman, says he “should be seeing up to 50,000 or 60,000 ducks a day, but we’re only seeing 3,000 to 5,000.”

Gannon described his hunting as slow but steady, and he has been changing his hunting tactics to fool birds that are familiar with the area. 

“We’ve been moving around a lot,” Gannon says, “and we’re doing a lot of oddball stuff like using decoys with a lot of white on them and not nearly as many mallards.”

He also says that he’s been having more success the first couple days after significant rains as the ducks move around to find new food sources.

Gannon believes that until the weather pattern changes and fresh birds arrive in the area, hunters will have to adapt to be successful. “Like I’ve been telling everyone, you have to scout hard, use high-quality decoys, and hide like nothing else,” he says.

Hager agrees, adding that “you have to be hidden and set up the best you can because our birds have become so wary.”

He also recommends that hunters pick up their decoys daily, noting that the extra work will be worth the effort. “You need to change it up, because those stale ducks have seen the same thing day after day, and you have to do everything you can to be more appealing to the birds we do have,” Hager advises.

While there is about a month remaining in Kentucky’s duck season, Hager believes it will take drastic changes in the weather to salvage what he’s calling a “bad migration year” to this point.

“We’re going to need some cold weather to the north to pick up new birds, and we’ll need weather here to keep them hungry and moving when they get here,” Hager says.

For now, much of the upper Midwest remains free of snow and bitter cold temperatures, and that doesn’t help hunters farther down the flyway. “The number one driver for waterfowl migration is weather, including cold temperatures and snow cover, which denies them access to food,” Hager says. “They’ll only migrate as far as they need to.”

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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