By Paul Davis
Recent waterfowl surveys across southeast Missouri and western Kentucky have shown reduced bird numbers, and hunting success has varied depending on location.
In Missouri, only the south zone remains open for duck hunters, and that means three managed public wetlands—Little River, Ten Mile Pond, and Coon Island Conservation Areas—plus backwaters along the Mississippi, St. Francis, and Black Rivers, will get the bulk of the hunting pressure.
Tim Kavan, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) district supervisor for the Mississippi Lowlands East District Resource Management Branch, reports 13,000 ducks at Ten Mile Pond this week, with another 7,000 at Coon Island and 2,600 at Little River.
Despite recent cold fronts, Kavan says, very little has changed in the region. “We didn’t pick up any new birds. As a matter of fact, I think we lost birds,” he says.
The most recent, but brief, snow event last weekend only created local bird movement. “There was flight activity, and they were out looking around for sheet water, but it was very low numbers,” says Kavan, who described hunting as “challenging.”
Conversely, when the rivers are up after rain events, hunting has been particularly good in the backwaters. “A lot of guys have been doing well in the St. Francis River bottoms, especially after we had increased river levels for a week or so,” he noted.
It’s unlikely that any more birds will be coming down the flyway, says MDC Migratory Game Bird Coordinator Dr. Andy Raedeke, because most northern Missouri areas have few, if any, birds remaining. “Right now in North Missouri, they pretty much lost all their birds,” he says. “When we lose birds in north Missouri, it’s not like they all go to southeast Missouri and then farther south. You might see a little bump in southeast Missouri, but to me the increases we get there are more notable earlier in the year when there’s a bigger migration event. You might pick up some birds, but it’s not the dramatic change from 10,000 to 40,000 kind of thing,” he adds.
Birds that remain in southeast Missouri, Raedeke says, are likely dispersed with the availability of more water than in previous weeks.
The situation is similar in western Kentucky. “The birds are really scattered, and we haven’t seen any new pushes of ducks,” says Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Biologist Wes Little, who oversees the state’s waterfowl program.
Kentucky officials took part in the mid-winter survey recently and, Little says, the numbers were disappointing. “The waterfowl count was somewhat dismal in some areas,” he says, though he notes that many rivers were just getting out of their banks at the same time and could have skewed observations.
At the state’s marquee waterfowl area—Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA)—the Ohio River has flooded some bottomland timber, attracting mallards. Ballard is “holding what they had, but we have a lot of backwater that’s scattered the birds,” Little says. “If they’re there, they are tucked into the little hidey-holes of what’s left of the backwaters and they’re not moving around and being visible.”
The nearby Boatwright WMA is “still holding ducks,” Little says. “The kill numbers have been good, other than the days when it was frozen and there was a noticeable drop in hunters and harvest. They’re staying consistent.”
Little reports that the Sloughs WMA, farther up the Ohio River, has also been steady throughout the season. “It has between 5,000 and 7,000 birds, and it’s been consistent,” he says. Sloughs also is currently holding 6,000 white-fronted geese and 5,000 snow geese.
One area that has seen a sharp decline in duck numbers is the lakes region. “We flew Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake and didn’t see anything outstanding,” Little says.
A strong blast of cold air, combined with sleet and snow, is predicted to hit both southeast Missouri and western Kentucky over the coming days, and Little is hopeful that the cold surge, as well as many falling backwaters, will “congregate the birds back in the WMAs.”
Meanwhile, Raedeke expects increased bird movement resulting from the front, at least temporarily. Beyond that, he urges hunters to keep an eye to the south, especially after a few warm days. “Usually by first of January, there are birds looking to go back north. They’re loafing back and forth between Arkansas and the Bootheel,” he says. “The pintails are the ones that make it so obvious. You won’t have any, and suddenly you’ll have all kinds of pintails around and you’ll know they came from the south.”