Tennessee duck hunters are getting nervous. Happens every year about this time when temperatures begin to cool and we get that strange far-away look in the eye.
Early seasons have already agitated their “duck fever.” From a couple of weeks on early resident geese to the short but sweet wood duck and teal combo segments, duck hunters have that feeling that something’s in the air. A brisk north wind has a rippling effect once leaves begin to fall.
Brushing the blind early despite the heat and humidity help relieve some of the pressure. Working on a few decoys and tying on new strings or patching a few leakers helps feed the season opener yearning but only for a short time.
On everyone’s mind is the popular question: what’s the fall flight forecast looking like? Are duck numbers up? If not, what species are down? Are season dates and bag limits going to change from last year?
Tennessee duck hunters and other states across the South are fortunate in that season dates, duration and bag limits will be similar to last year. There’s another 60-day season ahead with a liberal six-duck daily bag limit.
Tennessee’s statewide duck season will again be split into two segments. A two-day segment will kick off the season on Nov. 24-25. After a five-day closure, the second segment opens up on Dec. 1 and runs through Jan. 27, 2019.
The Reelfoot Lake zone will have its usual early weekend opener on Nov. 10-11. For years the zone has had the early opener in hopes of catching some of the early migration of gadwall and wigeons. The second segment at Reelfoot Lake will be Dec. 1-Jan. 27, 2019, which is the same as the second segment of the statewide season.
This year’s Youth Waterfowl Hunt will again be held on two separate Saturdays after the regular season has ended. The dates will be Feb. 2 and Feb. 9, 2019, and limited to youngsters ages 15 and under.
FALL FLIGHT FORECAST
Now to the fall flight forecast, which has a way of pumping up the enthusiasm level among the ranks of waterfowlers when the news is good. It can deflate, too, if things are bad.
Although the fall flight index helps waterfowlers better understand what lies ahead and how things went on the breeding grounds this past spring, it’s not a perfect forecast for the forthcoming season.
Weather and water conditions are always two of the big factors for hunters in just about every state but especially those of us in the southern states. We’ve got to have help from the weather man at times.
Without a few cold fronts and frigid forecasts, our web-footed friends have a tendency to stay up north during what should be the peak of our migration.
Nonetheless, waterfowl biologists within the Canadian Wildlife Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with input from Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, help put things into perspective each summer as the fall and winter season draw near.
This year, North America’s spring duck population declined, but most species remain above long-term averages, according to the 2018 Waterfowl Population Status Report released in August.
The annual survey, conducted jointly by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service since 1955, puts the breeding duck population at 41.19 million, a 13 percent decrease from last year’s population of 47.27 million, but still 17 percent above the long-term average. Overall, the 2018 survey marks the lowest total breeding duck population estimate since 2010.
“The breeding population decreased, but remains quite strong, with most species remaining near or above long-term averages,” said Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl. “Ducks declined due to dry conditions in large portions of the breeding grounds.
“Fortunately, we continue to benefit from ‘carryover birds’ hatched during highly productive springs over the past several years.”
Following a record high two years ago, mallards declined 12 percent to 9.26 million, but remain 17 percent above the long-term average. Wigeon are the only index species that showed an increase, climbing 2 percent to 2.82 million, 8 percent above the long-term average.
Blue-winged teal fell 18 percent to 6.45 million, 27 percent above the long-term average.
Gadwalls dropped 31 percent to 2.89 million, 43 percent above the long-term average. Green-winged teal decreased 16 percent to 3.04 million, still 42 percent above the long-term average.
Northern shovelers declined 3 percent to 4.21 million, 62 percent above the long-term average. Redheads declined 10 percent to 1 million, 38 percent above the long-term average. Canvasbacks dropped 6 percent to 686,000, 16 percent above the long-term average.
Only two breeding population estimates are below long-term averages. Northern pintails declined a concerning 18 percent to 2.37 million, 40 percent below the long-term average. Scaup (lessers and greaters combined) declined 9 percent to 3.99 million, 20 percent below the long-term average.
“Bluebills are drifting dangerously close to a return to restrictive harvest regulations,” Rohwer said. “And the pintail number is disappointing. We’d hoped that good wetland conditions across Montana, and portions of southern Alberta and southeastern Saskatchewan, would be enough to give pintails a boost. That was clearly not the case.”
“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Tom Moorman. “As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly. However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages.
“This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions.
Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee duck hunters are riding a typical preseason high level of optimism.
The season ahead is always the best one.
“There will be plenty of ducks in the fall flight, but unlike years when there are plenty of easily decoyed juveniles, hunters can expect savvy, adult birds,” Delta Waterfowl scientist Rohwer said.
STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is email@example.com.