One half hour before sunrise Saturday kicks off the big day in the world of Tennessee waterfowlers.

The statewide season opens then, and duck hunters are always anxious to get the show going.

Volunteer State duck hunters will have another 60-day season and a liberal six-duck daily bag limit. After a two-day segment, the season will close for five days and resume Dec. 1 for a 58-day straight stretch, ending on Jan. 27.

Hunters don’t really need much to stir up their enthusiasm, but the cold weather recently and a snowy day or two did just that. Cold fronts always peg the meter of anxious duck hunters.

Meanwhile, it appears a warming trend is on the way, as temperatures are expected to be above normal this weekend.

It appears the weatherman will be on the side of fishermen this weekend, instead of duck hunters yearning for a continuation of the early winter weather that descended here in late fall.

Locally, all wildlife management areas in the Kentucky Lake region have ample water this year, so that’s good news for several popular public hunting areas.

Decent numbers of ducks have been reported this week at Big Sandy, Gin Creek, Camden bottoms, West Sandy and Dover bottoms. Those units likely will experience good opening-day hunts.

Elsewhere, the open waters of Kentucky Lake are not looking good, as no aquatic vegetation is present, as has been the case in times past.

The last two years, grass on the shallow flats and bays has vanished, taking away the appeal to early-arriving ducks that foraged in such areas.

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 weatherman 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 USF&WS and Canadian Wildlife Service since 1955, puts the breeding duck population at 41.19 million, a 13 percent decrease over 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 Dr. 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 1.00 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,” Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist Tom Moorman said.

“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.”

Across the region, the forecast for the season is pretty good, as to the overall number of ducks expected to migrate south this year.

The annual fall flight forecast from the USF&WS and Canadian Wildlife Service indicated duck numbers were slightly below last year, but still above the long-term average.

 Let the games begin!

 

STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is stevemc@charter.net.

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