nxiously awaiting the ar- rival of Tennessee’s state- wide duck season opener are legions of camouflage-clad waterfowlers who will rise and shine early Saturday morning.

The first segment of the state’s two-segment duck

season opens this weekend for a two-day hunt. After a short start, the season will close for five consecutive days, resum- ing Dec. 4 for a 58-day straight stretch.

Every year as the season ap- proaches, waterfowlers yearn

for weather changes in the form of cold fronts and some heavy rains.

All hunters ask the standard series of questions as to what the fall flight looks like, status of food and water and whether or not their buddies have the blinds ready? Reports from the breeding grounds in such areas as the Dakotas and Ca- nadian provinces — where the

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ducks raise — are dismal. Unfortunately, the news this year isn’t favorable as

to an optimistic fall flight as drought conditions throughout the prairie pothole region had an adverse impact on duck production.

Overall, the fall flight is down compared to years past as water is the key. Without it, habitat shrinks and brood suc- cess diminishes. That pretty much sums up the scenario as not only will duck numbers be down but more of the ducks migrating will be older — and smarter — ones as this year’s hatch was off.

Right now, the lion’s share of West Tennessee lowlands and backwater swamps are in need of rain to inundate shal- low swamps. Also thirsty are thousands of acres of harvest- ed corn and soybean fields awaiting runoff where hunters need it to flood fields set up to catch and control water levels if Mother Nature delivers.

It appears many areas will not have adequate water for the opening weekend hunt. Some others have capabilities to pump and therefore are able to help their own cause but some heavy rains are

needed across much of the four-state region.

Locally, hunters in the Ken- tucky and Barkley lakes area should have adequate water for hunters to access blinds in most of the local wildlife management areas under the umbrella of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Some areas water levels are

a bit low but have enough to permit most hunters to reach access their blinds.

EARLY SCOUTING MEANS HIGH HOPES

There is some optimism from hunters who have been scouting the units prior to the off-limits period and tossing out decoys this past weekend. A few good reports have sur- faced from hunters planning to open the season in such units as Gin Creek, Big Sandy, Camden and Dover Bottoms and West Sandy.

Dry conditions elsewhere could send ducks to any areas offering food and water and these units could very well have a good opening weekend.

Water manipulation is a key factor influencing the where- abouts of ducks and right now those that have water should have the ducks. The open water of Kentucky Lake once appealed to early migrating ducks but since the demise of aquatic vegetation, numbers there are very low.

As to the report earlier this year on the long range fore- cast, biologists on the state and federal levels, along with orga- nizations such as Delta Water- fowl and Ducks Unlimited, all seemed to be singing the same dismal song as the news from the breeding spread.

“The prairie pothole region — the most important duck production area on the planet — was almost universally
dry. There will be far fewer juveniles in the fall flight, and that’s unfortunate because the best seasons are those with an

abundance of young ducks,” said Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl.

After a lackluster season last fall and winter, it’s sort of insult to injury to hear such projections for duck hunters down here in the South.

While populations remain strong, dry breeding condi- tions across the vast prairie pothole region likely led to poor duck production.

Delta Waterfowl forecasts that poor breeding conditions in the prairie pothole region will result in a smaller fall flight than waterfowl hunters have experienced for many seasons.

The Duck Hunters Organiza- tion expects that while blue- winged teal, green-winged
teal and gadwalls had average to below-average production, other key species fared worse, including mallards and, even more so, pintails, wigeon and canvasbacks.

“A lot of the prairies were dry the past two springs as well, but at least there were pockets of areas with good wetland conditions. But this year we likely had poor duck produc- tion due to many birds over- flying the prairies, and those that stayed showed reduced renesting effort and low brood survival,” said Dr. Rohwer.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department estimated an 80% decline in wetlands from 2020, and the breeding duck estimate of 2.9 million marks a 26.9% drop from last year.

“North Dakota’s survey is the bad news we knew was com- ing,” continued Rohwer. “The reduction in water is stagger- ing. It’s the highest percentage decrease in the history of the North Dakota survey.”

CONDITIONS FOR 2022 MAY BE GREAT

Still, there are silver linings to be found when small, shal- low prairie wetlands — those most vital to making ducks — dry out.

Little precipitation fell throughout the winter and early spring, and in turn the normally wet pools produced abundant vegetation.

“The drought cycle reju- venates wetlands with food
for hens and ducklings in the following spring,” Rohwer said. “Assuming we have better water next year, ducks will re- bound quickly. We could have outstanding duck production.”

And so it is that a tough sea- son for waterfowlers through- out the Mississippi Flyway may be in the cards for duck hunters. Conditions point in that direction.

However, weather is always the big player for southern duck hunters.

If cold fronts and some
rain arrive at the right time throughout the 60-day season there’s a big window of op- portunity for some to have a good year.

Seems there’s always a few pockets of success across the region. Every hunter that rises early this weekend is hoping the sunrise peaking over his decoy spread will bring a few ducks in his direction.

Optimism is the fuel that feeds the fire of weary water- fowlers. Let the game begin!

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

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