Last year was bad. This year was even worse.
At sunset today, the statewide duck seasons draw to a close. For the vast majority of weary waterfowlers, season’s end will finally stop the bleeding.
In times past, dedicated duck hunters hated to see the season end, especially when cold weather descended in late January and ducks were flying. When big numbers of ducks and geese wintered here, the last week of the season often ended with hunters yearning for more.
In fact, many times in bygone days hunters have groaned and moaned voicing support of the season opening later in the fall and perhaps running up into February when more waterfowl were here and the weather was colder.
Since season ending dates are set at the federal level by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the odds of adjusting later expiration dates are unlikely. However, that didn’t seem to resonate when disgruntled duck hunters begged state fish and game agencies to adjust the hunting season calendar.
Fast forward to present day duck days and the lion’s share of worn out waterfowlers seem glad to see the season end. Most were beat up, worn out, disgusted and pretty much in depression. Scanning empty skies for the duration of the 60-day duck season will do that to you.
For the Kentucky and Barkley lakes region it was the worst seasons in recent memory for most veteran waterfowlers, many of whom had decades of sunrises under their belt. Popular public hunting units such as Dover Bottoms, Camden and Big Sandy Bottoms, Gin Creek and West Sandy wildlife management areas under the umbrella of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency just never attracted sufficient numbers from the beginning.
Local areas were not alone in their duck dilemma. Numerous public and private hunt clubs further west in the once duck-rich Mississippi River drainage areas of the Obion, Forked Deer and Hatchie River bottoms didn’t draw ducks to the flooded timber, backwater sloughs and fertile flooded farm acreage either.
Known to have a network of communication among their ranks, duck hunters throughout the season melted the phone lines swapping stories all the way from Reelfoot Lake in the northwest corner of the state to the ankle-deep waterfowl Meccas of eastern Arkansas, Bootheel of Missouri and down into northern Mississippi.
It was the same song with a different verse. Hunters were just not seeing the ducks down south or across a huge region.
No doubt the return of flooding along the mighty Mississippi River — similar to what it did last year — and north along the Ohio River as well scattered the migration. Throughout a vast region just north of Tennessee was an abundance of backwater that never fell victim to ice.
Across southern Illinois as well as the upper portion of Missouri, puddle water offered complacent ducks ample feeding and resting areas. Once the Mississippi and Ohio rivers go on a tear, ducks alter their normal migration routes, opting to ride it out where multiple comfort zones hold them north of normal wintering grounds.
That appears to be the case, to some degree, for the 2019-20 waterfowl season. There’s another burr in the saddle of glazy-eyed waterfowlers too; there’s growing doubt that projected duck numbers are really out there.
When huge areas of the flyway report inferior numbers of ducks being seen and even less being taken by hunters, the degree of doubt escalates.
CENSUS FIGURES PLUMMET
Case in point for our local area were census figures taken throughout the fall and winter on the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge along Kentucky Lake and Cross Creek National Refuge on nearby Barkley Lake.
Starting back in November aerial surveys began showing low numbers arriving in the early migration. Even in December and January when duck numbers should have been building — the refuges usually peak in numbers by mid- to late January — it wasn’t happening.
The second week of January saw the local refuge holding a total of only 63,000 ducks, which for early January was drastically low. How low was it?
Compared to the 5-year average for this time of year, the current total duck count was 37 percent below average. The 10-year average revealed more of the dismay as it indicated numbers were 55 percent below the norm.
Move up to the 25-year average and the news was worse; current duck numbers were 59 percent below the long-term average count.
Over on the Cross Creeks refuge at Dover on Lake Barkley, the number of ducks observed was similar as to the downward trend. There were 32,000 ducks on the unit, which was 19 percent below the five-year average and 21 percent below the 10-year average.
Having seen the figures released from the USFWS at these two popular refuges that serve as a magnet for the region during winter migration, it comes as no surprise that duck hunters here suffered through a season that had them dropping their calls and singing the blues.
The pursuit of waterfowling is challenging and demanding in more ways than one. It isn’t cheap.
Hunters spend big bucks every year managing and flooding areas in hopes of luring ducks. Others drop a lot of dollars on travel, boats, decoys, vehicles and more in pursuit of ducks. Poor years have a rippling effect on this sport and industry.
Through sales of stamps and licenses, millions of dollars are raised to support conservation. Popular organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl recruit thousands of members to help the conservation cause to protect and preserve habitat that benefits a wide variety of wildlife.
Still, the ducks don’t seem to know how early we rise, how far we travel and how much we spend.
And so it is that waterfowlers here in Tennessee and across the South close the books on a terrible season. There were a few that beat the odds and managed to rise above it. However, the sport is fast becoming one for the wealthy where big dollars gobble up private areas and manipulate the resources.
The average everyday duck hunter who shares a few sunrises with buddies on public hunting areas is fast becoming a spectator to others’ success.
Throughout the ranks there’s always hope that next year will be better. It is that trait that keeps the sport going, much in the same way the fan base for sports perpetuates any team’s upcoming season.
Optimism: It’s as much a requirement for waterfowling as insulated boots, decoys, eager retrievers and camouflage clothing.
STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.