After last year’s dreary season that left most duck hunters down in the dumps, waterfowlers across the Tennessee — and really across the Southern — region are hoping things are better this time around.
The statewide season opens today across the Volunteer State for a short four-day segment, then resumes the following Saturday and runs all the way through Jan. 31. The state will again have a two-segment 60-day season.
Still bruised and beat up from last year’s grudge match, waterfowlers are known to be resilient to tough times. With the arrival of opening day, dreary duck hunters seem to rebound and are ready to forget hard times. They’re optimistic and once cool days descend they seem to get pep in their step.
Already pumped up a bit by a few recent cold fronts that stimulated some early migration, hunters start getting nervous once ducks and geese start moving into the area. The cold air triggers the desire to scan the skies and watch for a glimpse of newly arriving waterfowl.
Some waterfowlers across the region have already experienced a few sunrises and quickly posted tales of success in social media outlets. Here in West Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake had its early two-day segment back in early November that happened to coincide with an early weather change.
Across neighboring Arkansas, duck hunters took to the flooded timber, swamps and rice fields last Saturday as their three-segment season got underway. Kentucky and Missouri seasons traditionally open on Thanksgiving Day, so by this weekend pretty much the entire region will be underway.
Locally, duck hunters were out last week putting the finishing touches on blinds and decoy spreads. Regulations required a five-day off limits period prior to the opening of the season in many of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife management areas so hunters there had to make a blitz to finalize things.
Reports from hunters in West Sandy, Big Sandy, Gin Creek and Camden Bottoms indicated several ducks were seen using the units already. Most are anticipating a decent opener.
Elsewhere across the region the duck picture isn’t too rosy just yet. Several refuges and well established hunting clubs are not attracting big numbers of waterfowl as of late. It’s very early in the game and water conditions and weather have a lot to do with winter migration of ducks from northern states.
Last year, the big problem for duck hunters in Dixie was an unusually warm winter that combined with abundant rains not only here but to our north. All that water drained into the Mississippi River basin and swelled it to the extent thousands of acres spread across several states stayed flooded out the entire duck season.
Grain field after field had backwaters inundating shallow feeding areas. That was good for the ducks but bad for the hunters.
Warm weather and abundant water are not the combination needed for a successful duck season. Yet that’s what happened and it kept ducks to our north, scattering them out all over creation as they had plenty of food and roosting areas.
Ducks don’t leave a state or region if they have ample food and water. So, that’s pretty much what happened and what few ducks we had in the southern states were fat and sassy, hanging around on state and federal refuges or on places far from disturbance where sanctuary was just about everywhere.
For the lion’s share of weary waterfowlers, last year was probably one of the worst in recent memory. One might think last year’s bad season would have a lingering impact on the enthusiasm level for this year’s crop of hunters but it seems duck hunters are like avid sports fans when their team suffers a bad season; there’s always hope for next year.
Meanwhile, recent aerial waterfowl surveys along Kentucky Lake flown over the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge showed numbers of ducks and geese now using the three units were a bit low. Again, it’s early and a 60-day season is just now getting underway so a lot can happen between now and the end of January.
According to refuge biologist Robert Wheat’s survey taken last wee,k there were a total of 41,810 ducks and 2,240 geese estimated on the refuge.
The total was down 6 percent from last year at this time and 4 percent above the five-year average. When compared to the 10-year average, the total number of ducks was down 24 percent and 18 percent below the 25-year average.
Mallards dominated the species observed, as there were 22,462 out of the total, followed by 9,620 gadwalls and 4,730 greenwing teal. There were also 130 white pelicans and 13 bald eagles observed in the survey.
As numbers of geese and species there were only 940 Canada geese observed and 1,300 white fronted geese.
And so it is that Tennessee’s 2019-20 duck season opens under mild temperatures that may be more suitable to late fall fishing conditions.
Ready or not, here it comes.
This year’s season will have the four-day segment from today through Monday, followed by a short closure. The season resumes on Dec. 7. From there it will run 56 straight days, ending on Jan. 31.
The bag limit changed slightly from last year. This year’s daily bag limit allows six ducks, and may include no more than four mallards (no more than two of which may be female), three wood ducks, three scaup, two canvasbacks, two redheads, two black ducks and one pintail. Set the clock early to rise and shine. Sunrises out over the marsh never go out of style but they’re prettier when duck season opens.
STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is email@example.com.