An overdue cold front now descending south into southern states could help jumpstart what has been a stagnant season for the lion’s share of duck hunters across a vast area.
Temperatures are expected to plummet beginning Sunday and fall back to a normal January range of highs and lows. By Sunday night, ice could enter the picture in shallow areas and dip down even cooler on Monday night.
What has been an unusually warm and wet fall and early winter appears to have dramatic change coming. Just how long the cold spell will last remains to be seen. It will bring a halt to the honeymoon that winter fishermen have been enjoying for several weeks.
Meanwhile, the combination of warm weather and very wet conditions has dealt a double whammy to duck hunters across a five-state region.
When the mighty Mississippi River gets out and floods several states and the Ohio River to our north floods as well, it inundates vast areas of backwater swamps and farmland. Mix that with warm weather where no areas succumb to ice and the ducks have thousands of places to go.
Added to the hurdle is the stall in migration. Many ducks have grown complacent in some northern states lately and a few ducks that migrated South in the late fall push may well have gone back north to partake of the ample feeding and resting areas.
Hunters in West Tennessee have been taking it on the chin except for a few choice zones around the Mississippi River and back up the Forked Deer and small portions of the Obion River drainage.
In the Kentucky and Barkley lakes region, the waterfowl picture has been bleak. Hunters have endured a poor season scanning empty skies since the season kicked off back in late November. A small portion of blinds got off to a decent start in some wildlife management areas but the honeymoon was very short.
Since opening weekend, several very popular wildlife management areas have not lived up to their reputations as decent waterfowling units. Such areas as Dover Bottoms on Lake Barkley plus Camden Bottoms, Big Sandy, Gin Creek and West Sandy have seen scores of disgruntled hunters drop out during the season when duck numbers were poor.
Hunters can’t shoot what they can’t see and for most the numbers of ducks seen in the Kentucky and Barkley lakes region this season has been below average. To say most hunters are down in the dumps would be an understatement.
Helping paint the current waterfowl picture is the recent aerial survey taken on both Tennessee National and Cross Creeks National Wildlife refuges. Flown on Jan. 7, the survey showed poor duck numbers observed on both refuges. The Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge was holding a total of only 63,000 ducks, which for early January is drastically low. How low was it?
Compared to the five-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 are 59 percent below the long-term average count.
Over on Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge at Dover on Lake Barkley the number of ducks observed is 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 are singing the blues.
No doubt a warm winter plus flooding elsewhere has pulled ducks away from this region, altering normal migration routes. Waterfowl have found comfort zones elsewhere this year, much as they did last year. Meanwhile, duck hunters have until the end of January to salvage the season. The window of opportunity is shrinking fast.
STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is email@example.com.