Duck Hunters Watching Mostly Empty Skies

Warm weather and continual rainfall has dramatically impacted waterfowl migration patterns this year. Waterfowlers across the Southeast are reporting one of the most dismal seasons on record as they largely stare at empty skies. (Photo: Richard Simms)

As of this writing there are 19 days (out of 60) remaining in the Tennessee duck hunting season. The same is true in most surrounding Southern states. With two-thirds of the season gone, most waterfowl hunters are declaring this year as one of the worst seasons on record. Many hunters in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri – rich waterfowling states – are declaring that their harvests are at least 50 percent lower than normal and often even less.

“I agree wholeheartedly,” said Mike Boyd with Beaver Dam Hunting Services. “I lean toward 80 percent less. Dismal.”

Boyd operates one of the premier duck hunting guide services in northern Mississippi. He and his son, Lamar, are in the duck blind with clients literally every day of the season. Located literally in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, if anyone knows hunting is off, they do.

The Boyds are not alone, however. Hunters everywhere, along with biologists, are seeing fewer ducks this year.

“Overall we’re way behind where should be,” said Seth Maddox, Migratory Game Bird Coordinator for the Alabama Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources. “We have far fewer birds than last year… and the ones we do have are spread out everywhere because of all the rainfall. I hunted hard and was surprised at the lack of birds myself.”

Last year during his mid-winter aerial waterfowl census in North Alabama, Maddox counted about 34,000 ducks in the Guntersville Reservoir area. He will be conducting this year’s aerial census in the coming days but says he expects to see far fewer ducks. He says between fewer ducks in the area and the fact that they’ll be spread out everywhere due to flooding make the aerial census far more difficult.

“Yea, it makes it a lot harder,” he said. “You’re not able to get a really good estimate on what we do have.”

Tennessee biologists also conduct periodic counts on refuges around the state. Hiwassee Refuge in Meigs County has traditional held the largest number of wintering ducks in Southeast Tennessee. The TWRA counts on Hiwassee Refuge indicate the number of ducks is less than half of recent years.

The annual mid-winter counts on the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Tennessee show the area holding less than half of the ducks that would normally be wintering there.

John Brunjes, over the Migratory Bird Program for Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources, recently shared his take with hunters. Brunjes writes, “The 2018-2019 waterfowl season has been well below average to this point. There are a few things which have conspired to negatively impact us.”

Those things include abnormally warm weather combined with excessive rainfall.

Brunjes wrote, “Snow cover across the upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions is almost nonexistent. Duck surveys in northern states show they retain very high numbers of ducks for this time of year. Ducks simply have not had the need to come south.”

He agrees with Maddox that excessive rain and flooding have what ducks they do have spread far and wide.

“What ducks are here, have spread out across the area with low concentrations in any one spot,” he said. “If hunters shoot at them, they are simply moving to an area free of pressure.”

Hunters who continue to work hard have experienced a few good days but most retrievers have had far less work to do this year than ever before. (Photo: Richard Simms)

It is not all gloom & doom. As always a few hunters have experienced random days of glory when the ducks have cooperated.

Brunjes said when hunters call he tells them to, “Go hunt! In spite of tough conditions, hunters at times are having very good days. We never know when ducks will move in front of cold conditions. Hunters in the field on those movement days will likely experience exceptional hunts.”

Maddox agrees that hunters just need to keep trying. He says North Alabama has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of duck hunters in recent years. And from his days hunting, he says many of them are still making a good effort in spite of poor results.

“It’s interesting that we’ve seen a huge increase in hunters in the last ten years, a 60 or 70 percent increase,” said Maddox. “But a lot of people are having a bad season, probably one of the worst we’ve seen in a long time. It’ll get better next year. It takes a bad season every now and then to appreciate the good ones.”

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