The work done by conservation groups as well as state and federal fish and wildlife agencies over the past 60 years to increase waterfowl populations is nothing short of remarkable.
“This year, we’ve had the highest counts of ducks as a whole by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service,” said John Brunjes, migratory bird coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It is the highest counts ever with 49,522,000 ducks as well as 11,643,000 mallards, also a new record.”
Green-winged teal populations are at their all-time high with just over 4 million birds and numbers of gadwall numbers are also exceptionally high with 3,834,000 birds.
This all is great news for the opening of the waterfowl hunting seasons for ducks, coots, mergansers and geese on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26. “I think it will be a highly productive season,” Brunjes said. “We have a lot of ducks and geese out there, but as with all hunting, success is weather-dependent.”
Some cold weather would help push birds languishing up north into Kentucky. “The migration maps show many ducks in the upper Plains and upper Midwest,” Brunjes explained. “We are a week or so away from opening day and it is too warm. The question is whether we will have birds. It all depends on the weather. The severe cold snap forecast for the coming weekend should help drive some birds south.”
Brunjes said western Kentucky usually has ducks and geese earlier than the eastern and middle sections of the state. “I saw a lot of birds on Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake last week,” he said. “The reality is you hunt where you have a spot, but early in the season, go west if you can. The east gets better with cold weather.”
Finding a waterfowl hunting spot can be a challenge for the majority of Kentucky hunters. The first place to check is the public land hunting section of the current Kentucky Hunting Guide for Waterfowl. This section details the hunting options and regulations on public lands, mainly wildlife management areas.
Many, but not all, of the smaller lakes owned or managed by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife are open to waterfowl hunting, especially those with wildlife management areas along their shores such as Cedar Creek Lake in Lincoln County. Call the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife information line at 1-800-858-1549 to inquire if a lake is open to waterfowl hunting.
The following state parks have open waterfowl hunts that open Dec. 13 and close Jan. 31: Barren River Lake, Grayson Lake, Greenbo Lake, Lake Barkley, Lincoln Homestead, Nolin River Lake, Paintsville Lake, Pennyrile, Rough River Lake and Yatesville Lake. Hunters must check-in at the designated check station each day before hunting and get a map detailing areas of the park open to waterfowl hunting. They must also check out each day as well.
“Our large lakes operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. Forest Service are open to waterfowl hunting,” explained Maj. Shane Carrier, assistant director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “However, you cannot hunt areas marked by signs that are closed for hunting and you cannot hunt areas closed to public access. A person cannot hunt in designated recreation areas or public access points.”
Carrier recommends hunters on the bigger lakes employ common sense to avoid conflicts and not hunt near marinas or private residences.
Farm ponds that dot the landscape of Kentucky offer excellent duck and goose hunting. “Farm ponds can be really good, but they often need some cold weather to get birds on them.” Brunjes said.
Harvested silage fields provide an overlooked waterfowl hunting opportunity. The corn stubble and waste grain draw both ducks and geese.
“Waterfowl feed in fields when the really cold weather sets in,” Brunjes said. “The best time to hunt fields is when the birds start feeling stressed from cold weather.”
Scouting for potential spots is important in waterfowl hunting, as is simply time in the field.
“One of the great rules with wildlife is there are no rules,” Brunjes said. “If you have a day to go hunt, get out there because you just don’t know.”
Duck, coot and merganser season runs from Nov. 26 through Nov. 29 and opens again Dec. 7 and closes for good Jan. 31, 2016. All goose seasons open Nov. 26 and close Jan. 31, 2016, except in the Northeast Goose Zone which opens Dec. 19 and closes Jan. 31, 2016.
New for this season, waterfowl hunters must fill out the Harvest Information Program (H.I.P.) Migratory Bird Survey before going hunting, if they have not completed the survey already this year. This brief, 5-minute survey is available online at the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at fw.ky.gov. Click the “My Profile” tab to begin.
Kentucky waterfowl hunters must also possess a valid Kentucky hunting license, a Kentucky Migratory Game Bird-Waterfowl Permit as well as a Federal Duck Stamp. Duck stamps are available at post offices across Kentucky.
Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.