John's Journal...


More Duck-Hunting Guides and Avid Waterfowlers Speak

EDITOR’S NOTE: Everyone in the South has asked the question the last few years, what's happened to the ducks? The number of ducks coming down the Central Flyway seems to have vastly decreased, but why? Even when the ducks do come down the flyway, they only show up during the last two or three weeks of the season, or well after the season ends. Too, why has Canada experienced record numbers of ducks while the Central Flyway has had a duck drought? This week we’ll try to answer some of your questions by talking with the experts in the duck business.

Steve McCadams/Guide/Tennessee

Steve McCadams, a professional fishing/duck & goose hunting guide in Tennessee, states that, “Duck hunters below the Mason-Dixon line had another tough season due to a variety of factors, namely another warm winter both here and in the upper portion of the Mississippi flyway. Most of eastern Arkansas, west Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana and northern Mississippi had low duck numbers. Below-average numbers of mallards and other species continued to plague hunters until January, even though peak counts normally occur in that month. Personally, I had a good early season (late November and early December) with good shooting on gadwalls, widgeons, green-wing teal and wood ducks, but low numbers of mallards and black ducks. However, we bagged green-wing teal until Christmas, which was unusual because that species should have headed south long before then, yet another indication of the warm-winter conditions in the north and the south. Too, wood ducks stayed around longer last year.

“Several ducks settled in southern Missouri last year where ample food and open water offered them quite a sanctuary long after seasons had closed. More rice was grown in the Boot Heel region of Missouri than in years past, offering many shallow-feeding areas. Normally, those puddles and flooded fields would be vulnerable to ice, and once frozen, would send ducks winging to other feeding sites to the south. That never happened last year. With Missouri and other northern states’ hunting seasons expiring, ducks had ample food and water without any hunting pressure to cause them to move. Add in a warm winter where cold fronts didn't stimulate migration to places with open water and ample food, and these factors made for poor shooting conditions everywhere.

Click to enlarge“Here in west Tennessee we normally had thousands of ducks migrate off the Mississippi River up the Obion and Forked Deer River drainage areas where several satellite refuges offered the birds a stair-step route for feeding stops and rest areas. Yet many ducks never left the Mississippi River backwaters of southern Missouri, so we had to hunt the same ducks for several weeks during the season. Without new ducks entering the area, hunters faced very-challenging conditions. Too, the ducks that were here had ample food and water so they didn’t need to venture off refuges to find them. After a good early influx of ducks around Thanksgiving, we never got many replacements. We needed more new ducks for good hunting, especially flocks of mallards. Days where doldrums winds and warm temperatures greeted waterfowlers were more like fishing conditions than winter waterfowl outings.

“Accessible food and refuge units are vital to attracting ducks to southern states. Flooding helps too, as thousands of row crops and bottomland hardwoods offer a Mecca to wintering waterfowl after heavy rains. Still, you must first have the duck numbers and then have the weather to move them around, namely north winds and cold fronts once or twice a week. The best blinds, decoy setups, callers and/or locations don't mean much if the ducks aren't in the region. The only success stories occurred in isolated areas adjacent to refuges such as private flooded farms where abbreviated hunting done once or twice a week allowed ducks to feed and relax. Even then, hunters had to have short morning hunts and get out quickly, or the ducks would leave after hunting pressure.

“I believe that in warm-winter scenarios, states should consider some changes ranging from split-season segments to short morning hunts on refuges to move around the birds. Many ducks just stayed on the refuge units and didn’t move off in balmy weather conditions. While refuges are fragile to some degree, some abbreviated hunting probably would help the overall waterfowl movement without harming the ducks or the refuge units that attract them. I do believe the duck numbers released from both Ducks Unlimited and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but not many hunters have seen them. The northern states also may be influencing the migrational habits where power plants with warm-water discharges and other reservoirs offer open water year round, and no-till farming practices have left abundant food sources on the ground.”

Click to enlargeTate Wood/Hunter/Mississippi

“Where were all the ducks?” Tate Wood of Mississippi, an avid waterfowl hunter who designs for for Drake Waterfowling in Greenwood, Mississippi, asks. “Based on the last numbers I saw referencing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s counts, there just weren’t as many ducks as everyone first thought there would be. Brood counts in the Canada pothole region-wide were 24-percent below the long-term average and down 7 percent pothole region-wide. The key to understanding those numbers fully is realizing and understanding what ‘long-term average’ really means.

“I’m 38 years old, and my father, Avery Wood, began taking me along duck hunting with him when I was 3 years old in 1968. This past 2003 season was my 36th duck season. Out of the 36 duck seasons I’d been hunting, there were only two periods I recalled experiencing truly exceptional duck hunting day in and day out. The best was from around 1975 to 1981. The second best was from 1997 to 1999. That’s 10 out of 36 duck seasons that I experienced exceptional duck hunting most days of the season. The other 26 years were average by comparison, with some great and some bad years mixed in, but overall they were average. This past year would be considered one of those truly-bad years.

“Purely based on my own experience, I believe a part of today’s problem is everyone vividly still remembers 1997 through 1999, and that continues to be the overly-optimistic expectation. Record fall flights of 1997 through 1999 lead to record numbers of duck hunters. From 1990 to 2001, Arkansas duck stamp sales increased over 250 percent, and the state’s harvest increased 330 percent. This increase wasn’t just in the South. North Dakota’s duck stamp sales were up over 200 percent during about the same time period and their harvest was up over 1000 percent, tenfold. My point is that the number of duck holes and rest areas didn’t increase by 250 percent during the same time period, so that meant more pressure on historic hunting areas pushed however many ducks there elsewhere.

Click to enlarge“The excitement from record flights and record levels of hunters also led to the creation of more hunting spots, mostly by pumping and flood control in agricultural areas, which spread the ducks out a little more. Too, hunters pressured their clubs for more rest areas and ways to shortstop and hold waterfowl up and down the flyway. When you combine these factors with one below-the-long-term-average year, I believe you end up with a poor season. This isn’t anything new. It’s just part of the cyclical nature of weather and duck hunting in general. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do everything we can to support conservation efforts to improve conditions where the ducks hatch. With continued conservation efforts, we can all hope the day will come where the 1997 through 1999 seasons becomes the average year, and not the exception. But regardless of what happens, you have to take the good with the bad, and poor season or not, the worst duck hunt I ever had was still a darn good one.”

To learn more about ducks, their nesting habitat and their migration, you can go to the DU website, or; or (601) 956-1936, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at; or call (800) 344-WILD. For more information about ducks in each state, visit

Check back each day this week for more about WHY DUCKS HAVEN’T COME DOWN THE CENTRAL FLYWAY...

Day 1 - What Does the Duck Problem Involve?
Day 2 - What Ducks Unlimited Thinks
Day 3 - Talks with State Biologists about Duck Season
Day 4 - What Avid Waterfowlers and Guides Think
Day 5 - More Duck-Hunting Guides and Avid Waterfowlers Speak


Entry 286, Day 5