Whitetail Hunting photo

Low water. Ice. Nocturnal feeding. Stale Birds. All these are reasons why duck hunting in western Kentucky’s famed Ballard County and Henderson waterfowl areas has been disappointing in recent days. Both areas picked up new ducks with back-to-back cold fronts between Christmas and New Year. However, these birds have settled into “hunter avoidance mode,” and hunting success has suffered in the first week of 2013.

“We’re holding 79,000 ducks on the Ballard WMA and 28,000 at Swan Lake (Boatwright WMA),” reports Robert Clovis, Ballard area manager. “However, we’re still pumping water. The Ohio River level has been low, and we’ve had trouble flooding some of our hunting areas. We’re still just three-fourths of the way to full pool. We’ve got a lot of shallow water, and sub-freezing temperatures have caused problems with ice. Hopefully the forecast of rain and warmer temperatures this coming week will improve hunting conditions here.”

Randy Stafford of Draffenville, Kentucky, hunts on a private club bordering the Ballard WMA, and he reports substantially lower harvest rates than in years past. “Last year our club killed about half the number of ducks we did the year before, and this year we’re way below what we shot last year. We’ve had a lot of 2-3 bird days. Also, we’re seeing a trend toward ducks coming into our flooded cornfields after shooting hours, feeding all night, then heading back to the refuge before shooting time the next morning.”

Don Wright of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, verifies Stafford’s observations. Wright hunts on another farm close to the Ballard WMA. “We had good shooting earlier in the season, but now our kill has dropped off considerably. We’ve had a lot of ice, and we’ve also had a lot of night feeding. When we go in in the morning, we’re flushing several thousand ducks up, and they’re flying back to the refuge and just sitting there.”

Clovis reports that day hunters on the Ballard WMA are faring better in the 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. time period, when ice melts and food becomes more available. “Hunters who stick out the slow early morning hours are getting better shooting in the mid-day,” Clovis says.

Farther up the Ohio River at the Sloughs WMA (near Henderson), area manager Mike Morton says drought conditions continue to hurt water conditions and hunter success. “We’re pumping water continuously, and we can’t get all the holes full,” he says. “We’re 12 inches of rain below average, and we’re 30 inches below where we were this time last year.”

Morton reports that the Sloughs WMA is holding 13,000 ducks, 9,000 snow geese, 7,000 white-fronted geese and 500 Canada geese. In years past this area was one of the top Canada goose areas in the upper South, but no longer. “Canada geese that used to come here have lost their migrational instinct,” Morton states. “I think this is due to milder winters and the fact that these birds get hung up with decoy flocks to our north. Every city has a power plant, a city lake, a golf course, and there are non-migratory Canada geese on all of these places. The migrators get in with these local birds and spend the winter with them. Right now I know there are at least a thousand Canadas across the (Ohio) river in Evansville (IN), inside the city limits.”

One other report from western Kentucky: outdoor writer Will Brantley says hunting for puddle ducks on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes has been slow, but both reservoirs are holding several divers. “There have been some bluebills and canvasbacks working both lakes, and there’s been a ton of ruddy ducks. Traditionally these little birds show up and then pass on through. But for whatever reason, this year they’ve stuck around.”

Find migration and hunting reports in your area on the DU Migration Map.