Skip to main content

Tennessee's Other Duck Mecca

Tennessee's Other Duck Mecca

The Big Sandy area holds thousands of wintering waterfowl

Talk Tennessee duck hunting, and the first place that comes to mind is the legendary Reelfoot Lake.

My first inkling of another promising waterfowling area in Tennessee was when I noted a sign naming a flowage I crossed as the "Duck River." The idea was reinforced when I saw the Benton County sign with a duck logo, and then every few miles, I seemed to spy another waterfowl refuge sign with a stylized goose painted on it.

On the trip up from Georgia, I had lunch at a catfish restaurant in Camden, Tenn. A group of men was talking about duck hunting, which I also took as a favorable indication I was in serious waterfowling country. One of those at the table was Dave Ulderich, area manager for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

"I hear that you used to have some good duck hunting around here?" I asked.

The question was not as flippant as it might sound, because more times than not when I would scout a new area, the answer was, "Yeah, we used to have some good duck hunting, but the birds don't much get down anymore. The weather has been so warm that we don't have the numbers that we use to."

Floating blinds are held in place by pipes sunk into the lakebed.

To my pleasant surprise, Ulderich responded, "The duck and goose counts on the federal refuges are near their annual maximums, and if the weather is halfway cooperative, duck hunting should be good."

Each year, on the first Saturday in August, drawings are held in Big Sandy for 83 blind locations on nearby hunting areas. Last year, Ulderich said 2,300 people attended the drawing, which more than doubled the town's population. The fortunate winners have exclusive rights to chosen blind locations for the entire season, as long as they occupy the blinds before legal shooting time each day. If they do not claim the blinds by then, anyone can use them.

As I drove into Big Sandy, a small community on Kentucky Lake in Northwest Tennessee, I was encouraged by the numbers of duck boats and decoys I saw in the yards of local residents. These people were serious about waterfowling -- my kind of folks.

Hardcore Duck Hunters
Garry Mason, a waterfowl guide from Springville, Tenn., met me for supper. Mason told me that during the past 33 years -- not counting Christmases -- he had missed only 28 days of duck hunting. By any standards, it is hardcore duck hunting. Local knowledge counts for a lot in any kind of hunting, and he certainly possessed it.

"What we are getting from my blind on the Tennessee River are gadwalls, mallards and pintails, with a few divers, along with an occasional goose," he said. "This year we took some snow geese out of the blind, which was a first."

Like all hunting, the guide said he had variable results depending on the weather.

"Since the blind is on the river, our best shooting is in cold weather when the ponds in the bottoms freeze and we have enough wind to move ducks," Mason said. "Still days are not as good, and the ducks do not fly well in heavy rain."

Mason said his groups of hunters sometimes have 30-duck days, but seven to eight ducks was the normal count. "Of course, that also depends on how well people shoot."

His comment might have been intended for me, because I would be using a single-shot muzzleloading shotgun. I assured him the gun, a Knight TK-2000, which I loaded with 95 grains of Hodgdon's Triple Seven powder and 11„4-ounce of No. 4 Hevi-Shot, would get the job done. If Mason was a skeptic, his son, Tyler, was even more so and opined that he wanted a multi-shot gun to have the opportunity to take more than one bird out of a flock.

"That's fine," I replied. "For me, it is more how I take the ducks, rather than how many I bring home. I prefer to use one shot to kill one duck out of a flight than attempting to take several. Even so, I like to have someone with a cartridge gun in the blind to take care of any cripples that might otherwise get away."

The Tennessee and Duck rivers consist of 51,380 acres of improved waterfowl habitat.

The gun inventory in the blind consisted of a Benelli semi-auto, a Franchi semi-auto, a Remington 870 pump and my muzzleloader. I was the only one not using steel shot.

The blind was a welded steel floating structure held in place by pipes sunk into the lake bed. Originally, the area consisted of islands separated by sloughs. Before the lake reached full pool, these islands had been cultivated by the Native Americans and continuously by later European settlers. Now, only the highest portions were covered by a rank growth of shrubs, with long sandbars occupied by gulls and herons paralleling the channel.

Among those hunting with us was Crockett Mathis, who was reputed to be the great-great-great-great grandson of the famed Davey Crockett. Mathis entertained all of us with his stories.

Beau, an 8-year-old chocolate Lab, was to perform the retrieving chores. The Lab was featured in two illustrations in the 2007 Tennessee Waterfowling Hunting Guide, a booklet published by the TWRA which contains the limits, shooting times, regulations, drawing and hunt dates for state wildlife management areas.

Short Hunt and a Tour
We watched distant flights of teal, passing geese and other ducks, but despite our best calling efforts, nothing flew over the decoys. Rain dampened our spirits and seemingly had the area's ducks and geese hunkered elsewhere. Finally, a pair of gadwalls slipped in from one side. I pulled in front of a drake and fired. The bird was hit and floundering before Mathis nailed it with a killing shot. A Canada goose started coming our way, but flew too far to one side of our blind for a shot.

We had an appointment for a tour of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge with Ranger Joan Stevens, so we left the blind before 11 a.m. Three refuge units strung out along more than 65 miles of the Tennessee and Duck rivers contain

51,380 acres of improved waterfowl habitat managed to hold 200,000 ducks and 10,000 geese, and I was anxious to see part of it.

Another guide who stayed near our blind after we left later told us two flocks of geese flew over the blind. It was a case of, "You should have been here yesterday," but we had to go. Ugh!

Driving through Camden Bottoms, we saw 500 geese over here, 1,000 ducks over there, 600 more against the far shore and likely more than 20,000 birds on our tour. "We have probably about reached our peak population for the refuge," Stevens said. "Now we have some specklebellies, which are not that common, and a few sandhill cranes, along with our usual ducks and Canada geese."

The geese were easily observed, along with good numbers of mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, pintails and shovelers. Diving ducks such as goldeneyes, buffleheads, bluebills, redheads and canvasbacks were more common in deeper waters along the river. No duck hunting is allowed on the refuges, however, a resident goose season on the refuges in September keeps the local goose population in check. Annual deer hunts take place, too.

Cold, But No Wind
The second day brought sub-freezing temperatures and clear weather -- better prospects.

Unfortunately, conditions were nearly calm, so the ducks and geese had no reason to move. Hunters in a blind behind us took a poke at a high flight of geese, which disinclined them from dropping into our decoys.

A pair of low-flying pintails swooped by to our right and landed in sight behind us.

About 10 minutes later I heard distant honks to my right. At first, I could not see the geese, but they were coming over the timber toward us. I started calling, as did Mason, and the pair continued their approach. When they were about to the middle of the decoys, Mason said, "Take um!"

I pulled ahead of the rear goose and fired. I was pleased to see the bird fold and fall straight down. Beau went after the goose, and quickly brought it to hand. The other three hunters in the blind fired at the second goose, but it continued flying.

Later, a pair of mallards decoyed. The birds were on the other side of the blind, but I had a shot, if somewhat distant. When I fired, the drake collapsed and fell into the spread. It poked its head up and swam away, but Beau was in hot pursuit. He grabbed the bird, and soon his head with the drake in his mouth was poking through the dog door.

The next day I could not hunt, but the weather was cold, clear and windy. Mason said the five hunters in the blind got two redheads each, a bufflehead, a bluebill and a goose, for a total of a dozen ducks and one goose. The windy weather was moving the divers, while the puddle ducks were laying low.

Even though my hunts were slow, I was pleased at having taken a few big ducks and securing a large Canada goose for my next Christmas dinner.

Planning Your Hunt
I was impressed with the area's potential. Depending on the weather, hunting is available for those with waders, in small boats in protected waters or for larger boats and big blinds on the Tennessee River and Kentucky Lake.

Guide Steve McCadams of Paris, Tenn., said anytime during the season could be good.

"We have more ducks on the refuges in January, but our best shooting was in December when we had only half the number of ducks. You never know. The best strategy is to come and hunt when you can as often as possible."

Among the better ways to learn the area is to visit during the summer and take advantage of the area's excellent crappie and bluegill fishing while simultaneously scouting potential duck-hunting spots. Guides on the river typically put out 300 or so decoys, while a few dozen or even less are employed for timber or small-water shooting, Mason said.

Big Sandy, West Sandy (also known as the Springville Bottoms) and other areas between Camden and Paris, Tenn., struck me as offering good hunting potential, including the opening of the resident goose season on Sept. 1, two days of hunting around Thanksgiving through the longest stretch of duck season from Dec. 1 to late January.

To duck hunt in Tennessee, a non-resident needs a Small Game/Waterfowl license, a Migratory Bird Permit and a Federal Duck Stamp. Outside of the Federal stamp, my total costs for a seven-day license and waterfowl permit was $52.50. Additional permits are required for hunting Reelfoot Lake and for hunting small game and waterfowl on the wildlife management areas.

William Hovey Smith is an avid duck and goose hunter from Sandersville, Ga.

If You Go
For information on the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, see, or e-mail Guide Garry Mason can be contacted at (731) 593-5429.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call.


Women's Waterfowl Lineup

SITKA Gear waterfowl product manager Jim Saubier shows off the company's full line-up of women's waterfowl hunting gear for 2019. From warm and moisture-wicking base layers to water and windproof outer layers, this is a complete system for women who love to chase fall and wintertime ducks and geese across the four flyways!

Arkansas Snow Geese

Arkansas Snow Geese

Wildfowl Editor Skip Knowles took this short video showing all the Snow Geese flying. Let's just say, he had a very good hunt!

Picking a Puppy

Picking a Puppy

Wildfowl contributor Mark Romanack shares advice about choosing your next retriever.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Are you asking enough of your retriever? Maybe your good gun dog could be great. Reach Your Duck Dog's Full Potential Retriever

Reach Your Duck Dog's Full Potential

Tom Dokken

Are you asking enough of your retriever? Maybe your good gun dog could be great.

Healthy weight is a moving target that you should aim for all season with your duck dog.Achieving a Healthy Weight for Your Duck Dog Retriever

Achieving a Healthy Weight for Your Duck Dog

Tony J. Peterson

Healthy weight is a moving target that you should aim for all season with your duck dog.

Perfect for party gatherings, these spicy bacon-wrapped poppers come from a Sooner State hunting fan who likes the taste of fresh duck breasts hot off the grill.Bacon-Wrapped Duck Breast Poppers Recipe Recipes

Bacon-Wrapped Duck Breast Poppers Recipe

Lynn Burkhead

Perfect for party gatherings, these spicy bacon-wrapped poppers come from a Sooner State...

Waterfowl hunters must find creative ways to practice the demanding types of shooting challenges we face.7 Ways to Improve Your Shooting Skills How-To

7 Ways to Improve Your Shooting Skills

Mark Romanack

Waterfowl hunters must find creative ways to practice the demanding types of shooting...

See More Trending Articles

More North America

Here's how to find duck hunting hot spots the easy way, with today's new high-tech mapping linksNew High-tech Ways to Find Waterfowl Hot Spots North America

New High-tech Ways to Find Waterfowl Hot Spots

Bob Humphrey - January 20, 2017

Here's how to find duck hunting hot spots the easy way, with today's new high-tech mapping...

If you're considering a guided waterfowl hunt, consider these affordable options! 9 Affordable Waterfowl Hunts North America

9 Affordable Waterfowl Hunts

Wildfowl Online Staff

If you're considering a guided waterfowl hunt, consider these affordable options!

Traveling to hunt waterfowl is no longer elitist and many of the best dream trips are surprisingly10 Surprisingly Affordable Dream Waterfowl Trips North America

10 Surprisingly Affordable Dream Waterfowl Trips

Skip Knowles - June 21, 2017

Traveling to hunt waterfowl is no longer elitist and many of the best dream trips are...

With second-to-none hunting opportunities, Birdtail Waterfowl is the place for diehards!Hunt Manitoba's Pothole Region at Birdtail North America

Hunt Manitoba's Pothole Region at Birdtail

Online Staff - March 25, 2019

With second-to-none hunting opportunities, Birdtail Waterfowl is the place for diehards!

See More North America

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Wildfowl App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Wildfowl subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now