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 www.fws.gov/tennesseerefuge, or e-mail Joan_Stevens@fws.gov. Guide Garry Mason can be contacted at (731) 593-5429.