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Luck of the Draw

While Some May Complain, Public Blind Draws Have Their Purpose

Luck of the Draw
For many hunters, blind draws serve as a cornerstone of their duck hunting experience.

The late outdoor writer and TV personality Wade Bourne was known to countless waterfowlers, penning hundreds of outdoor magazine stories. Bourne—who passed in 2016—embraced waterfowling traditions, climbing into countless duck blinds along the way. If he ever met a blind he didn’t like, well, he didn’t mention it on TV or write about it anywhere.

Bourne believed in the power of the duck blind tradition, even writing that each new one was a monument to optimism when it came to duck blinds.

Amen to that, especially when that new blind comes with a gathering of duck hunters, their dogs, and their kids in a gravel parking lot at a pre-season permit drawing event or a daily lottery draw for muddy boot-wearing waterfowlers hoping for a bit of pre-dawn luck. Either way, it’s a tailgate party with an endless supply of optimism.

Like most things, however, nothing stays the same, and traditions change. Especially when there’s a more efficient mouse trap available or a worldwide pandemic to scramble the way we’ve always done things. That includes virtual meetings, smartphone tickets to events, and even live streaming of football games as the pandemic fades, but some of its effects do not. The great public land duck blind drawing tradition hasn’t been immune to change either.

One place that tradition has changed in recent years is in Bourne’s home state of Tennessee, a state that supports plenty of duck hunting traditions, especially in its western and northwestern counties. That is where the mighty Mississippi courses south through the Mississippi Flyway and Reelfoot Lake, a bluegill fishing and duck hunting paradise formed in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-'12, which pulls in greenheads every fall and winter.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency even highlights these traditions on its website, noting that “Tennessee offers a variety of public land duck hunting options with access for hunters statewide in the form of tier one 60-day blind locations as well as hunt locations designated for quota hunts for 1, 2, 3, or 4 day periods at a marked location or an Agency-built blind.”

But in the past several years, that tradition has become a bit more complicated, reaching areas as murky as the nearby Mississippi River.

In years gone by, duck blinds on the Volunteer State’s best WMAs were allocated by hand-held drawing, a process that critics complained aided local hunters more than someone who lived away from the area, as reporter Richard Simms with Chattanooga, Tenn., television station News Channel 9 noted a couple of years ago. Not everyone liked the previous TWRA process of in-person gatherings and awarding blinds for the entire season, particularly those who lived away from the prized greenhead shooting found closer to Memphis, Jackson, and Dyersburg. As Sims noted, it was somewhat of an East versus West Tennessee skirmish, and complaints often followed those lines as the process was described as unfair and potentially open to shady back-corner deals.

That prompted the TWRA to seek a better process and a system overhaul in early 2021, proposing online drawings of blinds to be awarded for shorter periods of time.

That proposal was met with a firestorm of controversy among duck hunters at local cafes and social platforms. Following a large outcry over the proposed changes, the TWRA revised its proposal, as Nashville’s Fox 17 news station reported, “It was a contentious issue that resulted in even the big city news stations across the state covering the whole ordeal. While some didn’t understand the fuss, at its core, waterfowling is one of the hunting world’s most social experiences, from the pre-dawn drive to the boat ramp to the laughter as another duck blind story gets told, clear to the post-hunt goofing off with family and friends at the local café. That’s also true in many of these blind drawing events, some that are can’t-miss gatherings on the calendar as hundreds of waterfowlers get together and old friends see each other for the first time in months, spouses occupy lawn chairs and converse with one another, kids run and play, Labs skitter around, and smoke rolls out of portable grills cooking brats, burgers, and ribeyes.”

Just last September, 319 hunters showed up for a duck blind drawing event with the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Kentucky side of Lake Barkley. A couple of autumns ago, hundreds showed up at the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area in Illinois. Other events draw similar crowds. All are important to those who look forward to these gatherings every year like kids look forward to seeing what Santa left under the tree. Calling legend Kelly Powers got into the act back in 2020, noting that while the in-person gatherings were scrubbed during that pandemic year, the show must go on and his Final Flight Outfitters store proceeded with a big annual sale typically associated with the blind drawing events not far from his Tennessee retail location. They’re important to a lot of waterfowlers, and when they seem threatened, it’s painful, even if wildlife managers think they’ve come up with a better way to do business.

So, instead of its original proposal in 2021, the TWRA increased access to hunters across the state thanks to Tier 2 blinds and quota hunts while still keeping local traditions in place to some degree with Tier 1 season-long duck blind allocations. For those later blind allocations, the agency announced several in-person blind drawing events that often draw hundreds and resemble a county fair celebration.

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After the initial changes in 2021, the agency announced last summer that it was adding four new Tier 1 blinds (available to current residents, Tennessee natives, and Lifetime Sportsman License holders) to increase season-long access to 453 Tier 1 blinds in 2022 along with 42 Tier 2 blinds. Previously, the agency noted that there were a total of 439 blinds in 2021.

Hunters eating in their duck blind.
Nothing beats enjoying a hot meal in the duck blind.

The increase last year came after TWRA surveyed the state’s duck hunters and found out that more access was desired. The complaint of the in-person drawings not being fair to everyone was also heard again, and TWRA responded with five draws per season last year for shorter hunts in the Tier 2 blinds. The state agency noted that was intended to give better hunting opportunities to individuals who traveled to hunt periodically. While the in-person blind drawing crowd was likely a bit happier that TWRA went with nine in-person duck blind announcement gatherings last August—it’s worth noting that there’s actually a “Defenders of In-Person Duck Blind Draws” social media group—local communities were happy, too, since crowds assembled once again near hotspots like the Reelfoot WMA.

However, the other side of the public land blind draw debate in the Volunteer State was probably a bit happier, too, since the TWRA online system has increased over the past couple of years. In fact, the TWRA noted in its news release that the Tier 2 system went from 13,559 unique applicants in the COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020 to 20,720 applications in 2021.

Is everyone happy now? Of course not. But it does seem like the TWRA did its best to find a win-win situation as changes swirled over recent years. It’s worth noting that Tennessee isn’t the only place where there has been a long-running tradition and debate concerning public land draws for duck blinds, both the season-long variety and the day-to-day kind. In fact, the tradition is strong in several corners of the four flyways.

In New York, lottery draws are held for several spots. At Michigan’s Harsens Island at St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area, daily drawings occur for free hunting zone permits throughout the waterfowl season. In Kentucky, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources does a little of everything with quota hunts, daily drawings, walk-in areas, and season-long blind site draws. In Illinois, the DNR held traditional blind drawing events at several sites last year. Down in Oklahoma, the agency offers seasonal blind permit options on four reservoirs and non-permit daily hunting blind options in many others. And in California, there’s a random drawing system for reservations in many state wildlife areas.

And in some states—including my home state of Texas—a few local communities even get into the act themselves, offering duck blind drawings on municipal lakes and water supply reservoirs. And that’s not to mention a variety of opportunities available on some federal lands around the nation, too.

Perhaps your waterfowling tradition is something else, centered around body booting on the Susquehanna Flats, poling a Barnegat Bay Sneakbox on a snowy New England marsh as the black ducks fly straight out of a Chet Reneson painting, wading over to a big pin oak tree on Arkansas’ famed Bayou Meto WMA, or firing up the airboat to chase redheads flying low and fast across South Texas’ Lower Laguna Madre.

But if not, then maybe you understand the great public land blind drawing tradition, the parking lot camaraderie that comes with selection time, and the eternal optimism that results when you find yourself with a little bit of blind luck, duck blind luck. When the north wind blows, the decoys bob out front, and the Labrador retriever whines. Anything is possible as wings begin to whisper softly overhead.

And as WILDFOWL editor Skip Knowles once noted in WILDFOWL Magazine’s Duck Hunting book, “Magic things happen when we climb in a blind and look to the sky.”

Especially when we’ve been standing in a gravel parking lot with a few dozen of our new and old best friends, right?




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