Seth Maddox, Migratory Gamebird Program Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said duck numbers should be increasing soon even though the numbers were down when the annual aerial survey took place the week before the season opened.
“We were down a little bit on our preseason counts,” Maddox said. “We had a few cold fronts and a lot of rain. That spread the birds out a lot. I think it pushed some of the early migrators further south.
“That left us with a decent amount of birds, but not a good number for opening weekend. On opening weekend, people killed birds but it wasn’t a great opener. When the season opened back up, it got better. Most of the birds are just a little north of us. I hope with another cold front or two, it will push birds into Alabama. We got a small push from that snowstorm, but I hope we get a larger push soon.
Maddox said the long-term weather forecast bodes well for waterfowl hunters in Alabama.
“It’s shaping up to be similar to last year,” he said. “They’re predicting several disturbances up in the Arctic region with some polar vortexes, which will give us some cold weather. Last year, we had some sub-freezing temperatures, below average temperatures, for a week or so throughout the season. I think that’s going to end up giving us a season similar to last season.”
That would be great news for waterfowlers, considering the harvest for the 2017-2018 season was up 85 percent over the similar period a year earlier.
“That’s a significant increase,” Maddox said. “We had about 14 days during the season where temperatures stayed below freezing. That cold weather and snow north of us really pushed birds into Alabama.”
Maddox said the wood duck harvest last season was especially high, which means a good many woodies came from the north.
“The cold weather pushed lots of wood ducks down,” he said. “We get some migration of wood ducks from northern states every year. Sometimes our wood ducks will move further south, but most of the time they hang tight here in Alabama.
“What we do see, when we see a lot of wood duck migrants from the north, a lot of our males will pair up with northern females. The males will follow the females back to their breeding grounds in the spring because the females go back to the same breeding grounds every year.”
Maddox said the banding program that the WFF conducts annually on wood ducks gives him the data needed to come to those conclusions.
“A lot of our male wood ducks get killed north of us,” he said. “For example, I had one that I banded in Jackson County a couple of years ago that was killed in Ontario (Canada) earlier this year. We had one of our males killed in Minnesota as well.”
Back to the preseason survey, the survey team looks for dabblers (mallards, gadwall, teal) and divers (canvasbacks, redheads, scaup) during the flyovers.
Gadwalls led the count with 12,000 observed statewide, although the survey covers only a small portion of the state. The mallard count totaled 1,500, followed by 1,000 green-winged teal. The total dabbler count was 15,651.
The diver count turned out to be a pleasant surprise with 7,000 birds counted, which is higher than the five-year average.
“There were a bunch of canvasbacks here early,” Maddox said. “Ringnecks led the way, as they usually do. We also had scaup and redheads.
“The migrant geese don’t show up until the middle of December, so you might be able to get a Christmas goose here soon.”
Mike Carter, a renowned fishing guide on the Tennessee River lakes, switches to waterfowl hunting in north Alabama this time of year and keeps an eye on the duck population by regularly looking for ducks at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Carter is expecting a big increase in duck numbers any day now.
“We got some gadwalls and ringnecks, but we haven’t gotten a big push yet,” Carter said. “I’m expecting the ducks to show up really soon. We’ve got ice and snow north of us. I do my scouting by watching the Refuge, and I haven’t seen a big increase yet.”
Carter would be a happy duck hunter if the current season matches last year’s.
“It seems the ducks got here a little quicker last year,” he said. “Last year was great. I think we’re going to get that at some point. We’ve got flooded timber and buckbrush, so they’ve got plenty of places to feed and find cover. We’ve got a lot more water this year, so I think it’s going to be even better when the ducks finally make their move.”
The most likely duck spots in Alabama include the Tennessee River basin in north Alabama, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in south Alabama as well as the Lake Eufaula area and west central Alabama in the Demopolis area and other lakes on the Tombigbee River and Millers Ferry on the Alabama River near Camden.
The number of duck hunters in Alabama has apparently peaked with no downturn in the past several years.
“The number of licensed duck hunters seems to be holding steady around 30,000 for the last 3 to 4 years,” Maddox said. “That’s a good thing.”
Maddox said WFF has plans to expand enhancements for the waterfowl population in the coming years.
“We’ve got big plans ahead, partnering with Ducks Unlimited, to spend some substantial expenditures over the next several years on waterfowl habitat management,” he said.
WFF manages several public hunting locations in north Alabama, the Jackson County Waterfowl Areas. Waterfowl hunting is allowed on Mud Creek, Raccoon Creek and Crow Creek, although special seasons and restrictions apply. No waterfowl hunting in Mud Creek (Wannville) and Raccoon Creek dewatering units or Crow Creek WMA on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All activity is prohibited in these locations on those days. The drawing for the limited quota hunt units on the Crow Creek Special Opportunity Area has already been held.
A limit of one 25-round box of shells in possession is in effect on all Jackson County WMAs while waterfowl hunting. No gasoline-powered motors are allowed in Mud Creek (Wannville) dewatering unit and Raccoon Creek dewatering unit (North of Hwy 117). Visit this link for more information.
“Most of the people we talked to are happy with these restrictions that allow the birds to rest for a few days,” Maddox said. “The 25-shell rule cuts down on the extra shooting, the sky busting. People perceive that as a good thing.”
For the Mobile-Tensaw Delta/W.L. Holland Waterfowl Management Zone in south Alabama, one new restriction is in place for the current season. The use of gasoline motor prohibition zone that was in effect for Big Bateau Bay last year has been expanded to include Bay Grass. A no-hunting refuge zone remains in effect in the area west of the Apalachee River, occupying the area between the Causeway (Battleship Parkway) and I-10 to its intersection.
Hunting in the Waterfowl Management Zone is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Hunting is allowed from a half hour before sunrise until 1 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays during the season.
Go here for the 2018-2019 Alabama Waterfowl Hunting Guide.
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.