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LARRY REA
SPECIAL TO USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE
Deer season in Tennessee will officially close 30 minutes after sunset today with the second day of the annual season-closing Youth Deer Hunt. After 4 ½ months it’s time to turn the hunting spotlight over to waterfowl and small-game hunters.
For avid duck hunters like Jeff Martin, Dave Gabbard, Buck Gardner, Pat Pitt, Frank Barton and Joel Brantley, it’s time to put the peddle to the metal.
Martin, who hunts near Halls where like everyone else in our area has been using ice eaters on and off since Jan. 1. Now, he’s getting ready for some more ice-blasting this weekend and into next week.
“We used our ice eaters for eight straight days,” said Martin, who manages wildlife management areas in northwest Tennessee for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “We pumped a lot of gasoline to keep the eaters working. When it gets as cold as we have had you’ve got to have open water.”
How cold did it get, Jeff?
“Let me just say we had three inches of ice in front of our blind at Halls,” Martin said. “The dogs loved it. They could run around and pick up birds and never get wet. They had a great time.”
Or, as Dave Gabbard, Martin’s long-time waterfowl hunting sidekick, said, “You could throw a hockey puck out on the ice and the let the dogs play hockey.”
Like most duck hunters, Gabbard, TWRA Region 1 information office, always looks for the positive side. He has noticed some new birds in the area, especially birds that you may not see all the time.
On a recent day, Gabbard was looking out a window at the TWRA Region 1 office adjacent to Lake Graham in Jackson. And, what did he see?
“Where there was ice-free open water we had lots of Canada geese, but we also had some ruddy ducks and buffleheads,” Gabbard said.
In northwest Tennessee Martin said he has seen lots of canvasbacks, bluebills and redheads. He’s even seen a pair of goldeneye.
If there’s one place you can go to “watch” ducks its Black Bayou Refuge on the northwest side of Reelfoot Lake, which not long ago was holding more than 80,000 ducks, depending on the time of day. Of course, the refuge has the advantage of having plenty of open water.
Now, let’s move on to Gardner, champion of champion duck caller.
“Our season has been way better than the last couple of years,” Gardner said. “I have hunted near Colt and Brickeys (Ark.) and Marks (Miss.). We had an afternoon shoot Sunday (Jan. 7) near Grenada (Miss.) that was one for the ages with lots of gadwalls, teal and mallards.
Like Martin, Gardner said he and his long-time hunting partner Bobby Hadskey bought two Ice Eaters about 20 years ago. Using the ice eaters during one of the area’s numerous hard freezes was tough on Gardner physically, but they did keep an area of open water for ducks.
On Jan. 6, Jason Patterson, pro staff director of Gardner’s game call company, along with his wife, Kim, and Gardner, were able to open a “hole” the old fashion way – driving an ATV around the outside of an area about 40 yards wide by 30 yards long in front of a tree-line where they hiding.
“The three of us were able to push four big pieces of ice under the unbroken ice creating a clean open hole enabling us to kill our limits in less than 30 minutes,” Gardner said.
For sure, it has been a memorable duck hunting season. First, there was a lack of water until Christmas week. Then, six inches of rain came in some locations, flooding pits and making many blinds difficult to access. And now, there’s ice.
Hunting in northeast Arkansas on the L’Anguille River, Pitt said, “We still had ice Wednesday, but (we) have been killing ducks since the rain on Monday (Jan. 8). Monday’s rain put some melt water on top of 3-plus inches of ice. We lit them up pretty good on Wednesday and Thursday with good limits of ducks and geese. Four of us were done before 8 Thursday morning.”
West Memphis businessman Frank Barton said all of his timber holes remained frozen due to shade even when last week’s weather saw two days with temperatures in the 60s. “I am guessing that the ice then was 5 ½ inches thick at the peak of the cold snap,” he said.
Not that Joel Brantley of Collierville is complaining.
On Jan. 7 he and his 15-year old son Jake hunted in a pit in a soybean field near Earle, Ark. The field was frozen solid when he and Jake put out about a dozen full-bodied mallard and six specklebelly goose decoys. It was bitter cold (22 degrees with a wind-chill of 16).
“My son and I were able to scratch out (kill) two speckelbelly geese,” Brantley said. “It’s always a good day in the blind when you’re with family and friends.”
Got an item or note? E-mail Larry Rea at lroutdoors@att.net or go to his web site at lroutdoors.com; listen to Larry Rea on Outdoors with Larry Rea on Saturday mornings from 6-7:30 on ESPN 790-AM.