Although wood duck numbers declined dramatically in the late 19th century, they have made a huge comeback across the country because of conservation efforts. As a result, Tennessee has a special early wood duck season in September-but with a daily bag limit of two ducks.
It’s hard to measure the excitement level of a game warden during the days leading up to the opening day of any hunting season. The 2009 early wood duck season was no exception for me as I prepared for a morning of catching poachers. Humphreys County Wildlife Officer Ken Smith had done his homework and found a slough illegally baited with corn on the Duck River. Ken’s partner was going to drop us with our boat in an unmarked vehicle at a boat ramp about a mile from the baited site.
That morning, we launched our boat before any other hunters and sped into the darkness just as headlights from other hunters headed our way. We tied off our boat several sloughs downstream and walked toward the one that we knew was baited. We could see several ATVs headed in our direction as we settled into a spot near a four-wheeler road. They passed by a mere 10 yards away, and we could hear them talking about the morning massacre about to happen. The hunters made several trips back and forth to get all their gear. We also heard a boat on the river turn into the slough. After everyone settled in, Ken and I counted eight hunters, allowing them a total bag limit of 16 wood ducks.
We sneaked as close as possible for a better view after sunrise came. As it approached shooting light, we could hear wood ducks fly into the slough, landing between us and the hunters. We were about to be in the line of fire.
I heard one of the hunters count down, and the quiet morning turned into the sound of a war zone as eight shotguns unloaded. Pellets flew as flocks of wood ducks continued to pile into the slough. The hunters couldn’t reload fast enough. Between the darkness and dodging shot, we couldn’t tell how many ducks had been killed. The shooting continued for 20 minutes before one of the hunters yelled out, “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We need to count our ducks!”
Not heeding the advice, some hunters continued to shoot until we heard, “We are already way over the limit; stop shooting!”
That’s when Ken and I ran out of our hiding place toward the duck blind.
“State game wardens! Put down your guns!”
Every hunter set down their gun and hung their head, knowing they had been caught. We helped them pick up all the ducks and found they had 27 wood ducks-11 over their limit, in addition to hunting a baited area. Also, several hunters did not have the proper licenses or the required plugs in their guns.
Everybody received a variety of citations, but the one hunter we knew tried to stop the others from shooting did not get a ticket for shooting over the limit. We seized the guns and extra ducks as evidence.
As Ken steered the boat back toward the ramp and the cool morning air blew in my face, I felt a sense of accomplishment. With eight illegal hunters cited, no doubt the word would spread, sending a message to others who might consider similar wrongdoing in the future.
Game wardens are the front line of defense for wildlife. We are their voice. Without us, future generations might not find the abundance of wildlife we enjoy today.
Nick Luper is an officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, stationed in White County. Luper writes a blog called The Tennessee Game Warden. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.