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Duck hunters (me included) are a passionate lot.

Little wonder. The anticipation in the pre-dawn of the possibility of new ducks, a steaming cup of coffee in hand, the smell of dogs and gunpowder, good-natured banter among friends — and finally, five minutes before shooting time, the whirring of wings as a squadron of jacks strafe the decoys.

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Jim Byford

Passion is a good thing. But like most other things in life, it has a downside. We need look no further than the recent tragedy at Reelfoot Lake, where three hunters lost their lives over an ongoing squabble between occupants of two public blinds. Now, I’m seeing disagreement among hunters over TWRA’s proposed changes to the public area-blind allocation system.

It's a shame, because in my opinion, TWRA is doing its job. And that is, listening and responding to its constituency. The agency is trying to provide the best outdoor opportunities on public land, for the most people — in a fair, equitable manner — all the while honoring traditions, hunting methods and opportunities for local hunters.

For years, TWRA has received complaints about our public land duck hunting system — mainly hunters wanting to see 1) more fairness in the one-day, in-person, duck blind-draw process, and 2) more opportunity for more hunters on public land/water. Hunters have complained that the best blinds are often hunted by the same group of people — all season — in most years.

This is often accomplished by successful draw applicants illegally buying and selling these public blinds. This is verified by TWRA officers and area supervisors, but due to the way the system is set up, this illegal activity is impossible to enforce.

As a certified wildlife biologist, a longtime wildlife professional and a Tennessee hunter, I’m proud of TWRA. I’m proud, first of all, that it has finally tackled this thorny issue. I’m also proud of the way staff went about it. They first commissioned UT to survey Tennessee duck hunters a year ago. Based on those results, TWRA drafted a new blind-allocation proposal, then floated it out for public review. After receiving more than 700 responses, TWRA substantially revised the plan, trying to accommodate most concerns.

The agency sent the revised plan out for public review, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission will vote on it at its March 4-5 meeting. And while the plan is not perfect for anyone, it has, in my opinion, taken all points of view into consideration. I’m reminded of a Caterpillar slogan years ago: “In life, there are few perfect solutions — only intelligent compromises”.

In a nutshell:

The Tennessee duck hunter survey revealed that, among hunters with an opinion, only 38 percent were satisfied with the current drawing process, and only 33 percent were happy with season-long blinds.

After the survey, and the sizable number of responses to the first draft, the revised plan now includes computer draws, a priority point system, and four tiers of blind availability:

Tier 1 — Season-long, hunter-built, site hopping or freelance hunting allowed among unoccupied blinds (except Tier 2 blinds)

Tier 2 — Quota hunt blinds (3 or 4 days). TWRA-built blinds, no site hopping

Tier 3—Quota hunt sites (7 days). With or without blinds, site hopping allowed

Tier 4 — First come-first served sites. With or without blinds, no permit required, site hopping allowed

The TWRA plan, in my opinion, is “intelligent compromise.” It:

1. increases the fairness of both the application and drawing process;

2. honors tradition of certain groups of duck hunters, with a number of season-long blinds;

3. allows continued opportunity for local hunters to hop or freelance most sites;

4. allows local draws for unoccupied blinds;

5. involves a priority point system which gives unsuccessful applicants hope, to eventually get to hunt;

6. allows hunters to hunt without the requirement to build a blind;

For the sake of our sport, for the sake of encouraging our youth by giving them more hunting opportunities, and for the sake of civility, I hope we can agree to work together.

Jim Byford is dean emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Martin's College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences and former UT Extension wildlife specialist.

(1) comment

Michael

Dear Jim,

I am lifetime duck hunter and I totally disagree with your "intelligence compromise" and TWRA's duck blind change proposal because the devil is in the details. First, a tier 1 drawn hunter/group is excluded from the tier 2/3 drawings. Tier 2/3 blinds as indicated by the TWRA are the best blinds on most WMAs. This exclusion seems petty and punitive to tier 1 drawn hunters who have to repair, re-bulit, brush and maintain the blinds, while tier 2 drawn hunters get access to the best blinds without any efforts. Tier 1 drawn hunters cannot even get priority points on tier 2 blind draws. Second, duck hunters cannot hop any open tier 2 blinds. How is that opening access opportunities in a 60 day season? Third, these WMAs blinds will be in a computerized draw for fair open access to all. Fine, but why is Lick Creek WMA in the east still a hand held draw event. I get it that East Tennessee hunters want easier access to middle and west Tennessee WMAs duck blinds, so have a computerized draw. But why not Lick Creek WMAs in the east? Would this not be making all the draws fair and accessible to all in the state.

Finally, TWRA and the commission efforts and intentions are misplaced. Asked any dedicated Tennessee water-fowler and the real issue is the lack of TWRA WMA waterfowl habitat management. For the last decade and on one of the worst seasons ever, TWRA has done hardly anything to get the ducks to come and imprint, especially in middle Tennessee, on the WMAs. And yes, water-fowling is weather related, but review their own 2014-2020 Strategic Plan and they have done nothing to implement their own recommendations for waterfowl improvements. Other states in the central flyway have been working to create waterfowl habit with WPAs (waterfowl production areas), WIA (walk in hunting areas), refuge restoration, etc... They have built it and the ducks have come regardless of the weather. They have open access to all without some ill-conceived compromised blind tier system. You have to put in the effort there to be successful. Duck hunting is about seeing, decoying, calling and shooting ducks. If TWRA wants to improve the waterfowl hunting experience as stated to more hunters, they need to focus and spent our licensed dollars on habit management improvement. Leave our waterfowl blind traditions alone.

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