3 Picks For Mid-Atlantic Ducks & Geese

Waterfowl hunting is just heating up as temperatures continue to cool in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Read on for a top-rated spot to hunt this year in your state.

Photo by Gary Clancy

For Atlantic Flyway waterfowlers, the 2004-05 season started out with lots of potential; however, because of inconsistent weather patterns, the season quickly became frustrating, as ducks and geese were anything but predictable when they did finally arrive. From all reports, the unseasonably mild temperatures during the early season and the bitter cold and sudden freezes toward the season's end pushed birds down late or well after many northern states' seasons had already closed.

In the Atlantic Flyway, nearly 2 million ducks are harvested each season, although the numbers fluctuate slightly from year to year; the Atlantic Flyway remains the most consistent of the four flyways in numbers of birds produced and harvested each year. Several factors often dictate the number of birds available in any given area during any one time. In the past few decades, declining waterfowl populations (because of the loss of habitat and shifting weather patterns) are probably the leading reasons hunters see fewer ducks.

Excessive rains in any given geographical region give both local and migrating birds numerous options, which spread birds out. Sudden severe cold snaps will quickly freeze up shallower ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. This causes birds to depart or bypass an area sooner. Milder winter weather will have ducks and geese remain in their northern summer ranges longer, so they'll arrive later in the season.

Severe droughts concentrate birds, reducing available food sources and nesting cover. Extended droughts can also cause mortality rates to increase as a result of the concentrated birds spreading diseases and lower hatch rates because of depleted habitat and cover. An increase in predation, because of these factors, can also add to the reduction in the number of juvenile birds that survive their first season. Other factors, such as concentrated and increased hunting pressure, can push birds onto refuges or out of their normal migration patterns.

To gauge waterfowl populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) conducts several annual surveys. Each spring since 1955, crews from the USFWS, the Canadian Wildlife Service, state and provincial biologists and non-governmental cooperators, such as Ducks Unlimited, record the numbers of ducks, geese and swans, while also assessing the quantity of wetlands and the quality of waterfowl breeding habitat. The 2005 season represents the 50th anniversary of what has been called the world's largest wildlife inventory: the North American Waterfowl Population Program.

During these surveys, teams of USFWS pilots and biologists conduct aerial surveys, flying more than 80,000 miles each year. Flying predetermined patterns, they crisscross the country at low altitudes. These airborne biologists, along with colleagues on the ground, count waterfowl populations and record data on wetlands habitat.

These survey programs are the most extensive, comprehensive, long-term annual wildlife survey efforts in the world and are critical in determining the status of North America's waterfowl populations. The information gathered from these surveys is considered the waterfowl manager's most vital tool in monitoring annual waterfowl populations, and is also used to establish waterfowl hunting regulations each year.

For more information, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, 4107 Arlington, Virginia 22203; or visit them on the Fish and Wildlife Service Web site at

http://waterfowlsurveys.fws.gov.

What follows are possibly some of the Mid-Atlantic's best gunning bets for the coming season.

NEW JERSEY

Southern New Jersey waterfowlers have many opportunities to hunt snow geese, brant, black ducks, mallards and buffleheads, as well as many other species of waterfowl in and around the nearly 13,000 acres that make up the Cape May Wetlands Wildlife Management Area (WMA). This scenic sportsmen's paradise is located at the southernmost end of the Garden State.

Starting just below Ocean City and continuing south to just north of the township of Cape May, the Cape May Wetlands WMA consists of five areas including the North, South 1, 2 and 3 and the Peck Bay area.

The Cape May Wetlands WMA is within New Jersey's Coastal Zone. It is protected by a chain of barrier islands to the east, which separates this expanse of tidal marshes, back bays, sedge islands, creeks, channels and salt meadows from the Atlantic Ocean. This protected water includes some of the larger bays, sounds and harbors in the area, including Peck Bay, Great Sound, Jenkins Sound, Grassy Sound, as well as numerous smaller bays, channels and impoundments.

"These areas regularly see good flights of migrating canvasbacks, pintails, golden eyes, mergansers and buffleheads," said principal waterfowl biologist Ted Nichols, who is with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).

But according to Nichols, the area's real attraction is its late-season brant and black duck hunting.

"Along New Jersey's southern coast from Little Egg Harbor south to Cape May is the primary wintering grounds for North America's Atlantic brant and the American black duck populations. It is also considered the premier region to hunt these two species."

Nichols further explained that in this section of New Jersey's coast, although the gunning can be fantastic, the weather can be unforgiving, especially during the late season.

"The area can have some very strong tides and winds. Winter storms can begin suddenly, creating heavy surface conditions. The cold can be brutal and late-season hunters should be especially prepared with the proper equipment and clothing for adverse conditions."

Nichols advised that hunters should consider all safety issues when engaging in open-water shooting, including planning their travel routes.

"Scouting especially how to get in and back out of small channels and creeks, which can lose water quickly during a low-tide period, is very important in preventing ending up literally being stuck in the mud."

The Cape May Wetlands WMA has numerous state-run, public and private boat ramps in and around the area, all which can be found in the information provided below.

The Cape May Wetlands can be reached by several routes, including taking the Garden State Parkway (GSP) or

U.S. Route 9 and state Route (SR) 147 south, then heading east on several approaches listed here from north to south; they include: Avalon Boulevard toward the town of Avalon and Stone Harbor Boulevard toward the township of Stone Harbor. Continuing farther south on the GSP or U.S. Route 9, take North Wildwood Boulevard toward the towns of Anglesea, North Wildwood or West Wildwood Boulevard toward the township of Wildwood. The most southern approach is Ocean Drive east, just north of Cape May Township.

In addition to the federal migratory hunting requirements of a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp (Duck stamp) and a Harvest Information Program confirmation number (HIP), New Jersey waterfowlers are required to possess a valid hunting license and a New Jersey waterfowl stamp while afield.

New Jersey's game is managed by zones, and each zone may have different season dates and bag limits. All of this information is available free of charge in the state's annual Fish & Wildlife Digest. The digest is available by writing to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife at P.O. Box 400, Trenton, NJ 08625-0400; or by calling (609) 292-2965. You may also visit the state's Web site at

www.njfishandwildlife.com.

DELAWARE

In Delaware, waterfowlers have several excellent wildlife areas available to hunt. One such choice for public-land gunning is the Woodland Beach Wildlife Area (WA), which is in Kent County, approximately 10 miles east of Smyrna and 20 miles south of Port Penn. Woodland Beach is also directly south of the Cedar Swamp WA and adjacent to the expansive Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Woodland Beach is a tidal salt marsh at the base of the Delaware River and near the upper end of Delaware Bay. This 4,794-acre brackish-water estuary consists largely of marsh habitat along with numerous ponds and impoundments. In 1953, the first land was purchased for the Woodland Beach WA, and since that time, the area has become a popular waterfowling destination for Delaware hunters.

Waterfowl hunting on all of Delaware's wildlife areas is highly regulated and hunters should be familiar with all regulations, including any area-specific rules before seeking ducks or geese.

These rules may also differ from area to area and from the normal Delaware waterfowling seasons. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in the Woodland Beach WA by permit only. Permits for water blinds, field blinds and pits are free and issued by means of a daily lottery at the Woodland Beach Checking Station located on SR 9, approximately 1.5 miles north of the intersection of SRs 9 and 6. This intersection is directly across from the Aquatic Resource Education Center, which is the old M&M Hunting Lodge. This center, which is run by the Delaware DFW, provides educational programs to school groups and other members of the public about aquatic resources, such as wetlands and fisheries.

The lottery is conducted 1 1/2 hours before legal shooting time. Hunters should arrive at the check station at least 15 minutes prior to the time of lottery to determine the parties that will be allowed to hunt at specific locations. Permits must be returned to the check station at the end of each day's hunt. Failure to accurately report your harvest and return permits to the check station can result in loss of hunting privileges.

As with all waterfowl hunting on Delaware state land, duck and goose hunting at Woodland Beach is conducted from state-built and maintained blinds or pits that are located within each tract. Hunters are assigned a specific blind or pit during the daily lottery and no more than three people are permitted in each.

Hunters using the facility must park in designated areas and may not drive into fields for any reason. Maps of these areas are available showing all boundary lines, parking areas, boat launches, blind locations and special rules that pertain to specific areas. Also, an area may be closed to duck hunting during snow goose season at the discretion of the DFW.

Wayne Lehman, fish and wildlife regional manager for the Delaware DFW, who is in charge of Woodland Beach, said the area is divided into four waterfowl hunting tracts, that include the Main, West, McKay and Lighthouse tracts.

"Currently Woodland Beach has a total of 39 blinds that are located on the different tracts and are available to the public on varying days," Lehman said.

Lehman explained that there are 31 marsh blinds, five field blinds of which three are goose pits, and three lake blinds. The marsh blinds are available every day during Delaware's season; however, prospective hunters in these areas must have a boat and all required safety equipment. A free boat ramp is located on SR 6 in the town of Woodland Beach. Lehman warns that hunters using boats need to be aware that the area has up to a 5-foot tide swing.

"Hunters should pay close attention to tide changes to avoid navigation problems because of low water levels."

Lehman said that field blinds and pits are available on opening days, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and that marsh and field blind hunters may hunt until 2 p.m. but must vacate the area by 3 p.m. While lake blinds are available on opening days, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, hunters must be finished hunting by 10 a.m.

"The lake blinds are located on Taylors Gut and are considered walk-in areas; we provide small boats with life vests at each of these blinds for hunters' use," Lehman said.

Lehman explained that there are also two blinds reserved for non-ambulatory disabled hunters. One is located on the lake and the other is a field blind; if neither blind is requested, then both also become available during the daily lottery. Also, some blinds have a shell limit of 25 per person.

Because of Woodland Beach's proximity to the head of Delaware Bay and Bombay Hook NWR, the area can offer some superb waterfowling opportunities. Lehman describes the area as consistently producing good harvests of ducks and geese.

"The region's early season sees very large flights of green- and blue- winged teal, plus good flights of wood ducks on the lake. During the late season, a mixed bag of pintails, gadwalls, widgeon, mallards and black ducks are also taken, with good flights of Canada geese also in the area."

However, Lehman was quick to point out that the area's real attraction during the late season is its snow goose hunting. The nearby Bombay Hook NWR offers sanctuary for huge flocks of wintering snow geese. Lehman said that Delaware is the winter home to some 600,000 to 800,000 greater snow geese; hence, it is not uncommon for hunters to limit out on these geese. Snow geese have been a problem in the wildlife refuge for some time now, as they destroy their habitat when found in such large numbers.

"Our biggest problem is getting hunters to hunt them regularly," Lehman said.

Delaware's snow goose season usually runs from early October through the middle

of November and then from early February into early March. Lehman explained that during the snow goose-only season, the DFW maintains a recorded message at (302) 653-4802 to notify hunters of any closings or special regulations and that blinds are operated on a selfsign-in, first-come basis.

In addition to Woodland Beach's required daily hunting permit and all federal migratory hunting requirements, Delaware waterfowlers are required to possess a valid Delaware hunting license and a state waterfowl stamp. In addition, anyone born after Jan. 1, 1967, must have proof of passing a state-approved hunter education course before obtaining a hunting license. Also, Delaware and Maryland share a reciprocal hunting license agreement for snow goose hunting. However, each state's waterfowl stamps and HIP permits are still required while hunting greater snows on either side of the two states' lines. For more information on waterfowling opportunities in Delaware, including season dates, contact the Delaware DFW at 89 Kings Highway, Dover, DE 19903, or call (302) 739-5295/5297. You can also visit them on their Web site at

www.dnrec.state.de.us.

MARYLAND

In 1999, Maryland began purchasing most of the former land holdings of the Chesapeake Forest Products Company; these holdings comprise 460 parcels of land that make up more than 58,000 acres in five lower Eastern Shore counties, including Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester. Half of the land was bought by the state, and the other half was purchased through the Conservation Fund on behalf of the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

In December 2000, the Conservation Fund transferred the deeds on their 29,000 acres to Maryland on the condition that their sustainable forest management plan be implemented to serve as a national model for public/ private partnership, sustainable forestry and ecosystem management on public lands. The state took the Sustainable Forest Management Plan that covered the gifted half of the property and used it to develop a plan for the entire 58,000 acres. The work on the new plan began in the spring of 2002 with the implementation of a public planning process and was completed in January 2005.

"Maryland's purchase of these lands will protect a large part of the state's forested land from fragmentation due to development, and provide the state with revenue from recreational activities and timber production. These activities will add to both the state and local economies, while retaining the area's natural resources and heritage," said Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Wildlife and Heritage Service.

"These lands are also important habitat for many forest-dwelling birds and some threatened and endangered species."

Harvey went on to explain that the Chesapeake Forest Lands' associated wetlands will help to protect and improve Maryland's water quality. "They also provide Marylanders with many new public hunting opportunities."

Recently, the DNR completed its planning process for identifying public hunting opportunities on the newly acquired Chesapeake Forest Lands and determined that more than 14,000 acres will eventually be open for public hunting, including some waterfowling sites. In addition to some areas for public hunting, the DNR will continue to lease land to private hunt clubs. Opportunities to hunt waterfowl currently occur on the Lewis Tract in Dorchester County and along the shoreline of the Tom Tyler Complex in Wicomico County.

The Lewis Complex offers nearly 1,600 acres to hunters and is located off Henrys Crossroads and Griffith Neck Road adjacent to the Fishing Bay WMA. "Waterfowl hunting at the Lewis Complex is concentrated around Island Pond," Harvey said.

He explained that Island Pond, which feeds into Island Creek, is a shallow body of water with lots of submerged vegetation. This attracts good numbers of ducks and geese to the area and the Lewis Complex is a beautiful scenic area with tall loblolly pines. During the early season, the abundance of vegetation attracts good flights of wood ducks, teal and geese. Canada geese frequent the area

A boat ramp is located about a mile down Island Creek on Elliot Island Road, with a smaller launch for canoes and kayaks nearby. To reach the Lewis Complex from Vienna, take Elliott Island Road south to Henrys Cross Road and turn right. Proceed approximately 1.5 miles and park on the side of the road. Or continue on Henrys Crossroad until you come to a stop sign. Turn left onto Griffith's Neck Road and go about one-quarter mile and park on the left in the designated parking area.

Information for all of Maryland's Chesapeake Forest Lands, including maps and driving directions, is now available on the DNR's Web site at

www.dnr.maryland.gov.

Questions regarding hunting on Chesapeake Forest Lands should be directed to the DNR's Forest Service at (410) 543-1888.

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