Maryland's Top Public-Land Goose Hunting

Here are eight places you should try this winter while plying the marshes, rivers and reservoirs of the Free State.

By Gary Diamond

When the first migratory Canada goose season opened last November, Free State hunters claimed they were seeing more geese than at any time in recent history. Consequently, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Atlantic Flyway Council only allowed a 30-day season with a single-bird daily bag limit, the majority of Maryland's waterfowl hunters were quite disappointed.

That first split season ran from Nov. 19-23 and then from Dec. 22 to Jan. 19. An expanded resident Canada goose hunt was also proposed, along with seasons for ducks, coots, mergansers, sea ducks, greater snow geese and Atlantic brant. While most of the seasonal expansions were approved by the USFWS, some proposals that would have been highly beneficial to goose hunters were denied.

Essentially, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) waterfowl managers Larry Hindman and Bill Harvey had hoped to expand the western waterfowl zone several miles farther east, thereby allowing hunters to harvest larger numbers of resident geese.

After looking at banding data from the past decade, they were confident that few, if any, migratory birds were being harvested during the late resident goose season. Therefore, there was no reason to anticipate that the proposal would be denied. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Consequently, the proposal was resubmitted again to the Atlantic Flyway Council and USFWS. Only this time additional data was included that may sway the vote in favor of the expansion.

Hindman says the expanded resident goose hunting zones will hopefully bring about a significant increase in the harvest of birds that are described by some as nothing more than a nuisance. "I wouldn't be surprised if we don't have some reaction from hunters who would want a lower bag limit on resident geese, especially since we're expanding the zone. But the bottom line is we really need to do something about further reducing the resident goose populations in Maryland. I anticipate that we'll be sticking with the liberal five-bird bag limit on resident geese. We're way above our population objectives, which are 30,000 birds. Our most recent survey revealed that we now have a resident population of about 80,000 birds, so we must do something as soon as possible," Hindman said.

Photo by David Morris

"The expansion of our Resident Population (RP) hunting zone will solve some of the problems in the urban and suburban areas, but in some of these places where hunting is prohibited, this type of program will not have much of an impact on their numbers. Some of these places have become sanctuaries for the RP stocks, and this poses a real problem when it comes to management policies."

There have also been significant changes in the procurement of a migratory game bird stamp. Essentially, Maryland's Migratory Bird Stamp has been incorporated with the Hunter Information Program (HIP) permit, a stamp that now sells for $9. While the HIP permit had previously been free, the change will make it mandatory that everyone who hunts migratory birds, even those folks who were exempt from purchasing a regular hunting license, will have to buy a Maryland Migratory Game Bird Stamp.

This even holds true if you're hunting mourning doves and railbirds, species that did not require the procurement of a stamp in previous years. Hindman says this will ultimately provide the DNR with a greater base of hunter information and improve management of all migratory birds. Some hunters claimed it's just another way for the DNR to increase its revenues at a time when the agency is up against huge cuts in operating capital and decreased hunting license sales.

Nesting success for migratory Canada geese along the Ungava Peninsula this past spring was hampered by late-season snow squalls. Maryland waterfowl biologist Bill Harvey has been actively involved in the nesting pair survey on Canada geese for more than a decade.

"It was a late spring, generally, and there were few birds nesting, and of those that did eventually nest, the clutch sizes were smaller in comparison to a normal year. In a good year, a clutch would average about five eggs, but this year, the average was down to about three eggs per nest. While there wasn't that much snow on the ground, when the birds arrived at the nesting areas, everything was still frozen solid. The birds just hang around waiting for the thaw, and because there isn't that much food available, the longer the delay, the less energy they have to lay eggs. Of the 10 years I've been on the survey, this is the latest nesting period I know of," Harvey said.

Harvey says the window of time the birds have to successfully nest and raise their brood is quite small. "In a good year, they may begin nesting as early as May 20, but last year they didn't begin nesting until June 10, which is extremely late in the season. Those that hatched will likely be mature enough to migrate when winter arrives, but that's barring an early-winter snow squall. The good news is the estimated number of nesting pairs increased, but a lot of pairs were not nesting. Some were younger birds that may have nested if conditions were better, but this bodes well for next spring if the weather cooperates."

When it comes to productive hunting locations for migratory geese, most top picks are situated on Maryland's Eastern Shore; however, only a few are open to the public. Both Hindman and Harvey agree that most geese bagged during the season are taken from private lands that border Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries.

Most tributaries on the bay's western shore are freshwater rivers and streams that flow through heavily populated industrial and residential areas. In contrast, most Eastern Shore rivers have little or no freshwater input, and because the terrain is flat as a pool table, they're long, wide and shallow - ideal for wintering Canada geese.

WYE ISLAND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA (WMA)
While waterfowl hunting is only permitted on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during the migratory goose season, Wye Island is among the most productive public land areas on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Nearly 2,500 acres of lowlands make up the WMA, some of which is open for goose hunting.

The area where hunting is permitted is limited, so only a small number of hunters are permitted to enter at any given time. Therefore, hunters must first enter their names in a lottery and hope for the best. Lottery applications can be obtained by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Wye Island NRMA, 632 Wye Island Road, Queenstown, Maryland 21658.

C&D CANAL LANDS
One of the first locations to s

ee migratory stocks of Canada geese is the C&D Canal, a dredged waterway that connects the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay to the upper end of Delaware Bay. Averaging nearly 50 feet in depth, the canal can easily accommodate large cargo vessels traveling between the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia and Wilmington. However, because the waterway is continuously traversed by both commercial and recreational vessels of all sizes, the waters are too turbid to permit the growth of aquatic grasses in the canal's main stem.

Some of the tributaries, particularly those sheltered from the wakes of large vessels, have recently seen the emergence of various forms of pondweed, which to migrating ducks and geese is akin to sitting down to a steak dinner.

STEMMERS RUN WMA
The C&D Canal Lands are scattered among five different locations that are situated along the canal's banks. The largest, Stemmers Run WMA measures just 750 acres, which is relatively small for an Eastern Shore site; but don't let its size fool you. The WMA has six blind sites where hunters will find good wingshooting opportunities for migratory and resident geese, as well as several species of ducks.

Stemmers Run Lake was formed by the construction of a low-head, milldam near the mouth of Pearce Creek. The surrounding terrain consists mainly of bulrushes, cattails and grasses that do not offer much in the form of food, but do have some effect in stabilizing the shorelines.

The impoundment is essentially a stopover for geese trading between harvested corn and soybean fields that encompass most of the region's farms. Unfortunately, the only access to the blind sites is via a small boat. There is a primitive gravel ramp at the lake's lower end where boats to 16 feet can be launched. This launch will provide you access to the entire length of the 1.2-mile-long impoundment's shallow, log-strewn waters.

In order to hunt any of the C&D Canal Lands, hunters must first obtain a permit from Maryland DNR's Gwynnbrook office located in Owings Mills. Annual permits may be applied for no later than eight days in advance of the hunt by calling (410) 356-9272.

BETHEL WMA
Measuring just over 400 acres, Bethel WMA is situated directly on the shores of the C&D Canal. The canal's shoreline here consists mainly of dredging spoils that create a near-vertical shoreline, which is not conducive to waterfowl hunting. However, the stretch along state Route 286 consists mainly of lowland swamps that provide good pass-shooting for hunters seeking ducks and geese. Only four sites are available here, but according to local wildlife managers, Bethel is among their most popular locations for waterfowl hunting.

COURTHOUSE POINT WMA
A shallow, weed-choked 67-acre pond is situated at the back end of Courthouse Point WMA, which under normal circumstances would provide excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities. But three years of drought has caused the pond to dry up; therefore, unless the area is hit by anything short of a hurricane, there is little chance of the pond refilling. If and when the pond refills, there are a half-dozen blind sites situated along the pond's reed-choked shores. During those years when the pond is full, it provides excellent wingshooting opportunities for ducks and geese.

WESTERN SHORE SITES
While there are lots of wildlife management areas situated on or near the Chesapeake Bay's western shore, most of the migratory geese tend to inhabit the opposite shoreline. This could be attributed to the vast grain fields that are situated directly on many of the Eastern Shore waterways. Yet there are some significant farms also located to the west, especially in Charles, Calvert and Saint Mary's counties. Additionally, there is a vast segment of the upper Potomac River where resident geese frequent in huge numbers, particularly when there is heavy snowfall accumulation in states to the north.

SUSQUEHANNA FLATS
This vast delta was formed centuries ago at the confluence of the Susquehanna and North East rivers. While there are some potholes in the hard sand bottom, most of the area is less than 3 feet deep at high tide. This year, local waterfowl hunters claim there are aquatic grasses growing in places that haven't seen a blade of grass in decades. Consequently, they anticipate good to excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities during the latter part of the season, particularly if the weather remains relatively mild.

UPPER POTOMAC RIVER
The Potomac River's upper reaches provide hunters with good to excellent, late-season goose hunting. Similar to the regulations at the Susquehanna Flats, hunters can stand on the river's bottom and blast away at the resident geese that are flying across the river to feast on leftover grains on nearby farms.

There is, however, some difference in hunting regulations that are specifically tailored for the Potomac River's nontidal reaches. While a "gunning rig" license used to be required to hunt while standing on the natural bottom, except when hunting at a licensed stationary blind or blind site, this license has since been eliminated. Under current law, in the Sea Duck Zone, Offshore Waterfowl Hunting Zone, or on the nontidal waters of the Potomac River, a non-resident may not hunt while standing on the natural bottom unless accompanied by a Maryland resident.

A person hunting while standing on the natural bottom in the nontidal waters of the Potomac River must stay at least 250 yards from all licensed offshore stationary blinds or blind sites or any other person hunting waterfowl offshore. However, there is no general requirement to remain a certain distance from shore. Keep in mind that there are a few areas on the nontidal Potomac where the bottom of the river is privately owned. You are not allowed to hunt while standing on the natural bottom in these areas unless you have the written permission of the landowner.

For additional information on waterfowl hunting in Maryland, visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Web site at www.dnr.state.md.us.



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