Maryland's Winter Waterfowling Wonderland

Maryland's Winter Waterfowling Wonderland

There's still plenty of time to bag Canada geese, brant, mallards and more right now in the Free State. Here's where you should try!

By Joe Byers

Rain and sleet hit like bullets as the northwest wind churned the bay behind us into a sea of whitecaps. Yet nestled in our sheltered cove, 30 mallard decoys gently bobbed and swayed with 40 floating Canada geese decoys just beyond the ducks. "I knew it was going to be a great day," said John Kostic, a career waterfowl guide and outfitter. "Five minutes before shooting time, we had ducks landing in the decoys. Our sheltered cove pulled birds like a magnet."

Three minutes past shooting time the first wave of mallards cupped and locked on the decoys, each of the five hunters scoring on their first duck of the day. The action was fast and furious. As soon as the dogs retrieved the ducks, others began circling. Many of the ducks committed to landing without a call.

Canada geese also sought the shelter of the cove. "We were only allowed one bird each," said Kostic. "We agreed to shoot singles and waved the other birds off. By 11 a.m., we had our limits, including mallards, black ducks, three teal and a widgeon. Each man got a goose. By waiting for singles, we extended the hunt and increased the fun."

Hunting ducks and geese from the same blind is a double treat. Free State sportsmen are fortunate to have this combination available in many locations from the Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore ponds and waterways to the central counties of Maryland to the Potomac River out west.

A BETTER WINTER FORECAST
"Even with some cold weather last winter, we didn't seem to have the ducks around and the winter counts were down," said Larry Hindman, Waterfowl Project Leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "At best, it was an average or below-average year."

Several greenheads taken during an early-morning hunt spell success for the early-bird waterfowl hunter. Be sure to get out early for best hunting results. Photo by Joe Byers

Fortunately, preliminary signs indicate that nesting conditions in Quebec were cool and wet - elements that tend to produce larger hatches and broods of young birds. "Duck production is expected to be good and numbers should be better than last year," said Hindman. "A lot of hunter success will depend on the weather we have."

Abundant rain is a very different factor this year than last when many ponds and marshy areas were dry, a different situation as 2003 rolls into 2004. Rain was abundant through midsummer and water levels should be at normal levels or above.

Black ducks in Canadian surveys were down about 7 percent last year, yet their numbers are increasing. This year, hunters will be limited to one bird during the last two splits. "This is a bit conservative," says Hindman, "but we consider the black duck to be a trophy bird." In a similar fashion, look for limited canvasback hunting with hunters being allowed one bird. That season will be open about 30 days and will be a bonus for diving duck hunters.

GO FOR GEESE!
"Hunting for resident geese should be tremendous with a high population," said Hindman. "Although birds nested about 10 days later than usual, production was good. Again this year, the season will extend into mid-February and include the more eastern boundaries established last year. "It appears that state Route 301 is the boundary between the migratory and resident geese," said Hindman. The resident goose hunting area was changed to access this population. The season opened in November with a two-week break for the deer season. Check for current limits, which should be five birds.

Snow geese will be a bright spot also. Snows had a good production year, the best in the past four. Good snow goose production means flocks will contain many immature (gray) birds. These youngsters respond more willingly to decoys and calling, creating greater shooting opportunities.

Hindman reminds Maryland sportsmen about the reciprocal hunting license arrangement with Delaware. Your Maryland hunting license is valid in Delaware (and vice versa) for snow geese, except for the state waterfowl stamp. This saves sportsmen a fair piece of change and helps keep these pesky birds under control.

Hindman spoke of a great hunt in late season in which he used the reciprocal license agreement. "We hunted an unharvested corn field in Delaware," he said. "The field had some wind damage and a lot of feeding by snow geese. We put out 700 shell decoys and lay on the ground in white suits, placing grass over us to hide our human silhouettes. We called while lying down, then sprang to our knees to shoot. We had three or four good tolls and bagged more than 30 birds.

Migratory Canada goose nesting pairs were down about 5 percent from last year - 164,000 to 157,000 pairs. However, the hatch and brood survival looks positive. Hunting regulations will probably not change over for migratory birds. Look for a 45- day season with a one-bird daily limit.

PUBLIC-LAND PARADISE?
Hindman is quick to admit that Maryland's public-land waterfowling is a good news/bad news situation. Yes, there are good places to hunt; yet these typically have fairly difficult access, usually requiring a boat.

"South Marsh Island is very good, but difficult to access," says Hindman. "It has a good number of birds and a high rate of success, but getting there requires good equipment and you must be careful about the weather. Three fellows drowned on the way there last year," he said, solemnly. "It doesn't get a lot of hunting pressure due to its remote location, but you must know what you are doing."

Deal Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) has been a popular and successful region in the past, yet the numbers of birds had diminished in recent years. "Maybe the increase in bay grasses has scattered the birds," Hindman said.

Fairmont WMA rates a "pretty good" on the Hindman scale. "It's productive during the teal season and often overlooked because it's such a small area. The reports I get are good after opening day.

"Assateague National Seashore rates among the best," continues Hindman. "It has a good diversity of birds and is administered by the Park Service. You have the opportunity to take snow geese, Canadas and ducks. This section does not get a lot of pressure, yet you need a boat or a beach buggy-type vehicle (with permit) to reach the best spots."

Hunters are reminded that the Harvest Information Program has been consolidated. If you hunt any migratory bird in Maryland, you must purchase a $9 stamp. This applie

s to doves, woodcocks, ducks, geese, etc. This requirement is met through electronic licensing, so that you do not have to physically paste the stamp onto your license and sign it. Collectors may request the stamp be sent by mail. The Federal Migratory Stamp must be signed and affixed to your license.

PRIVATE OPTIONS
For those hunters who may not have the equipment to hunt public land on their own, Maryland is blessed with an abundance of commercial hunting operations. The one-goose migratory limit helps keep the price down, due to low demand for hunting services.

John Kostic, mentioned earlier, hunts small ponds, creeks, rivers and larger bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay. Each of these water sources can provide bountiful hunting action, at the right time and under the right conditions. Here's how he approaches the gamut of hunting conditions, strategies easily emulated in your neck of the woods.

"We hunt about every kind of duck from gadwalls to shovelers, widgeons, black ducks, mallards and wood ducks," said Kostic, relying on three decades of experience with waterfowl. "In late December, the diver ducks will be here, including canvasbacks, redheads, buffleheads and broadbills. We hunt beaver ponds, farm ponds, rivers and bays. It all depends on where the ducks will be congregating."

Kostic seeks out farm ponds and beaver ponds where water overflows into trees, providing the Stuttgart flooded timber scenario. "On small water, we're usually hunting mallards, widgeons, black ducks and a few teal," he continued. "We set up blinds along the edge of the ponds or arrange hunters back in the timber. Normally, we set out 20 to 40 decoys with a canoe. Ducks can be retrieved with a dog or by hunters wading in the timber."

Small-water setups require more discreet calling than on big water. "You can call more softly because you have no competition," says Kostic. "Put your decoys in a feeding situation among timber and grasses and use feeding calls and chuckles. You defeat your purpose if you use loud squalls."

On rivers, it's a totally different ball game. You may have other blinds, hunters and live birds to compete with. In this situation, Kostic goes all out. He may put out 100 to 150 decoys and will do a lot of calling to compete with other hunters.

"On bigger water, you have to read the ducks. They tell you what to do. If they are coming in, don't call a lot. If they are high, you need to get their attention. Once they set into their mode of circling and cupping, tone it down. Go to chuckles and soft calling."

Big-water bays and lakes require a different approach.

"We will gun over 150 to 200 decoys on points 300 yards offshore," say Kostic. "We use mostly canvasbacks and a few Canada geese decoys to give the birds more confidence. We do a lot of calling here, too. We tie off in a boat and conceal it under the blind."

Kostic believes wind is an asset to any duck hunt. "Ducks fly well in the wind, are more mobile, and you get a lot of shooting," he said. "If the wind is strong, ducks don't have a chance to circle. Leave a hole in the decoys downwind and that's where they'll land."

Canada goose prospects look particularly bright this year. Resident geese populations continue to spiral out of control. Look for longer seasons and more liberal bag limits as states try to manage resident birds. Snow goose numbers remain so strong that they threaten their Canadian habitat.

Like ducks, geese flock to a variety of feeding and roosting conditions depending on weather and food supply. Last winter, temperatures were so warm, ponds and rivers didn't freeze and ducks and geese enjoyed unparalleled disbursement. In normal winter weather, as water sources become frozen, ducks and geese migrate or become concentrated into smaller and smaller areas.

Last year, a friend and his buddy discovered a spring-fed quarry that swarmed with Canada geese. After gaining permission to hunt an adjoining farm, they enjoyed unparalleled pass-shooting as flock after flock of honkers came to rest. Later in the season, the weather warmed, other waters thawed, and the spot failed to attract a single goose. Short-term and long-term weather patterns will greatly affect the abundance and location of waterfowl.

Honkers can be hunted in virtually the same small- and big-water setups as ducks. Kostic prefers to hunt ponds and fields such that he runs a combination rig of floaters on the water and decoys in the field. Hunting from a pit, he flags in two ways to increase the effectiveness of the spread.

"Setting out a black flag in the decoys simulates movement and attracts geese," remarked Kostic. "Flapping is extremely effective. I use two large flapping paddles and move them up and down until I call the shot. If you stand out of the pit, geese will flare. But use a pair of those flappers and they will come right to you."

Geese on big-water rivers and bays require more preparation and gear. Kostic often sets out 200 Canada decoys with a few ducks mixed in for confidence. He normally gets to the blind an hour before shooting time, sets up and then collects his decoys after the hunt.

If you are hunting ducks and geese at the same time, put the duck decoys closest to the blind. "Ducks do not like to fly over geese," says Kostic. "I put the ducks in close and the geese off to the side in an inverted 'J.' "

Like duck calling, "reading the bird" is critical to goose-calling success. "If you are good with a call, you can call right up until the shot. If you are unsure, get the birds to commit and then back off and let the decoys do the work."

Kostic may have 500 decoys in the field and the more calling the better. Geese are noisy birds and multiple people calling add greatly to the reality.

The eyes have it when calling waterfowl, according to Kostic. To read the mood of a duck or goose, watch its head. If the bird is looking around, it's searching for a place to land. You need to convince it to join the crowd. If its head and neck are straight, grab its attention and make it turn. Hail or honk and call loudly.

Setting out extensive rigs of goose decoys may sound complicated and expensive. It certainly can be. Outfitters like Kostic must go the extra mile to provide every chance of success for their clients. However, silhouette decoys are much less expensive and logistically easy to handle. Once you locate a feeding area for geese, get there an hour before daylight, set up several dozen silhouettes (placed in family groups), use a fencerow or other natural material for a blind and start hunting. If you are moderately competent on a goose call, you're in the hunt.

Serious waterfowlers will want to check out the latest in hunting gear. The 3-1/2-inch magnum 12-gauge was introduced to give an added boost for steel shot. Although the recoil can be substantial on pump shotguns, most auto-loading systems absorb recoil and tame this tiger a bit. Kostic reports go

od results with the newer copper-coated steel shot with consistent results out to 35 yards. The combination of No. 1 steel shot with a full choke is his first choice.

Equally exciting in the performance department is the new alloy shot shell like Remington's Hevi-Shot. This mixture of non-toxic metals creates greater density than lead and more energy downrange. Be sure to conduct a few pattern tests and read the manufacturer's recommendation for proper choke requirements, yet look for these new-age shot materials to increase your effectiveness.

Finally, for the past two years, duck decoys with movable wings have been the rage. Eventually, ducks will begin to wise up to these deceptive devices, yet the proliferation of sales indicates they work. Whether you opt for some new gear or stay with a familiar approach, indications are looking promising for duck and goose hunters.

MARYLAND IS A WATERFOWL HUNTER'S MECCA
Hunting and tourism go hand and hand in Maryland. No matter where you chase a duck or goose, an interesting place is nearby. For more information, call Maryland Tourism at (877) 209-5883 or go online at www.mdisfun.org for a comprehensive guidebook, Destination Maryland.

Complete information about the above-mentioned state waterfowl areas is on the DNR Web site at www.dnr.state.md.us. Click on "Wildlife and Heritage," then go to the hunting guide. It will contain the rules and regulations, as well as detailed information on all Maryland public lands.

John Kostic operates B&J Guide Service at 25345 Lover's Lane, Chestertown, MD 21620. He can be reached at (410) 928-5260.



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