3 Early-Season Mid-Atlantic Waterfowl Hunts

3 Early-Season Mid-Atlantic Waterfowl Hunts

New Jersey's Water Gap, Maryland's Ellis Bay and Delaware's Cedar Swamp add up to fine duck and goose hunting on public land. Here's the latest!

Ellis Bay WMA waterfowlers have well-camouflaged boats that they often use as shooting blinds. Photo by Michael DiLullo

By Michael DiLullo

With the exception of a few species, the Atlantic Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. The Great Lakes region of the U.S. is often referred to as the "eastern duck factory," and each spring this area produces a large percentage of the flyway's birds.

The Mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are a mecca for waterfowlers and an intersecting point of some of the Atlantic Flyway's sub-flyways. These sub-flyways include the coastal migration route along the continent's eastern seaboard and the major river migration routes of the St. Lawrence, Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna and Potomac rivers and their tributaries. Both the Canadian and Lakes regions' birds follow either the coastline or the agriculturally rich river valleys south along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains on their way south, eventually congregating in the storied Chesapeake Bay area and the famed Eastern Shore region.

Traditionally, the Atlantic Flyway has very stable spring hatch numbers and winter survival rates. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) Duck Breeding Population Reports for 2003, and the 2004 Atlantic Flyway Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, the overall majority of waterfowl species populations have been holding steady or are up slightly over the last several years. Early spring habitat condition surveys also reveal better-than-average conditions with all of the eastern U.S. and lower Canadian breeding grounds receiving a good to very good rating.

Most waterfowl management professionals agree that what this means for our states' hunters are fairly long seasons, a continuation of liberal bag limits and plenty of duck and goose hunting opportunities. However, Mother Nature, weather conditions, habitat and predation, as well as other factors, all play a hand in the outcome of the total numbers of breeding pairs and the survival rate of ducklings and goslings produced in any given year. But with all the optimistic indicators for the upcoming season, and so many options available, hunters should not limit themselves to one species or a single area.

Read on for possibly some of the Mid-Atlantic's best gunning bets for the coming season. State fish and game departments have information on other areas within their prospective state, which are open to hunting. Each state's fish and game department is listed as a contact and can further explain licensing requirements and the procedure for obtaining permits, where needed. Most can also refer you to local reputable guides if desired.

NEW JERSEY'S WATER GAP

Located in New Jersey's northwest corner is what very well may be one of the Garden State's finest waterfowling areas. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area offers more than 40 miles of huntable waters on the middle Delaware River and almost 70,000 acres of land along the river's New Jersey and Pennsylvania shores.

Although it is illegal for New Jersey license holders to hunt from the Pennsylvania side of the river, excellent wildfowling opportunities exist from the New York state line, south of the Water Gap to Columbia, New Jersey. The numerous islands throughout this stretch of the river make for ideal blind locations with Minisink, Namanock and Poxomo islands being prime locations.

The Delaware River valley attracts migrating waterfowl along its path like a major interstate highway. With its wide, flat bottoms and steep ridges on either side, including the Kittatinny Mountains on the New Jersey side, the northern sections of the Water Gap act like a natural funnel, drawing ducks and geese down its corridors.

Corn fields on both sides of the river and on some of the larger islands encourage early migrating birds such as teal, mallards, black and wood ducks to remain in the area before continuing south. Later in the season, diving ducks such as buffleheads, golden eyes, ringnecks, mergansers and ruddy ducks are often taken. Canada geese are also abundant in the area throughout the season.

In addition to the federally regulated migratory Canada goose season, New Jersey also has two special resident Canada goose seasons. Both of these seasons are regulated to two separate hunting areas, a North and a South zone. The Gap, situated in the North Zone, attracts and holds a good portion of the state's burgeoning non-migratory Canada goose population. These special goose seasons are typically long; there is an early season for the entire month of September and a winter season usually extending from mid-January to mid-February. These seasons allow hunters to harvest up to eight birds per day.

"The geography of the region, combined with usually low water levels in most rivers, plus a lack of any other large bodies of water in the area, can make for some excellent waterfowling opportunities," said Ted Nichols, principle waterfowl biologist for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Because this section of the Delaware is flanked on both sides by mountains, some of the best gunning is often on the river itself."

Biologist Nichols also points out that the area's large number of small creeks, wetlands and beaver ponds also helps to attract and hold a variety of puddle ducks, especially large concentrations of wood ducks.

"Good jump- and pass-shooting as well as decoying opportunities exist, if a hunter can find a good blind location and is willing to do some walking or has a small boat or canoe," biologist Nichols said. "On the river, a small cove or a section of slow flat water within shooting distance of the shore is an ideal spot for a small spread of decoys. Natural points allow for some good pass-shooting.

"Walking along stream banks and beaver ponds can lead to some exciting jump-shooting, especially for wood ducks and mallards."

Nichols also mentioned the possibility of field shoots for geese after the corn fields have been harvested. He expressed that early-season waterfowlers need to be aware of other outdoor activities on the river, including canoeing, kayaking and fishing. Use good judgment while hunting in this area. Nichols also reminds hunters that river hunting has its own set of safety issues.

Nichols explained that heavy rains or snowmelts could cause rapid flooding along the Delaware River and its tributaries. Levels should be closely monitored, as rising water and rapid currents can cause potential problems for both dog and hunter, including not being able to cross back to where

you parked! Late-season hunters should also be concerned with the river's often-heavy ice floes.

The Water Gap offers many accesses to the river and ample parking areas with several boat launches along the river's eastern shore. For additional information, call the Delaware Water Gap Ranger Station in Walpack at (973) 948-7761.

In addition to the federal migratory hunting requirements of the 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 New Jersey hunting license and a New Jersey waterfowl stamp while afield.

New Jersey waterfowl are managed by zones, and each zone can have different season dates and bag limits. But all of this information is available free of charge in the state's annual Fish & Wildlife Digest. It 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 can also visit the state's Web site at: www.njfishandwildlife.com.

DELAWARE'S CEDAR SWAMP

Delaware waterfowl hunters have a variety of opportunities to hunt on public land, but one of the First State's finest is the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area, which is located south of Taylor's Bridge and about 10 miles East of Smyrna in New Castle County.

Cedar Swamp is a tidal marsh at the base of the Delaware River and near the head of Delaware Bay. This brackish water estuary consists largely of marsh habitat along with numerous ponds.

Waterfowl hunting on Delaware's wildlife areas is highly regulated and prospective hunters should be very familiar with all hunting regulations including all area-specific rules, which may differ from area to area and from the normal Delaware seasons.

Waterfowling is allowed in the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area by permit only. Permits for blinds and pits are free and issued by means of a daily lottery at the Cedar Swamp Lottery Station located on Collins Beach Road. The lottery is conducted 1 1/2 hours before legal shooting time with remaining permits being available until 1 p.m.

During the regular waterfowling season, hunting is allowed on opening day, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from one-half hour before sunrise until sunset, but hunters must depart from the hunting area within an hour of the end of legal shooting time. Hunters must also fill out harvest reports and return them with their permits at the end of each day's hunt to the checking station or the Rocks tract's drop box.

Because of the wildlife area's close location near the top of Delaware Bay, Cedar Swamp can offer some superb waterfowling opportunities. Each year, the area produces very consistent harvests of both ducks and geese.

The early season usually sees large flights of green-winged teal, plus good flights of pintails, gadwalls, widgeon and mallards, while wood ducks are also a possibility on any one of the three pond blinds. Later in the season, look for mallards, black ducks and divers to appear in good numbers on any one of the river blinds.

Rob Hossler, Fish and Wildlife regional manager for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), is in charge of Cedar Swamp. He said that the area offers hunters a quality mixed bag of waterfowling opportunities, but warns hunters to be safety conscious.

"Waterfowlers, especially those using boats, need to be aware that as a tidal area affected by water level changes, potential problems can arise. Cedar Swamp has up to a 5-foot tidal swing, which means hunters need to pay close attention to tide changes to avoid navigation problems, such as pilings that are covered at high tide, channels, which may go dry at low tide and deep mud."

Hossler said that the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area is divided into three waterfowl hunting tracts, which include the Bell, Rocks and Cedar Swamp tracts (North and South areas) totaling some 4,950 acres. All waterfowl hunting at Cedar Swamp is conducted from state-built and maintained blinds or pits 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 blind.

Hunters using the facility must park in designated areas and may not drive into fields or enter the Daniels Refuge, a small "goose pasture," or the larger Cedar Swamp Refuge 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, the area may be closed during snow goose season at the discretion of the DFW.

Although most of the blinds are only accessible by boat, the area does offer alternatives including pond blinds and goose pits. "Currently Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area has 22 blinds, of which 19 are located on several rivers and require the use of a boat, but there are also three pond blinds that are considered walk-in areas. We also reserve a blind for non-ambulatory disabled hunters and one for youth hunters under 16 years of age who are accompanied by an adult," Hossler said.

Hossler explained that if neither blind is requested, then both also become available during the daily lottery.

The area also has 10 pit blinds located in designated fields within each tract for goose hunting. "Although their numbers are still rebounding, migratory Canada geese do frequent the area and good flights are seen throughout the season," Hossler said. He also noted that if snow geese are using the local fields, the area can have some superb gunning, as Delaware is the winter home to more than 500,000 greater snow geese.

"It is not uncommon for hunters to limit out on snows if the birds are using local fields. Unfortunately, many of the area farms have been developed, affecting the area's attraction to both species," Hossler said.

You can reach the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area from state Route (SR) 9, turning east onto Thoroughfare Neck Road (SR 491), which continues to the end at Cedar Swamp and Collins Beach Road. Staves Landing is an unimproved ramp intended for launching and retrieving of small boats, while a state-maintained ramp is located on Collins Beach Road. For additional information, contact the Augustine Wildlife Area office at (302) 834-8433

Delaware and Maryland now share a reciprocal hunting license agreement for snow goose hunting. However, each state's waterfowling 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 Division of Fish and Wildlife at 89 Kings Highway, Dover, Delaware 19903 or call (302) 739-5295/5297. You can also visit them on the Web at: www.dnrec.state. de.us.

MARYLAND'S ELLIS BAY

Chesapeake Bay has always epitomized the soul of eastern waterfowlin

g, while its Eastern Shore has remained the heart of this time-honored sport. Although it is one of the Atlantic Flyway's most heavily hunted areas, there are still plenty of areas open to public hunting. Along the "Old Line State's" Eastern Shore there are several excellent wildlife management areas (WMAs) open to waterfowling, including the Ellis Bay WMA.

Ellis Bay is near the convergence of the Nanticoke and Wicomico rivers, approximately 20 miles southwest of Salisbury in Wicomico County. Ellis Bay WMA contains 2,981 acres of wetlands, composed mainly of marshes and forested wetlands. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) purchased the area in 1957 to help protect the Chesapeake Bay's wetlands. Hunting in Ellis Bay WMA is allowed in accordance with Maryland's open season dates and shooting hours.

According to Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the DNR, Ellis Bay WMA is a tidal marsh at the mouth of the Wicomico River that, like many of Maryland's public waterfowling areas, is best hunted by boat.

"Most area waterfowlers in Ellis Bay use boats to maneuver through the marsh, then either tie off to the bank and use their boat as a blind to hunt from or they beach their boat and walk into an area and set up a temporary blind."

Harvey said that small to midsize boats from 15 to 20 feet with appropriate sized outboard motors are ideal for the area and its ramps. Hunters camouflage their craft to blend in well with the area's marshy banks and shores.

"With all the creeks traversing through this brackish water marsh, hunters should have no difficulty finding a good blind location in a secluded cove or off one of the many points that make up the area," Harvey said.

Harvey noted that early-season Ellis Bay waterfowlers should find fairly good gunning for puddle ducks such as mallards, teal and black ducks. While later in the season, they should look for divers such as scaup, buffleheads and an occasional redhead along with good flights of Canada geese. But Ellis Bay's real attraction is its canvasback hunting. Although waterfowlers are currently only allowed one canvasback per day, Ellis Bay offers some of Maryland's finest gunning for the species.

Harvey reports that if canvasback numbers continue to remain as they have, Maryland waterfowlers should see another 30-day season. "Canvasbacks should be considered a trophy bird, and being able to harvest one a day is a real bonus for anyone hunting diving ducks."

Ellis Bay WMA offers an on-site boat ramp with several other ramps nearby; however, being a tidal marsh, the area can be tough to hunt because of deep mud during low tide. Hunters need to be aware of tide changes while hunting in the area. Most of the area's waterfowling is best accomplished by boat.

Ellis Bay WMA is located in southwestern Wicomico County on Muddy Hole Road. From U.S. Route 50, take SR 349 (at Salisbury) west to Capitola Road (south) to Trinity Church Road (west) to Muddy Hole Road. There are several marked WMA parking areas located off Muddy Hole Road. Boat access is via Nanticoke (Ellis Bay WMA) and Mt. Vernon public boat ramps. For additional information, contact the Wellington Wildlife office at (410) 543-8223.

In addition to all the federal migratory hunting requirements, Free State hunters are required to possess a valid Maryland hunting license and state waterfowl stamp while afield. The state's Harvest Information Program (HIP) was combined with the state duck stamp requirement a couple of years ago, eliminating the need to buy a paper stamp and physically apply it to your licenses and sign it.

For more information on waterfowling opportunities in Maryland, including season dates and daily bag limits, contact the DNR, Tawes State Office Bldg., 580 Taylor Avenue, Annapolis, Maryland 21401 or call (410) 260-8540. You can also visit the DNR's Web site at www.dnr. state.md.us.



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