Our Finest Coastal Waterfowl Hunts

Cold winds and low temperatures drive wintering ducks and geese into New England's protected coastal bays and backwaters this month, providing some of the best waterfowl gunning of the year.

By Tom Migdalski

November is changeable in New England, with temperatures that can range from the upper 50s early in the month to the upper 20s with snow by Thanksgiving. October's mild weather and early flights of wood ducks and teal have come and gone, and hunters are gearing up for the opening of the second season and a major shift in conditions.

By late this month, most of Maine's inland waters have frozen, and even many of Connecticut's smaller ponds and inland marshes will have skim ice over them. But the weather isn't cold enough yet to freeze ducks and hunters out of the region's coastal salt marshes, making November a perfect time to pursue waterfowl in these areas.

You'll find a mix of blacks and mallards as well as the first arrivals of divers. And, if you set your rig off the right point of land, you may encounter some of the plentiful sea ducks to help round out a mixed bag.

One challenge facing November hunters is that the resident puddle ducks that survived the early season are now very wary of hunters and their standard decoy rigs. Therefore, you'll have to work a bit harder on your calling, concealment and decoy placement to fool them.

But far to the north, the first pushes of polar air are chasing waves of waterfowl from Canada into the northeastern states. These new arrivals - which have never been shot at - will eagerly wing into your spread.

According to Min Huang, Connecticut's chief waterfowl biologist, the general outlook for the fall and winter is excellent.

"This spring," he said, "we had good conditions during the breeding season. We had decent water levels, reasonable temperatures and our waterfowl indices were up. So our estimates for wood ducks, mallards and geese are all up."

Huang said, however, that it could be a poor year for the Canadian breeding season because, as late as early June, waters were still locked solid in ice.

"If this was the trend throughout northern Canada," he said, "such as on the upper Hudson Bay, it's not going to be a good production year for ducks from that area. But I can't speak for the northern prairies or boreal forests. That's where species like bluebills nest. In southern New England, we had decent conditions. Nesting, timing and weather were normal, so our fall action should be reasonable."

Another favorable outlook, according to Huang, is the resident Canada goose population, which continues to hold high numbers in most Northeast states. Therefore, it's always a good idea to bring a goose call and a dozen honker decoys. Chances are good that you can add a few plump native Canadas to your bag this month.

Here are some of the top picks for public access hunting in your area. Keep in mind that the waterfowl seasons in many regions are only open for part of the month.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

MAINE

If November weather in Maine is normal, much of the inland waters will be frozen by month's end, and the only puddle duck hunting will be along the coast. But in recent years, some waters never froze in November. Brad Allen, a waterfowl biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that while most of the Atlantic Flyway had some slower shooting, Maine hunters enjoyed success during the past few seasons.

"It all depends on weather conditions," he said. "We experience good numbers of waterfowl wintering here when the weather is mild. And with good spring nesting conditions, we have lots of mallards and geese hatching. My outlook for the season is favorable."

Allen always recommends Merrymeeting Bay as one of his state's best waterfowling areas. The bay is excellent earlier in the season, but later in the month, you have to watch for freezing. It can be hit or miss as the chance of ice increases. During average years, most local birds will have moved south by now, and Maine hunters have to depend on new arrivals from Canada to provide shooting opportunities in coastal areas.

The bay features boat access at Browns Point Road off Route 24. Turn right after reaching Center Point Road. Hunters may launch a properly equipped craft north of Bald Head, a distinctive landmark that extends into the bay from the west shore.

Or try traveling south to Brick Island, which is good for puddle ducks throughout the season. A launch site is in the south arm of the bay opposite Mustard Island off Old Bath Road. Check Map 6 in DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer for details.

If you're new to an area, a daytime scouting run is a good idea before attempting an early-morning hunt.

If the weather is mild, Allen also suggested Great Works Wildlife Management Area, a marsh and pond habitat west of Dennysville. Hunters may access Great Works WMA by traveling Route 86 to Venture Brook Road. The launch is suitable for small or carry-in boats. See DeLorme's Map 2 for additional information.

In past years, Maine's Southern Zone waterfowl season opened during the first week of November and closed the third week of December. Goose season has traditionally opened from mid-November though mid-December. Four ducks and two geese were permitted as a daily bag limit. Be sure to check this year's regulations for details before venturing out.

A small game license is needed for duck hunting, plus state ($2.50) and federal ($15) migratory bird-hunting stamps. For up-to-date regulations, dates and bag limits, visit the MDIFW's Web site at www.me fishwildlife.com.

To purchase a state waterfowl-hunting stamp, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State Street, Augusta, ME 04333; or call (207) 287-8000. For lodging information, contact the Maine Publicity Bureau, P.O. Box 2300, Hallowell, ME 04347; or call (207) 623-0363.

MASSACHUSETTS

The resident Canada goose population is the hot item in Massachusetts, with a wintering flock estimated at around 35,000 birds.

Two of the top coastal hunting spots are north of Gloucester. On the north side of the Merrimack River is the Salisbury Marsh in Salisbury, and on the south side of the river is the 4,662-acre Parker Wildlife Refuge in Newbury. A new ramp at Salisbury Beach State Reservation is an all-season, all-tides landing, which should stay ice

-free through this month. A small launch on the Plum Island side is inside the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge gate.

The large Parker River Refuge is accessible by boat or on foot, a true plus for hunters without a boat. The refuge entrance gate and parking lot open one hour before legal shooting time. On weekends you can expect crowded conditions, so be there early.

The Parker River site is divided into three areas: A, B and C. Each area has its own restrictions. In Area A, for instance, access is by boat only from the refuge boat launch, which is opposite parking Lot 1. Or hunters may access Area A from off-refuge sites.

Time your hunt around high-water times to avoid possible stranding in the marsh at low tide, especially at times of the full and new moons.

You can reach Area B by boat from the refuge ramp, off-refuge sites or by walking from Lot 8 from Newbury Neck Road and Marsh Avenue. Waterfowling is only allowed in spots designated by "Public Hunting Area" signs. Hunters will find Area B from Lot 8 one-third mile to the left of the trail's end. Regulations require that hunters rig at least a half dozen decoys and hunt within 50 yards of them. Jump-shooting is not permitted.

Nelson's Island, also known as Area C, is accessible by foot only. Lot 9 off Stackyard Road offers parking. You may not hunt within 150 feet of the parking lot.

If you are new to the area, obtain a map and more detailed waterfowling regulations before going out. You can see these spots in Map 19 of DeLorme's Massachusetts Atlas and Gazetteer.

This year's season, bag limits, maps of WMAs and launches are found on the Massachusetts Web site at www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw. If you don't have Web access, contact the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 100 Cambridge St., Room 1902, Boston, MA 02202; or phone (508) 792-7270. For directions, maps and local conditions, call Salisbury State Park at (978) 462-4481. For the Parker River Refuge, call (978) 465-5753. For visitor information, write the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 100 Cambridge Street, 13th Floor, Boston, MA 02202; or phone (800) 447-6277.

RHODE ISLAND

Intricate Narragansett Bay is one of the state's biologists' top choices for public-hunting access. The bay, with its many cuts, coves, points and islands, is a late-season favorite, especially Conimicut Point, Green Island and Rock Island.

Several launches are available around the bay. For Conimicut Point, try the small sand launch at the end of Shawomet Avenue. A four-wheel-drive is helpful here. A larger ramp is off Narragansett Parkway south of Rock Island.

Wickford Harbor is another good option. Try the launch off Route 1 southwest of Kingston.

Check out these spots on maps 68 and 72 in DeLorme's Connecticut-Rhode Island Atlas and Gazetteer. Listings for Rhode Island's numerous wildlife management areas will be found on page 16.

For new season dates, check the latest regulations on the Department of Environmental Management's Web site at www.state.ri.us/dem.

A small-game hunting license, state duck stamp and federal duck stamp are required to hunt waterfowl in Rhode Island. For additional waterfowl-hunting information, maps, regulations or a copy of The Atlas of Rhode Island Wildlife Management Areas, contact the Rhode Island Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Wakefield, RI 02879; or call (401) 789-0281 or (401) 222-1267.

For lodging and travel arrangements, contact the Rhode Island Tourism Division, 1 West Exchange St., Providence, RI 02903; or call (800) 556-2484.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

The coastline of New Hampshire is small compared to the size of the state, but the area offers some very good waterfowling in November.

For some of the best puddle duck shooting this month, biologists recommend Great Bay. This tidal water is several miles up and then south of the Piscataqua River. The area features several boat launches, but a good one is the all-tides Chapman's Landing access off Route 108 in Newfields in the southwest corner of the bay. Check Delorme's New Hampshire Atlas and Gazetteer Map 30 for details.

The Piscataqua River and Little Bay also provide decent late-season hunting opportunities. Waterfowlers may launch at the Hilton Park landing at Dover Point to access these areas.

Although New Hampshire's waterfowl hunting season is usually closed during the first three weeks of November, the respite gives waterfowl a break from gunning pressure. And then, when the season reopens, the birds should decoy readily through the Thanksgiving holiday. If you want to enjoy some shooting earlier in the month, try hunting sea ducks (which are legal game and plentiful) in the region when the regular waterfowl season split occurs.

The Granite State's Coastal Zone is on the southeastern corner of the state, east of Route 108. A New Hampshire hunting license is required, along with state and federal duck stamps and a HIP permit. For more details, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at (603) 271-3211, or visit the department's Web site at www.wildlife. state.nh.us.

CONNECTICUT

Connecticut's waterfowl biologist Min Huang said that harvest results for the 2003-04 season won't be available for another year, but based upon his contacts with hunters and personal experience, it was a good season until the "big freeze."

"The bitter winter we had," he said, "pushed a lot of birds out of our area. It pushed them farther south. Many birds were unavailable because of the unusual conditions.

"This year, our resident goose numbers are up, which doesn't bode well for nuisance complaints, but does mean more hunting opportunities. The indices were up, but the geese are not yet at an all-time peak. We've actually made some headway in trying to reduce the population a little bit, but they are definitely holding at the long-term high average. Let's just say there are plenty of geese in Connecticut and the other southern New England states."

Two of the best places to hunt ducks and geese are the Charles Wheeler WMA in Milford and Great Island in Old Lyme. The Charles Wheeler WMA is locally known as Nells Island, which borders the towns of Milford and Stratford at the mouth of the Housatonic River. The 812-acre marsh is one of the best places for waterfowl hunting in the state and can get crowded on holidays and weekends.

One popular launch is found by taking Exit 34 off Interstate Route 95. Turn west on Route 1 and then north on Naugatuck Avenue. The launch is on the left. Plenty of parking is available. If you have only a small duck boat, be cautious of strong river currents here. Ice is never a problem at this launch until after the holidays due to the tides. Check Delorme's Connecticut-Rhode Island Atlas a

nd Gazetteer, Map 59, for details.

If you don't own a duck boat, local conservation officers recommend trying the small, unlisted Court Street ramp. From here, you can walk a short distance on public property. Shoot only toward the water and make every effort to retrieve all downed birds. To find the ramp, turn south on Naugatuck Avenue, right on Milford Point Road and right again onto Court Street.

In the eastern end of the state, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, try Great Island WMA in Old Lyme. Both sides of the river are open to hunting. Great Island covers 504 acres of coastal marsh and features dozens of creeks, coves and inlets on the river and in its protected backwaters.

A boat launch is available off I-95 at Exit 70 to Route 156 in Old Lyme. To get there, travel south on Route 156 for 1.8 miles to Smith Neck Road. Follow Smith Neck .9 mile to the launch. After launching, turn left to access the open marsh area and Long Island Sound. Turing right (north) will lead you deeper into the marsh and away from the sound.

Hunting waterfowl in Connecticut requires a federal duck stamp ($15), a Connecticut waterfowl hunting stamp ($5), a Connecticut small game license ($10 resident, $42 non-resident) and a HIP permit ($2).

The second split of the season normally opens the third week of November and runs through the third week of January. A six-bird bag limit was in effect last year. This year should be similar for bags and dates.

To hunt waterfowl earlier than that, try for some oldsquaw and scoter in Long Island Sound.

For more information and current seasons and bag limits, visit the DEP's comprehensive Web site at www.dep.state.ct.us.

For a Waterfowl Hunting Guide and individual 8 1/2 x 11 maps of all of Connecticut's WMAs, contact the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Wildlife Division, at (860) 424-3011; or write them at 79 Elm Street, Hartford, CT 06106.

For information on the latest waterfowling news in the Northeast and around the nation, visit www. waterfowler.com.



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