Backwater Ducks & Geese In Virginia

When the main river standby locations are not producing waterfowl, dedicated hunters head to the backwaters for their limits. (December 2008)

Gary Sanders (left) and Chris Jabs admire some wood ducks taken on a morning hunt in a backwater slough.
Photo by Mark Fike.

The previous few waterfowl seasons have been tough for many Virginia hunters. Mild weather has kept some northern birds from pushing far enough south into Virginia during the hunting season to provide good hunting. Not everyone has a "honeyhole" that is a magnet for ducks and geese despite the conditions. Those that do not have learned quickly that they needed to change with the times and find alternate locations and methods to hunt.

Years ago I got together with a few buddies and we built our permitted two blinds on two local rivers. Depending on the wind, weather and tide, we would hunt those blinds every week and often get some good shooting in. Our locations were not the best in terms of food sources, but we had enough fly-over birds we were able to entice that we kept busy and enjoyed ourselves.

Two things happened. First, the drought that hit us really hard in 2000-2002 caused our tidal blinds to be subject to more salinity. Some of the freshwater vegetation died as a result and the puddle ducks, such as blacks, mallards and gadwalls, began frequenting other areas more often. Perhaps the food sources changed and other areas offered better feed. Whatever the reason, the drop-off in flights was noticeable. Our friends hunting farther inland and upriver did not see as much decline in flights.

Second, and likely more important, the winters have been much more mild the past three or four years. Mild winters push far fewer birds down to our area during the season. Often by the end of January, eastern Virginia is finally experiencing a good cold snap. February has been much more like the waterfowling weather hunters like to see. Our decoy spreads were lonely for some action and even the gadwalls and occasional widgeon were rare.

Once these two factors began cutting into our hunting and shooting opportunities, we knew we had to do something different. While we were deer hunting one day, we noticed a number of ducks flying over a freshly harvested corn field. The birds were low enough that we knew they were close to putting down for the night. That sparked an interest in what was going on. The following deer hunt we saw another small flock of birds wheeling overhead not far from a swamp. We decided to check things out. Frustrated with the lack of birds at our blinds, we decided one morning to hike down to the swamp and see what might be hanging out in the backwater area not far from the main river. It was the best decision we had made in our duck-hunting experiences up to that point. Since that day, we have had only one day that was slow enough that we did not get shots. We also have branched out and looked for other backwater areas to give our own little piece of paradise a break from constant shooting.

A look at weather data from northern Virginia showed the following. December temperatures normally range from a low of 31 to a high of 47. The temperatures in December of 2005 were normal to a tad low (depending on where you hunted). The following month of January 2006 when temperatures should have ranged from 26-42 degrees instead had a spread of 35-51 degrees, which is a full 9 degrees higher than normal! Some of the ducks that arrived in Virginia must have thought they overshot the flight by a few hundred miles. February 2006 temperatures were average.

December of 2006 (average spread of 31-47 degrees) had a spread of 36-52 degrees (plus 5 degrees above normal). January was about 8 degrees above normal, while February (eastern waterfowl seasons are closed during February) was well below normal. December of 2007 was also warmer than average. January of 2008 was much warmer (almost 7 degrees high), and February was also warmer than the norm.

Another factor to consider is that the number of snow days or rainy days during the last few years has noticeably declined. Precipitation levels for December 2005 through February 2008 have been either low or barely average. Ducks seem to fly when the barometric pressure is moving and the weather is sloppy. We have not had many "ideal duck hunting" days.

So, what do the numbers say about duck populations?

VDGIF Migratory Game Bird Manager Gary Costanzo, who does the aerial surveys, pointed out that when the winter is mild, there is less ice and the birds disperse more to backwaters and sloughs instead of holding on the major rivers.

Adjusting to the trends is what successful hunters have learned to do. So, how do you adjust? Change your setups, your approach and don't be afraid to try something new.

Chris Jabs, an avid waterfowler, has done just that. He used to hunt the main tributaries of the Potomac River, but lately he has found himself in the beaver swamps with fellow duck hunters Gary Sanders and Ngoc Do.

"I find that the duck hunting in the swamps is nice because it is straight forward, you don't have to have a boat and the shooting at wood ducks is challenging. We found the action to be consistent in the swamps for wood ducks too. Where we hunted just off the Potomac farther north, the action for puddlers had slowed considerably, so switching to hunting the swamp was great," Jabs told us.

"I really like just being able to walk down to a swamp and have all kinds of shots first thing in the morning," Sanders added.

Many of the birds that are bagged during mild winters are resident birds. Hunting resident birds can be tough, as they know exactly where the current food sources are and they have a routine they follow each day like clockwork. This is particularly true for resident geese. You might spy a flock of mallards or a gaggle of geese flying over your boat blind and call until you are blue in the face and never even draw a hesitation or second look from the birds. We found that many resident birds prefer to use smaller waters for roosting and even feeding purposes. Even geese will light in a swamp for the night and they will come back during the day too.

Costanzo pointed out that the resident geese will use swamps and wooded areas more than the migrant geese.

"These resident birds know the woods and swamps better, as they use them all year 'round and aren't as afraid of them as much as the migrant geese are."

We found that to be true. While hunting wood ducks and mallards in the marsh, we heard the telltale honking of the big Canadas heading down the tributary that led to the swamp we were set up in. We did not have any goose decoys, but it did n

ot matter. The big birds were flying below treetop level. All we had to do was trade out shells and sit tight until they were upon us. Our biggest problem was adjusting our lead to the large birds after having snap shots at woodies that were weaving in and out of the brush in the swamp.

Costanzo told us, "During winter, most geese will generally feed in the morning and then again in late afternoon and then go to water to roost. Some will feed in agricultural fields in the morning, then go to water to rest, drink and roost during midday, and then go back to the fields for an afternoon feeding before returning to nighttime roosting locations."

This information proved useful to us as well. In one tributary headwater we fished during the summer, we heard some resident geese and took note. Then we pre-scouted the location to determine when the birds came and went from the water. It was soon determined that the geese would feed in the nearby fields and come back to the water, where they would offer us shots at them, around lunchtime. We hunted the first few hours in a backwater swamp and then came out and had a good breakfast before sneaking back down to the creek to hide in the cattails for pass-shooting at geese. The resident birds ate and slept like clockwork and that turned out to be a benefit for us.

Ducks are a bit tougher to nail down on a pattern, but once you have located birds, they are very likely to be regular visitors to your newfound hunting water. Most of the backwater and swamp ducks you will see will be woodies. Wood ducks favor such spots and will announce their arrival with their unique whistle, which they make in an initial flurry of action right at daybreak.

It has been my experience that once the main flight of wood ducks has taken place, the other puddle ducks begin passing through and can often be called down.

One of the great things about hunting swamps or sloughs is that once the morning flight has commenced and shots have been taken, hunters can then venture out on foot along the edges of the swamp to jump-shoot birds that have alighted out of gun range. Many of the birds we harvest to finish up our bag limit have been taken in this manner. For some hunters, that may mean changing sloughs or swamps or maybe as simple as moving to the opposite end of the swamp and sneaking up on the birds.

Although the hunting for resident birds offers hunters better shooting opportunities when the northern migration has stalled, there are obstacles to overcome in order to be successful. The resident birds are smart and wise to the territory. They know where every log, tree and bush is and when something appears out of the ordinary, they will flare and head to an alternate location.

It is a very good idea to fully camo your body, including your face. We use facemasks and once we began doing this, we noticed far fewer birds flaring. We also wear gloves to cover our hands, or we keep our hands in our pockets until the last possible moment to avoid spooking birds. Use available cover and brush to hide behind. I prefer to find a large, dead standing snag and stand right next to it on the down flight side. As the birds begin calling and coming down the swamp or across the marsh, I will peek out and wait for my moment.

When we hunt ponds, we use the cattails along the edges to hide in. Ponds offer a different problem though, as mallards and other puddle ducks will sometimes fly higher and circle. If you try using the cattails as a natural blind, be sure you don't stomp down all of the ones around your spot. Large openings show up easily from the air and the birds have excellent eyesight. Stay still until the moment to shoot comes.

While we do not use many decoys and frankly sometimes we don't even bother with decoys, it is a good idea to ensure that when you do use dekes, they are lifelike. Don't use battered decoys with worn paint. Take the time one evening to repaint the ones that need it. Vary your spread. You don't need many to entice the birds down, but be sure to have a hen or two in the mix and have them face various directions, too.

Showing movement in the spread is key to drawing in those wary resident birds. Tying a fishing line to two or three decoys and giving them a pull when the birds are inbound will help. There are products on the market, such as a quivering motor, which will send vibrations through your modified decoy creating ripples in the water around your spread. This makes it much more lifelike.

If you prefer not to carry a bag of decoys, you can simply carry one box with a flapping or motorized decoy and set it up between you and your partner. We almost always use just the flapping decoy on a pole. Wary birds may circle a few times, but they almost always come right on in when they realize something "duck-like" is moving below. The movement has also helped draw in geese as they pass.

Finding a place to improve your waterfowling this season is not that hard to do. It can be as easy as paying attention when you are out small-game hunting or deer hunting. Look into every swamp, beaver pond and marsh you come to. Even small creeks that have openings and pools are fair game for wood ducks. Check them all out when you are hunting other quarry.

Farm ponds hold birds and sometimes when we do get a cold snap it is the farm ponds with a warm spring that remain open enough to attract birds. Farmers may not be keen on a group of guys wanting to sneak around in the woods deer hunting, but they may not mind a few good friends doing a little duck shooting or goose shooting on the pond. Geese are very bad about eating up crops and messing the pond banks up, so they are often not welcome from a landowner's point of view.

Most military installations allow hunting and very few have any pressure on the beaver ponds. This is a very good option for those willing to explore and find a new area to hunt.

If you are unable to secure permission to hunt private lands where there are ponds or beaver swamps, consider using a kayak or canoe to explore the headwaters of our tidal creeks and tributaries. There are hundreds of miles of such waters and they are often only accessible to kayaks and canoes.

Most hunters want to be able to run their duck boat right to a blind and set up. Take the time to explore the backwaters and the headwaters of marshes well beyond where the last licensed duck blind is located. The shooting in such unexplored areas can be good all day long, as other hunters have pushed up and shot at birds on the main waters.

Use a good topo map or go online to www.maptech.com to find the tributary nearest your location. Then locate a spot to put your canoe in.

This season, give your waterfowl hunting a makeover and change up your approach. There are birds still here, even if they are not where we normally would look for them. Use a good retriever to ensure winged ducks or geese don't escape and be sure to take a youth out with you. Hunting backwaters is a perfect place to let that youngster cut his or her teeth on some fine wingshooting. Good shooting!

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