Photo by Bob Fala.
Winter waterfowling may be one of West Virginia’s best-kept secrets. As one of the most heavily forested states in the nation, even the rugged uplands of the aptly nicknamed Mountain State must drain its more than ample proportions of annual precipitation. As a result, our state does boast a decent dose of rivers, bottoms and wetlands. And, in turn, we have good numbers of ducks and geese.
What’s more, these better than just average duck populations thereof have scant few hunters chasing them. Though the specific state waterfowl stamp was discontinued a few years back for mostly administrative reasons and dang few takers, those who do hunt essentially have the flocks of fowl all to themselves.
Now throw in the fact that the latter parts of the season, as in right now through most or all of January, can thin out the competition a quantum leap farther. Reason being, a lot of folks out there are simply unaware. The more obscure waterfowl regulations are not part of the general hunting package pamphlet. But that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of birds or that you can’t take advantage once enlightened to the contrary.
To further accentuate the paucity of hunters, Division of Natural Resources (DNR) waterfowl coordinator Steve Wilson indicates that of the 2,000 or so state stamp buyers, several of them were merely stamp collectors. Of the others who purchased a stamp, some hunted geese but not ducks or vice versa.
For the late season, you can dang well do both at the same time in certain zones and times! To put this minority of waterfowlers in a different perspective, there are some 350,000 participating deer hunters! Many of them are home by the fireplace with their rifles shelved and some holiday time to boot. What’s even more, per the levels of nuisance geese, more hunters are needed!
Troublesome geese at private or public parks, lakes, golf courses and yards deposit more than ample proportions of their cigar-shaped droppings along with related sanitation and human health concerns. This is quite a 360-degree turnabout for a species rather recently brought back from the brink of extirpation.
By today’s standards, more geese need to be cooked than protected. This might also eliminate some of the culling being done by government agents or even private citizens by federal permit to destroy eggs or nests. Goose reduction by lawful hunting just represents good utilization of the resource.
So let’s go hunting. But don’t forget that the overall populations of ducks have been decent, too. Although last January’s counts of both ducks and geese were down from their 10-year average, biologist Wilson and other DNR staff qualify that news. First off, migratory populations must be considered in total with the adjacent flyway states to get a truer picture of the population.
Furthermore, the lower counts were largely attributed to mild winter weather and not to any particular shortage of birds. Ducks and geese, like a lot of other migratory birds, oft only go as far south as they have to. On the plus side, this could keep some early migrants like teal and wood ducks available when they ordinarily would have headed south.
Conversely, colder weather to the north and at home will drive out the remaining teal, wood ducks and resident geese but should fortunately be replaced by flights of migrant geese, mallards and black ducks from states to the north and Canada.
In fact, biologist Scott Morrison out of Parkersburg is an ardent waterfowler. He does his best in the sky-blue cold days of 20 degrees and that like. Scott said that the mostly mallards and black ducks from northern parts get to moving in then.
These colder conditions not only drive northern birds south, they at least initially move the in-state birds from the smaller but now frozen lakes and potholes out into the main but still moving river bodies, namely the bigger rivers of the state, such as the Ohio, Kanawha, Monongahela and Potomac.
Scott does his Atlantic Flyway hunting along his home front of District 6′s Ohio River, which comprises most of the Mountain State’s western border. Scott advises hunters to key in on the picked corn fields of the mighty Ohio’s river bottoms. If you can’t get permission to hunt the corn fields per se with pit blinds and decoys, then hunt the adjacent river proper.
His experience is that the birds stage on the river nearby before going to feed and that they return for a drink likewise soon thereafter. With corn prices at record highs, some picked fields should be easier to find this year.
Duck boats with camouflage or sideboard blinds can be the ticket. Morrison advises hunters to dress properly and to beware of the specific threat of cold-water hypothermia, in addition to usual boating safety precautions. He prefers ducks to geese but will take on both. The colder the weather, the better for his Ohio River hunts.
Hunters can take advantage of the many varying public boat launches to reach the crop field bordering sectors. He cautions Ohio River hunters that Sunday hunting is not afforded on the river proper. Since it’s allowed on the opposite banks in Ohio as well as inland at several nearby Northern Panhandle counties, there have been some inadvertent infractions. The river course proper, however, is under the jurisdiction of West Virginia and again, Sunday hunting is not permitted there.
Waterfowl coordinator Wilson independently concurs with the weather impacting assessments of his co-worker. He goes further to state that geese can now be found just about anywhere in West Virginia, wherever there’s some water and green grass for grazing. He goes on to suggest the Stonewall Jackson Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Lewis County.
Though the Stonewall State Park sector of the famous bass lake is off-limits, the bulk of it is within the WMA and is open to hunting. Again, if a cold front freezes up the local potholes and ponds, the main lake should be good for geese with the possible bonus of some big mallards. As usual, the Stonewall geese could use some reduction because of their nuisance levels.
Other lakes and rivers that hold waterfowl, as Wilson’s annual helicopter flights have shown, include the Shenandoah River, Bluestone Lake WMA and the New River. On the New River, Sam Pugh of New River Trophy Outfitters conducts waterfowl ventures in the fa
ll. Call (304) 575-2918 for more information. The New River holds some good numbers of birds, and as a fast-moving water, it is not prone to freezing.
The New affords some excellent rural opportunities below Sandstone in Summers County where Interstate 64 crosses it. Sam also concurs with the weather effects of DNR staff. I can’t personally recall a fishing trip there without seeing good numbers of ducks and geese, but mostly the latter. Sam has been exploring the river’s walleyes, another sleeper of the New, though smallmouths remain the stay of the fishery.
Steve Wilson, like his cohort Scott Morrison, also advises hunters to ask for permission on private lands, particularly at those corn fields or zones with nuisance geese. Though you may not be afforded a deer hunt, landowners are usually anxious to get rid of their geese.
He suggests trying the heavily human populated Kanawha Valley where geese numbers can be problematic. If you can’t get a special hunt at a golf course or other problem population zone, try the Kanawha River proper; but be cautious of the safety zone restrictions within 500 feet of any dwelling.
For local river, weather, boat launch or other conditions, the western front’s Ohio River bounding and Kanawha River traversing DNR districts 1, 6 and 5 from north to south can be contacted by referring to the first page of the general hunting regulations or by checking the Web page at www.wvdnr.gov.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Huntington District is an excellent source of major river, lock and dam and other reservoir information that can be viewed online at www.lrh.usace. army.mil.
For some reason, waterfowling seems to scare people off about the way that fly-fishing does for anglers. It’s really not that complicated nor does it require a lot of extra effort. However, ducks and geese have good eyes and camouflage is the recommended garb. In fact, you may hunt waterfowl during concurrent gun deer seasons, while other upland small-game hunters are not permitted the same luxury.
A federal migratory bird hunting waterfowl stamp ($15) is also required. These can be ordered or purchased at your local post office. They can also be purchased by credit card by calling (800) 782-6724. Selected sporting outlets may also carry them. Duck stamps are required of waterfowl hunters 16 years of age or older.
These stamps are not transferable between hunters and must be signed in ink across the face. The stamp year runs from July 1 through June 30, so you’ll be good on New Year’s Day.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sales of federal duck stamps “have generated more than $670 million since their inception in 1934, which has been used to help purchase or lease over 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the U.S.”
These lands are now protected in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) System. Along those lines, the Ohio River Islands Refuge is another good source of information for that big waterway since many of its island tracts are available to hunters.
A special refuge permit is required. The Ohio River Refuge can be contacted at (304) 375-2923 or you can check out its Web page at www.fws.gov/ northeast/ohioriverislands.
But remember that your state hunting license must be updated on Jan. 1. Migratory bird hunters are also required to register for the free Harvest Information Program or HIP. It’s free and can be done at regular state license vending establishments at the time of license purchase or over the previously listed DNR Web page.
Other basic requirements of waterfowlers are the use of non-toxic shot shells and to have shotguns plugged to three-shot capacity, one in the chamber plus two in the magazine. That’s the rundown on the basics.
In addition to the general hunting regulations, the specific migratory bird regulations are available on the DNR’s Web page or at any DNR office. These should be carefully checked for the current season and bag limits in effect.
The most important aspect of the waterfowl specific regulations is the separation of the state into two zones. For the sake of explanation, we’ll cover Zone 2 first. Zone 2 is essentially the “core” of the state’s apple, so to speak. It generally represents the high-elevation turf of the Monongahela National Forest counties. State and federal highway boundaries as described in the waterfowl regulations should be consulted for details, as it is not entirely a county-based demarcation.
Zone 1 is essentially the rest of the state surrounding the “core” of Zone 2. Zone 1 thus represents the state’s lower elevation banana belt, while Zone 2 is its icebox. The season setup reflects their weather differences.
Starting out with ducks, we can now move on to the ever-important seasons and limits. With the early (October) split behind us, it’s the late split of season that is imminent. Be sure to obtain and check the regulations for the final word. Last year’s late split duck season for Zone 1 ran from mid-December to late January.
For Zone 2, it was late November to mid-January. Duck limits are six per day in either zone with a possession limit of 12. The duck limit is further separated by species. For example, of the six ducks bagged, they may not include more than two wood ducks, two hen mallards, four drake mallards and so on.
Again, refer to the current regulations. Mallards and geese will make up the bulk of the late split bag and there should be no trouble identifying them. For a primer on duck identification, however, pick up a bird book at any major book or sporting outlet. Better yet, do an Internet search under duck identification books and you’ll bring up more choices than you can point your shotgun at. Try for a small, reasonably priced and waterproof field version.
For geese, the daily limit has consistently been running at a liberal five birds per day with a possession limit of 10. The late split goose seasons parallel those listed for ducks above so that within the zones, both duck and goose seasons are open at the same time.
It’s advisable to carry the current waterfowl regulations in your pack or pocket to stay lawful. Ditto for that handy duck ID pamphlet. If you think you need one at least initially, you probably do.
We’ve been keying in on some great waterfowl opportunities that West Virginia has to offer. This is not to mention the early resident nuisance goose and October split seasons (Sept. 1) that are now behind us. But keep them in mind for next year.
More important, nary a soul seems to be aware of the special youth waterfowl-hunting day usually around the last Saturday in September. Make a note of that one, too. I can only wish the many youth hunts available today were there when my now full-grown sons were that age. So, take advantage please!
For another waterfowl issue, a bad rap has been given to
geese in particular as table fare. You’ve heard the jokes along the lines of do this, that, the other spice or process with the goose attached to a board, then throw away the goose and eat the board!
Ducks and geese are dark or “red-meat” muscle species because of their migratory demands as opposed to the more stationary and white meat musculature of grouse and turkeys. Nevertheless, such dark meat should be viewed a delicacy with some stern advice coming in from at least one combination chef and hunter.
Do not skin your fowl. Pluck the birds to keep the moisture in during cooking. This culinary expert admonishes those who are skinning their ducks as if they were squirrels.
At least give plucking a try and refer to some traditional waterfowl recipes while you’re at it. Duck meat is also rich and dark in texture. To further increase the moisture, don’t overcook it. Who knows, maybe the Christmas goose will some day beat out the Thanksgiving turkey? Until then, good hunting!