5 Prime Picks For Maryland-Delaware Ducks & Geese

No matter where you live in Maryland or Delaware, there's likely fine wingshooting for waterfowl on select public land areas. Here are five you should consider! (December 2007)

Photo by Andy Martin.

The arrival of December brings more than another hectic holiday season. December winds carry the bounty of migrating waterfowl.

Early winter is the best time to cash in on the abundant public-land options our area boasts.

Following is a look at the most up-to-date status of waterfowl species.

I'll also highlight five excellent places to enjoy December duck and goose hunting in Maryland and Delaware.

Each year in midwinter, a multi-agency survey takes place to determine the populations of the various waterfowl species.

For many species, this effort affects the following year's length of seasons and bag limits, and also serves as a great barometer that hunters can use to plan their upcoming forays.

According to a release by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the 2007 survey was flown between Dec. 27, 2006 and Jan. 4, 2007. A total of 478,900 birds were counted, which was a substantial decrease from last year's count of 577,100.

Last year, the tributaries and bays along the Chesapeake were completely ice-free. Since the Maryland Midwinter Waterfowl Survey covers only the tidal, estuarine waters, it's likely that many ducks and geese remained inland on open freshwater reservoirs, lakes and ponds that are normally ice-covered.

The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is conducted at the same time each winter in each state along the Atlantic Flyway, from Maine to Florida.

When pooled with the results from other states, the survey provides a long-term measure of the distribution and population sizes of waterfowl species wintering in the Atlantic Flyway. The survey is especially helpful in tracking the population size of Eastern-population tundra swans and Atlantic brant, for which breeding-ground surveys are not done.

Low numbers were recorded for several diving ducks this year as well. Most notable was a record low count of 13,800 canvasbacks, down 20,000 from 33,800 in 2006. Scaup (25,700) showed a substantial decrease, down 53,800 from 2006's count of 79,500.

Mergansers (1,700) also decreased markedly from 2006 (7,000).

The low number of diving ducks was probably related to the warm winter and to many ducks remaining north of traditional wintering areas.

High counts of canvasbacks, scaup, long-tailed ducks, redheads and mergansers were recorded during the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey of the Great Lakes, where habitats were relatively ice-free last January.

In Maryland, mallard numbers were greater during 2007 (39,700) than in 2006 (32,500). The number of black ducks counted in 2007 (13,800) was similar to 2006 (13,300), but the 2007 count was substantially below counts made prior to 2005.

The news release concluded that numbers of Canada geese (285,700) were slightly below the 305,400 counted in 2006. The tundra swan count (8,700) was similar to the record low of 8,200 in 2006. Recent banding studies have shown that tundra swans spend less time in Chesapeake Bay and that most now winter farther south in North Carolina.

According to the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the Delaware surveys detected a decline in the migrant population of Canada geese; the loss of ducks' usage of the Christiana marshes after Interstate 95 was constructed; and also recent increases in ducks using the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge area -- after the refuge accomplished more phragmites and water control.

The timing of a December waterfowl hunt is good on two fronts. First, the arrival of migrant birds can be expected at this time. Mallards and black ducks will highlight the dabbling duck species. Second, if the recent trend of mild winters continues, or if winter arrives late, hunters can still expect to have a shot at species such as teal, which would have headed south at this time during more typical weather patterns.

What follows is a look at five solid public-land hunts for December. Some of these are controlled hunts, where a daily lottery is held. Others are wide open.

Read on to discover more!


Augustine Wildlife Area

According to Delaware waterfowl biologist Rob Hossler, December waterfowlers can expect to find plenty of puddle ducks on the 2,667 acres of the Augustine Wildlife Area. Hossler was the former manager of this New Castle County public hunting ground.

The Augustine Wildlife Area, found along the Delaware River, exists as two parcels divided into four tracts -- the Port Penn, Warren Faella, Silver Run and Green tracts. Each area contains a number of permanent waterfowl blinds, each one placed according to the available habitat. Hunts on Augustine are managed affairs, subject to a daily lottery.

This wildlife area provides a wealth of waterfowling options. Blinds that front the Delaware River can be expected to provide action for diving ducks. Blinds located on the numerous tidal creeks making up the area are more likely to host dabblers.

Hossler said that December hunters could expect to find good numbers of black ducks and mallards. Don't be surprised to see some gadwalls and widgeons as well.

"The heaviest hunting pressure tends to occur in late fall and early winter," he said. The wildlife manager noted that this coincides with the arrival of migratory birds.

The Port Penn Tract lies south of the C&D Canal and fronts the Delaware River. This area also contains the lottery station and wildlife area headquarters.

The Warren Faella Tract is found to the west of Port Penn. The Silver Run and Green tracts are situated to the south. Both of them offer blinds on both the Delaware River and the tidal creeks that feed it.

On Silver Run, blinds are located on Silver Creek. On Green Tract there are several blinds on the maze of tidal creeks found there, as well as a few field (goose) blinds.

Hunting days on Augustine are Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Thanksgiving is also a hunting day. Shooting hours are from a half hour before sunrise to sunset. Permit

s are issued from 90 minutes prior to shooting hours until 1 p.m.

All hunting must be done from the state-constructed blinds and pits. A maximum of three hunters per blind is permitted. Hunting the tidal marsh requires the use of a boat and all necessary safety equipment. Because of tidal fluctuation, boating hunters should be on the lookout for hazards such as pilings that are underwater at high tide, as well as ditches that are dry during low tide.

Hunters should also note that late- season snow goose hunts are available at Augustine. These hunts are conducted with a self-registration permit or sign-in board.

More information on the Augustine Wildlife Area can be obtained by calling the facility's office at (302) 834-8433.

Prime Hook

National Wildlife Refuge

According to biologist Hossler, Prime Hook NWR is one of the top waterfowl destinations in the state, drawing hunters from Delaware, but also the metropolitan area that includes and surrounds Philadelphia.

In all, this federal property encompasses 10,000 acres, about 7,400 of which are tidal and freshwater marsh.

"Prime Hook has a good diversity of ducks," Hossler said. "The success rate here is very good. Water levels are more stable. It's worth the drive to get there."

The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is conducted at the same time each winter in each state a long the Atlantic Flyway, from Maine to Florida.

He said that December hunters could expect to find good numbers of mallards and black ducks -- the foundation of most public hunting areas. At Prime Hook, there's a better chance of seeing gadwalls, pintails and widgeons than at many other places.

While Prime Hook is located near Delaware Bay, the public property does not extend to the bay front. Waterfowl hunting is done on the freshwater impoundments and tidal marshes found off the bay. The stable water levels Hossler spoke of apply to these impoundments.

Permits are required to hunt the Prime Hook NWR. Drawings are held each hunting day, two hours before the start of shooting hours. Hunting days are Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the regular Delaware hunting seasons.

All hunting takes place from the permanent blinds found there. Boats are required to reach all of the blinds. Boats are limited to 25 horsepower. All boats, including canoes and other non-powered boats, are required to have proper running lights. Officials of the refuge recommend push poles for navigating shallow water.

Shooting hours at Prime Hook are a half-hour before sunrise until 3 p.m. A questionnaire is provided with each permit, which the hunter must fill out.

As at the Augustine Wildlife Area, Prime Hook offers additional opportunities for the late-season snow goose hunter.

Call the refuge headquarters at (302) 684-8419 for more information. This office is located off state Route (SR) 16, and lies 12 miles southeast of Milford and 10 miles northwest of Lewes.


Heaters Island

Wildlife Management Area

Maryland Department of Natural Resources waterfowl manager Larry Hindman said that waterfowlers should expect to see a good variety of ducks during December hunts in the Free State.

"This time of year, the divers will show up," he said. "The full complement of ducks will be here, assuming normal weather and typical migration. Scaup and canvasbacks will be on open-water areas. The migration usually peaks in December."

One area for waterfowlers to key in on, particularly ones from the central part of the state, is the 162-acre Heaters Island WMA. Found in Frederick County, Heaters Island is the largest of a complex of islands located in the Potomac River near Point of Rocks.

"The Potomac River is a well-used corridor for migrating waterfowl," notes Hindman. "Basically, hunters will find mallards and black ducks there. There may also be ringnecks and scaup. The goose hunting can also be good."

Maryland leans away from controlled hunts on its public lands, and this is the case on Heaters Island.

Special permits are not required to hunt this property, and you can erect a temporary blind. Your blind must be removed at the end of the day, however.

You will need a boat to access Heaters Island. A public ramp is located at Point of Rocks. Heaters Island is located downriver from the ramp, the first island below the U.S. Route 15 bridge. Heaters Island is forested. The waterfowl hunting is limited to the shoreline along the river, since no waterfowl habitat exists on the island itself.

To reach the boat ramp at Point of Rocks, take Route 15 south from Frederick. At Point of Rocks, turn left onto SR 28 and follow the signs to the boat ramp.

Additional information on Heaters Island can be obtained by calling the Indian Springs WMA in Clear Springs at (301) 777-2136.

Fishing Bay WMA

Not only is Fishing Bay WMA the state's largest publicly owned tidal wetland, it's also its largest wildlife management area, at 28,518 acres.

Fishing Bay is located in Dorchester County. This immense wildlife management area is located just to the east of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Fishing Bay consists of a variety of waterfowl habitats. As such, there are many hunting options.

There is the open water of the Fishing Bay and the Nanticoke River, along with an immense network of tidal creeks, ponds and marshes.

"All of the wetlands are tidal marsh, so you have to watch the tides and plan your hunts accordingly," Hindman said. He said that most hunters use johnboats to access the area's many ponds and marshes, and then will either erect a temporary blind, or construct a blind on the boat itself.

There are some ponds you can walk to, however. There are also opportunities to jump-shoot ducks. Expect to find blacks and mallards on the marshlands and canvasbacks on the bay.

Fishing Bay is located in Dorchester County. This immense wildlife management area is located just to the east of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Maps of Fishing Bay WMA can be found on the Maryland DNR's Web site. You can log on to them at www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/fishingbaymap.html.

From this page, you can click on any of nine maps that show individual parcels of this massive tract.

Given the size of this area, as well as its physical nature, it would be wise to carry a map, compass and hand-held GPS when huntin

g it, especially the interior areas.

The WMA has 12 designated parking areas, as well as six water access points. In addition to this, there are two boat ramps with parking areas.

From the Bay Bridge, take U.S. Route 50 east to Cambridge. Follow Bucktown Road south to Bestpitch Ferry Road. Proceed south, crossing the Transquaking River to the Fishing Bay entrance.

Other sections of the area can be reached from Griffiths Neck Road, Maple Dam Road and Elliot Island Road. The best public boat-launching facilities are at Bestpitch, Elliot Island and Shorters Wharf.

Additional information on Fishing Bay can be obtained by calling the office of the LeCompte Wildlife Management Area in Vienna at (410) 376-3236.

Ellis Bay WMA

Found to the east of Fishing Bay, across the Nanticoke River, are the 3,000 acres of Ellis Bay WMA in Wicomico County.

"Most folks who hunt Ellis Bay do so from a johnboat or from shore," Hindman said.

"There are some smaller creeks in this area, as well as some ponds."

Ellis Bay WMA is located right at the mouth of the Wicomico River. Two parcels comprise the area. The largest is found to the east of Ellis Bay. The smaller parcel is located just to the southwest, situated on the point that separates the mouths of the Wicomico and Nanticoke rivers.

In addition to the complement of dabblers listed on other tidal marshes -- namely, mallards and black ducks -- Hindman said that early-December hunters stand a good chance of bumping a few green-winged teal.

During mild winters like those we've been experiencing lately, there have been good numbers of teal available at this time.

"They should still be around," Hindman noted.

The WMA has a boat ramp, located on the northern end of the property. Another ramp is found off the WMA, across the Wicomico River in Webster Cove, near Mount Vernon.

From U.S. 50, take SR 349 west to Capitola Road, south to Trinity Church Road, and then west to Muddy Hole Road and the Ellis Bay WMA. For additional information, contact the Wellington wildlife office at (410) 543-8223.

Seasons and bag limits are set by the states in accordance of a framework established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Refer to your latest summary book of hunting regulations for this year's information, or log on to the agency's Web site.

Waterfowling hunting requires a federal duck stamp and registration in the Hunter Information Program (HIP). Consult your summary book for any additional permits and/or stamps.

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