Potomac River Winter Waterfowling

Potomac River Winter Waterfowling

Quality duck and goose wingshooting can be found from Seneca Creek State Park up to Harpers Ferry and beyond.

by Andy Aughenbaugh

Mention Maryland waterfowling and images of saltwater marshes full of black ducks or rafts of canvasbacks floating out on the Susquehanna flats comes to mind. But for many of us "westerners" of the state, another kind of waterfowling fills our season.

The Potomac River, from its beginning in the farther reaches of western Maryland to its mouth at Chesapeake Bay some 300 miles later, is full of waterfowling opportunities. Ducks of many different species, including wood ducks, mallards, gadwalls and canvasbacks, travel the river and can be found floating along its banks.

The non-tidal section of the Potomac from the Seneca Creek State Park area upstream to Harpers Ferry can offer some outstanding waterfowling action. This section of the Potomac River provides Maryland waterfowlers with many different options when it comes to duck and goose hunting.

The area around Seneca and Pennyfields sees populations of ringnecks, gadwalls and buffleheads. In some years canvasbacks have even been known to show during the late season. Farther up the river, mallards, black ducks and wood ducks fill the daily bags. Widgeon and teal have also been known to visit decoy spreads from time to time. Geese abound in the river and offer the goose hunter outstanding hunting from the early September season through late February.

As with any type of waterfowl hunting, Potomac River waterfowling comes with its own set of regulations. The first issue to contend with is access to the river. The C&O Canal, a National Historical Park, runs along the river and limits access to it. Access to the river from the Maryland shore is only permitted at designated points. Most of the public boat ramps are designated hunter access points. Hunters must use the most direct means to enter the river at these locations.

Any person found carrying a firearm, cased or not, while walking along the C&O path, will be ticketed and their gun can, and will, be confiscated. The park service is tough on these regulations, and it is best not to push the issue. As long as you use one of the listed access points and do not walk up or down the C&O path with your hunting equipment, you will not encounter a problem. All of the points of access mentioned in this article are designated hunter access points. For a complete list, contact the C&O Canal National Park Service office.

Be sure to check the latest bag limits and season dates before going hunting on your favorite water this month. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Another factor with the National Park along Maryland's shore is that the park's property line is the water's edge. No hunting is allowed from the Maryland shoreline. This really is not a problem because the better hunting is done from the many islands, which are away from the shoreline. You will be ticketed if you are found hunting from the Maryland shoreline.

Except for a few of the islands that are privately owned, most of the non-tidal Potomac is void of permanent blinds and blind sites. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does not issue blind sites along the non-tidal Potomac River. A gunning rig license was formerly required to hunt from a boat that is drifting or being sculled. This license has been eliminated. No special license is required to hunt the non-tidal Potomac River from an anchored boat or standing on the river bottom.

Remember, though, a federal and state waterfowl stamp is required to duck or goose hunt on the Potomac, as with anywhere else in the state.

According to Larry Hindman of the DNR and Scott Barmby of Black Duck Outfitters, the best waterfowl hunting on the non-tidal Potomac is around the Seneca area. Hindman explained that during his wintertime waterfowl surveys, he often finds large groups of ringnecks above the Great Falls area around Seneca. The Seneca Breaks, a rocky section of river, can harbor several species of ducks from puddle ducks to sea ducks.

It all depends on the weather. A colder than normal winter will force more sea ducks such as canvasbacks to show up in this area. During the most severe winters, large rafts of canvasbacks and other sea ducks are found in the Seneca slack water above the Breaks.

Bluebills love the big water above the breaks during the late season. Puddle ducks, like black ducks and greenheads, can almost always be found in the slower water pockets in the Seneca Breaks area. To access this area, use the boat ramp located at the end of Riley's Lock Road off state Route (SR) 112. Black Duck Outfitters has been able to fill limits of ducks with seven different species in this area during the late season. For a variety of ducks not found farther upriver, this is the place to try.

For the waterfowler who wants to hunt this region but does not have a boat, the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is just the ticket. This area is full of flooded timber. Biologists deliberately flood the forests during the fall and winter. This flooded timber attracts thousands of wood ducks and mallards every year in the nearly 2,000-acre WMA.

A few years ago I spent the opening day of the early season in October sitting in my canoe in one of the small ponds at McKee-Beshers. I was in total disbelief at the number of wood ducks filling the sky. I had my two-bird limit in only a matter of minutes after legal shooting time. Another time I took my nephew out on a youth hunt back in the flooded timbers. We had wood duck after wood duck land only a few feet in front of us. We were using only four wood duck decoys set out in the small opening of the flooded timber. If wood ducks are your pursuit, then McKee is a must try.

Wood ducks are not the only inhabitants of the flooded hardwoods of McKee-Beshers. Mallards and black ducks abound as well. While this area does receive plenty of hunting pressure, sportsmen who are willing to walk a little farther back into the flooded areas can find some unbelievable duck hunting. I have tried to hunt this area in hip boots, only to end up wet. Chest waders are a must. Unlike much of the river hunting, large decoy spreads are not necessary. A spread of a half dozen decoys placed in the right location can pull ducks into shooting range.

River access is available at McKee-Beshers, for the canoe or small boat duck hunter, at the end of Sycamore Road. You have to carry the canoe or boat about 100 yards across the C&O Canal path and down over the bank. I have used this access to launch my canoe after a morning goose hunt in the field at the end of Sycamore Road.

We had watched flight after flight

of ducks and geese travel up the river and could not resist the temptation to try our hand at the ducks. Two hunters stayed in the field watching over the goose decoys, while I and another hunter took the canoe and a few duck decoys out into the river.

It was late in the season and ice was beginning to form on the river. But in no time, we had the decoys set. Most of the flights were over by the time we reached the river, but we still managed to enjoy some decent shooting. This access is not easy due to the long carry, but for the canoe hunter it allows access to an area less hunted - without miles of paddling.

According to Larry Hindman, another hotspot for wood ducks is farther upriver at Williamsport. Access to the river is available at the boat ramp at River Bottom Park in Williamsport. The ramp is located at C&O Canal milepost 99.79 and is some 79-river miles above McKee- Beshers. Williamsport is located southwest of Hagerstown on SR 68. This area is not exactly known for its waterfowl hunting, but that is what makes it fun.

Shooting a limit of ducks or resident geese among the mountains of western Maryland can be rewarding, and the backdrop of the mountain slopes can be refreshing to the waterfowler accustomed to salt marshes. I enjoy the early wood duck hunts on the upper sections of the Potomac, especially for the lack of mosquitoes. Unlike the marshes of the Eastern Shore during the warm early season, the mountain regions of the Potomac River harbor a much smaller, often nonexistent mosquito population.

Float Hunting
I started hunting the Potomac River this way several years ago. The Potomac River, Monocacy River, and Conococheague Creek are the only three rivers where sneak boat hunting is permitted in Maryland. Whether running a section of river solo or with a partner, this can be a successful way to hunt. The key when sneak boat hunting is to keep the boat in the shadows when possible, keeping movement in the boat to a minimum while keeping a low profile.

Several good float sections for the early morning pursuit of wood ducks exist farther downriver from Harpers Ferry, back down to the Seneca area. I like to drift a short distance down river from the ramp or paddle a distance up river before the break of day, set out a few wood duck decoys in the shallow water, then wait for daylight and the early morning flight of wood ducks.

Once the morning flight slows, then I will float the short section of river, jump-shooting the resident mallards of the river on my way to the take-out location. This combination of floating, jump-shooting ducks and setting of decoys can be a very productive way to pursue ducks on the Potomac River.

Not only is the early season good to float the river, but the late season can be very productive when hunting in this manner as well. I will put the canoe in at one of the many ramps located between Brunswick and Seneca, depending on what our scouting has shown, and float a few miles to the next river access location. When birds are located, we will often set out decoys and wait for the birds to return after jumping them.

Scott of Black Duck Outfitters had one thing to say when we discussed how to waterfowl hunt the non-tidal section of the Potomac River. "Use big spreads, set up in the middle of the river; conceal the boat and hunters well, and keep movement to a minimum. Call very little. If you do that then you'll have a successful hunt."

It's a number game. Everyone has a dozen or two duck decoys and the birds are familiar with spreads of that size. Scott will often place 50 duck and 50 goose decoys out in one spread. Scott and I both place goose decoys out when duck hunting. Mallards and other ducks readily come into large goose decoy spreads. Mixing up the spread, with several species of ducks pocketed within or alongside the geese, will greatly increase your chances of pulling in the large greenhead or black duck that has seen it all by late season.

I have had teal come into, and land in, my goose spread while hunting in September. During the early season in October, I often use smaller spreads on the upper reaches of the river, but during the later seasons big spreads mixed with ducks and geese are the mainstays. Scott also is a firm believer in the use of motion decoys. One of the many different types of feeder or robotic wing motion decoys can make the difference between the birds flying past or dropping into the spread, according to Scott.

Scott prefers to set up in the middle of the river and work the birds with big spreads. When looking for a spot to place decoys, other locations to consider are the downriver side of the smaller islands, shallow water with grass, and in the slow water pockets among the exposed rocks.

One of my favorite methods of hunting this river is to slide my canoe in with the larger rocks, and then place my decoys in the slower water below the rocks. I'll then completely cover the canoe with camouflage burlap. By using the rocks as a natural blind, the birds are much less wary when approaching the spread. On low sky days, when the birds are flying low, the pass shooting opportunities are an added bonus to this method.

Sediment deposits located at the downstream side of the many smaller islands provide shallow water and food for the waterfowl of the non-tidal Potomac. These areas can be very productive when the hunter can properly conceal himself on the island.

The first flight of ducks happens early on the river at first light. But do not count out the rest of the day. The ducks on the river will move around all day. The peak of the goose movement seems to often happen between 10 a.m. and noon.

Weather plays a big part in the movement of the birds. A change in the barometric pressure that precedes a cold front will often put the birds on the move. I asked Scott his favorite weather conditions when hunting the river, and he wants blue skies with a 15 mph wind. One thing Scott mentioned that I had not thought of before was the flight of helicopters and low-flying airplanes. When you see a helicopter fly overhead, get ready, the ducks and geese will be up and moving.

Special care must be made when heading out on the river during the coldest months of year. I always carry a change of clothes in a dry bag. Always wear your life preserver when boating on the river. And keep a watch out for those shallow rocks. A rock guard is mandatory when using an outboard motor. Extra shear pins and the tools needed to change it should also be stored on board. A means to start a fire and a first aid kit also travel with me whenever I make a trip out on the river. Being prepared to handle a nasty situation cannot save an otherwise ruined hunting trip, but it may save your life.

While the non-tidal Potomac River may not be the first thought in Maryland waterfowlers' minds when planning a hunting trip, it can be a very productive destination whether pursuing early-season resident geese or late-season

black ducks and redheads. When traveling to the non-tidal Potomac for the first time, I would suggest calling a professional outfitter like Scott Barmby of Black Duck Outfitters; he can be reached at (877) 607-6014. So this coming season instead of heading east, head west for your next waterfowl adventure.

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