Goose and duck hunters alike can still enjoy fine wingshooting throughout the First State and the Free State, especially at the five sites detailed here.
Photo by R.E. Ilg
By Gary Diamond
While at press time data from the Atlantic Flyway's waterfowl survey results was still being compiled, all indications are that Free State hunters will likely enjoy the same seasons and bag limits during 2003 they did last year. Granted, there may be some last-minute adjustments on migratory Canada goose bag limits or season days, but overall, not much will likely change.
The same holds true for canvasback ducks. Currently, the canvasback season is closed, and recent population surveys indicate that little has changed in the past few years. Consequently, much of the upcoming duck harvest will consist of mallards, green-winged teal, black ducks and diving ducks, most of which will likely be harvested from Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Larry Hindman is the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) leading waterfowl project manager, as well as an avid waterfowl hunter. When asked about waterfowl hunting opportunities for the seasons' later days, he said, "The pair count on the Atlantic Flyway's migratory geese was approximately 156,000 pairs, which is below the 164,000 estimated last year. Insofar as the nesting success, it was pretty good and the densities of the birds were good.
"However, it had been cold during the incubation period. I haven't talked to the survey crew recently to see what the weather conditions have been during the actual hatch. The overall survival rate is unknown at this time, and a lot depends on weather conditions during that first week or two after the hatch. At this time, we anticipate average production; the pair count is down about 5 percent. There may not be any change in goose hunting regulations for migrants this year. If there are any at all, there may be some days of two birds per day toward the last part of the seasons in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. However, I believe that we will still have a 45-day season for the migratory birds."
Hindman is relatively sure the canvasback season will remain closed through 2003.
"Though I don't have all of the data yet, it's likely the season will remain closed through 2003. Keep in mind, however, that we still have lots of other species of ducks available at this time of year. Diving duck hunters will have lots of scaup available, and if for some reason the canvasback season does open for a brief period, this will just be a bonus bird for diving duck hunters. I'm relatively confident that scaup bag limits will remain the same for this year, with three birds and a 60-day duck season.
"As far as dabbling ducks are concerned, the harvest will be made up mainly of mallards and green-winged teal. November is a big month for green-winged teal migration, but of course, a lot of this will depend on habitat conditions and weather. Unlike the 2002 season, when three years of successive drought dried up all the ponds and swamps, our pond bases and wetlands are in excellent condition. We definitely have quality habitat available for the ducks this year, and I believe 2003 will actually turn out to be a pretty good duck season.
"We should have lots of black ducks available, gadwalls will make up a pretty good number of the birds being harvested, but the majority of the birds bagged will still likely be mallards and teal. Of course, all of this improvement in habitat could present a challenge. There are only so many birds available, and because all those ponds and wetlands are filled to capacity, this may actually disburse the ducks and geese over a wider area. I guess we'll find out if this is the case when the season opens."
While the resident goose population continues to hold at approximately 70,000 to 90,000 birds, during the past two years there has been some expansion in the late-season harvest area, which according to Hindman, could help in reducing the number of nuisance problems created over the past decade. Until last year, late-season hunting was only permitted in the western counties of the state, locations where there was virtually no chance of bagging migratory Canada geese. Banding studies revealed that this area could be expanded to include much of Baltimore and several other counties along the Chesapeake's western shore. Consequently, this expansion seems to have aided in reducing the number of birds that began fouling municipal water supplies in Baltimore's three major reservoirs.
While waterfowl hunting is still not permitted in Loch Raven, Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs, there are a large number of small agricultural operations surrounding each watershed. Hindman says some hunters have been able to obtain permission to hunt geese from the farmers, which in turn, has had a dramatic impact on the number of birds that had taken up semi-permanent residence at the reservoirs.
"If waterfowl hunters go out and actively seek permission to hunt these small farms, I believe the harvest will increase quite a bit. These are not dumb birds, and there are some places where hunting was great a few years ago, but provided mediocre hunting, at best, last winter. After they've been shot at a few times, they'll frequently change their habits and fly to locations where there is little or no hunting pressure. A lot of those small farms that border watershed properties haven't been hunted in decades. Unfortunately, we have no state lands that provide these hunting opportunities, so people need to get out there and knock on doors and talk with the landowners. In some instances, they'll be able to obtain permission to hunt, but if not, they can also talk to the farmers about leasing the waterfowl hunting rights for a particular piece of property."
At Loch Raven, 3,000 to 5,000 birds could be seen rafting in the lake every day. When they were not enjoying a leisurely day basking on the lake, they would fly to the nearby golf course and feast on the fairway's grasses. Some spent their nights on the golf course's greens, where their acidic droppings burn the fragile grasses and cause thousands of dollars in damage to each green. Just one year after the expanded areas opened, the number of nuisance geese at Loch Raven dropped dramatically.
Keep in mind that 5,000 geese resting on the surface of a reservoir translate into lots of raw, untreated waste being deposited into the impoundment every day of the week. Two decades ago, before the geese arrived in large numbers, Loch Raven's waters were extremely clear, and anglers fishing most midlake coves could see the bottom 10 feet below the surface. Today, underwater visibility is limited to less than a foot because of the increased nutrient levels resulting from the geese.
With any luck, a decrease in resident goose population numbers will ultimately improve the lake's water quality. Hindman says hunters can also apply pressure to local
politicians to open reservoirs to waterfowl hunters, something that several other states' sportsmen have accomplished in dealing with nuisance geese.
The mute swan, another non-native bird that was introduced into the Mid-Atlantic Region, has recently stirred up much controversy in Maryland.
While tundra swan hunting had been outlawed for years, this particular law has also afforded protection to mute swans. Consequently, during the past three decades, the mute swan population has grown by leaps and bounds. As their numbers increase, they consume huge quantities of Chesapeake Bay's aquatic grasses, vegetation that is vital to the health of not only the bay's piscatorial inhabitants, but also, the very water quality that supports all aquatic life.
In order to alleviate the problem, Maryland's DNR decided to put forth a proposal to kill off a significant number of the mute swans that had taken up residence on Maryland's Eastern Shore at dozens of locations. Within days after the announcement by local TV media, lawsuits to stop the harvest were filed by animal rights groups, claiming the public was not permitted sufficient notice and allowed sufficient time to comment on the proposal. While the court upheld the lawsuits to some extent, in early July the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) published its assessment of issuing depredation permits to harvest the swans. This brings the proposal into compliance within the required public comment period, after which, the depredation permits will likely be reinstated by the USFWS and issued to the various jurisdictions.
Snow geese, which were tough to find last season, should be readily available this winter, particularly if the weather turns nasty a bit earlier than normal in states to the north.
"I think this will be a good season for snow geese. I don't have any official survey information, but from what I understand, breeding conditions were good for snow geese; therefore, there will be a lot of gray birds (yearlings). Hunting success should be pretty good, especially at locations where there is good access to the birds along the Delaware state line," Hindman said.
Just a year ago, Maryland signed a reciprocal agreement with Delaware for snow goose hunting, a pact that allows hunters from either state to hunt snow geese without purchasing an additional state migratory bird stamp in order to hunt the species on the other side of the border.
LATE-SEASON HOTSPOTS The Robert Graham Nanticoke Wildlife Area is located just across the Maryland/Delaware border in Sussex County, Del. This area contains 1,800 acres of public land. The Nanticoke River and Broad Creek provide open water that attracts snow geese, brant, canvasbacks and other waterfowl species, especially at this time of the year, when other waters may be frozen over.
Robert Graham Nanticoke Wildlife Area
Access to Broad Creek and the Nanticoke River is available at Cherry Walk. There are also two ponds found within the wildlife area: Craigs Mill and Portsville Millpond. Both have boat ramps.
Woodland Beach Wildlife Area Another top spot for First State hunters to try is the Woodland Beach Wildlife Area in Kent County. This 4,794-acre area is actually made up of two tracts, which are located right next to the expansive Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Snow geese have been a problem at this refuge for some time now. Hopefully, sportsmen shooting from any of the 27 blinds at Woodland Beach will help put a dent in this too-large population of geese.
Delaware waterfowlers can take 15 snow geese per day during a season that lasts until Jan. 16, 2004 (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only). The season will reopen on Feb. 9 and run through March 5.
For more information, call the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge at (302) 653-9345.
Susquehanna Flats "We had a great waterfowl season last year and the way things are shaping up, it could even be better this winter," said North East resident Mike Benjamin. Mike and his father Herb have been hunting the Susquehanna Flats' fertile waters for as long as anyone can remember. Herb, who just turned 70, began hunting this shallow delta nearly 50 years ago.
"I starting hunting the flats in about 1955, and other than during the Canada goose moratorium, I have been hunting there pretty much every season," said Herb. "Primarily, we're body-booting, which has been a traditional way to hunt this area for longer than I've been alive. We used to wear survival suits and cover up the blaze orange color by wearing long, camouflage wool sweaters, and that worked out pretty good. But the suits were kind of bulky and we recently switched over to wearing chest-high, neoprene waders, which keep you just about as warm. These waders are a lot more flexible and let you move around a lot easier. We also wear camouflage rain jackets with hoods, and that keeps us fairly dry and a little warmer as well."
Herb and Mike set out 20 goose racks, which are floating silhouettes with three birds on each spreading rack. They also strategically place 20 full-body, magnum floating goose decoys and 40 or so full-body duck decoys of various species ranging from wood ducks to canvasbacks. "We've found the birds don't seem to be as wary out here in the open water, and you have to keep in mind that we're sometimes hunting a half-mile or more from the nearest shore. Consequently, all we need to bag our limit is a 12-gauge shotgun with a modified choke and 28-inch barrel. That's all it takes to make a clean kill, mainly because they usually come in pretty close. They get close enough so that we can use No. 4 steel shot with magnum loads; it's pretty rare to have a cripple."
Herb says another big advantage to hunting open expanses of water on the Susquehanna Flats is that you don't have to be an expert at calling in the birds.
"We have goose calls and duck calls, and you really don't have to be an expert out on the flats. In the fields, you really have to be careful how often you call and that call better sound pretty authentic or all you'll do is scare the birds off. But out here on the flats, the birds just don't seem to be picky about the calling techniques at all. The birds seem to be a lot dumber out on the flats."
Herb says the ideal water depth to hunt over is 2 feet, but much of this depends on the tidal conditions at the time. Tidal changes in this segment of Chesapeake Bay average about 2 feet; therefore, if you arrive at high tide, you may have to relocate your decoy spread as the tide begins to fall.
He also tries to locate the remnants of grassbeds, locations that will not only attract waterfowl to feed, but additionally, the grasses tend to calm the wave action and make the decoys appear natural. Last season, between the two, they bagged 14 different species of ducks, lots of migratory and resident Canada geese. Though none came within shooting range, they did see several small flocks of snow geese. "At one time I had them all figured out, but that was until the shoveler
s arrived. We hadn't seen them in years, and they seemed to be dumber than a stone. We stopped shooting them because it was no longer much of a challenge."
Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Fishing Bay WMA is a vast tidal marsh that covers more than 17,000 acres and borders on two bodies of water: Fishing Bay and the Nanticoke River. Located west of Salisbury, this particular area is best accessed via a small to midsized boat that is specifically set up for waterfowl hunting. Aluminum skiffs ranging 16 to 20 feet and outboard powered are ideal, especially when draped with camouflage netting and decorated with dried cattail reeds. Essentially, the boat can be beached along the marshy shores, thereby becoming a great waterfowl blind.
Launch ramps can be found at Bestpitch, Elliott and Shorters Wharf and at Maple Dam Road south of Robbins. There are also ramps on Elliott's Island Road just past Pokata Creek and near Langrells Island. Only portable blinds and natural cover may be used in the WMA confines, and natural cover may not be cut to construct temporary blinds.
In recent years, the DNR has blasted dozens of potholes to increase brood habitat and feeding areas for migratory waterfowl. Additionally, the marsh is periodically burned to encourage the growth of three-square bulrush, which is an important waterfowl food. The DNR has also installed gut plugs, which are similar to small dams that restrict some of the tidal flow in creeks and guts. This promotes the growth of widgeon grass, sago pondweed and other forms of aquatic vegetation that attracts waterfowl.
Potomac River Heaters Island WMA Most hunters will remember the winter of 2002-03 as among the worst on record. A three-year drought came to an end in early October 2002 when torrential rains hit our region. The downpour continued right through the winter and turned into heavy snow by mid-December. As a result, the Potomac River rose to flood stage and remained in that state until mid-July of 2003. Consequently, pass-shooting was nearly impossible and because of the drastic weather conditions, the area's resident goose population seemed to change from their traditional flyway patterns to ones that avoided the river entirely.
"We had real problems with the weather last winter," said Ken Penrod, owner of Life Outdoors Unlimited, a local guide service. "We normally put together lots of very successful cast-and-blast trips this time of year, and after bagging our limit of geese, which usually only takes a couple hours, we spend the rest of the day catching big smallmouth bass. Last year, we spent a lot less time hunting and a lot more time fishing, as the birds just didn't cooperate. I think it was because there was so much water available that the birds didn't have to rely on the Potomac River. We saw them in every farm pond, municipal park ponds and even in large puddles created by the torrential rains. If the weather ever dries up a bit, I sincerely believe they'll be back to their old, traditional haunts along the Potomac River."
Heaters Island WMA is situated in the middle of the Potomac River just a stone's throw from the town of Point Of Rocks. The 194-acre island is only accessible via small boat; therefore, it's important to pay close attention to the river's state before venturing out to go hunting. The nearest launch ramp is located beneath the U.S. Route 15 bridge in Point of Rocks and it is capable of handling boats to 18 feet.
According to the DNR, the best waterfowl hunting usually takes place along the island's southern shore, particularly in the back eddy, which is also the best location to set up decoys. The surrounding hills in Maryland and Virginia mainly consist of corn fields, which attract the geese to feed early and late in the day.
During midday, the geese can often be seen resting on the river in the eddies of major islands. Penrod says after a few hours of shooting, the geese will go back to the fields, and then hunters can either pack up and go home, or if they wish, spend a few hours landing big smallmouth bass. Not a bad way to spend a cold winter's day.
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