Waterfowling Hotspots in New England

Cold temperatures and harsh weather drive ducks and geese to the coastal marshes this month, providing some of the most exciting shotgunning of the season. Here's where to find hot action near you.

Photo by John R. Ford

By Tom Migdalski

December duck hunting in New England offers a wide variety of options as thousands of new migrant waterfowl from the Northern states and Canada congregate in the region's coastal area. Sea ducks, bay ducks, geese, brant and puddlers present the chance for a nice mixed bag at the end of the day.

If this is a "normal" December, the weather has turned cold enough to start freezing the big Northern lakes and most local inland waters. Combined with frigid northwest winds and the first significant snows of the season, harsh conditions will push birds into our coastal areas throughout the month. The recent arrivals will be hungry, tired and looking for places to rest and feed. But unlike our native duck populations, the newcomers weren't educated by big decoy spreads and gunfire during the early season.

According to regional waterfowl biologists, bird numbers look good this season.

"We conducted our breeding surveys last spring," says Min Huang, a Connecticut waterfowl biologist, "and it looks like we're going to be just fine for Atlantic Flyway puddle ducks. The cold, wet spring didn't seem to affect nesting in Connecticut. Our wetlands were in great shape - we had a lot of water and breeding was good.

"We had slight declines in our mallard, wood duck and black duck counts, but nothing statistically significant, just normal annual variations in our counts. The overall trend for all three of those species is one of stability and flight increase," he said.

"Our goose numbers are also high, so we're looking pretty good," Huang added. "It's weather dependent, of course, but we should have a good season this year."

The best bet for December action is to build a blind and rig some decoys in one of the many public wildlife management areas (WMAs) along the New England coast. All of these offer good gunning opportunities for a wide range of species, especially if the weather cooperates.

Here is a look at some time-tested, biologist-recommended WMA hotspots in your area this month.

One of the state's top coastal marshes, according to Huang, is the 812-acre Charles Wheeler WMA on the Housatonic River in southwestern Connecticut between Milford and Stratford. This WMA is close to Long Island Sound, which means it usually stays open through all but the coldest winters.

One popular launch to access the Housatonic River and marsh is found by taking Interstate Route 95 to Exit 34. Turn west on Route 1 and then north on Naugatuck Avenue. The launch is on the left. Plenty of parking is available. Hunters using small duck boats should be cautious because there are strong currents and possible tide-driven ice floes here. Icing of the ramp, however, is never a problem until after the holidays when the weather turns truly bitter.

From the ramp, head one-half mile downriver and follow any of the cuts deep into the marsh. Be alert for a possible temporary stranding at low tide.

Check DeLorme's Connecticut-Rhode Island Atlas and Gazetteer's Map 59 for details on the Charles Wheeler WMA.

If you don't have a boat, local conservation officers recommend trying the small Court Street ramp on the marsh's southeast side. From here, hunters can walk a short distance on public property.

To find this ramp, turn south on Naugatuck Avenue and then right on Milford Point Road and right onto Court Street. If you plan to launch a boat from this small, undeveloped area, a four-wheel-drive is helpful.

At the mouth of the Connecticut River is Great Island WMA on the eastern end of the state. Both sides of the river are huntable. In Old Lyme, Great Island contains 504 acres of coastal marsh holding dozens of creeks, coves and inlets on the river and protected backwater sides.

A boat launch is off I-95 at Exit 70 to Route 156 in Old Lyme. Travel south on Route 156 for 1.8 miles to Smith Neck Road. Follow Smith Neck .9 miles to the launch.

Hunting waterfowl in Connecticut requires a federal duck stamp ($20), a Connecticut waterfowl stamp ($5), a Connecticut small game license ($10 resident, $42 non-resident) and a HIP permit ($2).

Visit the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's comprehensive Web site at www.dep. state.ct.us for the 2003-04 seasons and bag limits or pick up a brochure at any town hall. Hunters should remember that Connecticut's South (coastal) Zone is separated from the North (inland) Zone by Interstate Route 95.

For a Waterfowl Hunting Guide and individual 8 1/2x11 maps of Connecticut's various WMAs, contact the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Wildlife Division at (860) 424-3011; or write them at 79 Elm St., Hartford, CT 06106.

For visitor information, call the Connecticut Office of Tourism at (800) CT-BOUND; or visit their Web site at www.state.ct.us/tourism.

Waterfowlers may also reach biologist Min Huang at (860) 642-7239.

Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the Union, but one look at a map or chart shows why it ranks at the top for coastal waterfowling. Numerous estuaries, bays, inlets and islands bordered by coastal marshes provide great late-season shooting for scaup, buffleheads, goldeneyes, canvasbacks, black ducks, mallards and geese.

One of several good WMAs is Dutch Island, which is on Narragansett Bay in Jamestown. Divers travel along its perimeter as they commute along West Passage. A true island, access is available only by boat. However, a convenient launch is at Fort Getty Recreation Area on Beaverhead. To find it, travel south from Jamestown Center to Hamilton Avenue. Go west to the causeway to Conanicut Island. Turn right on Beavertail Road to the end.

To have a close-up look at Dutch Island WMA, see DeLorme's Connecticut-Rhode Island Atlas & Gazetteer, Map 72, grid I-1.

A top puddle duck spot, according to biologists, is the 190-acre Seapowet Marsh WMA on the Sakonnet River in Tiverton. This tidewater area holds creeks, small inlets and salt ponds. Access is west of Route 77 on sections of Neck Road and Seapowet Avenue. For details,

see DeLorme's Connecticut-Rhode Island Atlas & Gazetteer, Map 72.

For this year's season dates, you can check the latest regulations at www.state.ri.us/dem.

A small-game license, state duck stamp and federal duck stamp are required for waterfowl hunting in the Ocean State. For additional hunting information, maps, regulations or a copy of The Atlas of Rhode Island Wildlife Management Areas, contact the Rhode Island Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Wakefield, RI 02879; or call (401) 789-0281 or (401) 222-1267.

For lodging and travel arrangements, contact the Rhode Island Tourism Division, 1 W. Exchange St., Providence, RI 02903; or call (800) 556-2484.

Compared to the considerable size of this New England state, New Hampshire has a relatively tiny coastline. But, it does have some good December shooting spots. Biologists always recommend the famous Great Bay for a good chance at puddler hunting in December. The large tidewater can be found several miles from the coast up the Piscataqua River. Several boat launches rim Great Bay, but a good choice for the lower bay is the all-tides Chapman's Landing. You can find it off Route 108 in Newfields in the bay's southwestern corner. DeLorme's New Hampshire Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 30, shows more detail on this spot.

The Piscataqua River and Little Bay can also provide good late-season duck hunting. To access these spots, try the ramp at the Hilton Park landing at Dover Point. Several boat launches are in this area. For access to the upper bay, try the launch at Adam's Point Road in Durham.

From here hunters can motor in close to the railroad tracks, where pass-shooting at mallards and black ducks can be very good at times. Beyond the tracks, it's possible to set out decoys off Shackford Point at the Lamprey River mouth. Heading north toward Little Bay, hunters will find puddlers off Adams Point WMA. Divers are likely to mix in at most spots in both bays. Check Delorme's New Hampshire Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 30 for details.

The Granite State classifies its Coastal Zone as the southeastern corner of the state as demarcated by Route 108.

A limit of six birds was allowed in the Coastal Zone last year, one of which could be a black duck and four of which could be mallards, including two hens. This year's seasons and bag limits should be similar.

A New Hampshire hunting license is required along with state and federal duck stamps and a HIP permit. For more details, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at (603) 271-3211; or visit the department's Web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us.

For local information and conditions, call the only sporting goods store in the area, Suds 'n Soda, at (603) 431-6320 on Portsmouth Avenue in Greenland.

The Parker Wildlife Refuge north of Gloucester attracts many waterfowlers each season. One advantage of this site is that it can be accessed by boat or on foot. Parking in the refuge is limited and can fill quickly on weekends, so it's best to arrive early or hunt only on weekdays. The entrance gate and parking lots open one hour before shooting time.

The Parker River site is classified as areas A, B or C, and each has its own regulations. In Area A, access is by boat only from the refuge boat ramp. Vehicles and trailers must be parked in Lot 1 or in off-refuge sites.

There are several access options for Area B, including by boat from the refuge ramp, off-refuge sites or on foot from Lot 8 from Newbury Neck Road and Marsh Avenue.

Public Hunting Area signs clearly show the spots designated for hunting. Hunters can find Area B from Lot 8 one-third of a mile to the left of the trail's end. Jump-shooting is not allowed here. Refuge rules also require that hunters must rig out at least six waterfowl decoys and hunt within 50 yards of their spread.

Area C, Nelson's Island, can only be accessed on foot, which is nice for hunters who don't own a duck boat. Parking is available in Lot 9 off Stackyard Road. No hunting is allowed within 150 feet of the parking area.

Call the refuge and get a map and detailed waterfowling regulations before hunting in Parker River or Salisbury Park; both sites have unique rules for duck hunters. Waterfowlers can view the area in Map 19 of DeLorme's Massachusetts Atlas & Gazetteer.

To the south is Barnstable Marsh along the base of Cape Cod, a large area protected from the choppy Atlantic Ocean by Sandy Neck. Barnstable Harbor leads into the marsh, which has many tidal cuts, inlets and islands to attract and hold waterfowl.

A small access area is available for only a few cars down Scudder Lane. Turn left off Route 6A, just beyond the railroad bridge in Barnstable. Although space is tight, it's worth trying here first because you're nearer the marsh than when running from the large Barnstable town landing along Mill Way. To view the area, see DeLorme's Massachusetts Atlas & Gazetteer, Map 66.

Last year, the coastal season was open for the entire month of December with a daily limit of six birds. The dates should be nearly the same this year.

For a copy of this season's dates and bag limits, check out the MassWildlife Web site at www.state. ma.us/dfwele/dfw/. Maps of all the other state WMAs and public access spots and ramps are also listed. Or contact the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 100 Cambridge St., Room 1902, Boston, MA 02202; phone them at (508) 792-7270.

For directions, maps and local conditions, call the Salisbury State Park office at (978) 462-4481. For the Parker River Refuge, call (978) 465-5753. For visitor information, write the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 100 Cambridge St., 13th Floor, Boston, MA 02202; or call (800) 447-6277.

"Our brood counts last spring revealed a fair numbers of ducks," said Brad Allen, a waterfowl biologist at the Maine Fish and Wildlife Department. "I'd say Maine's fall and winter hunting forecast would be 'fair.' The unusually rainy, cool spring we had was not bumper-crop-type weather conditions. It's not so much a problem of the birds hatching; it's the survival of the ducklings. They don't survive well in cold, wet weather. But, this year's numbers are normal, and the shooting should be okay.

"Last year, hunting conditions were good. We've had generous federal frameworks to set our hunting seasons. The 10,000 or so duck hunters in Maine had a pretty good season. If the weather cooperates, it may be the same this year."

Allen always says that Merrymeeting Bay is one of your best bets. The bay is excellent earlier in the season, but ma

y be hit or miss later as the chance of ice increases. During average years, most local birds will have moved south by now, and Maine hunters depend on new arrivals from Canada to provide coastal shooting opportunities.

Merrymeeting Bay has boat access at Browns Point Road off Route 24. Turn right after reaching Center Point Road. Launch a duck boat north of Bald Head, a prominent landmark that extends into the bay from the west shore. Try motoring south to the area around Brick Island, which is productive for puddle ducks throughout the season. Another launch is on the south arm of the bay opposite Mustard Island off Old Bath Road. Check Map 6 in DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.

If the weather remains mild, biologist Allen also suggests Great Works WMA, a marsh and pond habitat west of Dennysville in Down East Maine. Access Great Works by traveling Route 86 to Venture Brook Road. The launch is suitable for only small or carry-in boats. Check DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 26 for more information.

A small-game license is needed for duck hunting in addition to state ($2.50) and federal ($20) migratory bird hunting stamps. For 2003-04 regulations, dates and bag limits, visit the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Web site at www.mefishwildlife.com. To purchase a state hunting stamp, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State St., Augusta, Maine 04333; or call (207) 287-8000.

For visitor information, contact the Maine Publicity Bureau, P.O. Box 2300, Hallowell, ME 04347; or call (207) 623-0363.

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