Traditional duck-hunting spots are hard to come by, but wood duck hunters who hit the swamps can find shooting for much of the season. (December 2007)
Very little gear is necessary for hunting wood ducks around beaver ponds, though a good pair of legs and a retriever are both quite helpful.
Photo by Mark Fike.
Mild winters have been a blessing to many Virginians over the past three years, but the lack of arctic air has caused waterfowlers to see a noticeable shortage of traditional ducks, such as mallards, pintails, gadwalls, widgeons and black ducks. Many die-hard duck hunters kept rising well before dawn to go sit in the blind only to be disappointed at the lack of flights. Some hunters with access to prime water managed to scrape up a few birds each day. I know this to be the case, as I am a member of one of the former group and know guys in the latter group.
On a whim one early Saturday morning two seasons ago, a close friend and I decided to save ourselves the trouble of hooking up the boat, spreading dekes and driving to the boat launch. Instead, we simply put on waders and walked down to the swamp behind his house. The exercise was more to say that we had gone duck hunting and had not passed an opportunity to get afield. We certainly did not expect to see many, if any, ducks flying, since previous trips during the late season when the main river was iced in had proved fruitless for us at the swamp.
To say we were pleasantly surprised would be a huge understatement. We soon found ourselves in the thick of it with wood ducks flying steadily in whether or not we did any calling. A few mallards and black ducks made a showing, too. Our rusty shooting skills were painfully evident and the one box of HeviShot I had with me was soon empty. That was two seasons ago and since then, we have found ourselves in a swamp somewhere every possible day.
Is this a fluke? Hardly. We spoke with VDGIF's Migratory Game Bird Manager Gary Costanzo about what we experienced.
"In years when the weather is mild, the wood ducks may not take off as early as they would during normal years. And even if some wood ducks do take off because the weather turns a bit cooler, then hunters are apt to still see wood ducks because you have that leap frog effect where the wood ducks that are living farther north have left their areas and headed south to escape what has become too cold for them. Therefore, hunters will continue to see wood ducks in some numbers all season long. If the winter is unseasonably cold, then there may be fewer woodies around."
The explanation fits what we experienced perfectly. Surprisingly, we heard of few other hunters who were taking advantage of the windfall of woodies. This is too bad because hunting as we have the past few seasons has a number of advantages.
First of all, there always seems to be plenty of ducks in the swamp. Since the ducks are "leap frogging" down the coast through Virginia, we did not have to be overly concerned that we were simply hunting a local resident population. With the state bag limit of two woodies per day per hunter, they were sufficiently protected anyway and we were still getting more action than we would on the main river or a large lake. Every few trips, we would make an effort to give the swamp a break and visit a different swamp a few times.
EASIER LOGISTICS/LESS HASSLE
Second, a wood duck hunter in a swamp does not need much in the way of gear. A pair of waders and a shotgun with shells may be all that is needed in some places. Certainly, a retriever is a big help, but a dog is not strictly necessary. This type of hunting is great for the solo hunter. As a schoolteacher, I have a few days off at Christmas and the occasional snow day or delay due to snow. Of course, on those days, I can be found knee deep in water and mud in a swamp cradling my shotgun.
On the days where we simply have a delay of an hour, I only take my waders, shotgun and shells plus my camo waterfowl parka. The woodies make their morning flight past my pre-scouted position; I bang away at them and then wade over and retrieve my dinner before hiking back to the truck to change.
Scouting before the hunt, however, is essential to know where to set up your stand. Little or no decoys are needed. A motion decoy is great for drawing in wary birds, though, and one such decoy will do the trick. Be sure to put it in a large pool in the swamp or pond where it can be seen, though.
Swamp hunting for wood ducks always seemed to turn up a few bonus birds, too. The occasional mallard, black duck or even a gadwall may come screaming into the half dozen decoys we put out.
Probably the best bonus we get every other trip is a passing flight of geese. Resident geese stick around all season and many of these birds will overnight in a local beaver pond or swamp. We found out very quickly that if we paid attention the geese will announce their coming before us seeing them. We frantically swap out shells and hit the goose call a few times to get the big birds' attention and try to keep them low as they come down the swamp. After shooting at fast-moving missiles for an hour or so, the big, lumbering birds are deceiving in their flight. We missed some incredibly easy shots at first but soon caught on to the proper lead.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Obviously, the best places to do this type of do-it-yourself wood duck hunting are where the ducks thrive: a swamp. A look at a topographical map can help a hunter find a swamp nearby. For the hunter without a boat or canoe, the best swamps to look for are those that are landlocked and away from the big rivers. They tend to be smaller and shallower, which means they can be waded. Look for creeks and streams on the map and then follow them to an intersection of other streams and creeks. It is a good bet that the wetlands at that confluence will create a location that beavers will take advantage of. This is a particularly good location to check out after a wet year.
An untapped source of beaver ponds and swamps that is open to the public is our military bases. Quantico Marine Corps Base, Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Picket immediately come to mind as installations with a number of beaver ponds. Because they are open to the public (with some restrictions and additional regulations), many hunters figure they are overhunted. The truth is that most hunting on these installations during December and early January is done in pursuit of whitetail deer.
Again, use a topo map to determine where unnamed beaver ponds are located and then hike in. Obviously, in the case of military installations, it's critical that you check the regulations to be sure you are in an open area before hunting. The military installation will also have a map of
named ponds that are frequented by anglers. The larger ponds can be accessed by a small boat or canoe, but much of the wood duck hunting is done from shore on the smaller ponds.
Virginia currently has 34 wildlife management areas (WMAs) accounting for nearly 200,000 acres of land. Some of the better WMAs to hunt ducks include Dutch Gap, Hog Island, Princess Anne and Chickahominy WMAs. There are a number of additional WMAs and other public lands that offer good wood duck hunting listed at www.findgame.org. Users can work through the site and determine which public land is best for waterfowl, which is the closest and so on. Information such as phone numbers and boat launch facilities are also listed on the site, which is a gold mine for hunters.
In addition to military installations and WMAs, local farm ponds should be checked out, too. Sometimes the water is inviting enough that woodies will stop in for a few days before heading farther south. Landowners and farmers are more apt to approve a request to hunt on their property for waterfowl or small game than they are deer. It never hurts to ask.
JUMP-SHOOTING FROM A BOAT
Hunters who own or have access to a small duck boat, kayak or canoe will find that Virginia has thousands of miles of sloughs, backwaters and small tributaries that attract wood ducks. Jump-shooting from a kayak, canoe or even a small johnboat is great fun and a very effective way to bag a pair of the great-tasting and beautiful birds.
Hunters are cautioned to make a dry run through the selected stretch of water before actually hunting it if they are hunting east of Interstate 95. Virginia has some antiquated waterfowl hunting laws that make it difficult for the average Joe to hunt public water without concern for breaking a law. Look for properly licensed blinds on the dry run through the section that is to be hunted. All hunting east of I-95 must be done a minimum of 500 yards away from properly licensed blinds regardless of whether they are occupied unless the hunter has permission from the blind owner. Hunters west of I-95 will find that blinds are not licensed and jump-shooting is much easier.
Small rivers and streams are perhaps the easiest to jump-shoot woodies from. Because the water is small and surrounding banks have overhanging trees, wood ducks will frequent the area. Some of the state's smaller rivers and tributaries, such as the Appomattox, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, North and South Anna rivers, flow quietly through the Tidewater and the Piedmont regions. These small rivers have few public boat launches, but hunters who use a map can determine the length of a float from one highway bridge to another and then put in right at the road with a canoe or kayak.
Another option is to hunt the lower river tributaries and sloughs. Once again, be cognizant of the location of licensed blinds before doing any shooting. When hunting the sloughs and tidal tributaries of the lower river, such as the James, Chickahominy and Rappahannock, some form of propulsion will be needed to move along. This type of hunting can be done with a quiet trolling motor-driven canoe or johnboat, or by paddling a kayak or canoe. Sometimes when the tide is moving at a good clip, a small craft can drift along slowly and offer good shooting opportunities with little paddling required. Shooting may not be done from a motor-driven craft until all forward progress has ceased. Keep that in mind if using a trolling motor.
No decoys are needed for jump-shooting. A paddle, shotgun, shells, waterproof clothing, binoculars and an emergency kit will do the trick. Hunters simply paddle along quietly, scanning the water ahead for ducks. Using the binoculars to study the banks where trees overhang is a very good idea, as wood ducks will often hunker down behind cover. Take care when approaching a bend in the tributary or slough. If possible, get out and wade along the shoreline to peek ahead before nosing around the corner. If wading is not an option, then either use a small craft to avoid warning your quarry of your arrival or at the least sit in the front of the craft with your shotgun handy for the flushing of the birds.
Sloughs and tidal tributaries are especially good for wood duck hunting, as the birds are common in this environment. The sloughs can go on endlessly winding back and forth through wetlands. I like to carry a GPS with me, such as the Lowrance iHuntC, because I can see where the next bend is allowing me to ambush the ducks.
Keep in mind when hunting tidal areas that the fresher the water the more likely it is that wood ducks will be found. They are not fond of briny conditions. The headwaters of sloughs and tributaries are particularly good places to find wood ducks.
If hunting tidal sloughs, be aware of the tide. Going upstream at the middle of an incoming tide is a good idea because the hunter will have a full six hours or more to get into hunting territory and get back out before the tide leaves the boat or canoe stranded behind fallen trees that have crossed the tributary.
Painting a watercraft a dull olive drab and then mottling it with strands of tan or marsh grass colors will further aid the effort to get in range of the ducks. Be careful not to use actual leaves and sticks to camouflage your craft. That is illegal -- but painting it is not. Keep low in the boat and don't move any more than you have to.
If two hunters are in the canoe, one guy can paddle while the man in the front can do the shooting. After a duck is harvested, a swap can be made. This is a common practice among jump-shooters and a good one to keep things safe while on the water.
DEBATE OVER THE PROPER GUN AND SHOT
There are several schools of thought on what gauge is the best one to use for wood ducks. It all comes down to personal preference and the situation that one is hunting in. Avid waterfowler and wingshooter Ngoc Do prefers to use his Weatherby over-and-under 20-gauge on many of his swamp hunts where he is standing next to a tree on the water's edge. He enjoys the challenge of hitting a fast-moving woodie with the 20 gauge and the smaller bore does not damage as much meat at the close ranges.
I prefer to use my old 870 Super Magnum for several reasons. First of all, my shooting can still stand some improvement. When the birds come zipping by, I need all of the pattern I can buy to get a bird to go down hard. Second, going back to the mention earlier in this article about pass-shooting geese, I prefer to have a lethal goose load in my pocket for over-flying geese. I keep a few HeviShot in 3 1/2-inch loads for any geese that are gaining altitude. I hate to wound any animal and prefer quick kills. I find that the larger and heavier loads do the number on geese and I have no worries when I hit one that it is going down. The cost may be a bit more, but in the end, I expend fewer shells per kill, which evens things out.
This season if your favorite duck blind is not producing, try hunting your local beaver swamp or slough for wood ducks. Not only will the action remain hot all season long, but also a bonus mallard, black duck or even a goose is not out of the question.
BOAT LAUNCH SITES
The following is a list of boat launches that can offer some spots
for scouting your duck hunts.
€¢ Rappahannock River-Little Falls Boat Ramp in Stafford at Ferry Farm off Rt. 3.
€¢ Hicks' Landing on Rt. 17, four miles north of Port Royal, Port Royal Fish House at Port Royal, Wilmont Landing in King George near the Westmoreland County line off Rt. 3 and Leedstown Campground in Westmoreland at Leedstown all offer boat launches to put hunters within striking distance of good jump-shooting areas.
€¢ Mattaponi River-Walkerton and Aylett both have ramps.
€¢ Chickahominy River and Lake -- On the lake, check out Ed Allen; on the river at the dam, check out Riverside Camp 2 off Rt. 627. Rivers Best Marina near Mt. Airy and the ramp at Powhatan Marina have a slew of marshes in between.
€¢ James River-Osbourne Landing off I-295, Dutch Gap Ramp off I-95, Deep Bottom Ramp off Rt. 5, and Jordan Point off Rt. 106.