Duck Hunting the Rapp and Potomac Tributaries

Tributary duck hunting offers some of the best sport around for late-season Virginia waterfowlers.

Photo by John N. Felsher

By Mark Fike

January is a cold and dreary month unless you know about the fine waterfowl action that can be had on the Rappahannock and Potomac tributaries. Get out the shotgun and hit the water to get in on the action.

By January most hunters have come to the conclusion that hunting season is all over - but nothing could be farther from the truth for waterfowlers. January can provide some of the hottest action in the coldest weather.

While the entire eastern portion of Virginia offers great duck and goose action, the Rappahannock River and the tributaries of the Potomac offer unique hunting opportunities for a variety of duck species. Often when one species of ducks will not cooperate or traditional blind hunting is not working, the versatile hunter can switch gears and still go home with the game bag heavy for his or her efforts.

Jump-shooting is one of two productive ways to bag a limit of ducks. Jump-shooting does not require a blind or a camouflaged boat. In fact, various county laws prohibit float-blind hunting in most of the waters covered by this article.

However, a johnboat, duck boat or even a canoe that is not specially camouflaged or made to conceal hunters may be used to jump-shoot. A second legal issue to keep in mind is that ducks may only be hunted from a motor or mechanical-driven device if the motor is shut off, the sails furled and all forward progress is halted from the device/motor. Using the tide or the wind (without sails) is a legal way to drift within shooting range. Paddling or rowing is also legal.

Finally, all hunting must be done a minimum of 500 yards from a legal and licensed blind. A pre-hunt scouting trip is the best way to determine what areas can be hunted. Use a laser rangefinder to determine distances. All blinds must be built by Nov. 1. Any trees or stakes with a duck blind license nailed to them but without a blind built by that date are void and the area may be hunted provided another blind has not been built within 500 yards.


The Rappahannock is a pristine water that has great flights of a variety of ducks. By December, most species of ducks have arrived. January freezing temperatures tend to drive the remaining holdouts from up north down to the area, making it quite possible to see just about any combination of ducks while out hunting the Rappahannock.

Much of the waterfowling done on the Rappahannock is done from below Fredericksburg to the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, the most productive stretch of water tends to be from Port Royal downriver. The number of tidal creeks and marshes that slowly wind their way into the river makes for great ducking territory.

It is in these tidal creeks and marshes where the best jump-shooting occurs on the Rappahannock River. A canoe or even a kayak is the best way to access these waters. When the tide is high and incoming and the ice has melted, the tidal creeks are definitely the place to go. The ducks will often move from the main river to the creeks when the water is incoming. The backwaters of these waterways hold dozens of ducks in a seemingly small area.

Jump-shooting from a canoe is best done with two people. The forward person is the shooter, while the rear person does the careful paddling. Paddle into the creeks or marsh, keeping to one side to avoid silhouetting the canoe or hunters. With a gun at the ready in the shooter's hands, paddle carefully up to the point of a bend and let the tide ease the canoe around the point.

Listen for duck chatter before the boat is left to float around. Often, ducks will be caught unaware and flush from the open water just beyond the bend. The tidal creeks on the Rappahannock are full of such twists and turns, making most shots under 40 yards and some as short as 20 yards. Because most of the shots are close, a modified choke or improved choke works very well. Hunters will find that steel shot will work just fine when jump-shooting, due to the range. It is important to pattern the shotgun being used to be sure there are no holes in the pattern. Missing birds out on the water is not the time to find that your shotgun does not pattern well with the particular load of shot you're using today.

In the tidal creeks and marshes, hunters can expect to see plenty of mallards and black ducks, along with the occasional goose, greenwing teal, widgeon, ringneck and gadwall.

Blind hunting in the Rappahannock is tough for only one reason: location. Locations to put up a blind seem to be taken up rapidly. However, a new law went into effect this season defining a legal blind. Hopefully this will eliminate the practice of putting up "dummy blinds." Dummy blinds are stakes or trees with a blind license on them without a real blind being built. They effectively blocked hunters out of building a blind until it was too late to purchase a blind license.

Generally, landowners or riparian owners get first crack at putting up a blind. Their time period to purchase a blind license is July and August. Once September rolls around, non-riparian owners may purchase blind licenses. A scouting trip with a laser rangefinder will determine remaining spots. Many subtle coves, corners and deeper mudflats are overlooked but are great places to build a blind. These areas will often be the only place ice-free and open if a hard freeze hits the area.

From Leedstown downriver and a few miles upriver is dotted with licensed blinds, but there are still locations available to the hunter who scouts to determine what areas are open.

It is important to take the time to build a good blind that will not only withstand storms and the high winds the area experiences during the winter but also one that will camouflage the hunters well from the knowing eyes of veteran ducks. By the time the ducks get down to Virginia from farther north, they have seen just about every combination of duck spreads there are. Sometimes the blind can be the difference between shots and no shots.

Tom McGuinniss has hunted both the Rappahannock and the Potomac tributaries for more than five years. He likes the Rappahannock River because the hunting seems to be unique.

"I am not sure why, but the birds that my partner, Chris Rollins, and I hunt seem to continue flying well past daybreak when they normally would have slowed or even stopped on other waters. We are real careful when we build our blinds and we take the time to camouflage the blind with Avery Grass or Real Grass to give it a realistic appearance."

The camouflage do

es make a real difference. Ducks' downward eyesight is extremely sharp and they can look right down into a setup and critique it without missing a wingbeat. For years, I used whatever I had on-hand for blind materials and then I hunted a well-camouflaged blind that was covered in grass and cattails. The difference in the number of ducks that came around for a second look was amazing. The store-bought grasses and matting is expensive, and many hunters worry that storms and the wind will take it away. McGuinniss offered a tip on this situation.

"I nail 4-inch mesh wire to my blind and then zip-tie the grass we purchase to it. When the season is over I simply snip the zip ties and take my blind material with me."

Assuming you are in a reasonably attractive location and hunting from a blind, your next controllable variable will be decoys. Some hunters believe a huge spread of decoys is necessary to trick the birds to come back for another look. The truth is, however, that small but effectively placed decoys are very deadly when used in conjunction with a blind. A flapper or mojo decoy can add realism to the spread too.

McGuinniss uses no more than two dozen decoys when hunting for ducks. He breaks his decoys into small groups of three or four and spreads them out, but makes sure to keep a hen near the blind. He is also careful to put out more drakes than hens.

When asked why he did this, he replied, "We tend to see more drakes than hens when out on the water, so we keep things as real as possible. For every 10 dekes we put out, six are drakes and four are hens."

The drakes are also more colorful and get noticed easily by passing ducks.

Areas on the lower Rappahannock from Port Royal to the bay will see increasing numbers of diving ducks, so it is not a bad idea to put out a small group of ruddy duck decoys or bluebill decoys. You never know when you might get shots at diving ducks. They tend to appear out of nowhere and will decoy very well at times. Mergansers are very common during January for pass-shooting and they are willing to come into a spread to check it out too.

McGuinniss pointed out that movement in the decoy spread is crucial to success on the water.

"I use a setup that employs two small anchors made of concrete which hold a decoy in place with a string tied to the decoy and run back to the blind. Every once in awhile we pull on the string to give the spread some life. A motorized or vibrating decoy that swims around the spread and is anchored is a good idea, too," he added.


The Potomac River proper is Maryland water and therefore an out-of-state venture for Virginia hunters. However, the tidal tributaries from Aquia Creek down as far as the Chesapeake Bay on the Virginia side of the river are all fair game for a holder of a Virginia state hunting license and a federal duck stamp.

Some of the larger tributaries that stand out for duck or goose hunting include Aquia Creek, Potomac Creek, Upper Machodoc Creek, Mattox Creek, Popes Creek, Nomini Creek, Lower Machodoc Creek, the Yeocomico River, and the Coan River. These tributaries are all fairly wide and choppy on windy days. Hunters should keep that in mind when venturing out in a duck boat. Upriver, hunters will see more mallards and blacks, with some widgeons, teal and gadwalls; farther downriver the shooting turns more to diving ducks such as canvasbacks, ruddy, bluebills and buffleheads. Geese are spread evenly up and down the river.

Jump-shooting for ducks on such waters is very productive and offers a hunter a second chance to fill out his or her bag after the morning flight in the blind.

The best technique for jump-shooting the larger waters is simple. Venture out into any of the Virginia tributaries of the Potomac with a patterned shotgun, shells, warm clothes, a boat and a good pair of binoculars. A field guide to ducks is a good idea, as many unique birds such as ringnecks or goldeneyes may be seen too. Using the binoculars, scan the waters as you motor or paddle along. Be sure to creep up to bends in the creeks to peer around them as stealthily as possible.

Once you spot a flock of birds, whether it be ducks or geese, position the boat upwind or uptide, cut the motor, raise it if possible and let the wind and tide push the boat or canoe toward the birds. Hunker down in the boat, moving as little as possible, until the birds are in range. Then, having a bird picked out, pop up and begin shooting as the birds clear the water.

Jump-shooting in this manner is good strategy for hunting all species of ducks but seems to be particularly effective for diving ducks such as buffleheads, bluebills, ruddy ducks. Geese can be taken effectively in this manner, but it is important that hunters not alarm one bird because that one bird will alert the whole flock and the birds will take off before the hunter is in shooting range.

The diving ducks will often take off after being shot at only to land a few hundred yards away. Hunters should note their location and move on to the next flock. If necessary the flock can be jump-shot later when they have calmed down. Windy days are noticeably better than calm days for jump-shooting. The wind creates choppy water, which masks movement and noise. The wind also helps drive the boat towards the birds. Plan your boat position accordingly.

Because many of the shots can be on the long side it is a good idea to use magnum loads or heavy loads. Steel shot is not the best bet for such shooting. Try Remington's Hevishot or Kent's Tungsten Impact: both pack a punch at longer ranges and will down birds humanely. Geese can be tough to bring down, thus BB or even BBB shot is not a bad idea.

Once the shots are made, be careful to note where the birds fell. Unload the gun and motor or paddle over to retrieve your birds if you are not using a dog. The nice thing about jump-shooting is that it can be repeated again and again and the equipment needs (assuming you have a boat that is safe for the conditions) are pretty simple.

Blind hunting on the Potomac tributaries can be very effective as well. The tributaries of the Potomac are slow moving and, partly because of that, there are certain tactics you'll want to try that can improve your chances of getting into some fine shooting.

Ice will built up on the tidal tributaries of the Potomac more rapidly than it will on the faster-flowing Rappahannock, for example. Sometimes ice builds up faster on the decoys, making it necessary to cut a big hole in the ice in front of the blind. Shove as much of the broken ice downtide of the blind as possible. The hole in the ice will function like a magnet for passing geese and ducks.

A few decoys are all that is needed to convince the birds on an icy and windy day. Take care to keep decoy lines below the waterline and put movement in the spread as much as possible.

All of the larger tributaries of the Potomac tend to hold geese in January. The mouths of the creeks are b

etter locations for hunting geese and diving ducks, while the headwaters and heavily vegetated portions of the creeks are better for gadwalls, mallards, blacks and widgeons.

While the beginning portion of the waterfowl season can be hit or miss, the last few weeks are often cold and icy, creating a duck hunter's dream in terms of waterfowling conditions. Get out on the Rappahannock or Potomac River tributaries before the season ends and enjoy the best time to hunt, as well as some good eating.

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