September 29, 2010
These public-land wildlife management areas have just the right ingredients for producing great wing shooting for ducks and geese. Here's the latest! (January 2007)
Photo by Neal & MJ Mishler
Waterfowlers in West Virginia have a paradoxical situation. On one side of the equation, they have it good because there is not much hunting pressure and finding a place to hunt is not as difficult as in some other states. West Virginia is more dominated by deer and turkey hunters than waterfowl enthusiasts. However, the downside is that waterfowl hunting in the state cannot be considered one of the better locations in the country.
Most of West Virginia is not blessed to be located directly in the heart of the flyway. However, that doesn't mean we can't still enjoy some good hunting opportunities with a little extra effort. There are numerous locations throughout the state that provide waterfowlers with some terrific duck and goose hunting each season.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) waterfowl biologist Steve Wilson said last season was fairly typical for waterfowlers. Hunting was about average, but the harvest was down a little. Mostly, that slight decline is related to the way the weather patterns affected bird movement during last season.
There were not many migrant ducks until the last couple of weeks of the season. Waterfowl hunters saw some good weather in early December, but then things turned really mild. The warmer weather continued into early January and really messed up waterfowl hunting in the state. There were not as many birds pushed into West Virginia from farther north. The ducks and geese that were here did not have to move much to find food and open water. Late January did finally become cold again and hunters enjoyed a little better success during the second segment of the season.
With some good weather, this season should be much improved. Both ducks and geese were reported as doing well back when breeding surveys were conducted. Duck numbers were up and many populations of migrant geese were improved as well.
Most of the geese harvested in West Virginia are resident birds. Of course, this is becoming true in many states across this eastern half of the country. Around 90 percent of our goose harvest is composed of resident geese. We also see resident geese from other states, such as Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.
This year should see a better goose harvest. Biologist Wilson said there was good goose production in the state and the numbers should be up some. Of course, he said that much depends on the weather -- especially weather to the north of our state, which will determine whether other birds are pushed down or not.
Although West Virginia doesn't sit in the heart of the migration path, there are still a good many areas that provide excellent waterfowling. While public access areas are in high demand and overcrowded in many states, Mountain State hunters are fortunate to be able to choose where they will do their public-land waterfowling. Here is a look at a few locations to consider for the second segment of the season.
BLUESTONE LAKE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA (WMA)
According to biologist Colin Carpenter, Bluestone Lake WMA is underutilized for waterfowl hunting. It is a popular destination for both deer and turkey hunters, but waterfowlers tend to overlook it somewhat. However, it can offer some prime shooting at times.
The lake itself contains 1,970 acres. The New River also cuts through the property, and in total, there are some 18,019 acres within the boundaries of the WMA. A waterfowl marsh and various food plots and row crops make this area very attractive to passing waterfowl.
WMA personnel impound a 15-acre waterfowl marsh each fall to provide a loafing and feeding area for waterfowl. This area is left wet until March, at which time the water is drawn down and natural vegetation is allowed to grow. Additionally, it has also been seeded with rice in the spring. The rice didn't do particularly great last year, but look for that to be a real bonus in coming seasons. Carpenter is hoping to see the size of the marsh expand in the future. There may even be the possibility of adding more impoundments at some point.
Other area food sources are also a huge draw for both ducks and geese. There are some 80 to 100 acres of fields on the Crumps Bottoms side of the river that are planted in small grains and corn. None of these crops are harvested. The fields bordering the waterfowl marsh are planted in corn, sorghum and Japanese millet. Around 150 acres on the other side of the river are planted in corn and other small grains with a portion left unharvested.
Last year, the midwinter waterfowl numbers were quite low at Bluestone. Milder than normal temperatures were blamed for not pushing the usual number of birds into the area. However, the WMA has a sizable population of resident geese and also attracts some migratory birds at times. The bulk of the ducks seen will be mallards and black ducks, but there are quite a few buffleheads that frequent the area. A few divers, such as ring-necks and scaup, will drift through as well.
The WMA, Bluestone Lake, and the New River are open under statewide regulations and are in Zone 1. No WMA permit is required and hunters do not have to check in or out. Most hunting is by walk in, but there are numerous areas on the lake where boats may be carried down and launched. The New River also offers some excellent float opportunities.
Carpenter said there is also some good waterfowling near Shanklins Ferry and Cedar Branch. There are also some islands with some back channels that provide "some pretty good duck hunting." Most of the goose hunting at the area is pass-shooting and done from the river.
STONEWALL JACKSON WMA
Lewis County is home to the 18,289-acre Stonewall Jackson WMA. Both ducks and geese are attracted to the area for its variety of habitats as well as the 2,650-acre Stonewall Jackson Lake. Remarkably, though, the WMA does not see much hunting pressure from waterfowlers. Of course, that is good for those who do hunt there.
The area is open on a first-come, first-served basis during the second segment of waterfowl season. Statewide and federal regulations apply. The WMA is in Zone 2.
Stonewall Jackson Lake was impounded in 1986 and has become a good location for waterfowlers. The lake has a fairly shallow winter drawdown that leaves some good shallow- water habitat. Freezing conditions can affect the lake during really hard winters, but it stays pretty much open during most years.
Much of the area that borders the lake is grassland. This is very attractive to Canada geese. Mos
t years will see a good number of birds using the WMA. Nearly all of these geese are resident birds, but a few migrants will make their way into the area.
Biologist Lou Smith said the majority of waterfowlers will hunt the shoreline in temporary blinds or make use of natural cover. There are some 81 miles of shoreline that allow hunters the opportunity to spread out and find their own space away from other pressure. The entire shoreline is open for hunting with the exception of the state park area.
Another good spot is in the shallow-water areas at the upper end of the lake. Hunters take many mallards in this area. Other great locations include the main stem and the left fork areas. The Walkersville section and Big Skin Creek also offer some excellent shallow-water access.
Most of the ducks seen here are puddle ducks. Mallards are the most abundant, but others, such as black ducks, frequent the area, too. Occasionally, the lake will see a small contingent of divers, but they are pretty much considered a bonus at Stonewall Jackson.
PLEASANT CREEK WMA
Last year was pretty much a typical year for waterfowlers at Pleasant Creek WMA. There was nothing to really get excited about, but then there's not an overwhelming amount of hunting pressure there either. Too bad, because this WMA has some great habitat and is in proximity to quite a few attractive waters that keep birds in the area.
The WMA lies adjacent to Tygart Lake, which provides about 1,750 surface acres of water. Pleasant Creek runs through the WMA along with the Doe Run impoundment and other wetlands areas create a powerful waterfowl magnet. Nearby Tygart River is yet another bonus for waterfowl.
The WMA enhances its attractiveness to waterfowl with artificial manipulation and water holdings. There are some 50 to 60 acres of wetlands at the WMA. On some of these moist soil areas, the water level is lowered in the summer, which allows natural vegetation to grow. Usually, Japanese millet is also planted on some of the mud flats. These sections are then flooded in the fall through a series of dikes that hold the water.
This Zone 2 property is open under statewide regulations and does not require checking in or out. Hunters can freelance, but can't erect permanent blinds. The only downside to the area is that it ices over quickly.
During freezing conditions, many of the ducks will be pushed out to the main lake to find open water. There is not much habitat on the lake for puddle ducks, but Tygart Lake will often see divers, such as ring-necks or scaup. Puddle ducks, such as mallards and black ducks, will usually move up along the Tygart River.
Floating the Tygart River is a very productive way of picking up both duck and geese at times. Most of the geese in the area are resident birds, but a few migrants will pass through the area each year. Hunters will often shoot a fair number of ducks and geese from the river, while others will seek permission from landowners and set up alongside the river on private ground.
One of the premier waterfowl areas during the early segment of waterfowl season is the McClintic WMA located in Mason County. Its shallow- water sections often freeze over during the second segment rendering it useless for waterfowl. However, if we have another mild winter or a warming trend during the season, this 3,655-acre property can become a hotspot for sportsmen seeking ducks and geese.
McClintic is described as having the greatest variety of wildlife habitats of any WMA in West Virginia. There are some 31 ponds and a total of around 180 acres of wetlands on this Zone 1 property. The area has a thriving wood duck population as well.
The late season is almost exclusively composed of mallards and black ducks, although McClintic will usually see plenty of gadwalls as well. Canada geese seem to wait until after the first frost to visit this area.
Most of the geese on the WMA are resident birds, though a few migratory geese will frequent the area on occasion. Some 90 percent of the goose harvest consists of resident geese. Most of these are homegrown birds from West Virginia, but residents from other states will make their way onto the WMA when pushed down by northern weather.
Most years, there will be an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 geese in the surrounding area. During years with bad winters, those numbers may escalate to some 10,000 to 12,000 birds in and around the WMA and on the nearby Ohio River.
McClintic WMA has controlled hunting during the early segment of the waterfowl season. However, the second segment is all freelance. Hunters do not have to check in or out and are governed by statewide regulations. There is not much hunting pressure on the area during the second segment.
Most of the WMA is accessible by walking or wading. Chest or hip waders will suffice in most locations. Portable blinds are furnished for hunters during the early segment of the season, but these are removed before the second segment begins. Waterfowl hunters can use portable blind materials or fashion some cover out of existing natural material. Boats are allowed on the area, but most places are difficult to reach and require carrying the boat a long distance before reaching the water.
The WMA doesn't have a water source to pump water from other locations to enhance the wetlands section. However, the property workers do have the ability to move water around on the area. They will move water from one section to another, depending on rainfall and water levels. The variety of habitats and various waters and natural vegetation make this a prime spot for waterfowl at certain times. The proximity to the Ohio River is also a real bonus to help hold waterfowl in the area.
GREEN BOTTOM WMA
Another of the premier early segment areas is the Green Bottom WMA in Cabell and Mason counties. This Zone 1 WMA covers around 1,096 acres and conditions are similar to that of the nearby McClintic WMA. The waters at Green Bottom will often freeze up during the second segment, but with the mild winters we've been seeing lately, it may be a prime location this year -- if we see another mild December and January.
Green Bottom is much more open than McClintic and does not have much tall tree habitat. The area has much more marsh and button bush swamp habitat. These sections are highly attractive to waterfowl; water manipulation and vegetation management further enhances the area.
WMA personnel have the ability to pump water at Green Bottom. Some 125 acres can be manipulated in this manner. Certain sections are dried out in summer and allowed to grow up in natural vegetation such as smartweed. There are also crop fields that are planted in corn and winter wheat, which are highly attractive to migratory and resident geese. There are approximately 60 acres planted in corn and another 100 acres in winter wheat.
There are four separate areas that can be pumped. Actually, one of these usually doesn't need to be pumped. The other t
hree will typically be dry if not artificially flooded. There are 73 to 75 acres that are backed up by a beaver pond. The lower 60 acres or so are flooded with water from the Ohio River. The upper end of the property is primarily natural wetlands, while the lower end is manmade wetlands constructed by the DNR and the Corps of Engineers.
As with McClintic, the controlled hunting is over at Green Bottom by the time the second segment of the season begins. Hunters may freelance with no requirement for checking in or out. Most hunters access the WMA by walking or wading because most of the wetlands and water-holding areas are very shallow. There is some boat access for those who do not wish to wade or hunt a ground blind.
So there you have it, five top WMAs in the Mountain State to find ducks and geese right now, especially if the weather cooperates. Sometimes the main ingredient to a successful hunt is being there. After all, you won't shoot many waterfowl by sitting in front of your fireplace.