Here's what you need to know about geese and duck hunting this season.
November has a reputation for challenging hunting because wood ducks and teal have departed for warmer states, and native mallards and black ducks were either downed on opening day or chased from popular hunting areas during the early season.
The big northern lakes are still open, meaning their birds, which normally provide hot gunning later in the season, haven't been driven southward yet. But there are still plenty of waterfowl in our area â€” it's just a matter of finding and fooling them.
Part of your success, of course, hinges on the areas you hunt and types of decoy spreads and blinds you create. But another influence on your bag isn't under your control. That variable is our unpredictable weather.
Here's what local wildlife biologists say about how weather affects population numbers and your hunting in our region.
BIOLOGISTS WEIGH IN
According to Connecticut's chief waterfowl biologist, Min Huang, who doesn't yet have figures on last year's harvest, anecdotal evidence points to a poor previous season in the Northeast. However, farther south in the Atlantic Flyway, duck hunters had a good year.
"Climate change is impacting our coastal habitats through sea level rise," says Huang. "Temperatures and weather are changing. Warmer falls and winters have recently led to birds hanging up in Canada much longer, and then when cold weather does push them south, which is sometimes too late for our season, many are overflying the northern-tier states and going directly to the mid-Atlantic and southern states."
As far as population trends, greenhead numbers are down, which is unfortunate because they're our main target species. But there are still plenty of other types to hunt, and they will help round out your limit.
"Mallards are continuing a long-term decline," says Huang, "which has been evident since the onset of our 60-day duck seasons and 4-bird mallard bags. Mallards breeding in the Northeast from Virginia to Maine have declined about 29 percent over the past 20 years. The good news is most other species are doing well and are stable. There is some system change going on that's affecting mallards â€” a change our monitoring hasn't detected yet. Harvest is likely assisting in the mallard decline, but it certainly isn't the sole cause. Connecticut's resident goose numbers continue a slight decline, but if a hunter has access to fields or coastal marshes he can do well."
Rhode Island biologists feel harvests in the Ocean State were also below average. Another warm winter resulted in minimal ice on inland rivers, lakes and ponds, which is necessary to congregate waterfowl on the coast and increase opportunities for harvest. This means waterfowlers hunt less often than they would during favorable conditions because scouting shows birds are sparse.
"There are several impacts from climate change," says Rhode Island's wildlife biologist Josh Beuth. "Warmer winters lead to delayed migrations because birds have resources available farther north due to a lack of ice coverage. Once birds get to the southern New England wintering area, warmer temperatures mean less ice formation, which leads to more dispersed birds.
"In addition, sea level rise impacts our saltmarshes. As marshes are inundated more frequently, low marsh erodes and high marsh transitions into low marsh. Over time, this will degrade, erode and deplete our saltmarshes, which may result in reduced habitat or reduced waterfowl carrying capacity. There are several experimental projects underway in Rhode Island to restore saltmarshes by protecting their margins, raising their elevations and altering how water flows and pools on the marshes. These projects are being carried out by a multi-agency partnership. If they prove successful, I anticipate many more of these projects in the future â€” provided there is funding to do so."
WHAT TO EXPECT THIS SEASON
November and December gunners can expect a mixed bag of birds. For puddle ducks, the mallard and black duck remain the predominant and most-sought species, with occasional pintail, widgeon and gadwall mixed in.
A variety of divers can help fill a limit near the coast or on lakes, which include goldeneye, bufflehead, ring neck and scaup. Don't overlook southern New England's coastal resident goose and brant populations.
If you want some exciting action on big birds, bring along a dozen Canada or brant blocks and a box of large shot to increase your odds of success. Although last winter was mild and resulted in lower waterfowl numbers, increased bird populations look favorable this year. The wet spring had much to do with this prediction.
"Despite last year's drought," said Beuth, "wetlands were in good condition this spring. Last winter saw some snow, and significant spring rains refilled wetlands and enhanced those habitats. I saw many geese on nests and wood ducks using boxes, which tells me the nesting effort was average to above average this spring."
Here's a state-by-state look at a recommended public hunting locations near you.
While much of Maine's inland waters are usually frozen by now, expectations for coastal puddle ducks look promising. Maine's biologists have always suggested heading to the shoreline tidewater areas, which can hold late-season puddle ducks.
Merrymeeting Bay is one Maine's premier waterfowling areas until freeze over. You can find boat access at Browns Point Rd. off Rte. 24. Take a right after reaching Center Point Road. Launch your duck boat just before Bald Head, a landmark that extends into the bay. Try the area around Brick Island, which is productive for puddle ducks throughout the season. Check Map 6 in DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer for more details.
For additional information, visit the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website at www.maine.gov/ifw. For visitor information, go to www.visitmaine.com.
The Granite State's coastal zone is in the southeastern corner of the state, east of Route 108. For the best action this month, try the Great Bay area. Hunting here, as well as in Little Bay just to the north, offers a variety of puddlers and divers.
These waters provide several perimeter boat launches. A good choice in the lower bay is Chapman's Landing, which you can access off Route 108 between Stratham and Newmarket. For attaining the upper bay, try the ramp off Adam's Point Road in Durham.
Once you've launched, you can motor in close to the railroad tracks, where pass shooting at mallards and blacks can be good. Beyond the tracks you could rig out from Shackford Point near the Lamprey River mouth or Sandy Point. North toward Little Bay, you can find puddlers along Adams Point WMA. Divers mix in at most spots in both bays. Check the state's website for hunting regulations at www.wildlife.state.nh.us. For visitor information, log onto www.visitnh.gov.
North of Gloucester is the large and popular Parker Wildlife Refuge, which you can access by foot or by boat. Parking in the refuge is limited and can fill quickly on weekends, so get there early or hunt on weekdays.
The entrance gate and parking lots open one hour before shooting time. The Parker River site is divided into three areas: A, B, and C, each with its own restrictions. In Area A, access is by boat only from the refuge boat ramp (vehicles and trailers must be parked in Lot 1), located opposite Lot 1 or from off-refuge sites. It's possible to be stranded here at low water, so plan around the tides to provide sufficient depth at quitting time.
In Area B, options include access by boat from the refuge ramp, off-refuge sites or by foot from Lot 8 from Newbury Neck Road and Marsh Avenue. "Public Hunting Area" signs indicate those spots designated for legal hunting. 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. Specific regulations mandate hunters must rig out at least six decoys and hunt within 50 yards of that spread.
Area C, called Nelson's Island, may only be accessed on foot. You can do that from Parking Lot 9 off Stackyard Road. No hunting is permitted within 150 feet of the parking area. Get a map and detailed waterfowling regulations before hunting in Parker River or Salisbury Park, both have unique rules for duck hunters.
For local regulations, visit www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dfw/. For more to do in Massachusetts, go to www.massvacation.com.
"Brant are among the species doing well in Rhode Island," says wildlife biologist Josh Beuth. "Gadwall are another increasing species, and they have been regularly turning up in hunters' bags. Scoter and eider numbers are tied to weather patterns, and it takes cold weather to push birds down to us. Hunters targeting sea ducks have struggled over the last two seasons to find good numbers of birds, and those flocks that persisted have been exposed to high gunning pressure, making them challenging to hunt.
"The shoreline of Narragansett Bay and the coastal ponds along Rhode Island's south coast provide the best hunting opportunities. Provided a hunter is below mean high water, 500 feet or more from the nearest dwelling and shooting to open water, he can hunt anywhere. Opportunities abound in these coastal areas, with the greatest abundance and diversity of waterfowl occurring in Narragansett Bay. Here hunters can harvest geese, brant, puddle ducks and diving ducks in a single hunt."
In upper Narragansett Bay are Patience Island and Prudence Island WMAs, which are major holding areas for wildfowl. But the only access is by boat or ferry. Docks and ferry landings are found in Bristol Harbor and Coggeshell Point in Portsmouth. Bristol offers a town launch on State Street in the harbor and another at the end of Church Street off Route 114. You can also try a launch on Sandy Point Road, which is found off Route 138 in Portsmouth.
If you're after divers, try Dutch Island WMA located on the west pass of Naragansett Bay in Jamestown. The best bet here is to rig off the shore, where decoys and pass shooting are both used. Access is only by boat. A launch site is at the town-owned ramp at Fort Getty Recreation Area on Beaverhead. Go south from Jamestown Center to Hamilton Avenue. Travel west to the causeway to Conanicut Island. Turn right on Beavertail Road to its end.
Find information about Rhode Island's numerous WMAs at www.dem.ri.gov/maps/wma.htm. For hunting regulations, go to www.dem.ri.gov. For visitor information, checkout www.visitrhodeisland.com.
The Charles Wheeler WMA is probably the best place to hunt waterfowl, especially geese, in Connecticut. Known as Nells Island, it borders the towns of Milford to the east and Stratford to the west at the mouth of the Housatonic River. The marsh totals 812 huntable acres. Be sure to study this area by aerial view first, as it has numerous geographic intricacies and shallow spots where you can strand at low tide. Find a mix of puddle ducks, geese and brant here.
One popular launch to access the river and marsh is found in Milford by taking I-95 to Exit 34. Turn west on Rte. 1, then north on Naugatuck Avenue. The launch is on the left. Plenty of parking is available. If you have only a small duck boat, be cautious of strong river currents here. The ramp has recently been closed for overhead I-95 bridge construction, so scout it out first. Another launch is located across and down the river in Stratford, called the Birdseye Ramp.
Visit Connecticut' DEEP website at www.ct.gov/deep/site for hunting locations and regulations. For information on coastal access visit www.lisrc.uconn.edu/coastalaccess/. For Connecticut visitor information, go to www.ctvisit.com.