With excellent habitat and some cold weather up north, West Virginia duck hunting could be great this fall.
By Richard Hines
Vernon Lovejoy grew up in Hamlin, back when a lot of the waterfowl hunting in West Virginia was "jump shooting them on a pond." So he is still amazed to regularly see waterfowl around his farm.
These days, it is pretty common to see Canada geese and other waterfowl along West Virginia lakes and rivers.
In fact, Mountain State hunters may have more waterfowl opportunities than ever due to ongoing efforts on wildlife management areas, according to Michael Peters, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Small Game project leader.
Peters says that waterfowl variety and availability varies during each of the three segments. The early segment seems to produce mostly puddle ducks, such as mallards and teal, along with some resident wood ducks that are still hanging around while later segments produce the largest numbers and variety of waterfowl.
During the November season, many hunters float streams shooting wood ducks and other puddle ducks. Peters often uses canoes to jump shot ducks along streams, claiming that almost any stream in the state has potential. Some folks even combine squirrel and waterfowl on the same trip, using only non-toxic shot for both.
West Virginia hunters even have opportunities at WMAs across the state, but some, of course, are better than others.
"Green Bottom and McClintic are always two WMAs to consider for waterfowl as these are the only two WMAs in the state that have controlled waterfowl hunts," said Ken Shaw, District 5 wildlife biologist.
Located in Mason County, McClintic WMA is close to the Ohio River and has managed wetlands and ponds that are prime locations for waterfowl.
To hunt McClintic, hunters must be drawn to hunt on one of 22 shooting stations. Each station allows two hunters and hunters choose stations as names are drawn for the day. According to Shaw, success at stations can vary daily, as birds shift patterns because of weather and other factors.
At 65 years old, McClintic WMA is starting to show its age around some of the impoundments but things are improving overall, as staff rebuild on pond each year, with Pond 16 being the one chosen for 2017.
Located in Cabell and Mason counties, Green Bottom WMA provides a controlled waterfowl hunt requiring permits. Although hunter access is unlimited, a free permit is still required each day. It's a simple process. Hunters arrive each morning and present waterfowl stamp, HIP registration and license to receive a free permit. The check in runs from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on the first two days and then 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. for the remainder of the season. Hunting closes at noon and all hunters must check out by 1:00 p.m.
More birds are typically harvested at Green Bottom than at McClintic, but that is due to the number of hunters. Both WMAs support good numbers of birds. About 90 percent of the early harvest is comprised of wood ducks, but green and blue-wing teal can also be numerous, depending on weather. Hunters are not required to check in during the third segment of the season.
Pleasant Creek WMA, along with the adjacent Tygart Lake, consists of 3,030 acres in Barbour and Taylor counties. The WMA does not require an additional permit, and is open to a wide range of methods, from jump shooting to decoys.
Tygart Lake is usually a good location to find open water in cold weather. In past years, WMA staff have constructed wetland impoundments, which help attract birds to the area.
Of course, there is a down side to being open; more pressure makes hunting harder, at least at times.
Few people give thought to hunting waterfowl in the higher elevations of the state, but according to Ron Hollis, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge manager, this area located near Davis has some ducks. In fact, this 16,613-acre refuge is the biggest wetland complex in West Virginia, providing habitat for many species of wildlife including migrating waterfowl.
Upon arriving, black ducks tend to hide in the shrub swamps while mallards prefer wet meadows and bogs. However, since the refuge is located above 3,000 feet in elevations, the area gets some of the highest snowfalls anywhere in the state. As such, the area can pretty much only be hunted during the first and second season segments, due to cold weather, snow and frozen water. However, the area has 20 to 30 beaver ponds scattered along stream drainages adjacent, or leading into, the Black River. Of course, hunters will need at least hip boots because most grassy meadows and other areas remain wet all winter.
Since most of the hunting will be along small trout streams, lined with birch and aspen trees, Hollis suggests that hunters pack light — no more than a dozen decoys — and be prepared to walk some distance through the meadows and bogs. Or hunters can forgo decoys and try to jump shoot birds.
Many folks don't think about hunting national wildlife refuges, but the 22 islands and four mainland areas that comprise the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife are open to hunting, with the majority of them being located in West Virginia.
Patty Morrison, refuge biologist, is not only a biologist but also an avid waterfowl hunter, along with her husband.
"West Virginia has always been known for deer, bear and turkey hunting, but has kept a low profile for waterfowl hunting," Morrison said. "Waterfowl hunting along the Ohio River is one of those best kept secrets."
The Ohio River is a magnet for waterfowl, so hunters venturing onto the Ohio may find the best waterfowl activity during colder weather, which is when the area receives great influxes of birds from the Great Lake and Canada. Then, when cold weather freezes small ponds and backwater areas, birds head to the only open water in the area — the Ohio River.
It's during these region-wide cold weather events that canvasback, redhead and scaup arrive, and hunters who take advantage of this type of weather have chances to shoot a wide range of waterfowl species.
Those searching along the Ohio River and around refuge islands should look for areas where wind is slack. In most cases this will be on the backside of an island. Also observe river currents, which tend to flow fastest in the middle and slower toward the banks, except in bends where currents will be swifter.
Waterfowl biologists who regularly fly hundreds of river miles each year conducting aerial waterfowl surveys claim ducks tend to pile up on the tail end of islands or in the mouth of small streams where currents are generally slower. As flights of newly arriving waterfowl move into the region, they are continually flying along the river corridor searching for either food or roosting sites
Puddle ducks, such as mallards, prefer shallower water, while divers hang out in deeper water. Erecting a blind with a decoy spread on the end of an island will entice waterfowl. Also, be sure to mix up puddle duck and diving duck decoys, along with a few goose decoys, because of the variety of species available.
With around 400 miles of river, there are many spots to hunt, with no one location better than another on any given day. Many hunters find a place and stick with it, because as weather and wind direction changes, so does the number of waterfowl and where they go.
Now like everywhere, waterfowl hunting in the Mountain State is determined by weather, mostly weather up north. As such, some years waterfowl have no reason to migrate, kind of like the 2016-2017 season.
When this happens, hunting is tough but it can go the other way very quickly. Conditions can change quickly, and it is not unusual to see birds from the Atlantic Flyway move into the Mountain State during severe storms.
Of course, regulations can change, too, due to population changes and other factors. For this year, West Virginia hunters can harvest two black ducks per day, rather than just one.
While the Mountain State may not be known for red-hot waterfowling, hunters willing to put in some effect can be rewarded. Either way, it is still a good day afield.