10 Great Cities for Waterfowlers

Some of the nation's best waterfowling is only a short drive away from these metropolitan areas
10 Great Cities for Waterfowlers By James Card

Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about living in a rustic cabin on the edge of a marsh that looks like a scene out of a Terry Redlin painting.

But like most waterfowlers, I live in a big city. It's where my job is. And contrary to the stereotypical notion that large urban areas are lacking in sporting opportunities, it's not too far from some darn good duck hunting.

I live in Memphis, home to DU's national headquarters and within a two-hour drive from some of the best waterfowling this country has to offer. Just across the Mississippi River is eastern Arkansas, renowned for its world-class flooded timber and rice fields, which attract mallards—and duck hunters—like magnets. To the north is Tennessee's storied Reelfoot Lake, where the duck hunting is almost as epic as the earthquake that formed this eerily beautiful body of water. And south into the Mississippi Delta are vast bottomland hardwood forests that each season host thousands of migrating and wintering waterfowl. 

But the Bluff City is not alone; many other metropolitan areas are within reasonable driving distances from incredible waterfowling opportunities. Don't be surprised if you find your metropolis among the 10 profiled here (in no particular order) for the great diversity of ducks and geese flying just outside the city limits.

1. Seattle, Washington 

There's no doubt that waterfowlers living in the Emerald City hunt in extraordinary surroundings. Puget Sound is framed by the Olympic mountain range to the west and the Cascades to the east. Popular waterfowl hunting areas near Seattle include Skagit and Padilla bays and the Nisqually River Delta.

"The greater Puget Sound area is blessed with waterfowl hunting as varied as anywhere in the nation. Opportunities for light and dark geese, puddle ducks, divers, brant, and even sea ducks exist for those who put in the time to scout and get to know a specific area," says DU regional director John Tierney.

Seattle-based waterfowlers also have the unique opportunity to bag a harlequin duck, which is considered to be a bona fide trophy among local hunters. Gunning for Pacific brant is another unique hunting opportunity for waterfowlers living in western Washington. Padilla Bay holds the largest wintering population of these birds north of Mexico.

2. Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota

Within a few hours' drive from the Twin Cities, waterfowlers can gun divers on large glacial lakes, pursue puddle ducks on creeks and sloughs that connect these lakes, or find plenty of both in neighboring North Dakota and South Dakota. "There's public land right outside town but it gets hunted pretty hard, so it's best to be flexible enough to drive a little," says DU regional director John Marks. "Fortunately, we're right next door to the Dakotas, and there are also great places to hunt in western Minnesota."

Just an hour south of Minneapolis–Saint Paul are expansive croplands that draw huge numbers of resident and migratory Canada geese, including true giant Canadas that can tip the scales at well over 10 pounds apiece. "Rochester has some of the best goose hunting in the country. You'll find lots of fields full of birds," Marks adds.

3. San Francisco, California

San Francisco Bay is rich in waterfowl, both dabblers and divers, and is the most important wintering area in the Pacific Flyway for scaup and canvasbacks. Nearby Suisun Marsh, with 52,000 acres of managed wetlands in both private and public ownership, is one of the most important breeding and wintering areas in California for mallards. 

"I would say Suisun Marsh is the flagship location for waterfowling in the San Francisco Bay area," says Jeff McCreary, a DU biologist in California. "Once a market hunter's stronghold in the late 1800s, it is now a sportsman's paradise." 

As for public hunting opportunities, the North Bay's Napa-Sonoma Marshes State Wildlife Area offers 14,000 acres of restored saltwater ponds, tidal marshes, and other wetlands. Access is usually by boat only, and hunters can set up on the banks of sloughs or try layout gunning on open water. In the South Bay, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge also offers good public waterfowling. And in about two hours, duck hunters can drive down to the Grasslands, the largest contiguous block of wetlands in California.

4. Washington, D.C.

Waterfowling opportunities abound near the nation's capital. Both the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources manage public waterfowl-hunting areas within an hour's drive from the city, allowing Washington-area waterfowlers to gun dabbling ducks and divers in the morning and be back on Capitol Hill by noon.

According to Dan Wrinn of DU's governmental affairs office in Washington, the rich historical culture makes hunting in this region especially interesting. "It's great to be able to hunt with Congressional staff and have Mount Vernon in the background, knowing that George Washington once looked over the same marsh."

Wrinn's favorite hunting spot is the Potomac River just south of the capital. "I set about 70 scaup and canvasback decoys on long lines weighted on both ends to accommodate the changing tide. Then I fill in the gaps with two-dozen black duck decoys. This rig will attract just about any species of waterfowl that migrates along the Potomac River during December and January."

5. Salt Lake City, Utah

Nicknamed the Crossroads of the West, Salt Lake City is also a crossroads for migrating waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway. That means hunters have a chance to harvest a variety of waterfowl, from tundra swans to blue-winged teal. "One hunter I know was asked to harvest a male and female of several duck species to donate to a local museum. He got the last bird he needed on the last day of the season," says McCreary, who once worked here as a biologist and could depart his downtown home and be hunting within 45 minutes.

About 30 duck clubs on Great Salt Lake encompass nearly 22,000 acres. Public land totals more than 100,000 acres, and many waterfowlers hunt the lake itself using air boats to glide over its extensive mudflats. Popular hunting areas located an hour or less from the city are the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area. 

6. Detroit, Michigan

Located on the Detroit River between Lakes Erie and St. Clair, the Motor City is in the middle of a major migration corridor used by waterfowl in both the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. This provides a diversity of duck- and goose-hunting opportunities for local waterfowlers. "It's not uncommon for hunters to have a layout boat and rig of diver decoys, a marsh boat and mallard and black duck decoys, and a layout blind and spread of Canada goose decoys—and use them all in one weekend," says Gildo Tori, director of public policy at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic office in Ann Arbor. 

Detroit is close to several federal and state wildlife areas that have good waterfowl habitat and hunting access. The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, managed jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service, continues to grow in size and offer more public access. Other premier public hunting areas include St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area and Pointe Mouille State Game Area. Public hunting is also available on Erie State Game Area and Pointe aux Peaux State Wildlife Area. And if you have a duck boat, there are Lakes St. Clair and Erie to explore. "Layout shooting for divers and dabblers on these big lakes can be extremely exciting. In some cases you can't even see land, and the shooting can be fast and furious," Tori says.

7. New York, New York

Waterfowlers in the Big Apple enjoy better hunting than many would believe. "The Atlantic Coast brings in the birds," says DU regional director Joe DeMartino. "South of New York, the Atlantic City area is loaded with pintails, brant, and black ducks, and we regularly guide our boats by the lights of the casinos." Other key hunting areas include the New Jersey Meadowlands; Keyport Harbor, just south of the Staten Island Bridge and 30 minutes from Midtown Manhattan; and Great South Bay off Long Island, which is just an hour east of Midtown. 

Veteran waterfowler Dave Miller has hunted ducks in the marshes near Giants Stadium and pursues waterfowl up and down the Jersey Shore, especially on Barnegat Bay. "There are so many brant, they should be the state bird," he says. "The most fun is hunting near the city, where you can clearly see the skyline while lying in the marsh waiting for the brant and black ducks to fly by."

8. St. Louis, Missouri

Just north of the city known as the Gateway to the West is the Confluence Floodplain, where the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers converge. Millions of ducks and geese pass through this narrow corridor each year on their way to and from the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and the Gulf Coast. 

"The St. Louis area is home to many private duck clubs in the St. Charles Bottoms and has a rich heritage of exclusive waterfowling," says Troy LaRue, DU director of fundraising and volunteer relations. "Duck clubs manage more than 31,000 acres of key waterfowl habitat in this region."

But you don't have to belong to a duck club to enjoy good waterfowl hunting here. The Missouri Department of Conservation manages several state conservation areas that offer some of the best public hunting for mallards and other dabbling ducks in the nation. Some of the most popular among St. Louis-based waterfowlers are Ted Shanks, Duck Creek, Grand Pass, and B.K. Leach Memorial conservation areas. Public waterfowling is also available on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and there is excellent Canada and lesser snow goose hunting on agricultural land within a few hours' drive of St. Louis.

9. Charleston, South Carolina

Located in the heart of South Carolina's wetland-rich Lowcountry, Charleston has long been a hub for sportsmen in general and waterfowlers in particular. The neighboring ACE Basin, where the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers flow into the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the largest remaining undeveloped estuaries along the East Coast. The region also supports up to 50 percent of the Atlantic Flyway's dabbling ducks, including pintails, gadwalls, blue- and green-winged teal, and resident mottled ducks. "This is a key conservation area for DU," says regional director James Meadows. "More than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat have been protected by private landowners who have donated conservation easements to DU." 

Some of the best duck hunting in the Charleston area is found on private duck clubs that are intensively managed for waterfowl and other wildlife. But there's also an abundance of public land near town. Along the coast, Bear Island and the Santee Coastal Reserve WMAs offer excellent public hunting for those lucky enough to draw a blind. And 45 miles inland is the Santee Cooper WMA on Lake Marion, where DU and partners have restored prime habitat for waterfowl. 

"Duck hunters should put in for the WMA draw hunts," Meadows advises. "They offer some pretty phenomenal hunting."

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10. Anchorage, Alaska

Like some of their counterparts in the Lower 48, Anchorage-based waterfowlers have access problems. Not of the regulatory variety, but of the roadless kind. That is, duck hunters often need a bush plane to reach their hunting spots. 

A few miles northwest of Anchorage is the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge, which is also accessible by boat, but only if the tide is right. The annual bag here accounts for about 10 percent of all waterfowl harvested in Alaska. This area is dotted with duck shacks that offer shelter to waterfowlers in good weather and bad. 

"You can see the city lights of Anchorage in the distance as you set the decoys," says DU regional director Dave Weber. And in addition to incoming waterfowl, wildlife-watching opportunities include beluga whales, wolves, brown bears, and moose.

Closer to town, walk-in hunting is available on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, but you must be mindful of the tides and deep mud. "This area is dotted with potholes and has several tidal creeks flowing through it, including Campbell Creek along the coast, which DU helped secure from development," Weber says. The refuge spans 16 miles and supports a great diversity of migrating waterfowl and other birds. 

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10 More Great Cities for Waterfowlers

While space constraints kept us from covering them in more detail, several other American cities are also great places to live for active waterfowlers, including those listed here.
  1. New Orleans, Louisiana
  2. Denver, Colorado
  3. Omaha, Nebraska
  4. Portland, Oregon 
  5. Houston, Texas
  6. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  7. Chicago, Illinois
  8. Cleveland, Ohio
  9. Kansas City, Missouri
  10. Des Moines, Iowa

WHERE THE ACTION IS 

This map shows the average number of days that waterfowl hunters spent afield (1999–2002) in each U.S. county, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys. Many of the most heavily hunted areas are located near America's largest cities, including many of those featured in this article.

Average Waterfowl Hunting Days Afield

While more people hunt per capita in rural areas, cities with high population densities often have more hunters overall. "Wherever you have large concentrations of people near lots of good habitat and waterfowl, you're going to get lots of use," says Dale Humburg, DU's chief biologist.