Best of the Flyways: Atlantic Flyway

Follow these suggestions to experience some of the best that the Atlantic Flyway has to offer

© toddsteelephotoart.com

By T. Edward Nickens

When it comes to choosing your next adventure, the Atlantic Flyway is an embarrassment of riches. It’s a region with abundant and diverse habitats and centuries of waterfowling history and tradition. You might find yourself crouching in a sink box in Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River, bodybooting over hand-carved decoys on Chesapeake Bay, or gunning for mottled ducks and black-bellied whistling ducks on Lake Okeechobee. Follow these suggestions to experience some of the best that the Atlantic Flyway has to offer.

New Jersey Shore

Sprawling bays, vast salt marshes and estuaries, tidal creeks, and 130 miles of coastline. That’s New Jersey. The state hosts more than one-third of the Atlantic Flyway’s black ducks and two-thirds of Atlantic brant during fall and winter. There are puddle ducks and divers aplenty, plus sea ducks and geese and abundant public access to state and federal lands.

Photo © labradordesign.com

“There’s a lot of marsh and a lot of water, and that’s both a blessing and a curse,” says Joe DeMartino, DU’s senior regional director for New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Getting to the ducks takes grit. Many hunters launch johnboats and larger craft outfitted with boat blinds, or they rely on traditional Barnegat Bay sneak boxes and other small skiffs with larger tender boats. Kayak-friendly areas on the state’s barrier island refuges give small-water hunters marsh creeks and salt ponds to hunt, and there are ample walk-in areas on state wildlife management areas and federal refuges, such as the 47,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge near Atlantic City. And, given all the opportunity and big water, guides and outfitters abound.

When to Go

Migrating puddle ducks often push through just before Thanksgiving. In the late season, many hunters switch over to divers such as redheads, canvasbacks, and “broadbills” (the East Coast term for greater scaup). Wintering brant provide season-long action.

Photo © Long Shot Photography

Food and Lodging

North of Atlantic City is tiny Leeds Point, where the Oyster Creek Restaurant and Boat Bar is a place to plan a Jersey Shore adventure. There are lots of hotels on US Highway 9 west of town, many both budget- and dog-friendly.

Local Attractions

Island Beach State Park offers nearly 10 miles of wide beach and 3,000 acres of coastal dunes separating the Atlantic Ocean from Barnegat Bay. 

Lac Saint-Pierre, Quebec

This is the place to fulfill any would-be royal-family fantasies—an international-style destination that’s just a few hours by plane from much of the United States. Quebec produces huge numbers of ducks and geese for the Atlantic Flyway,
and gunning for these birds before they cross the border
is a world-class treat. Brush up on your French, as English is spoken only sparingly.

A lake in name only, Lac Saint-Pierre is actually a wide spot in the Saint Lawrence River, midway between Montreal and Quebec City. Ten miles across, it encompasses 103 separate islands crowded into its southernmost tip, a labyrinth of marshes, forests, pastures, and sinuous waterways. Greater snow geese and ducks crowd the wetlands, but for many hunters a crowded metal box is the attraction. The region is one of the few areas where it’s still legal to hunt out of a sink box, a bucket-list adventure for waterfowlers who wish to relive the past. Local guide Roger Gladu is one of the last in the business, and his sink-box hunts over handmade foam decoys are world class.

Photo © getducks.com

When to Go

In September and October, bluebills and puddle ducks are the target. November brings flocks of goldeneyes by the thousands, and on the best days, four hunters can down limits of birds in a few hours.

Food and Lodging

Roger Gladu offers lodging and meals at his hunting camp. Other cottages and hunting guides are available through Lake Saint Pierre Outfitter.

Local Attractions

Quebec City is one of North America’s most stunning cityscapes, and the two-hour drive from Lac Saint-Pierre is definitely worth the trip. Le Festival de l’Oie Blanche (The Festival of the White Goose) takes place every October in the picturesque village of Montmagny, celebrating the seasonal return of the greater snow goose with bird-watching, food, and fun activities.

Upper Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna Flats

Photo © labradordesign.com

Hunters in this lore-rich region tend to get mired deeply in either estuarine muck or maritime history. Or, even better, both. Anchored by the small town of Havre de Grace, this northern arm of Chesapeake Bay features one of the most storied gunning destinations in America—the Susquehanna Flats.

Where the Susquehanna River spills into the Chesapeake, a vast shallow flat has formed, built with sand from places as distant as the Blue Ridge mountains. Over the ages, the Susquehanna Flats have grown dense with submersed aquatic vegetation, which can attract crazy numbers of geese and ducks. Locals have developed a hardcore hunting method to meet the birds on their own turf—donning survival suits and hunkering down behind oversized Canada goose decoys. Called “bodybooting,” it’s not for the faint of heart, feet, or other extremities. But watching the sunrise over Chesapeake Bay is worth the shivers.

When to Go

Keep your powder dry until mid- to late December to give migrating ducks and geese a chance to show up.

Food and Lodging

Photo © istockphoto.com

Plenty of hotels are just outside Havre de Grace, strung for a few miles along the Interstate 95 corridor. Or try the Vandiver Inn, a soaring Victorian establishment. Dining on crab cakes at Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace is as close as you can get to being a local without pulling crab pots yourself.

Local Attractions

The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum is home to stunning displays of waterfowl carving heritage. After a visit, find your way to Charles Jobes’s decoy shop in town. He’s one of the last of the old-school bodybooters, a world-class carver, and a longtime DU supporter.

Photo © David Judd

Cambridge, Maryland, is home to the Caesar Guerini US Headquarters. Known for custom, old-world craftsmanship, Caesar Guerini has long been associated with high-end shotgun performance. The company’s Maryland location is also the home of Fabarm and Syren for the US market. Caesar Guerini boasts top-notch customer service with a custom shop, including a state-of-the-art gunsmithing facility.

North Carolina’s Albemarle–Pamlico Peninsula

Some 3,000 square miles of open water and marsh surround the Albemarle–Pamlico Peninsula, along the midcoast region of North Carolina. This mosaic of dense forest, huge agricultural fields, and vast wetlands offers incredible hunting for migrating redheads, scaup, mallards, pintails, and even sea ducks, as well as snow geese and tundra swans. Of the six national wildlife refuges on the peninsula, the best known is historic Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, ringed with cypress trees and marshes. Refuge hunts are by permit only, with an online draw in early fall. But there is some opportunity for walk-up hunters to nab blinds from no-show permittees.

Elsewhere, there seems to be a duck camp or lodge at nearly every turn. Leased marshes and county-specific hunting laws definitely put the onus on DIY hunters to keep a close eye on the map. There are ample opportunities for guided hunts, however, and a Pamlico Sound dawn breaking over a scissor-rig blind is an experience every duck hunter should enjoy.

When to Go

While all this water draws ducks early and keeps them late, more consistent numbers show up in the mid- to late season. It’s a bit of a crapshoot because a hard, multiday freeze can move ducks out. Being on the water when a hard freeze rolls across the Northeast is the best bet.

Food and Lodging

A few mom-and-pop choices are around Lake Mattamuskeet in Fairfield, Swan Quarter, and Engelhard, and there are a growing number of cottages available. For great steaks and fresh seafood, head to H&L’s Restaurant in Engelhard.

Local Attractions

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge hosts its annual Swan Days Festival every December, with guided bird caravan tours, decoy- carving demonstrations, and educational seminars on local history and wildlife.

Central Florida

Photo © garykramer.net

Approximately 20 waterfowl species migrate to or through Florida each winter, and public hunting opportunities are bountiful. Many hunters gun for trophy mottled ducks and black-bellied and fulvous whistling ducks, and there’s a passionate Florida duck hunting community that can help an out-of-towner get started. “Plan on scouting hard, connect with locals, and get on social media to monitor some of the Florida duck-hunting chat boards,” suggests Nick Wiley, DU’s chief operations officer, who spent several years working in Florida, ultimately as executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A top choice is the Kissimmee River Public Use Area, more than 30,000 acres of restored and reengineered marshes. “We worked hard to ensure that these are open lands that do not require a special draw hunt,” Wiley reports. “If a hunter wants to launch a small boat and find his own little corner of Florida paradise, this is the place.” Another highlight is the permit-only T.M. Goodwin Public Small Game Hunting Area, in southern Brevard County. Or hook up with a guide for an airboat adventure on the vast, 730-square-mile Lake Okeechobee, long renowned for duck hunting.

When to Go

Florida waterfowling can be hit-and-miss, but early in the season there’s often a strong push of teal. Diving ducks and other puddle ducks move through later in the season. But even on a bluebird day, wood ducks and prized mottled ducks can make for a memorable morning.

Photo © Eric Orlando

Food and Lodging

The Avon Park area has plenty of lodging options. For fresh seafood, check out the Crazy Fish Bar and Grill in Lake Wales. The Wild Turkey Tavern in Avon Park is a hangout for hunters and fisherman. The Cowpoke’s Watering Hole in Sebring serves steaks and fresh seafood and features a tiki bar. If you’re gunning Lake Okeechobee, another can’t-miss legend is Lightsey’s Seafood, in the town of Okeechobee, a few miles north of the lake.

Local Attractions

After you’ve burned calories chugging through Florida swamps, check out the seven-mile auto tour of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. You’ll have a chance to spot manatees from observation decks.