By Michael R. Shea
The Atlantic Flyway is home to a wide range of habitats, a variety of species, and unique hunting styles. Whether it's black ducks in the salt marshes, divers on the bays, or sea ducks on the open ocean, this flyway offers an abundance of waterfowl hunting opportunities. Best of all, public access abounds, especially along the coast. The following are five of the Atlantic Flyway's best public hunting destinations.
Barnegat Bay, New Jersey
Named by English explorer Henry Hudson after the Dutch word meaning "an inlet with breakers," Barnegat Bay is exactly that, spanning 42 miles along the Atlantic coast in Ocean County, New Jersey.
The bay's tidal estuaries, which are fed by several small rivers, hold good numbers of early teal and a mixture of other puddle ducks. Black duck and mallard numbers typically peak around Thanksgiving, providing good shooting in brackish marshes. On the bay itself, you'll find scaup, redheads, long-tailed ducks, and canvasbacks through the fall and winter. Divers can be hunted off rocky outcrops and from layout boats, or for a more traditional experience, you can hire a guide and hunt from a Barnegat sneak box-one of America's original duck boats.
There are a number of public boat ramps, but some towns require a permit for parking, so be sure to check local regulations. Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Barnegat, also offers good public hunting opportunities in salt-marsh habitat.
"The nice thing about New Jersey is that the state's waterway usage and accessibility laws are much more conducive to waterfowling than neighboring states," says Joe DeMartino, Ducks Unlimited senior regional director in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, who has hunted the bay for 30 years. "I recommend that hunters contact the New Jersey Division of Wildlife for the exact regulations. There are great opportunities on the bay that are overlooked by many hunters."
The New Jersey coast winters the majority of the Atlantic brant population, but due to a poor hatch this spring, the 2015 season has been cut back to one week in October and three weeks in November and early December, with a one-bird daily bag limit. If you've never heard the distinct calls of Atlantic brant or watched their acrobatic flight over the decoys, it is well worth the trip.
For more information about waterfowl hunting in New Jersey, visit www.njfishandwildlife.com.
Delaware Bay, Delaware
The 782-square-mile Delaware Bay doesn't get the same attention as its larger neighbor, Chesapeake Bay, but the hunting on this estuary can be just as good. Where the Delaware River meets the Atlantic, sandwiched between Delaware and New Jersey, the coastal flats hold huge numbers of greater snow and Canada geese, while puddle ducks can be found along the coast's freshwater impoundments.
"The sheer number of waterfowl that can be found in this small state is amazing," says Jerry Kryspin, a hunting product specialist with Drake Waterfowl, who's been hunting Delaware Bay for 25 years. "We don't get a lot of the recognition, but we're happy to stay a hidden gem."
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, in Kent County on the western shore of Delaware Bay, offers waterfowlers a little bit of everything. It supports one of the largest concentrations of wintering greater snow geese in the country, and also holds an astounding number of pintails, teal, and wood ducks. Hunts from designated duck blinds are available with daily permits, which are drawn two hours before shooting light. For goose hunters, there are field blinds and a designated permit-free area for snow goose hunting.
"Even if you don't get drawn that day, just riding through the area is absolutely amazing during the peak of the migration," Kryspin says. "You'll easily see tens of thousands of snow geese on the flats and hundreds of pintails on the impoundments."
Outside the refuge system, Delaware Bay is more regulated than New Jersey, and much of the shoreline is private property or under local ordinance. But if you push out farther into the bay, rafts of divers and sea ducks are plentiful.
For more information about waterfowl hunting in Delaware, visit www.dnrec.delaware.gov/Pages/Portal.aspx.
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
One of North America's most well-known waterfowling destinations, Chesapeake Bay can be challenging to hunt. Nearly all of the shoreline is privately owned or consists of heavily regulated county blinds issued to hunters by annual drawing. But that doesn't mean that freelancers can't find good hunting on this iconic estuary.
The Offshore Waterfowl Hunting Zone, which begins 800 yards from the shoreline in Maryland, is open territory as long as you are accompanied by a Maryland resident. Hunters can find, pattern, and successfully set up for both divers and sea ducks on the open waters of the bay.
"It doesn't take much to go out with black decoys and kill scoters," says Nick Michael, a guide with Maryland-based Black Duck Outfitters. "The best thing to do is to get out at first light and look for them, scout where they're feeding, then set up and wait. They'll be back."
While the bay is large, the average water depth is only 21 feet, so it's very possible to do the same kind of hunt with a layout boat and diver rig for feeding canvasbacks, redheads, and scaup. Yet because of hunting pressure on Chesapeake Bay and some of the state's specific regulations, hunters are encouraged to check with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources before planning a hunting trip.
For more information, visit dnr2.maryland.gov.
Pamlico Sound, North Carolina
Pamlico Sound is part of the second-largest estuary system in the United States, after Chesapeake Bay. Protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the Outer Banks, Pamlico's open waters support an abundance of submerged aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass and shoalgrass, while the coastal marshes along its shoreline provide secluded resting areas for impressive numbers of wintering waterfowl. Mallards, black ducks, blue- and green-winged teal, American wigeon, shovelers, and pintails frequent the marshes, while scaup, buffleheads, redheads, and canvasbacks as well as scoters, long-tailed ducks, and Atlantic brant can be found on the bigger water.
"Weather really makes or breaks a Pamlico Sound duck hunt," says Tommy Hughes, coastal ecoregion supervisor with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission. "Most of the sound is very shallow, so conditions can get very bad very quickly, and you have to be aware of the shoals."
Pamlico isn't significantly influenced by lunar tides, but because it's so shallow, wind tides can dramatically impact water depths. "On a northeast wind, there will be high water on the west side. If a west wind blows, the east will be high," Hughes explains. "It's something you have to consider when navigating Pamlico that you don't have to account for on other major waterways."
Most of the public hunting opportunities on the sound exist on state or federal land, nearly all of which is regulated via daily or seasonal permits. There are multiple options, including the Goose Creek, Carteret County, and Gull Rock state game lands as well as Swanquarter and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges.
Freelancer hunters should be aware that many of North Carolina's coastal counties have ordinances preventing hunters from setting up within 500 yards of an established blind, so make sure to review local regulations.
For more information about waterfowl hunting on Pamlico Sound, visit www.ncwildlife.org/Hunting.aspx.
Lake Okeechobee, Florida
Florida's inland sea, Lake Okeechobee encompasses more than 730 square miles in five counties, holding some of the flyway's most interesting waterfowl species. Mottled ducks and black-bellied and fulvous whistling ducks can all be found in the emergent marshes on the north side of the lake, along with a good mix of teal, ruddy ducks, ringnecks, and shovelers.
"That's the thing about Florida duck hunting," says Jamie Feddersen, waterfowl and small game management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "Not a lot of people know about it. And it can be very, very good."
For waterfowlers in the know, a good morning on Lake Okeechobee is a bucket-list experience. The northwest marshes offer the largest diversity of ducks on the lake. An airboat is the preferred mode of travel, but the marshes are generally navigable with a shallow-draft boat equipped with a mud motor. Many Okeechobee waterfowlers hunt from a boat blind, but it's also possible to set up on swamp seats in chest waders. (Gator activity, Feddersen says, is low in the colder months.) The lake's water level has a big effect on waterfowl flight patterns, so make sure to do your research and set aside plenty of time for scouting. If your time is short, hiring a guide who knows the area is a wise decision.
Traditionally, early to mid-January is when the migration peaks on Okeechobee, but the later you go, the better the plumage on the birds. "If you want to see plumed-out birds-shovelers, teal, ringnecks-later is better," Feddersen says. "That's another thing about Florida duck hunting: you'll see some really nice plumage on the birds you harvest."
For more information about waterfowling on Lake Okeechobee, visit www.myfwc.com.
Fantastic waterfowling action can be found on public land across North America. The following highlights five destinations for each flyway to help you plan your next hunt.