By Kyle Wintersteen
The Atlantic Flyway is the most densely populated and intensively developed of the four flyways. However, good public waterfowl hunting is available for those willing to seek out its hidden gems. In fact, many of the flyway's best public areas are hidden in plain sight. Read on to find out which locations made our list of five top public hunting areas in the Atlantic Flyway.
Montezuma Wetlands Complex (New York)
Offering thousands of acres of public hunting, New York's Montezuma Wetlands Complex consists mainly of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Strategically located just south of Lake Ontario and north of the Finger Lakes, this area is a key stopover for impressive numbers of waterfowl each fall.
"Montezuma serves as a crossroads for waterfowl from as far west as Alaska and as far east as Newfoundland," says Sarah Fleming, New York regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited. "This wetland-rich region has a diversity of habitats, and a great abundance and variety of waterfowl. Montezuma annually hosts more than 25 species of waterfowl, including over 500,000 mallards, 100,000 Canada geese, and 25,000 American black ducks."
The Montezuma NWR is open to public hunting on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays throughout duck season. Blind reservations are available—up to 20 are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis—and hunters must complete a waterfowl identification test. For more information visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Montezuma/visit/waterfowl_hunting.html.
If you fail to draw a blind, Fleming recommends one of her favorite spots: the 7,000-acre Northern Montezuma WMA, open to public hunting every day of the season.
"The state land is perfect for those who like to secure their own secret spot," Fleming says. "Personally, I like the flexibility it provides. You can choose where to hunt based on the weather and what the birds are doing. On a crisp November morning, I can't think of a place I'd rather be than a Montezuma marsh, watching the morning flight with my Lab, Ruddy, at my side."
Chesapeake Bay (Maryland)
Chesapeake Bay is one of the greatest waterfowl hunting areas in the Atlantic Flyway, both in terms of its size—4,479 square miles—and its history. This legendary estuary supports a variety of migrating and wintering waterfowl, including canvasbacks, redheads, and scaup as well as sea ducks such as scoters and long-tailed ducks. For dabbling duck hunters, there are plenty of mallards, black ducks, gadwalls, green-winged teal, and many other species. If you are a waterfowler, Chesapeake Bay is among the places you simply must go at least once in your lifetime.
However, despite the Chesapeake's size, hunting demand puts a strain on public-access opportunities. Privately licensed blinds line most banks, relegating public hunters to open water. In addition, Maryland law requires public gunners to hunt a set distance (typically 800 yards) from any shoreline.
"Maryland's laws don't make things easy for the public-access hunter," says Captain Bob Wetherald, owner of the Mid River Guide Service in Newburg, Maryland. "You have to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the regulations, because they can be very challenging to understand, they're very particular about where you can go, and the rules vary in different areas."
If in doubt, don't hesitate to call the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But, if hunting the Chesapeake is your dream, don't be intimidated.
"It can be done," Wetherald says. "With a very well planned trip and the right gear—a sufficient boat, long-lines for your decoys, and good safety gear—the public hunter can be successful on the Chesapeake."
Susquehanna River (Pennsylvania)
Known for being "a mile wide and a foot deep," the Susquehanna River's vast public waters and abundant ducks afford freelance hunters seldom-rivaled hunting opportunities in the Atlantic Flyway.
"I hunt the Susquehanna because there's just so much public access," says Eric Megargel of Catawissa, Pennsylvania, who's hunted the river for more than four decades. "In most cases there are no extra permits to buy or any of the other regulations you encounter on many public areas. If you find an island holding black ducks or mallards, you can almost always hunt it. And if someone's in your spot, just move another 400 yards down the river."
The Susquehanna meanders through scattered small towns and sparsely populated countryside throughout much of its length, so hunting pressure is generally light. There exceptions, of course, including the Susquehanna Flats on upper Chesapeake Bay near historic Havre de Grace, Maryland.
The Susquehanna's North Branch flows from upstate New York, while the far narrower West Branch originates in the Johnstown, Pennsylvania area. Together, they act as a funnel, drawing ducks from Lakes Erie and Ontario, the New York Finger Lakes, and elsewhere to their confluence near Sunbury, Pennsylvania, and points south. While mallards and black ducks are the most abundant species, once winter takes hold a variety of species, including scaup, canvasbacks, and the occasional sea duck, can be found on the river's ice-free waters.
"It took more than 40 years, but I figure I've shot or at least seen every species of duck in the Atlantic Flyway while hunting the Susquehanna," Megargel adds.
ACE Basin (South Carolina)
Encompassing 1.1 million acres—40,000 of which are open to public hunting—South Carolina's ACE Basin is one of the East Coast's largest undeveloped estuaries. Thanks to efforts by Ducks Unlimited, state and federal agencies, and countless private citizens, this region boasts seemingly endless duck habitat, including 26,000 acres of managed impoundments.
"I hunt the ACE Basin because I love to hunt ducks, and that's where you'll find them," said Dean Harrigal, waterfowl biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "People take habitat management seriously down here."
The most abundant species in this region include blue- and green-winged teal, American wigeon, northern shovelers, and gadwalls plus a smattering of ring-necked ducks, scaup, pintails, mallards, and even mottled ducks.
Public blinds are available at the Donnelley and Bear Island Wildlife Management Areas, but they require special permits drawn in annual lotteries. For more information visit http://www.dnr.sc.gov/regs/migratorybird/wmaregs.html.
Those interested in a freelance public hunting experience should target the three rivers for which ACE Basin is named: the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto.
"It can be really hard work, but dedicated hunters do well on birds moving back and forth from the rivers and impoundment systems," Herrigal advises. "Just be prepared for big water and six-foot tides. Twenty feet of decoy line is not too much, and this is no place for a 12-foot johnboat with a tiny motor."
River charts are advisable to avoid striking one of the ACE's notoriously hidden sandbars and to avoid no-hunting areas.
"Like many public areas, competition can be intense," Herrigal says. "But, if we get a rare freeze, you can sure shoot a lot of ducks."
Lake Erie (Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York)
It's hard to imagine that a 9,910 square-mile lake could be considered a secret, but Lake Erie rivals Chesapeake Bay in terms of waterfowl numbers and tradition, yet receives far less attention from hunters. Best of all, the lake offers much better public access than the Chesapeake does.
"It's the closest thing inland hunters have to coastal waterfowl hunting," says Patrick Watt of Curtisville, Pennsylvania. "It's the experience of hunting the big water that really draws me in."
Lake Erie provides important migration and wintering habitat for a variety of waterfowl. From mallards and black ducks on the marshes near Sandusky, Ohio, to diving ducks along the islands and sandbars of Presque Island to 50-foot-deep bays frequented by sea ducks, Lake Erie offers just about any kind of waterfowl hunting you can imagine.
"Personally I enjoy hunting the big water, particularly in a layout boat," Watt says. "However, it takes years of experience to hunt deep water, because when the lake's angry she lets you know it."
If you're accustomed to more forgiving waters, consider visiting one of the region's intensively managed public hunting areas. Watt recommends Presque Isle State Park, where several public blinds are managed by the North West Pennsylvania Duck Hunters Association.
"Many of these blinds can be accessed by wading or with a canoe or small johnboat," Watt says.
Lake Erie also has a number of publicly accessible, rocky shorelines and sandy beaches that also can provide good waterfowl hunting.
"Whether you hunt the blinds or the shore areas, all you really need are a couple dozen puddle duck decoys with a few cans, buffleheads and bluebills mixed in," Watt says. "It's an easy hunt for the first-timer."
Learn about destinations in the other flyways: