By Michael R. Shea
The Atlantic Flyway offers a wide variety of waterfowl habitats and species to hunt, from eider off rock jetties on the coast of Maine to redheads in the gin-clear shallows on the Gulf of Mexico. There's also an abundance of public hunting spots for dabblers, divers and geese, most notably these five waterfowl hotspots for 2016.
Casco Bay, Maine
With more than 4,000 miles of coastline, Maine is the destination of choice for plumage hunters looking for stud common eiders, long-tailed ducks and all three species of scoter. Brad Allen, bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, tells freelance waterfowlers to focus on the southern coast, particular Portland's Casco Bay. Eider like to feed near the north and south sides of the many small, uninhabited islands and sea ledges, he says, and can often be found within a mile or two of the many public boat ramps.
"You need at least a 20-foot boat, a really good outboard, and even though Casco Bay is very sheltered, you need to hunt smart," he explains. "If it's blowing 25 knots run plan B closer to shore for goldeneye, bufflehead, or long-tails."
Maine is notorious for tides, which drop 12 feet in Casco Bay, exposing what locals call "half-tide ledges," or rock outcrops only visible at low tide. They make navigation treacherous, and can be deadly to hunt off if the weather turns foul. If you're not familiar with hunting big tidal swings, it's best to contact an outfitter familiar with the coast.
"I can't overstate it enough: the Atlantic Ocean is unforgiving. You need good equipment, warm clothing, and to be very cognizant of wind and wind direction," he says. "And stay off those half-tide ledges."
For 2016 the seaduck season in the Atlantic Flyway was shortened from 107 days, to 60. It runs from November 11 to January 19 in Maine, with December being the best month for (relative) calm weather, bird numbers, and full-plumage drakes.
For more information on waterfowl hunting in Maine, visit http://www.maine.gov/ifw/
The Niagara River Corridor, New York
Wally Blake, owner of Fowl Waters Outfitters on Lake Ontario, likes to tell the story of two Texans whom traveled north to hunt a few years back. In three days of hot shooting they bagged 17 species of waterfowl. "That's not a typical trip," Blake cautions, "but it goes to show the variety of ducks and hunting styles we have up here. It's the flyway's best kept duck secret."
Puddlers, divers, and seaducks winter in the area, and there's good public access, from state-run shore blinds to boat launches for open water spreads. The Niagara River corridor is especially productive late season – the first two weeks of January – with huge numbers of canvasbacks, bluebills, redheads and goldeneyes. Old-time locals hunt drift boat style, attaching six to a dozen decoys to the boat and floating the current. Blake prefers layout boats, which he says are deadly effective, but not widely used in the area. Lake Ontario is also nearby to the north with world-class white-winged scoter water, and Lake Erie is to the south with historically monster rafts of bluebills and redheads.
Hunters looking to sit blinds should inquire at Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island. Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning the park's 42 slots issued lottery style. A good dog or boat to shag birds is recommended.
"You say Niagara and most people think of the falls," Blake says, "but hardcore duck hunters know it really means waterfowl."
For more information about waterfowling in New York, visit http://www.dec.ny.gov/
Maryland's Eastern Shore
There is no waterfowling ground more historic on the Atlantic Flyway than Maryland's Eastern Shore on the Chesapeake Bay. Yet it can be a challenge to hunt, with more people and less public ground than larger Atlantic Flyway states, explains Jake McPherson, Regional Biologist with Ducks Unlimited. "But with a little homework freelance duck hunters can do very well," he says.
Shore hunting the Chesapeake Bay is highly regulated but the gunning rig zone and seaduck zone, designated as 800 yards from shoreline or 400 yards in Susquehanna Flats region, are open to all. The zones overlap most places, but where they don't, divers cannot be taken in the seaduck zone, but seaducks and divers can be taking in gunning rig waters.
Shoreline and marsh hunting isn't totally off limits, though. McPherson recommends several of the state's Wildlife Management Areas for hot shooting during the fall migration. Deal Island, Fishing Bay, and Wye Island WMA are good places to start. But do your research. "Every single WMA has different rules. Some are open all the time, others only certain days a week. Some are first come first serve. Others are lottery only," he says.
Deal Island, for example, has 2,600-acre impoundment of submerged aquatic vegetation, half of which is sanctuary. The open section is run in a lottery system early season and first-come-first serve later. Wye Island is also a lottery system, but for goose pits in agriculture fields.
Whatever you opt for, a trip to the Eastern Shore, the capital of Atlantic Flyway duck hunting, will be well worth it.
For more information on hunting Maryland's Eastern Shore, visit http://dnr.maryland.gov/
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
The largest natural lake in North Carolina, Mattamuskeet stretches 18-miles long and 7 miles wide – and it can get loaded with ducks.
To hunt it, you need to fill out an online lottery application with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. A successful draw gives waterfowlers two days of hunting – Tuesday and Wednesday or Friday and Saturday – from one of the many shore blinds, all of which have been rebuilt in the last two years with a mind for accessibility. Under normal conditions, water in the lake runs about 3-feet deep, so dogs and boats are optional, making for an easy outing.
"When the season opens middle December, many hunters do well on resident wood ducks and green-winged teal," says Refuge Manager Pete Campbell. "But when we get into January the real numbers arrive – gadwall, wigeon, black ducks, and swans." At peak migration the complex may hold anywhere from 225,000 to 350,000 ducks, geese and swans, he says.
Smart freelance hunters show up early on hunt days, and tow a boat with a diver spread. Any registered blind that hasn't been occupied by 5 a.m. goes into a standby lottery. Hunters who don't draw have a short trailer run to the many public ramps and diver hangouts on North Carolina's Pamlico Sound.
For more information on waterfowling in North Carolina, visit http://www.ncwildlife.org/
The Florida Panhandle
The Florida Panhandle stretches more than 200 miles along the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Waterfowling opportunities largely split into two distinct types: marshy lake hunts and open water shoots along the coast. Freelance hunters new to the area want to focus around Tallahassee, reports Andrew Fanning, acting program coordinator, waterfowl and small game, for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"Inland, the fast and furious blue-winged teal push is excellent, though the timing is sensitive and some years they fly through early," he says. "For most locals, and the real history of the area, is steeped in ring-necked duck hunting." The shallow lakes, ringed with cypress trees, also hold large numbers of resident wood ducks.
Five big duck lakes can be found within an hour's drive of Tallahassee.
Fanning recommends Lake Miccosukee in Jefferson County and Lake Seminole, further west on the Florida-George line. Ringnecks, widgeon and late-season canvasbacks call them home. Setup near hydrilla, the invasive aquatic plant with feathery whorls of leaves, Fanning said, as it tends to be the favorite food of ringnecks.
For coastal hunts, it's hard to beat the redhead action. Gulf Island National Seashore allows shooting in two spots, Perdido Key and Santa Rosa, with an annual permit. Check with the park service before booking a trip, as the waterfowl management plan is currently under review.
For more information about waterfowling in Florida, visit http://myfwc.com/