By Joseph Albanese
The Atlantic Flyway offers waterfowlers a diverse selection of species to hunt in a dizzying array of habitats. From big water to agricultural fields, hunters can pursue light geese, sea ducks, and everything in between. Whether you’re into dabblers, divers, or geese, the Atlantic Flyway offers them all on public hot spots like the ones listed below.
Lake Champlain, Vermont
Lake Champlain is one of the country’s largest bodies of fresh water, consisting of more than 400 square miles of open water, shoreline, and wetland habitats straddling the New York, Vermont, and Canadian borders. The lake is home to great numbers of nesting and migratory waterfowl. Mallards, wood ducks, American black ducks, and American green-winged teal nest along the lake’s perimeter, and this offers fantastic opportunities in the early season.
Located on the northern tip of Lake Champlain is Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, which features a mosaic of wetland habitats frequented by as many as 200 different species of birds and approximately 25,000 ducks when the migration is in full swing. The Missisquoi River cuts through the heart of the refuge, supplying water to beds of wild rice and emergent vegetation such as arrowhead, bulrush, and wild celery. The nearly 6,200 acres of marsh are so important to avian life that they have been designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.
Only a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, Missisquoi offers early-season hunters plenty of opportunities. “During the peak of the migration, which occurs around the first week of October, we see anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 ducks,” says Refuge Manager Ken Sturm. “The early portion of the season is dominated by dabblers. As the season rolls on and temperatures drop, ring-necked ducks start becoming more numerous.”
While the open expanses of Lake Champlain require a large, seaworthy boat, the marshes of Missisquoi can be safely navigated using a canoe or other small craft. Be sure to check local regulations.
When it’s hot: early October for dabblers, November for divers
Abundant species: mallards, wood ducks, American black ducks, American green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, Canada geese
Niagara River, New York
Though the Niagara River is best known for the iconic falls that cascade from Canada into northern New York, it is also a destination for waterfowlers. When the migration peaks, the Niagara will hold as many as 100,000 ducks, including an incredibly diverse array of species. Depending on timing and location along the river’s 36-mile flow, hunters can find everything from wood ducks to scoters, though greater scaup and mallards make up the majority of hunters’ bags.
Josh Stiller is a waterfowl biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and a lifelong duck hunter who grew up hunting the Niagara. Stiller says hunters looking to target sea ducks should head upriver, while those interested in puddle ducks should concentrate on the lower section. “If you’re looking to harvest longtails and scoters you should head to the river’s upper reaches,” he says. “Puddlers like mallards and gadwall are more often found downstream, though they can be encountered just about anywhere.”
You can find divers up and down the river, often in large numbers. Greater scaup and redheads are numerous, and Stiller says canvasbacks can be more plentiful here than in any other part of the Empire State. The first split kicks off around the end of October, but action doesn’t get hot until December. Stiller warns that ice usually shuts down action on the river by the first week of January. While the river may not freeze solid every year, the ice floes are intense enough to drag decoys away and make hunting all but impossible.
If you lack a boat capable of handling the big water of the mighty Niagara, you can still get in on the action. New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation operates a series of blinds on Beaver Island, which can be reserved via a drawing. While all of them can be productive, look for blind sites with submerged aquatic vegetation for the best gunning.
When it’s hot: December
Abundant species: long-tailed ducks, scoters, greater scaup, mallards, redheads, canvasbacks
Maryland’s Central Region Public Hunting Lands
Maryland hunters can find public-land opportunities on a series of state-owned wildlife management units. Josh Homyack, waterfowl program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), explains that these areas include habitats ranging from agricultural lands to flooded timber. Several of these areas are first-come first-served, but many require a permit and some require reservations, so Homyack recommends studying the DNR website before planning a trip.
McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located just off the Potomac River’s floodplain near Washington, DC, is managed as a greentree reservoir. In the fall and winter, managers flood sections of the forest and shrub lands to provide habitat for ducks and opportunities for hunters. This attracts both wood ducks and hunters in droves during the October season, so plan on having company. The WMA is first-come first-served, so get up early if you want a good spot.
Many hunters venture to Maryland in pursuit of canvasbacks. If you’re a looking to harvest one of these sought-after birds on public land, then the Islands of the Potomac WMA should be on your list of destinations. Three of the 30 islands that make up the unit are open to public hunting, all of which are located in Montgomery County. Maddux Island is just across the Potomac from McKee-Beshers WMA, while Oxley and Mason Islands are further upriver, just outside of Dickerson. Be sure to bring your canoe if you plan on hunting on any of these islands.
You can’t think of Maryland without Canada geese crossing your mind. If you want to get in on some of the fabled goose action, Homyack recommends looking at one of the WMAs that have fields managed for doves and geese. Some, like Old Bohemia WMA, feature pit blinds that give public hunters the hunt-club experience without the annual dues. These blinds require reservations, so plan ahead.
Timing is often everything when it comes to successful waterfowl hunting, and Maryland is no different. Wood ducks are present early in the season, but if you’re looking for divers, Homyack says later is better. “After Christmas is typically the best,” he explains. “Late December and early January usually provide the most successful hunting.”
When it’s hot: late December/early January
Abundant species: scaup, canvasbacks, American black ducks, mallards, wood ducks
North Carolina Game Lands
Scattered throughout the Tar Heel State are a series of Game Lands that provide habitat for wildlife and opportunities for hunters. These lands blanket the state from north to south and east to west and are managed for a variety of different species. Depending on the terrain, a Game Land may be manipulated to enhance habitat for deer, turkeys, doves, or waterfowl.
Hunters gunning from traditional curtain blinds or open-water brush blinds on the North Carolina coast typically encounter redheads, bluebills, buffleheads, and sea ducks. But those hunting the shoreline of Currituck Sound typically encounter more puddle ducks. According to David Turner, with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, hunters on the sound’s edge can expect to encounter mallards, American black ducks, wood ducks, and the occasional pintail.
Among the variety of waterfowl in North Carolina, perhaps the most exciting is the tundra swan. The state issues about 6,000 swan tags a year through a drawing. If you do get selected, one of the best places to fill your tag on public land is Gull Rock Game Land. Swans are regular visitors here and can often be found on the freshwater pond. “It’s one of the only places in the state where hunters can just walk out on public land and fill their swan tag,” Turner says. “The only requirement for admission is a state Game Lands endorsement on their hunting license.”
The state doesn’t plant any crops at Gull Rock, instead managing the unit for moist soils and submerged aquatic vegetation with the hope that the resulting insect life will aid hens with egg production as they make their way back north to nesting grounds in spring. This means that ducks typically seek out other food sources in the fall and rely on the management area’s 250-acre impoundment for shelter from harsh weather. “The most productive days occur when the ducks get blown off the bay,” explains Turner. “The worse it gets out there, the better the duck hunting is at Gull Rock.”
Turner also recommends hunters visit North River, Goose Creek, or J. Morgan Futch Game Lands. These units have annual crop plantings to help draw in waterfowl, so they don’t rely as heavily on weather. Unlike Gull Rock, access to these areas is by permit only. That permit is available online; visit the link below for further information.
When it’s hot: November/early December
Abundant species: mallards, American black ducks, wood ducks, tundra swans
T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area, Florida
Florida is best known for its beaches and palm trees, but the Sunshine State is also home to a few unique duck species. Mottled ducks may look like mallard hens or black ducks, but they are the only dabbling duck that has evolved to nest in the southern marshes. The mottled duck’s home range is along the Gulf coast, and they prefer to spend their time in freshwater habitats instead of salt or brackish estuaries.
Fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks also call Florida’s wetlands home. Despite being known commonly as ducks, their shared genus name Dendrocygna translates roughly to “tree swans.” They lack identifying sexual characteristics, making it difficult to tell hens from drakes, and they do often roost in trees.
If you’re looking for a chance at mottled or whistling ducks on public land, one of your first choices should be the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area and Broadmoor Marsh in central Florida. The freshwater marshes, mudflats, and impoundments on the 6,270-acre management area in the Upper St. Johns River Basin attract and hold good numbers of blue-winged teal and ring-necked ducks in addition to mottled ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks, and a smattering of fulvous whistling ducks, according to Jon Webb, biologist for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC).
“Historically, the best time to hunt Broadmoor or T.M. Goodwin is in November, with the early-season birds decoying very well,” Webb says, “but last season some of the best hunting came during the December opener. Our logs show that hunters averaged 4.5 ducks per day that week.” In most years, success on mottled ducks and black-bellied whistling ducks is high.
Hunting is available on T.M. Goodwin’s 16 blind sites only on Saturdays and Tuesdays; the 14 sites on Broadmoor can only be hunted on Tuesdays. A permit is required, which can be obtained by drawing through the FFWCC’s online licensing system. If you don’t get selected in advance, you can show up before dawn on a hunt day and hope to win that morning’s random drawing for slots left open by permitted hunters who failed to show. Visit the FFWCC website for further details.
When it’s hot: November
Abundant species: blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks, mottled ducks