By T. Edward Nickens
For traveling hunters, it's not all about the ducks. Some of the country's most interesting communities are smack in the middle of world-class waterfowling. Pay them a visit and you might find that the historic sites, wildlife refuges, local dining, and brewery-hopping are nearly as memorable as the ducks. Here are six great places for a hunting vacation where there's just as much to do in the afternoons and evenings as there is at first light over decoys.
Havre De Grace, Maryland
Gem of the Chesapeake
Havre de Grace is the spiritual center of Chesapeake Bay waterfowling. It's the home of R. Madison Mitchell's early 20th century decoy shop, perhaps the most hallowed piece of waterfowling ground on the East Coast. And nearby are the storied Susquehanna Flats, the river delta where vast beds of redhead grass and wild celery attract ducks and geese.
The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum tells the story of the city's centerpiece role in the history of decoy carving and market hunting. There are tons of decoy displays, old working boats, and the entire contents of Mitchell's workshop, reconstructed inside the museum.
FOOD & LODGING
For a hotel with a different flair, try the Vandiver Inn. It's a rambling old Victorian main house and a pair of separate guest quarters. Its awesome bars and public spaces make it a great spot to unwind. For a great Chesapeake dinner, check out the Bayou Restaurant, a city landmark for more than 60 years, where decoy-filled dining rooms set the stage for classic seafood dishes.
Havre de Grace is the birthplace of one of the weirdest ways ever devised to hunt waterfowl. "Body booting" hunters squirm into full-body survival suits and hunker down—literally—in shoulder-deep water on the flats.
Cross your fingers and toes that Charles Jobes is in town. The lauded decoy carver and his two brothers learned the art from their father, who worked in Mitchell's shop. Jobes still carves with a drawknife and paints each exquisite decoy by hand. If you're super lucky, his wife, Patty, will be tending a pot of corned goose breast when you show up.
The Columbia River is synonymous with salmon, but come winter, geese and ducks pour down the watershed, and the mighty river seems to be just as full of feathers as fins. One of the highlights of a Columbia River hunt is the chance to gun for both greater and lesser scaup sailing into the decoys across a backdrop of mountains. Another is that you're but a hop, skip, and half-hour jump from the coastal town of Astoria, where you can trade stories while sipping some of the best craft beer in the country and enjoying a waterfront as beloved by sea mammals as visitors.
It's hard to beat a stroll along the Astoria riverfront, with three miles of canneries, restaurants, and easy access to the magnificent Columbia River Maritime Museum. For a wilder view of the region's treasures, head for the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
FOOD & LODGING
Breweries have made a sudsy home in Astoria, and a favorite is Buoy Beer Company. Housed in a historic cannery building built on a pier, the brewery and restaurant offer ship-gazing on the Columbia River and a floor with plexiglass inserts for views of sea lions cavorting underfoot. The pet-friendly Astoria Crest Motel, about three miles from downtown, sits on three acres, so there's plenty of room to stretch four legs.
Last year marked the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Josephson's Smokehouse, an Astoria landmark that has evolved into a full-service deli, as well as a wholesale and mail-order enterprise that ships worldwide. Smoked on alder wood, with no preservatives, dyes, or additives, Josephson's wares include smoked salmon, salmon jerky, smoked shellfish and prawns, and premium canned seafoods.
Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
Mississippi River Retreat
The second-oldest settlement in Wisconsin, Prairie du Chien's setting is a mash-up of Mississippi River waterfront and what is called the "Driftless Area." It's a prosaic term for a landscape of deep, timbered ridges looming over broad river valleys that escaped the flattening effects of the last glaciers. The area gathers ducks and geese by the gobs and funnels them down the Mississippi. The town itself is a historic marvel, with fur trade roots and a tourist vibe thanks to its stewardship of some of the oldest landmarks in the Midwest.
Right off the Prairie du Chien riverfront is St. Feriole Island, where a complex of attractions operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society makes a great side trip. Most are open through October, but the island is worth a visit all year long. There's the historic Villa Louis home, a period general store, and a fur trade museum. The island is also home to Fort Crawford, which was built on the site of Wisconsin's only battle in the War of 1812.
FOOD & LODGING
Thankfully, the original idea for the Duck Inn Lodge—a simple cabin with a pot-bellied stove—didn't stick. Now a sprawling event center, it's run by a pair of hard-core duck hunting families with deep experience chasing waterfowl on the main river and backwater sloughs. For a sumptuous blind lunch—and great local fare to take home—head for Valley Fish and Cheese, run by a fourth-generation commercial fishing family.
Stark's Sport Shop is a fabulous sporting goods store that pulls double duty as a destination for connoisseurs of local Wisconsin beers and small-batch whiskeys. The taxidermy shop is near museum-quality, and gawkers are welcome.
New Orleans to Venice, Louisiana
The Cajun Highway
South of New Orleans lies the mother lode of Louisiana marsh habitat, where pintails glide into the decoys and you'd better pick up your birds before the alligators find them. The small towns and crossroads along Louisiana Highway 23 form a contiguous sporting community and the perfect spot for a can't-miss waterfowling adventure. You'll find tons of authentic Cajun grub and cool local sporting goods stores. And the angling opportunities for redfish and speckled trout are as good here as anywhere in the country.
Hop on the historic Belle-Chasse–Scarsdale Ferry across the Mississippi River to St. Bernard Parish. In the town of St. Bernard is the Los Isleños Museum Complex, which tells the story of Spanish colonists from the Canary Islands who settled in southeast Louisiana in the 1770s and 1780s.
FOOD & LODGING
There's plenty of authentic fare on the road south. If you're hungry and impatient, pull into Lil G's Kajun Restaurant in Belle Chasse for gumbo, corn and crab soup, po' boys, catfish, and redfish. Just down the road is LA23 BBQ, with brisket, ribs, pork, sausage, and chicken, all cooked over wood on two giant smokers in the parking lot. With a full belly, you should be able to make it all the way to Venice, where a room at the Cypress Cove Lodge is just steps away from the famed Venice Marina.
Even if you luck into some Gulf Coast waterfowl, save some room in the cooler. Just south of New Orleans, in Gretna, is the Gourmet Butcher Block, where you can load up on Cajun classics such as spicy boudin sausage, cracklins, and whole chickens stuffed with crawfish etouffee.
Green Timber Dreams
Gunning for greenheads around Stuttgart has to be one of the most popular bucket-list hunts. This region is the birthplace of green-timber hunting, and Stuttgart's hallowed position as the site of the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest puts it in a travel category all its own. Nearby are the famous Dale Bumpers White River NWR and George H. Dunklin Jr. Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Stuttgart area is what you won't see—the sprawling native grasslands that gave the Arkansas Grand Prairie its name. You can learn about the prairie's transformation to rice country at the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie, which is also chock-full of duck hunting artifacts and history, as well as the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame.
FOOD & LODGING
Many visitors to the Stuttgart area bunk down in local hunting lodges, but there are plenty of chain hotels around. No matter where you lay your head, you'll definitely want to grab lunch or dinner at the Sportsman's Drive In. This place is the real deal, a duck dive par excellence housed in a 1950s-ish diner. Gigantic burgers and cold beer abound, and you can just about hear more than a half-century of duck hunting stories oozing out of the woodwork.
The famed RNT Calls shop burned in 2016, but the company rebuilt a bigger and better destination. There's additional floor space for retail and more shoulder room for hanging out while watching duck calls being milled on gleaming CNC machines. There are dozens of antique calls displayed from the collection of RNT President John Stephens, and you and your hunting pals can hash out which is the best over a Flying Duck Amber Ale from the craft-beer bar.
Heart of the Pacific Flyway
A hub of railroad activity in the 19th century, Colusa is a destination for inspiring numbers of ducks, geese, and shorebirds that follow the Pacific Flyway. Pintails are often the first to show in early fall, and the migration pageant continues through winter. This small town on the Sacramento River sits in one of the top rice-producing counties in the country, and it makes a great headquarters for guided or DIY hunts. In town, check out the Southern-style courthouse and small historic district marking the old Chinatown. After a morning in the marsh, you can plan an afternoon pheasant hunt with a local guide or kick back at the Colusa Casino Resort to see if your luck in the duck blind is going to stick around.
In nearby Williams, the Sacramento Valley Museum explores the region's rich agricultural history. You can also check out what has been called "the littlest church in the world," the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows, on Highway 45 between Colusa and Grimes. The tiny chapel honors the site of the first Catholic Mass in the county, held in 1856.
FOOD & LODGING
Operated by the Cachil Dehe Band of Wintun Indians, the River Valley Lodge is part of a complex of casinos and includes a large deck and lawn with fire pits. For brisket, ribs, and smoked prime rib, head to Rocco's Bar and Grill, a hugely popular Colusa eatery.
Sprawling public lands are definitely a highlight. Three of the eight separate refuges and wildlife management areas in the Sacramento NWR Complex are in Colusa County. For shutterbugs, four reservable photography blinds are available and highly sought after, so reserve space early through the refuge complex website.
A six-mile driving tour at the Sacramento NWR and a three-mile driving tour at the Colusa NWR access wetlands, ponds, and grasslands that can hold spectacular numbers of ducks and geese.