Migration Alert: Weather May Help Chesapeake Bay Hunters

Jan. 24, 2020 – Atlantic Flyway – Chesapeake Bay Area

© Terry Roth

The recent cold front pushing across the northeastern United States is having only a slight impact on ducks and geese moving into the Chesapeake Bay region, and forecasts don’t appear to be sufficient to provide the big push that Maryland and Virginia waterfowlers are hoping for. While considerable rain, snow, and wintry mix precipitation is expected in the coming days, it doesn’t look like any sustained freeze is in the picture.

Some guides hunting the Potomac River report seeing better numbers of diving ducks as this week has progressed. Having a quality decoy spread and the right weather conditions help improve success.

Gary Costanzo, migratory bird specialist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), is hearing similar reports. He says some new ducks arrived in recent days (how many is uncertain), but he believes the last week and a half of the season should offer better hunting as ducks will be searching for food. “The colder temps have helped move the birds around some and there is likely a little ice out there now,” Costanzo says. “If the cold spell lasts a bit longer it could move more birds out into the open, but it’s supposed to warm back up in a couple of days. It’s still cold up there [farther northeast], so it could potentially drive more birds south—at least we can hope. I don’t know if it’s too late for some birds to come south.” Costanzo adds that Virginia has fair to good numbers of geese.

Chip Heaps, Ducks Unlimited’s senior director of development for the Mid-Atlantic, lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in the middle of the region’s historic prime goose country. “I have definitely seen an increase in goose numbers over the last couple of weeks where I hunt outside of Chestertown,” Heaps says. “And I certainly seem to be seeing more in my travels in the general vicinity. I’m still getting mixed reviews on ducks but generally more positive news of late with respect to numbers.”

Josh Homyack, Maryland Department of Natural Resources waterfowl program manager, agrees. “Goose numbers look pretty good to me throughout most of the prime hunting areas of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Potomac River tributaries. I think the lack of any extended freeze-ups—aside from maybe the beginning of this week—have made puddle-duck hunting tough. The birds can hang out anywhere they want and they pick areas with minimal disturbance. So, unless ice drives them out, they are difficult to hunt,” Homyack says. “Diver hunting has been fair on the Maryland portion of the bay—I think a little up and down as birds move around in response to wind and tide. Lots of wind and resultant very low tides for much of the past week not only affects the location of the ducks, but hunters’ ability to access the water.”

John Randolph, a supervisory wildlife biologist who manages the VDGIF Hog Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA), says that numbers remain poor, at least compared to historic standards. The WMA, in Surry County off the James River, has long been a bellwether for local duck hunting, famous for mixed bags with lots of ducks. “It has been the worst of my 19 years here,” Randolph says. Except for wood ducks and local mallards providing some action on local honey holes, few birds are being seen in the area, he adds. On the upside, Randolph reports that he watched about 100 new geese arrive recently. “We’ve had very few of them all season. We might see more ducks and geese before the end of the season,” he notes, before wondering if such optimism was “wishful thinking.”

It is what it is, as the saying goes. That wishful thinking keeps many a hunter in a cold blind as duck season winds down.