BY KEN PERROTTE/FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
WHAT A strange waterfowl hunting season, especially for those of us who live and hunt in eastern Virginia.
Across much of the Atlantic Flyway, hunters reported pockets of excellence in duck hunting alongside vast swaths of mediocrity. The weather, or lack thereof, was often blamed for the lack of migratory birds – that and estimates of reduced overall populations of some species.
Yes, hunting ducks along the east coast is an increasingly difficult proposition.
My duck hunting is generally less than stellar locally, largely because places to hunt are scarce. I missed the start of duck season, often the best season thanks to the abundance of wood ducks, as I was out of the country hunting moose. Deer hunting tended to dominate duck hunting in mid-November, although some waterfowlers said they had a few good outings before the birds moved on.
Wood ducks have largely saved the puddle duck hunter’s day over the past season. Birds were plentiful and stuck up, even after a few good snowstorms and frosts. Hunters still collected woodies until the last hunts of the year.
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My rare walk-in forays into a small beaver swamp with my spaniel Boykin Jameson have been hit or miss. Some mornings there was a duck or two, woodies and the occasional mallard; the other morning saw no chance.
Two guided hunts with Monquin Creek Outfitters along the Pamunkey River were studies in contrast. The first, a cool, windy morning, saw us pick up a dozen ducks, mostly wood. The second time, a more birding day, without much activity from neighboring hunters, saw almost no luck except for a single unsuccessful nudge on passing wood ducks.
Chip Watkins at Monquin Creek hosts a special youth and veteran hunt on Virginia Day, designated for these groups to hunt. Retired Marine Corps NCO Mark Oliva and Retired Navy NCO Jay Pinsky joined me and guided Hunter Sanders last Saturday.
Luckily a few Canada geese offered shots and we each collected a limit of one bird. Oliva also collected a chipeau. However, the shooting was marginal for the beginning of February. At least the Canada geese started showing up in the last week of the season.
The highlight of the Monquin Creek hunt is hearing the kids talk about their experiences. A couple collected their first birds, including a boy who took a prized banded goose and others with beautiful wood ducks, a mallard and a hooded merganser.
I hunted with friend Chuck O’Bier and several others at Coles Point off the Potomac River on the second to last day of the regular season. Chuck said the bluebills (scaups) had recently been abundant and quickly collected their limits each morning.
Of course, my arrival changed that. The only birds that seemed to be around were Buffleheads, Long-tailed Ducks (always out of range) and a confused Surf Scoter. We shot down only one Bluebeak among our six guns. Withers breasts made good meat in spring rolls.
A trip to North Carolina to hunt the famed waters around the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County was a big miss. With friends Jimaye Sones and Wayne Correia, we blind hunted on state game land just across from the refuge. The area was full of tundra swans but few ducks. Two shots were fired (both missed). Crossing the highway to visit the shelter around noon revealed no shots were fired at the many blinds the shelter opens to hunters twice a week.
As I was getting ready to leave on my last morning and looking out into Croatan Sound, I saw what appeared to be a huge raft of distant diving ducks. Then, for 45 minutes, I watched wave after wave of high-flying herds migrate south, heading for the refuge.
With the season now over, migratory bird hunters have a few weeks to review and comment on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources season and bag limit recommendations for the 2022-23 season.
Each year, DWR staff develop recommendations in accordance with the annual US Fish and Wildlife Service or Federal Frameworks migratory bird hunting regulations. These are based on estimated bird population levels and species management plans.
Most federal executives are the same as last year, with two exceptions. The first is the elimination of the “special sea duck season” due to declining sea duck populations. Sea ducks can still be taken during the regular duck season, but individual species limits have been reduced.
The second change is that the bag limit on Hooded Mergansers has been removed. Hooded Merganser catch limit is now equal to the total catch limit of all mergansers
Here’s a quick overview.
The duck season would again be split into three segments with a total of 60 hunting days, plus two youth/veteran hunting days on October 22 and February 4.
Goose seasons also remain largely unchanged, with an early statewide season from Sept. 1-25 and a 10-bird limit. During the proposed “regular” seasons for geese, the daily limit remains one bird in the Atlantic population area, three in the southern James Bay population area, and five in the resident population area in west of the state.
Swan licenses are reduced to no more than 532. Hunters shooting a swan tag are limited to one bird per season.
A three-segment dove season, with bag limits unchanged, begins September 3.
Comments can be emailed through March 4 to [email protected] Download the full recommendations at dwr.virginia.gov/about/public-comment-opportunities/Final. Staff proposals will be presented to the DWR Board of Directors at the March 24 meeting.