November 29, 2023
Sitting in my living room as a kid out west, watching hunting shows with my Dad, my knowledge of the Atlantic Flyway revolved around diving ducks on the Chesapeake Bay and Canada geese on the famed Eastern Shore corn fields. Now, as an adult living and hunting in the mid-Atlantic for the better part of a decade, I’ve learned it is so much more for the intrepid waterfowler. Opportunities and quintessential waterfowling experiences are up and down the Atlantic Flyway.
The Seaduck Sirens
The rocky shorelines of New England provide amazing habitat for the east coast’s sea duck populations. Gunning for these magnificent ducks can be a challenging venture without the right mentor or guide. Dana Lovell of Longline Decoys, born and raised in Maine, has ventured into the cold New England waters for the majority of his lifetime.
“With hunting on the coast, you really need to respect Mother Nature, more than if you were just going for a puddle duck hunt. It’s always in the back of your mind, especially with watching the tides,” said Dana. “In some bays, the tide swings so wide you may only have a three hour window to get back to the boat ramp. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting for 12 hours.”
The food sources and ecosystems are so diverse that you will witness a wide spectrum of sea ducks from a layout boat. Surf and white-winged scoters, long-tails, buffleheads, red breasted merganser, and, most notably, the common eider frequent through the long lines decoy spreads. .
In addition to the colorful bills of scoters or the striking long tail in the morning chop, there is always a chance of a harbor seal swimming through the spread to pay a curious visit. “Just the experience of being out on the ocean, the sunrise, marine life and rocky shoreline is something that any duck hunter needs to experience at least once,” said Dana.
The Salt Marsh Life
Sitting in the pre-dawn dark, surrounded by coastal marsh grasses, a person can hear the wings whistle overhead as the ocean waves break in the distance in this special place. Hunting the salt marshes of New Jersey as an experience few can replicate, and you are rewarded with black ducks and Atlantic brant.
Dan Faith, a New Jersey game warden and waterfowler, grew up in the coastal areas of New Jersey. While fishing and clamming in the summers, he developed a love for waterfowling later in life. “There is just something about being out in the salt marsh that is so special,” said Dan. “Growing up here you kind of get used to it, but then moving away for school and work you realize that it isn’t like hunting anywhere else.”
Even with the changing and fickle weather patterns, New Jersey winters the majority of black ducks and a bulk of the Atlantic brant populations. While a guide or experienced local can help get you on the “X”, the Garden State’s public water way and blind regulations are easier to navigate than the nearby states.
“Hunting along the south coast you may have Atlantic City as a backdrop with the casino lights as you leave the boat ramp, or, if on the northern end of the state you may see New York City in the distance,” said Dan. “It makes for a surreal experience of being in such a wild place.”
If there is an epicenter to decoy carving and waterfowling history, it can be argued that it is in Havre de Grace, Maryland and the Susquehanna Flats of the Chesapeake Bay. In describing that history and the many carvers of the area, you would be remiss in mentioning the Jobes family. The father, Harry Jobes, learned carving and worked with the pre-eminent carver of his time, Madison Mitchell. Harry’s three sons, Bob, Charles and Joey, all started carving and working the waters at an early age and continue these traditions today. One of those hunting traditions is known as ‘body booting’.
“This isn’t like duck blind hunting. You are standing waist deep in the water behind a ‘stick up’ [large decoy silhouette] surrounded by bobbing decoys, and at any time a duck could be behind you,” said Charles Jobes. “It is 360 degree hunting.”
The Susquehanna Flats lies where the Susquehanna River empties into the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay. Although it is public land, hunting with someone that knows the Flats and where the little channels flow through is a must. The widgeon grass and wild celery that grow in the two to three feet of water is what keeps the ducks and geese in the area all season long. That shallow depth and the minimal tide change is what makes body booting possible and so unique to the area.
“It's an amazing experience,” Charles Jobes remarked. “I’ve been doing it since I was seven years old, so for the past 52 years. My Dad would take gunning parties to the Flats and when we were old enough to shoot, we would join and shoot the crippled ducks and geese. We didn’t get in the water until we were 10 or 12 years old though. Canvasbacks, redheads, mallards, blue bills and bald pates are always in the mix. Now we are starting to see more gadwalls with the rest of the grass ducks. It’s an amazing place.”
Below the Waves
The Outer Banks along the eastern edge of North Carolina are the only places in the United States where you can hunt out of the famous ‘curtain blinds’. These blinds are a legal version of the old sink boxes but the curtain blinds have a mechanism you can manually raise or lower the sides with the tide;hence the name ‘curtain blind’. Curtain blinds are placed by duck blind permit holders along the shallow grass flat ridges within the Currituck and Pamlico Sounds that the massive rafts of diving ducks, occasional puddlers, brant and other waterfowl choose to feed on during the winter months.
Unlike the pit blinds of dry field hunting, curtain blinds can only hold one or two hunters to stand in. Depending on the wind direction, ‘wave breaks’ made of wooden slats are deployed with larger decoys on top of them in order to keep them underwater and keep the wind-driven waves from overtaking the blind and flooding the inside.
It is difficult to undertake this type of hunting on your own, with years of knowledge for safe operation, placement of the blinds as well as maintenance during the season. However, there are several guides and locals that you can connect with in order to fulfill this waterfowler’s historical pursuit. According to local guide, Captain Tim Hagerich of TnA Guide Service, a matter of inches in depth of blind location can determine whether you are into one type of species or another. On the shallower end of the spectrum you may be into Pintails, Brant or other ‘grass ducks’, but a few inches more and you might be witnessing the flights of Redheads and other diving ducks.
Mosquitoes and Mottled Ducks
It is only natural that the landscape that allows alligators and mosquitoes to flourish would also attract a plentiful population of ducks, water. “Florida is one of the most grueling places to get your target birds like the fulvous, black bellied, mottled ducks. It’s up there, if not harder, than for king eiders,” said Travis Thompson, fifth generation Floridan and waterfowl guide. “It’s a lot of work, getting to where they want to be.”
Tristan Vogel and his Dad from Zero Duck Thirty freelance the length of Florida. They echoed, “With so much water here, there are so many places for them to be; it is a lot of different types of habitat for them. Add the gators and water moccasins and eastern diamondbacks, and it's another ball game.”
Through the swamps, tangled undergrowth and watching out for the prehistoric companions below the waters, a hunter is rewarded with chances at the fulvous and black bellied whistling ducks and the mottled duck. That trio can’t be found anywhere else in the country. “It’s a mixed bag heaven,” said Tristan. “Along the coastal areas, you will find many diver duck species to include redheads, buffleheads, both greater and lesser scaup, canvasbacks, and an occasional scoter too. As you transition from the coastal areas to inland habitat, you can find just about any puddle duck species besides mallards. This diversity creates a golden opportunity for an incredible mixed bag.”
Florida isn’t all mangroves and swamps, it also has a vast network of wildlife management areas (WMAs) and quota system to hunt other areas like stormwater treatment areas (STAS). Get to know the areas with other locals or an experienced outfitter. “One of the things we have going for us late in the season is color,” said Travis Thompson. “Wood ducks, ringnecks and blue wing teal are going to be as full of plume as you could possibly find, during duck season here in Florida.”