When Mark Crain found a spot on the tidal Potomac River that didn't appear to have a duck blind within 1,000 yards, he boated over to a distant blind and plugged the coordinates into his GPS. He then boated to another blind and plugged that location into his GPS. When he got home, he dropped the coordinates into Google Earth and determined those two blinds were more than 1,000 yards apart. It was almost like winning the lottery.
"I drove down to the nearest game department office (more than an hour away) and checked their books," he recalled. "They keep a record of all registered blind locations and their owners. The spot was open."
His blind site might have been one of the last available spots on the 125-mile tidal Potomac. Under Virginia regulations, no one can erect and license a permanent blind within 500 yards of an established blind in waters east of Interstate 95. Nor can a hunter anchor a boat or even stand in the marsh within 500 yards of another blind, even if that blind is unoccupied.
Who knew duck hunting could be so difficult?
"I bet I get 50 or more e-mails before the season from hunters trying to figure out Virginia's duck blind laws," said Crain, who serves as the chairman of the Northern Virginia chapter of Delta Waterfowl. "I usually recommend they join a conservation organization like Delta Waterfowl and attend chapter meetings and get with some guys who know the system. It's pretty difficult to figure out for a first-timer. Even some of the conservation police officers don't know the entire interpretation of the rules."
By Crain's estimate, the 500-yard rule effectively protects up to a whopping 170 acres around each blind site, essentially eliminating thousands of acres of high-quality marsh and open water on the state's tidal waters. Crain contends the rules are far too restrictive and keep too many people from duck hunting. A 2005 survey in Maryland, which has similar regulations, found just 4 percent of the state's duck hunters were new to the sport in the past five years.
"We could use more duck hunters," Crain said. "The more voices we have standing up for waterfowl as well as hunters' rights, the better off we all are."
GOVERNMENT CAMO TAPE
Public waters should be just that: Open to anyone with a boat, a sack of decoys and a desire to enjoy the thrills of waterfowl hunting.
Virginia's 500-yard rule is just one of many hurdles a duck hunter faces before he can throw out a decoy spread. Hunters must also register their permanent blinds each year through a process that often involves standing in line at a license agent on a pre-determined day. Miss the registration period and someone else can take that blind location. Even floating blinds -- as basic as a boat with some camouflage mesh over it -- have to be licensed.
Think Virginia's laws are confusing? Try hunting in North Carolina's Currituck County. The rules governing hunting on Currituck Sound were established in 1957 by the Currituck County Game Commission, an autonomous board that has the legal power to dictate various regulations. The rules include everything from when you have to quit hunting (4:20 p.m. on part of the Sound, sunset on the rest) to the distance between blinds (500 yards) and the minimum dimensions of a "bush blind": "€¦ a boat hide 12 feet by 3 feet and/or a box 3 feet by 4 feet and big enough to conceal at least one person, four poles separated by 12-foot length 3 feet wide. Minimum of two bushes each side and/or camouflage."
One section of rules on the CCGC's Web site is 3,747 words, including a list of a dozen designated off-limits rest areas that may or may not be marked. A second set called Session Laws on the commission's Web site is more than 5,200 words, and includes the lengthy procedures for applying for a blind. And once a hunter figures out those rules and successfully draws a blind, he'll have to fork over an additional $35 -- unless, of course, he's a non-resident. Non-residents pay $260 for the privilege of hunting state-owned water.
Commission board member Jimmy Markert said the rules were established after "a bunch of old-timers got together to keep pressure down."
In addition to the 500-yard rule, the CCGC gives preferential treatment to riparian landowners even though their property boundary stops at the water's edge. In fact, landowners in Maryland and Virginia can essentially boot a legal hunter from the public water in front of their property even though they don't own the water itself.
"They can't do that to boaters or anglers," Crain noted.
Maryland landowners can control hunting up to 300 yards from where their land meets the water, and Virginia riparian landowners control the water out to 8 feet deep. Even more troubling, landowners in Maryland can license a blind site in front of their property even if they have no intention of hunting. Maryland Department of Natural Resources waterfowl biologist Larry Hindman figures the current system started when farmers who hunted used their political clout to keep hunters away from their shorelines. These days, it's not farmers who are locking up water. Instead, it's wealthy homeowners who like the sight of the water as long as it doesn't include duck hunters.
That preferential treatment for landowners is precisely why a new hunter doesn't stand a chance of finding a place to build a blind on public water these days, says Maryland Ducks Unlimited state chairman Scott Jasion. It's also a primary reason waterfowler numbers have remained flat over the past decade. The Maryland survey found that nearly 60 percent of hunters said hunting opportunities are worse or much worse than just five years prior.
"Landowners have the opportunity to license the water two months ahead of everyone else, and they have reduced licensing fees," Jasion said. "An awful lot of water gets locked up by landowners who have never hunted it and never will hunt it."
Virginia landowners are at least required to erect a blind after they license a blind site, although many don't.
"Landowners put a pole in the bottom of the river and nail their license to it and call it a blind. Or they nail it to a tree," Crain said. "They have no intention of hunting that spot. They just want to keep other people from hunting in front of their property."
Those ghost or dummy blinds, as they are known, are one of the biggest complaints from active duck hunters. A committee of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries personnel and representatives of constituent groups undertook a three-year study that examined the issues associated with waterfowl hunting in Virginia. The group's final report included 16 pages of comments from hunters and non-hunters alike. Most blasted the current system, including dummy blinds.
Virginia Beach resident Todd Barnes knows of a 2- to 3-mile shoreline on Virginia's Back Bay that is controlled by a single non-hunting landowner who has licensed blind sites along the entire waterfront. No one can hunt that shoreline. Crain also hears similar complaints from hunters on other tidal waters.
Not surprisingly, some hunters abuse the system and license ghost blinds in an effort to control a larger section of water. Virginia allows individuals to license no more than two blinds, but groups of hunters band together to essentially shut down large sections of water, creating their own refuges.
DECENT SPOTS SCARCE
The Currituck County Game Commission isn't trying to restrict hunting opportunities, according to Markert. Instead, the goal is to keep order and maintain the high-quality hunting opportunities already available on Currituck. In fact, he said, the commission tries to accommodate hunters by posting blind sites as they become available through attrition. As of late February, at least a dozen sites were unclaimed, but North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission waterfowl biologist Joe Fuller said the available blinds tend to be in marginal locations.
"Not many people want them after they hunt them for a season," he explained. "That's probably why they are available."
Tennessee addressed the issue on Reelfoot Lake and ended up banning the establishment of new permanent blinds. The lake was simply running out of room, said former Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency board member Tommy Akin. But unlike other states with heavy-handed rules, hunters who own a blind on Reelfoot must allow anyone to use it if the owner isn't there first.
"The owner gets first chance, but if he's not there by legal shooting time, that blind is open to anyone who wants to use it," Akin said. "It's not perfect, but it's a good system that gives virtually anyone the opportunity to hunt."
Crain would gladly accept similar rules in Virginia. That might mean someone else could hunt the blind he licensed, but that's perfectly fine with him. Even better, Crain would like to see all restrictions on blinds removed, creating a free-market system that gives everyone the opportunity to hunt.
"It's public water," he said. "Why should hunters be prohibited from hunting water that belongs to everyone just because a landowner may not like it, or because there is an empty blind 200 yards away? It's like giving landowners who border a national forest the ability to shut down hunting on public land just because they don't like hearing gunshots at 6 a.m."
IMPACTS OF CHANGE
Removing all rules and restrictions would likely create chaos, at least in the first few years, but Crain figures everything would settle and hunters would find a comfortable equilibrium among themselves.
"There will always be knuckleheads who set up a hundred yards from you," he said.
It's a common complaint in states without restrictions, but it's far better than the current system, Crain said. He doesn't think anyone should dictate legal activities on public water, no matter how much money or political clout they have.
Not everyone agrees. Barnes predicts without the current restrictive rules, duck hunting on places like Back Bay would likely be gone completely in five years.
"These rules really help keep order. As the saying goes, 'good fences make good neighbors.' Without them, it would be a free-for-all. People would be shooting around houses, and there would be so many complaints from waterfront residents the city of Virginia Beach (much of Back Bay falls within city boundaries) would have to do something. Right now, there are very few complaints. I don't want to open up the possibilities that might happen if the rules were eliminated or changed drastically."
However, Barnes would like to see some changes. Specifically, Barnes said he would like to give hunters the freedom to hunt within 500 yards of an unoccupied blind. That would eliminate the issues with ghost blinds and would prevent landowners and other hunters from locking up large sections of water. It would also create more opportunities for an enterprising hunter. Crain would like to see the minimum distance reduced to 250 yards.
However, changes -- no matter how slight -- are unlikely. Despite nine meetings over three years, Virginia's Waterfowl Blind Review and Recommendation Committee failed to come up with any solutions to the continuing problems.
Hindman doesn't see any beneficial changes in Maryland's future, either. If anything, Maryland's laws will likely get stricter as more wealthy landowners buy up waterfront property. And North Carolina biologist Joe Fuller said there has been no talk of overturning the laws in Currituck and Dare counties.
"I think maybe it's just accepted," he said. "However, I understand the argument against these rules. It is public water."
David Hart hunts hard for the best spots near his home in Rice, Va.