Early season duck hunting has been underway for about a week in most states north of the Mason Dixon, with mixed reports on bird numbers and hunter success rolling in. New Jersey’s south zone plays catch-up this week, opening Saturday, and Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie shore zone opens on Monday.
Typically in low water conditions, as much of the flyway is facing, spots can get burned out relatively quickly. Birds concentrate on limited available water. Hunters find it and blast away. The birds move on. As Pennsylvania waterfowl biologist Kevin Jacobs told me, October early seasons typically send birds up and out the first week, especially when the weather is dry.
In eastern Connecticut this week I found that out the hard way. Connecticut changed their season dates this year, opening on Saturday rather than the traditional mid-week start date. There was much grumbling online about the pressure that’d cause. Griping ornery old timers, I thought. Then when I hit spots Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday across various state forests and wildlife management areas, and sure enough: no birds. One beaver swamp that held hundreds of wood ducks last week was a ghost marsh this week. I managed to scratch down one bird, a young black duck on which my uncle’s dog, Teal, shown above, made a fantastic 200-yard retrieve. Is the Saturday change solely to blame? Of course not, but when you’re hunting resident birds during low-water conditions, hot spots can turn to dead zones fast.
Rain in the forecast next week could help, opening up some new ground for passing birds. Weekend rainfall and a high-pressure system approaching the East Coast means a wet, warm week ahead on the Atlantic flyway. Temperatures are expected to swing from the 60s and 70s during the day to the 40s at night for much of the mid-Atlantic and northeast. It’s doubtful the rain will be enough to negate the overall dry conditions.
“There’s been a lot of hunting activity statewide,” said Kevin Jacobs, waterfowl biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Pennsylvania has had all but one zone open for the last week. Wood duck numbers seem to be up everywhere and there are still plenty of blue-winged and green-winged teal is some areas. Mallards and some early calendar ducks like shovelers and gadwalls are being reported, Jacobs said.
“Water is not as abundant this year as it was last year, so there’s relatively less available habitat on the ground to attract and hold migrating ducks,” Jacobs said. “We expect hunting success rates to be down a bit because of the dry summer and early fall. The outlook is not real optimistic that we’re going to draw and hold a lot of puddle ducks, because we don’t have abundant landscape due to the dry summer.”
In the next few weeks migrating ducks should start working through the northeast and into the mid-Atlantic region. Teal, gadwall, widgeon, migrating mallards and black ducks, if they hold to last year’s calendar, should start showing up mid-flyway in the next two or three weeks, Jacobs said.
“The people doing their homework and targeting those areas with good water and food are having good success,” Jacobs said. “Beavers are critically important in maintaining and holding back water. If people find those areas that’s where the birds are concentrated.”
Avery Prostaffer Shaun Smith did just that on Saturday, for Pennsylvania’s southern duck zone.
Smith got permission on private land several years ago. The swampy ground held a few inches of water back then, not looking completely promising, so he never hunted it. But this year the beavers moved in. Smith and his buddies had to canoe the 8-foot deep bog and ultimately hunted from their boats because no dry ground could be had.
“When you’re in the middle of a swamp and trying to look 360 degrees, you know its good,” he said. “This swamp is tremendous. The geese are there, the ducks are there, the water is there. That day when we hunted was like the migration had just turned on, because of the amount of geese in that area. They looked to have just come out of the molt with bright color, they were bright white. These geese were dumping in by the hundreds.”
Wes-central Pennsylvania is one of the few areas where water levels are average. But drive an hour into Ohio and some big lakes are drained 40 or 50 feet off the edge, Smith said.
Marcellus Shale gas drilling is another possible game changer for the Pennsylvania hunter. “A field that was once great hunting, might have a 5-acre concrete pad on it where they drill,” Smith said. “Or the field might not be developed, but there’s equipment setup nearby, pushing birds to different fields or fields you might not have access to.” Gas drilling altered Smith’s early goose season, and could have the same effect on late season geese or field hunting big ducks.
Capt. Bob Wetherald, a Final Approach and Benelli prostaffer, is planning a Saturday hunt for wood ducks based around beaver activity and the wet forecast. “Water levels are extremely low and I doubt the showers coming Friday will help much,” the Maryland-based guide said. “But if you find a decent marsh with good millet or duck weed you can bet you’ll find some wood ducks or teal using it.” Despite the weather, bird numbers seem to be higher than normal for early October on the Chesapeake.