The ground crunches under my boots and becomes a gentle squish as I walk from the frost-covered field to the slightly frozen mud next to the duck blind. Every year I forget that the blind is shorter than I am and bump my head on a beam at the entrance. Maybe I’ll remember next year. I lay down my gun and ammo box, then find my spot and check out my surroundings. I spread the grass and arborvitae to create a hole big enough to see the creek and my general area—I will be shooting at birds coming from the left—but still small enough to keep myself covered for the most part. It’s still dark, but the faintest hints of orange begin to light up the horizon and the black of the night sky fades to blue just above the treetops. In a few minutes the wisps of cloud turn a brilliant pink as the sun rises.
It won’t be long before the legal time to shoot—one hour before sunrise—and leaning out from the camouflage of the grass and reeds, I can already see ducks flying in small groups and geese in their iconic V formation up high—too high to hit with a shotgun. Maybe it’s the early morning or maybe it’s the relative isolation of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but you don’t here the same sounds as in the daylight hours. No cars or trucks in the distance or planes flying overhead. I hear the water lapping against the bank, the wind in the trees, and the sound of ducks and geese overhead.
When shooting time begins I put in my earplugs and load my 12-gauge and keep the safety on until I am ready to shoot. Our decoys move slightly in the light breeze. One in particular is electronic and mimics the motion of a mallard sifting through the water. For a second I think a duck managed to sneak into the spread and is hanging out eating as if nothing is wrong. It’s amazing how technology has reached even a sport that takes us back to our primitive roots. The hour arrives and now as the flocks of birds fly near a series of duck calls ring out from nearby blinds, as well as right next to me to change the flock’s direction. It’s time to keep a sharp eye focused in the distance and be ready for any ducks that fly into the decoy spread.
I spot a three ducks coming in from the left. They swoop in but are weary of the decoys and fly just out of range and too high. Shooting at them now would be a waste of ammo and would alert the other ducks in the area, so we let them fly away. More ducks fly past in the distance. Shots ring out from other blinds in the area. The more you watch you better you become at identifying the different kinds of birds based on their silhouettes. The geese are the easiest with their broad wings, large bodies, and long necks—aside from the unmistakable flying V. Seagulls ride the breeze, circling before spotting bait fish in the distance and diving down for a morsel of food. The ducks have smaller triangular wings that look rather small in comparison to the rest of their body, but do not let looks fool you, their speed can make them difficult to hit.
Finally, a pair of ducks flies low toward our spread. They’re flying from the left, so I have first shot at them. I take the safety off my gun and load it onto my shoulder. I get the sights lined up and follow the birds as they get closer and closer. I choose the duck on the outside, so my dad and brother have a chance at the other bird as they fly past. I aim slightly in front of my bird to hit it cleanly and kill it as quickly as possible. They reach the decoys and I fire. One shot and the bird dropped. The shot felt good. In most cases, after missing the first one I try to catch up to the bird and need all three shells to finally lead it properly and hit it. The shooting got our black lab excited and he gallops off to dive into the creek and swim to retrieve the bird. It’s going to be a delicious dinner tonight, plus a new collection of feathers for tying flies for fly fishing, one of my favorite hobbies in those dark winter months.
Located right in the heard of the Atlantic flyway, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is one of the finest places in the country to hunt waterfowl. Hunting, bird watching, decoy carving, and other activities surrounding waterfowl are so popular that the town of Easton, MD holds an annual Waterfowl Festival every November to honor these beautiful birds.
Seasons for different species of ducks generally run from November to January with many different ways to hunt for them. Hunting for mallards can be done on waterways in blinds and from boats in places like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Island National Seashore, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Chapel Point State Park. Managed hunts at Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area and Tuckahoe State Park provide the opportunity to hunt Canada Geese in fields via lottery drawings. On the Bay itself, boats anchor off Chesapeake Beach, Tilghman Island, Poplar Island, and many other destinations to hunt fast flying sea ducks.
Waterfowl hunting is an incredible way to experience the Chesapeake in autumn and winter. The solitude of the outdoors clears the mind of the worries at home. The sport of shooting is fantastic for teaching children hand-eye coordination. Lastly, in the 21st century it is sometimes difficult to know where our food comes from. Hunting wild game, such as waterfowl can provide a healthy source of protein and allows you to not only know exactly where it came from, but to also respect and honor the animal that gave its life for your nourishment.