Unfamiliar Waters

The morning started like most, the alarm shook me awake hours before sunlight, the coffee was bubbling and people were starting to stir.

I’m told it takes a big crew and a lot of work to “body-boot” the Chesapeake Bay. The mass of 2 a.m. zombies grumbling around seemed to reinforce that. Some had managed to claim beds while the others were scattered between the couch and various spots on the floor; not an unfamiliar sight for a waterfowl hunter.

We had the usual spread of people restlessly waiting for the others to finish putting on their socks, find their headlamp and, in my case, gather up camera gear and batteries. Once we left the house, the morning became drastically different from what I’m used to back in Arkansas. To start, we had three boats, and not the 1552 aluminum boats that I’m used to in river bottoms back home. These boats were huge. Each one sporting one or more motors the size of a small car, these boats were made for big water.

We were loaded with an arsenal of decoys and food to get us through the all-day hunt on open water. We got to the ramp and instantly I was hit by the briny smell of the bay and the sound of waves pushing up the bank. I could feel the salt and sand in the wind abrading my face as we raced off into the void. After about 40 minutes, the droning of boat motors fell to a murmur.

“This is the spot guys,” said Billy, his voice projecting from one of the other boats. “Start spreading some decoys.”

“Some” was a relative term. After a half-hour of effort, the nine of us stood in knee-deep water scanning the horizon and appreciating the artwork of 800 decoys, a dozen V-Boards, and nine stick-ups bobbing all around us. The scale of this spread was mind blowing to a Southern guy used to hunting over a couple dozen decoys.

While the guys sorted out who was going to ferry the boats back to the nearest island, I pulled a white hoodie over my clothes as instructed. Grabbing my camera I tucked in behind a white piece of plywood cut into the shape of an oversized swan: this would be my cover for the day. No pit blind, no layout, not even a tree in sight (let alone one to hide behind.) Just a group of guys crouched behind nine swan stick-ups among hundreds of duck decoys and goose silhouettes.

This was the Chesapeake Bay and it’s a different ballgame.

As the sun came up I found myself staring off into the miles of open water surrounding us, confused at how we were standing 18 inches deep when there was no land in sight.

“On the left!”

I snapped out of my trance, my gun was already on its way to my shoulder as my eye found the bead, traced the bird and, with the squeeze of the trigger, I felt at home.

Scenery changes mean different ways of decoying ducks and getting under cover. The wood-pattern camouflage of Arkansas’ flooded timber gives way to the white hoodies and swan stick-ups of Chesapeake Bay.

Coastal Contrast

Growing up and hunting in Arkansas my entire life, I figured duck hunting was the same everywhere, just with different types of feathers, but that wasn’t the case.

As agriculture started to boom in Arkansas, specifically rice in the early 1900s, most farmers started targeting ducks as nuisance animals. After hand cutting green rice, the rice heads were piled into “shocks” for them to dry. Farmers discovered that these shocks were a prime food source for migrating waterfowl and that a wad of ducks unattended in their fields could devastate a harvest.

Farmers started shooting ducks to protect their crops, some even tasking their children with guarding the shocks before and after school. Our obsession for hunting ducks for food and sport stemmed from that. As we looked for more ways to enjoy our pastime we discovered the flooded woods along the rivers made excellent habitat for ducks, and we began our love affair with flooded timber.

The Arkansas landscape lent itself well to concealment. Pit blinds, layouts, elevated blinds and even tucking behind a tree in the timber became the standard cover for today’s Arkansas waterfowlers.

Modern waterfowl hunting in Chesapeake Bay began in the late 1800s, when market demand was the main driver for shooting ducks. Canvasbacks specifically were highly sought for their feathers and meat. With no limits or regulations, coupled with a high price per pair, the Eastern Shore developed effective techniques for harvesting large numbers of birds. These methods included sink boxes, which submerged the hunters below the water’s surface, making them invisible to low-flying birds, and the use of multi barreled and large boat-mounted “punt guns” to fire massive amounts of shot that could down an entire flock or raft of ducks.

As market hunting began to increase, the effects of it were felt and duck numbers plummeted. These days, those extreme techniques have been outlawed nationwide in an effort to conserve bird numbers and preserve flyway populations. If you venture to the Chesapeake Bay now, most hunting is done out of boat blinds, layout blinds and body booting.

Goose and teal seasons in the region start in September. Duck, coot and merganser seasons primarily stretch from early October through January.

I was fortunate enough this winter to hunt four days with a good buddy, a local named Grady Hearn whom I had hosted in Arkansas a few years ago. After killing his first specklebelly (a banded one I might add) and getting a taste of Arkansas, he insisted for years that I come east and see how they do it. Over these four days we hunted various landscapes, from chasing puddle ducks out of layout blinds in the phragmites marsh to standing waist deep in water while weathering wind and rain to shoot some divers. As a guy who grew up hunting the agriculture fields and backwaters of a landlocked state, a few things stood out to me.

The first thing I noticed on our maiden hunt was the tide. Never have I ever considered, even when prepping for this hunt, the tidal ebb and flow of the ocean. The first morning’s hunt was simple — just Grady, myself and a black lab named Cash. We spent the unlit hours of the morning boating around looking for a good island point to set up on some redheads he had seen rafting in the area days before.

After getting beaten to our preferred spot we made our way through the “guts” of an island and out the other side to set up our layouts in some tall marsh grass with our backs to the wind. As I brushed in our blinds — about all I was confident in doing correctly — I noted that Grady was setting the decoys about 15 yards from me and about 5 yards from the water’s edge. Odd.

As the sun rose and a few birds made their way in, and unfortunately out, of our spread, it was time to move. This was not our decision but the water’s. As I stood up to look for birds on the horizon I realized the water had slowly crept up to the edge of my layout and the decoys that had looked way too close now looked right.

I tiptoed around trying to stay dry while picking up decoys and felt each little wave bring the water level higher on my chest. Grady said understanding tidal patterns was as important, if not more, than knowing where the birds were. He said many people are stranded when the tide goes out or can’t get back to their boat when the tide comes in because they get too caught up in chasing the birds with no plan past that.

Man’s best friend is welcome in the boats of both the Chesapeake and Arkansas, but the saltwater hunters have to be conscious of rising tides. An Arkansas duck caller might find his skills are less in demand in the Chesapeake, where duck whistles are just as, if not more, useful.

Head Counts

Another major difference from hunting in Arkansas was the number of different species and populations of ducks and geese on the Eastern Shore. I came to Maryland with the goal of shooting a black duck, similar to Grady’s desire to chase a speck in Arkansas, but I was impressed with just how different their flocks look from ours. I am used to early morning flyovers from wood ducks, a few groups of gadwall or teal chaotically buzzing into the spread, and the visual of mallards dropping through oak trees. On the bay was different; huge flocks of redheads worked in numbers similar to those of snow geese. Clownish looking sea ducks (surf scoters) diving and skimming their way across the water’s surface, pairs of black ducks, rafts of canvasbacks and the occasional low-flying swan kept my eyes glued to the horizon for four days.

Out there, they find more benefit in bringing a duck whistle than a mallard call.

“Mallard calls just don’t seem to work them like a good pintail or widgeon whistle,” I was told, and it didn’t take me long to leave my calls in the boat (where they remain today).

Not only were the species odd to me, but what the locals valued as their preferred bag was hard to comprehend. I’ve never been a picky hunter; I am happy to shoot any duck that wants to work the spread. But let’s be honest, we all have some we place in a higher echelon. From day one I was losing my mind to shoot a black duck, and these Chesapeake boys could not be bothered to target them. They liked the black ducks fine, the limit was just too small to focus on.

These crazy Easterners’ dream duck was a mallard (understandable since we all love greenheads) but a close second in their eyes was a gadwall. A limit filler for most Arkansans was a glory bird for them. Black ducks were a casual mention in their post-hunt phone calls and updates while I was bragging to my friends back home. They made a point to mention bagging any gadwall and teal, while that was a minor detail in my day’s recap. One thing we did agree on was that everyone loves a drake widgeon.

Hunters from the South and East agree that the mallard is a sought-after bird. The saltwater hunters have a variety of colorful targets that includes redheads, sea ducks, black ducks, swans and canvasbacks. An Arkansas limit filler like a gadwall is prized in Chesapeake Bay, while the bay’s black ducks mean more to visitors than the regulars who hunt there.

Converging Cultures

The final distinction found was the driving factor behind this hunt — the waterfowling culture of the Eastern Shore. From a macro perspective, hunters are pretty similar. But specific to the bay region I noticed a huge, necessary connection between waterfowl hunters that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. It was that of an exclusive club and it carried a weight behind it.

Hunting the bay required teamwork, dedication and trust as they relied on each other to make it work. We spent hours on the phone after each hunt, talking to other hunters and planning the next day based on that shared info. Gear was pooled to make hunts more effective and time and energy could not be wasted on people who were going to back out or not pull their weight. It took a village to pull off these big hunts and I was impressed by the lengths they went to. From driving all night (after long days of hunting) to pick up more decoys and hunters, to dragging canoes full to the brim with decoys and gear across a mile of open water in a monsoon, to spending hours wrangling up and untangling runaway decoys when a plan went awry, these guys put in major work and earned their successes.

To be clear, waterfowl hunting is work no matter where you are, but for the most part, my usual hunts in Arkansas involve a small group of close friends, and getting up early and being on time are the only major requirements. There’s a simplicity to that, and as Southern hunters we take pride in knowing that as long as we wake up and the dog doesn’t back out, we are going hunting. Our afternoons are spent cleaning birds and gear, resting the pups and making a plan for the next hunt.

Those boys in Maryland are probably still chest deep in freezing water trying to shoot a gadwall.

The demands of hunting Chesapeake Bay call for the use of canoes versus the aluminum flat-bottoms of Arkansas. The canoes are dragged, full of decoys and swan stick-ups, across open water to their location. But whether hunting in the East or the South (or North or West), the day’s success is still measured one way.

As an Arkansan, I take pride in being a duck hunter. I feel a sense of heritage and a connection to the landscape and our past, and that is a feeling not lost on the hunters of Chesapeake Bay. If you were to take out the odd-looking ducks, salty water, and lack of trees, you would find that most hunts are spent the same way up there as down here — a group of friends reminiscing, enjoying time outdoors and looking forward to one more sunrise together.

If your passion is chasing ducks and geese, I would strongly suggest taking a trip east, hopping in a boat with locals and taking in what Chesapeake Bay has to offer. It is something every waterfowl hunter should experience at least once, and I can guarantee that if you make the trip, you will meet great people, eat amazing food and have a hunt and a story you will remember forever.

Photography by Kody Van Pelt