On a Wing and a Prayer
Duck hunting season is here — and you may be surprised to find who’s out on the river.
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Photograph courtesy of Ted Haines
Of course, you can’t just go hunting on a whim. For everything there is a season, and for waterfowl hunting it’s a very defined season at that. In DEC Southeast Region Three (which includes the Hudson Valley), the season is roughly 60 days long and divided into two parts, with duck hunting running from November 8 through December 28. “The types of animals we allow to be hunted are very abundant to the extent that they can be harvested with no long-term impact on the population,” says Bill Sharick, senior wildlife biologist for the DEC. “Also, there’s a segment of the Canadian goose population that has become a resident breed and very abundant, eating grass on golf courses, pooping a lot, and consuming farmers’ grains. So we use hunting to balance the negative effects of these animals.”
Potential hunters also have to put all their ducks in row, as it were, before they even think of shooting one. The DEC requires that they obtain a hunting license, a duck stamp (available at most post offices and sporting goods stores), and a Harvest Information Program (HIP) number, which is a central registry for waterfowl hunters. Since the DEC posts bag limits for different species (it’s all on their Web site), you sure as heck better know the difference between a pintail and a gadwall before you even try on a camouflage coat.
And no matter how wonderful your dog is, she isn’t going to build your duck blind. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be fancy. “Some people use natural blinds — they just hide in the bushes,” says Ted Haines, Hudson Valley district chairman for DU. “They can be anything, just a board between two trees, or low-profile ‘coffin’ blinds that you lie down in and float. Some of the ones on the Hudson are enormous shanties that hold up to six or seven people.” Haines’ floating Hudson River blind, located a quarter mile out on the river near Saugerties, is well camouflaged with cedar boughs, which hold their green color for several months. Some hunters have even been known to use fake spray-on holiday snow for a “natural” effect.
Haines is especially keen on the Hudson: come winter, it is a major flyway for migrating waterfowl, attracting species that have traveled from as far away as Alaska and Canada’s Hudson Bay. But hunting on the river has its perils — frigid wind chills, disorienting fog, unexpected tides — that can humble even the most experienced hunter. “The Hudson doesn’t suffer fools,” says La Valley.
First-time sportsmen might head instead to the Esopus Creek, Wallkill River, or small ponds and marshes. In general, you can hunt any place where it’s legal to discharge a gun, provided you are at least 500 feet from any buildings. Just because land is DEC-owned doesn’t necessarily mean you can hunt on it — check the posted rules. Private lands, unless posted, are fair game (although the DEC encourages hunters to ask permission first). And wildlife management areas are pretty much a given; certain areas may be posted against trespassing and hunting for special reasons (such as the presence of eagles’ nests). Two Wildlife Management Areas — the Bashakill in Orange and Sullivan counties, and Tivoli Bays in Dutchess — are local hunting hot spots; the Stewart Airport Cooperative Hunting Area in Orange County is another good bet.
You needn’t travel far if you’re interested in goose hunting, which is mostly done in cornfields. Goose hunters argue that there’s more bang for the buck anyway, since a Canadian goose averages 10-15 pounds, compared to a tiny (though tasty) one-pound teal.
Waterfowl hunters emphasize that it’s not just about bagging a trophy or bringing home dinner. “Pulling the trigger is a small part of it,” says La Valley. “It’s about being out in nature, the beauty of the sunrise, and the camaraderie. You have to experience it to understand.”