MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
While deer and turkey are by far the most popular game animals aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, perhaps no prey requires more dedication than waterfowl. Hunting ducks and geese is not about enjoying a beautiful day, nor is it about the meal, however delicious it may be.
“There’s no fancy restaurant that charges as much for a duck dinner as you’re going to spend trying to hunt one,” said Brad Watkin, a biologist with Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs and an avid duck hunter. Given the multitude of decoys and duck calls required to hunt different kinds of water birds and the relatively small amount of meat they offer, he said, there’s no way this hobby is a financial winner.
Watkin added, “Usually, the best weather for hunting waterfowl is more on the miserable side, so you’ve got to be a glutton for punishment.”
A cold front pushes more ducks down from the north. Rain causes them to fly lower.
Sure enough, Emmett Pilkington, who was getting his next-day duck blind pass at the base’s game check station on Oct. 10, planned to be on Chopawamsic Creek at 4 a.m., despite a forecast for rain. “Ducks are already wet,” he cracked, adding that he had the gear to keep himself dry.
Waterfowl season won’t begin in earnest until Nov. 16, but there was a brief early season Oct. 10 to 14, following a September goose and teal season.
“It’s not always about getting ducks,” said Pilkington, who’s hunted at Quantico for more than 20 years. “It’s about being out there and enjoying the outdoors.” He’s seen otters, beavers and other wildlife while duck hunting, he said, adding that he saw a bald eagle while duck hunting just that morning.
Pilkington has another costly duck-hunting accessory in Sophie, the Chesapeake Bay retriever he’s trained to swim out and fetch the birds he hits. He planned to hunt with the dog in the morning and perhaps join Watkin for a hunt in the afternoon.
Camaraderie is another appeal of waterfowl hunting, he said. While sportsmen hunt deer and turkey alone, three can fit in a duck blind.
Watkin noted that, while deer hunters have to worry about scent, sound and movement giving them away, duck hunters can often chat and even cook in their blinds. “If nothing is flying, you can kind of be doing whatever,” he said.
“For me, 80 percent of it is loving to watch the birds fly in and having them fly in on the decoys or blind,” said Jonathan Thompson, who was renewing his base hunting license that morning. He said he enjoyed learning duck behavior, such as how different ducks fly in different weather.
Pilkington, too, said applying knowledge of duck behavior, for example to the art of decoy placement, is part of the sport’s appeal. The more lifelike the decoy flocks, the better the hunter’s odds. Diver ducks should be in deeper water and “puddle ducks” in about 18 inches of water, he said. “You put a wood duck out in the middle of the lake, and you’re not going to do very well.”
In the early season, he said, he puts out about six wood duck and six mallard decoys. Later, as more species migrate in from the north, he might use three or four dozen decoys, depending on the size of the body of water he’s hunting on.
Col. Mark Schrecker, who was also duck hunting with a colleague on the tidal waters of Chopawamsic Creek the morning of Oct. 11, estimated that he owns something like 42 dozen duck and goose decoys. Around his neck hung a rope with half a dozen duck calls, each for a different species. “This is probably another $500,” he said, indicating the array of reed instruments.
“I like the whole thing of calling to them, seeing if you can trick them,” he said.
Schrecker said he’s been hunting geese since he was 9, growing up on Maryland’s eastern shore, and picked up duck hunting when deployed to areas not frequented by geese.
“I think it gets into your blood,” said Pilkington, noting that he, too, grew up hunting waterfowl with his parents.
However, Watkin said he thinks the recent popularity of the television show “Duck Dynasty” has brought some new blood into the sport. “I’m sure our numbers have picked up because of that,” he said.
Hunters compete on a first-come, first-served basis for next-day passes for 19 blinds aboard the base, on Chopawamsic Creek, Quantico Creek, the Potomac River, Smith Lake and Dalton Pond. Four more at Lunga Reservoir are closed indefinitely. The majority of the blinds are prioritized for active duty service members stationed at Quantico, with a few prioritized for Quantico civilians, retired military members or service members stationed elsewhere, and a few more reserved for anyone who doesn’t fall into those categories. Each blind’s priority designation changes from day to day.
“It’s a great facility,” said Thompson, who’s been hunting waterfowl on the base for the last seven years. “It’s clean, it’s well kept, it’s safe and it’s close.”
Last hunting season, 419 ducks and 37 geese were harvested at Quantico, said Tim Stamps, head of the Natural Resources Section. The year before, hunters took 347 ducks and 41 geese, and the year before that, 433 ducks and 63 geese were taken.
Given what went into hunting them, it’s safe to say just about all of these were eaten.
“They’re very good on the grill with some bacon wrapped around them,” Pilkington said. “There’s nothing like getting your own food.”
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