Chincoteague Wildfowl Traditions

Guest blog post from Hunter Leonard of Wildcat Waterfowl

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of summer, many of us locals working in the service industry get asked, “What do people on Chincoteague do in the winter?”  I often reply, “If you’re not duck hunting, I don’t know what else there is to do.” Most restaurants close after Christmas. It’s a much slower town in the winter–you can drive from one end of the island to the other and only see three cars the whole way.

What locals do have during this time, however, is an abundance of migratory waterfowl. Most of them migrate south along the Atlantic Flyway from Northern Canada. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge has a lot of impoundments where the water level is artificially controlled to create adequate wetland habitat and feeding grounds for migrating waterfowl. Chincoteague and the surrounding areas also have a wealth of marshland that waterfowl use to roost and feed on a daily basis. Chincoteague also benefits from water on all sides–the Chincoteague Bay, Assateague Channel, Chincoteague Channel, and Atlantic Ocean—which also provide habitat for diverse species of ducks and geese.

These characteristics make Chincoteague an excellent hunting destination, but our little island also has a significant place in the history of waterfowl hunting. When the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was passed, it prohibited the shooting of waterfowl to be used for the sale of their meat.  In other words, you couldn’t shoot a duck and sell the duck to somebody so they could eat it.

This act also prohibited baiting waterfowl with grain, which had historically been done by putting corn or sorghum to draw ducks near the place you intended to hunt. The typical business plan before the Act was simple: in the fall, start feeding ducks a couple hundred pounds of bait in a given spot, once or twice a week.  Wait for the ducks to find the bait, and let them get used to the area.  Continue to feed them, and then when you’re ready, go in and kill as many as possible in one fell swoop. Then, sell the ducks for human consumption and make a good living.

After the Act was passed, Duck became more of pricey delicacy than a common meal, so some locals decided to reap the benefits of the high price of ducks.  They used the same “tried and true” methods they’d been using for generations, but now they were doing it illegally. In a story I recall from a former market gunner, he said “We’d take corn out there and wait for a moonlit night and kill as many of ‘em as we could. We would take all the ducks and put them in the trunk of a car and the next day there would be a different car there with an envelope of money in the trunk. We got $3 a pair and we made a lot of money doing it, you had to be smart about it because we would have probably went to jail because everything we were doing was illegal we were shooting out of season, after dark, over the limit, over bait, and on top of that we were selling them for profit. We never got caught but man we had some scares and we had some fun, and all the while we were putting food on our tables.”  There are many great stories about these market gunners and their run-ins with the game wardens.  But that’s a blog post for another time.

Chincoteague is also significant in the waterfowl world because of its rich decoy carving tradition.  Some of the most well-known Chincoteague carvers are Delbert “Cigar” Daisey, Ira Hudson, Miles Hancock and Doug Jester. Carving decoys is sometimes talked about as a lost art form, but it is still practiced by about 15 or so people on the island, with most of that carving being for a decorative form of art rather than a practical use like the olden days.  (Back before the industrial manufacturing of plastic decoys, everyone had to make their decoys out of wood, cork, or whatever they could get their hands on.)  Chincoteague still has an active “Decoy Carvers & Artists Association” which holds an annual showcase on Labor Day weekend.  There’s a Decoy & Art festival put on by the Chamber of Commerce on Easter Weekend.  The island’s carvers also showcase their talents on Saturdays at the Museum of Chincoteague in the Miles Hancock Carving Workshop.

The Chincoteague area is one of the premier destinations for different species of waterfowl on the east coast. This makes duck hunting on Chincoteague one of a kind.  People on Chincoteague often enjoy the challenge of chasing different species of puddle ducks, including the most abundant puddle duck in our area, the American Black Duck.  Locals also enjoy taking their kids or grandkids out to hunt for bufflehead, an abundant diver duck found in large numbers around the channels and bays. But believe it or not, locals only make up a small part of the hunting populace.  Most of the people that hunt around Chincoteague come here from elsewhere to hunt, and utilize one of the many professional guide services.  Since Chincoteague has so many different species of waterfowl, opportunities abound to bag many different species in a single trip.  That unique possibility attracts many hunters from different parts of the nation and even international hunters on occasion.

When weighing options of where to hunt, prospective hunters usually have questions about the area and what kinds of species they could see, and what accommodations are available. At the Refuge Inn, they offer very nice rooms at a deeply discounted price, just for duck hunters during the hunting season.  They also try to keep hunting parties in rooms downstairs near the parking lot, for easy access to their vehicles, and so they can have a great place to remove and dry their boots or waders right at the tiled entryway inside the sliding glass door.  They pack hunters a pretty hearty breakfast to go for those early mornings, and they pay their guides commission too, which is much appreciated from my point of view.

While there are a lot of options for hunting guides, here at Wildcat Waterfowl we tailor the hunt to target your specific species and keep groups small to ensure a personable and successful hunt.  Our most popular species are American Black Ducks, Atlantic Brant, and Surf Scoters. We can also target other species according to your group’s preferences and the current environmental conditions. The countdown the 2020-2021 duck season is on and we’re taking bookings.  If you’d like more information, please look me up on the web at http://www.wildcatwaterfowl.com or on Facebook or Instagram @wildcatwaterfowl .

 Thanks for reading!