Virginia is for Wood Ducks

by Travis Stauch

  With October right around the corner, if you haven’t double checked and triple checked your decoy rigs, loaded up on ammo, and tuned up your vessels, you’re already behind the average duck hunter’s schedule. 

   Coastal hunters east of Interstate 95 are chasing early migrations of teal, spoonbills, wigeon and gadwalls, looking for the next best cove in the salt marsh. Meanwhile, the “Valley” hunters scout ponds for local green-heads marking their X’s for opening day. Hunters located more towards the central part of the state are looking forward to crisp early fall mornings followed by screaming whistling wings trafficking through the treetops above the swamp. 

  It’s what we as waterfowl hunters have all been waiting for during the off-season, and why we scratch the itchy trigger finger for September geese and dove. 

  But come October 6th, my buddies and I will be chasing one of the most sought after ducks in the commonwealth. 

   Virginia’s swamps and wetlands are home to one of the most popular, and arguably one of the most beautiful ducks the east coast has to offer, and that is our native wood duck. Commonly referred to as “Carolina duck” or “swamp dragon,” Virginia’s early waterfowl season presents plenty of opportunities for duck hunters to harvest them. 

  I spoke with a couple passionate waterfowl hunters to get their perspective on our early season splits. 

  First up, Doyle Weaver, a local hunter born and raised in the valley of Virginia. He is a full-time chicken farmer, who just so happens to be one of the Owner/Operators of a successful waterfowl outfitter based in Saskatchewan, Canada, known as, Wild Valley Outfitters. 

  He shared that his part of the state, unfortunately, does not host migrating teal, but makes up for it in geese. He also stated that “not messing with teal allows [him] extra time to focus on lining up the October split to get on the big ducks.” 

  Doyle’s set-up in the valley, where shallow water streams make “ditch swamps,” is ideal for puddle ducks. He also built a huge blind in a dug out pond that makes it easy to control the water level. He is a firm believer in using a small, simple decoy rig in October, but by November he would have increased the amount and number of species. In the first split, he prefers a dozen wood ducks, a handful of teal, and a pair of mallards, “something just enough while hunting on the X.” 

   Doyle has a similar approach when it comes to calling, keeping it simple in the early season. “Few have time to shoulder the gun and call simultaneous for first light wood ducks.” He also stated that “some feed chatter and few cadences can get the job done with proper timing.”

   When asked about his preferred weather conditions, he said hunters should want overhead clouds during the early splits. He believes it to be a vital part of having more opportunity to have more volleys at first light woodducks. He added that keeping an eye on the moon phase is also a key ingredient. 

He left me with one last nugget of advice for fellow hunters, “don’t waste your prime spots for a less preferred set up with weather. [You] may not hunt your favorite holes on the opener, but if there’s a rainy morning on that Sunday or Monday you know you’re gonna line it up for a banger.”

   My other avid duck hunting interviewee, is Mr. Butch Gross, owner of Dragon Run Kennels and long time supporter/member of the Two Rivers Ducks Unlimited chapter. Butch has been hunting ducks and training duck dogs for decades. 

  He started out with telling me how having access to private property to hunt has spoiled him over the years. 550 acres of the Dragon Run swamp off the Piankatank River is both home and a staging spot during the migration for Butch. His backyard holds an abundance of waterfowl. 

   The difference between hunting public versus private is a huge deal when it comes to managing the birds and the hunt all in one big picture. Scouting on public land is a much more demanding deal with time constraints and other hunters doing the same thing. Especially when some hunters feel you have to be the first one there to claim the best spot.    

    Because Butch doesn’t have to worry about other hunters, he can take his time when scouting. He looks for natural flight patterns of wood ducks and has come to learn that they favor low corridors in the tree line and lots of brush to use as cover from bad weather when hunting swamps. Focusing on smaller pockets of open water versus big wide landing holes is something that Butch hones in on when setting up his hunts and how he hides the shooters. Adjusting to the pressure is a very important counter for continued success through the 4-day split in October. 

    As far as wood ducks go, they have such a recognizable sound, Butch can easily take advantage in finding the X and ensure proper blind awareness for decoying birds. “More times than not, I can hear a wood duck squealing in the distance, or their whistling wings and wines while in flight to even them splashing around tolling in the swamp at first light.” 

    Talking to Butch about his approach to watching the weather, he said keeping an eye on seasonal and tropical storms is important because they can impact migration. He added that south-east winds play a huge role when migrating birds start filling up the swamps in the first split. “Residents birds are more so in October, whereas more woodies and a good push of big ducks start coming down in November.”

   Before our interview was over, Butch mentioned how 3-4 years back, there was a family that would build wood duck boxes and put them all over the ponds in neighboring swamps. He asked the gentleman if they could work out a deal with purchasing some boxes for his private swamp. “I am a true believer in helping in conservation in anyway shape or form.” Since putting out boxes, Butch noticed a rise in numbers for harvested wood ducks each year. 

   He concluded with saying, “I just go and watch patterns then hunt ‘em, some seasons they change and that makes it all the more fun for the hunt.”

  At RamRod Waterfowl, we hunt on the Potomac River. We get multiple species migrating through with wind fronts and moon phases all times of the year. Early on it’s puddle ducks more so in October and diver ducks as soon as November hits. Using a multi-species rig that has a little bit of everything really helps out when first arrivals show up, and also adds variety for an eye-catching approach for ducks. In the back of the marshes we have all types of small and big ducks. On the river banks, the beloved bufflehead and bluebills are easy targets with the occasional handful of ringnecks and mallards.

   Virginia’s early season is an awesome “pre-game” to get us ready for the third split in December-January when the rest of the migration shows up! 

Author Stravis Stauch operates Ramrod Guide Service. You can contact him at

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