Waterfowl Season Starts With a Whimper, Stripers on the Sand - 27 East

Waterfowl Season Starts With a Whimper, Stripers on the Sand

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False albacore, like this one caught by Alanna Quested in Montauk, hung around well into November this year thanks to warm waters.     JEFF LOMANACO

False albacore, like this one caught by Alanna Quested in Montauk, hung around well into November this year thanks to warm waters. JEFF LOMANACO

Mike Ozkaya of Hampton Bays with a big striped bass caught on fly last month.    JEFF LOMANACO

Mike Ozkaya of Hampton Bays with a big striped bass caught on fly last month. JEFF LOMANACO

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In the Field

  • Publication: East Hampton Press
  • Published on: Nov 29, 2022
  • Columnist: Michael Wright

Another waterfowl season is upon us and from the skies above my blind — where I spent Opening Day in a T-shirt stapling grass into place, wondering if I should play golf that afternoon — it’s not looking like one that is going to be particularly exciting for quite some time.

The late November waterfowl opener was always a harried time of overlapping pursuits for South Fork outdoorsmen — scrambling to get blinds and duck boats and decoy rigs ready in between bass and bluefish blitzes on the beach.

With rare cold snaps before Thanksgiving these days I find it hard to even think about getting hunting stuff in order by the time the season starts nowadays. The first “half” of the season, in our neck of Shinnecock Bay, is pretty hopeless these days so I look forward to the break between the seasons, with the striper runs winding down, as the window for getting goose stool cleaned up and a fresh coat of paint on the dinged up blackduck decoys.

This past holiday week wasn’t a total loss for hunting in some spots. Even thinking about waterfowling on Opening Day was sort of a laugh, with temps in the high 50s and not a breath of wind. The cool snap — I wouldn’t call it a cold snap by any stretch — and some stiff winds at least made it feel a little bit like fall for a few days and moved some of the few ducks that are here around.

The day before the holiday and Thanksgiving Day itself saw outstanding striped bass fishing on the beaches of Wainscott and Southampton and some snotty weather on Sunday wrapped up the opening half of the waterfowl season with something that actually felt like a ducky day.

I know that the Thanksgiving holiday is a major part of the waterfowl tradition in our region, but I’m firmly in the camp of those who say that those November hunting days should just be shrugged off and swapped out for an extra 10 days into February, when what is left of the version of winter we get in the Northeast now has finally pushed migrating ducks into our area.

We can’t wholly shift the season well into February as birds have started their mating rituals already by then, but a season that ran until February 15 or so would be a significant improvement.

The other thing that is sorely needed to help our waterfowl seasons along is attention to the health of our coastal ponds. My hunting spot in eastern Shinnecock Bay is especially sensitive to how water quality has pushed birds away, and I’m sure other hunters probably have the same problems and may just not realize it.

Lake Agawam in Southampton Village was long a refuge for thousands of ducks and geese. But in 2002, or thereabouts, there was a big fish kill in the pond, thanks to algae blooms and crashing oxygen. Within a year or two, the number of ducks that used the pond as their winter refuge had fallen to just a few dozen.

We saw the same at two other coastal ponds between Agawam and the bay that had for decades been carpeted with ducks and geese so thick you couldn’t even see the water in either one. A scan with binoculars last week revealed three ducks between the two ponds. Three.

Both ponds, like Agawam, have sprawling estates with meticulously manicured lawns stretching right to the water’s edge and are consistently rich with algae blooms in summer. The owners of such estates, if told that duck hunters were upset at the conditions they have sown in our waters, would probably order up a double dose of fertilizer.

While this is just a pinhole view of the small stretch of waterfowl habitat I’m intimately familiar with, it’s not hard to see how these conditions could easily be mirrored elsewhere, compounding into the sweeping decline in waterfowl that are using our region in the winter.

There has been a lot of talk and a modicum of action on addressing water quality issues across the region. The septic pollution issue is a big one that needs a lot of money thrown at it. But the ponds, and the matters of fertilized lawns, can and should be addressed with legislation and legal enforcement. And it should be done now. Duck hunters are the canaries in the coal mine for water quality and could be the litmus for how improvements are going if steps are taken to help the ponds, from Van Scoy to Wildwood, recover.

If you’ve already got your waterfowl gear squared away for the start of the real season, then hit the local beaches; there are still bass moving through.

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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