The best news in this year's hunting calendar is that the Virginia Game Commission has approved an early duck season for the third time. This is the wood duck special season, Oct. 4-7. It's named for the tiny, colorful woody because during these four days the value of a wood duck drops to 25 points, so the hunter can legally take four a day. In regular duck season the wood duck limit is two.
The idea is to give shooters a chance at resident stocks of woodies, which take flight for the south shortly after the first frost and usually before regular duck season.
The early season has been happily received by Old Dominion shooters, so much so that game managers expanded the dates this year. In years past the first day had a noon start. This year all are full days.
It's called a wood duck season, but according to Dick Cross, head of the state Game Division, hunters have been surprised by the number of 'big' ducks in residence in early October.
'We've found that there are a good number of mallards, blacks and pintails around, along with woodies and teal," he said. Regular-season limits and regulations apply for all ducks other than wood ducks taken in the special season.
The early start has a special benefit for urban outdoorsmen who have little access to private lands in the piedmont where small ponds provide fine hunting.
They can head for the rivers, which are public, and float downstream in search of ducks. If they lack canoes or boats, they can take waders and stalk.
Floating rivers is great sport, but it's practically suicidal in high hunting season unless the canoeist is immaculately equipped and expert with the paddle. Cold kills.
This year, with the damp summer and good river levels, October should be perfect for a good wood duck float on the still warm waters of the Shenandoah, Rappahannock, James, New River or any of a number of smaller streams in the Old Dominion.
Silence is critical in floating for ducks. One old hand says the best craft is one of these flexible plastic whitewater canoes, preferably a dark color. They don't make a racket when they scrape rocks.
Wood ducks tend to hang in the fastest water, he said, so there are few easy shots. Nevertheless, he and his party of four limited out on opening day last year. "Even if we hadn't," he said, "we'd have had a ball."
The only complaint might be that the season is just a shade too early for follage to be at its peak. Sycamores and tulip poplars may be starting to flame, but the hardwoods will still be in summer green.
That will make it harder for the squirrel hunters who may be sharing the river. The early half of their split season runs Oct. 2-14, and floating a stream is a lovely way to enjoy that sport, as well.
That's the good news. There's more, including the expectation that goose stocks will continue to soar on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the goose hunting capital of the world these days.
But there's bad news, too, in the fact that fall turkey season has been shut in Maryland.
It's a situation that's been inching along a path of inevitability. Some years back part of Washington County was closed to fall turkey hunters. The remainder of Washington was closed last year along with part of Allegany County. This year the door was shut entirely.
Bob Miller, forest wildlife program manager for Maryland, said the closures have followed declines in turkey populations. The declines are attributed, at least in part, to excessive hunting pressures.
Hunters reported a harvest of 105 wild turkeys in Maryland last year, from a total stock estimated by Miller at 2,000 or fewer birds. In 1976 they had taken 117; in 1975, 185; in 1974, 186; and in 1973, 247.
One problem is that there are a lot of hunters in Maryland, but a fairly limited turkey habitat. Normally that would mean a small percentage pursuing that species, but turkeys are trophy birds, and shortages don't seem to faze hunters.
"The fact that hunter success drops off when the stocks get low doesn't seem to affect pressure on turkeys," said Miller. The hunters just try harder.
Miller said once thought was given to opening a fall season for male birds only, but the problem of sex identification by hunters knocked that plan out. He said it's unlikely that there will be an open fall season for turkeys again in the foreseeable future. It stocks improve there may be fall turkey hunting again, but it will be controlled by special permits.
Maryland will have a spring gobbler season this year.
The news about Maryland's turkey stocks is disquieting because these birds, which were almost extinguished by hunting pressure in many areas in the early 1900s, have been staging a remarkable comeback in the last few decades.
Turkey stocks appear strong in neighboring Virginia, where the fall season begins Nov. 13, and the holding their own in Pennsylvania, where hunting begins Oct. 28.