There is something special about being in a duck blind during the predawn quiet, anticipating a sky filled with waterfowl.
Like miniature models for the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels or Air Force Thunderbirds, flocks of wild ducks are the original precision flying teams. The rapid wingbeats of a small flock buzzing your blind in tight formation generates a uniquely muffled roar that fuels a wing shooter’s passion.
While goose hunting is still in play in some locales, duck guns across America have fallen silent. Another season of mixed success is over. Weather (or lack thereof) impacted migration patterns. Abundant water from one of the wettest years on record, coupled with a lack of sustained freezing temperatures, gave waterfowl ample places to hide.
Last Saturday was a special day for many waterfowlers, a one-day season extension where only youth hunters and military veterans could shoulder guns. Virginia, like many states, enacted this opportunity a few years ago.
Some outfitters and hunt clubs use the opportunity to stage special programs benefiting kids and veterans. At Monquin Creek Outfitters near Manquin, in the heart of the glorious tidal marshlands along the historic Pamunkey River, teenager Colton Josselyn and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Jacobs accompanied me in a blind hosted by Chip Watkins and his black Labrador retriever Oak.
Watkins owns Monquin Creek Outfitters and he grew up on the farm we hunted. Colton, who just turned 15, is an experienced hunter for his age, albeit a waterfowl novice. Jacobs, who traveled from Springfield, was seeking his first experience of duck blind bliss. He optimistically toted two boxes of shot shells.
Hunting was a Watkins’ family tradition. “Watching your hardworking parents, with dad being a farmer and caring about wildlife, helps you become a conservationist,” Watkins said.
In addition to being a farmer, Watkins began guiding hunts 25 years ago in North Carolina, leading waterfowlers and big-game hunters in and around the Outer Banks. He launched his Virginia operations in 2012 and credits a retired director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries director with encouraging him.
Watkins said, “Bob Duncan told me, ‘If anyone can establish and run a successful outfitting business, it’s Chip Watkins.’ ”
With nearly 3,000 acres available to hunt locally, Monquin’s properties can be loaded with migrating waterfowl when conditions are right. Wild turkey and deer also thrive in the interconnected patches of woods, marshes and agricultural fields.
The business is steadily expanding. Watkins now offers forestry and wildlife management consulting in counties ranging from Franklin and Sussex out to the Blue Ridge. Managed hunting is expected to be part of the wildlife operations on many of these properties.
Watkins now has a dozen guides working with him, people skilled in Virginia’s diverse waterfowl scene. He said a three-day, mixed bag experience is a popular adventure, featuring mornings of dabbling duck hunting in the marshes, diver duck hunting on nearby big tidal rivers and sea duck hunting in the Chesapeake Bay.
Watkins sees his support of a special youth and veterans hunt as a significant way to give back, rewarding those who have served while helping to instill a conservation ethic in young and apprentice hunters. He says his experiences as a longtime member and leader of local and state chapters of Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation inculcated the importance of such practices.
“We started our veterans hunt 20 years ago. It was a Virginia Wheelin’ Sportsmen deer hunt. They are part of the National Wild Turkey Federation. We’ve since had hunts with the PVA [Paralyzed Veterans of America], the Fallen Heroes organization and several similar groups,” Watkins said.
Once Virginia adopted an early turkey season opportunity for youngsters, Watkins’ team jumped in at full gobble. Not all hunts took place on Monquin Creek properties, but the outfitter’s Manquin headquarters was the site of post-hunt festivities where birds were displayed and food and fellowship shared.
This youth turkey hunting event grew to nearly 250 participants. That was scaled back to about 150 participants, solely to better manage logistics.
The youth/veteran waterfowl hunt is a similar affair, albeit with smaller numbers. Ordinarily, up to 60 people would participate. This year, due to COVID-19 challenges, 20 youngsters and veterans joined in. Some guests opted not to carry a gun, instead venturing out just to see what it is like to be in a duck or goose blind.
Virginia Nunnally, age 9, was one youngster toting a shotgun. She hunted Canada geese with her dad Rick, a firefighter and one of the guides employed by Monquin Creek. Virginia also invited her grandfather Richard Nunnally to join them in the blind, a three-generation gathering that obviously tugged the retired county extension agent’s heartstrings.
With bluebird skies and warm temperatures by early February standards, shooting was predictably slow. Virginia saw geese but could not manage any shots. A few youngsters collected a duck here and there.
In mid-morning, a couple of geese flew over the treetops, swooping low over the water near our blind. One wore “jewelry,” a band on its leg. The band revealed the bird was a homebody, a nonmigratory resident Canada goose that was tagged four years ago just three miles from where it fell.
The slow gunning didn’t discourage Jacobs.
“The bonus was meeting new friends, seeing new wildlife, and walking away with a couple breasts from a wild goose. I’m a hunter,” Jacobs said. “I hunt deer and small game, but this was an experience in a brand-new field. It was amazing. I can’t wait to do it again.”
Watkins grinned as he watched guests dive into a post-hunt lunch buffet. Ducks Unlimited provided goody bags for participants, including duck calls for the youngsters. The lunchtime air was filled with quacks and chatter as kids tried out the new gear.
“Seeing the newcomers and veterans come back in all smiles and share their experiences, watching the kids light up like its Christmas morning, those are my rewards,” Watkins said.