Growing up, I didn’t know much about public land hunting. Even through college, I strictly searched for quarry on private land – and typically in Doddridge or Ritchie counties.
My first experience hunting on public lands was when I discovered duck hunting in 2018, and I quickly learned how joyful it is to hike around and look for food sources, signs of activity, bedding, etc. Even if I come out empty-handed, I feel as if I’ve accomplished something after a long day on public tracts.
Hands down, my favorite place to hunt in West Virginia is Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Not only does it hold plenty of waterfowl in the early season, but it’s also great for hunting American woodcock, whitetail deer, and small game. It also borders a section of the western part of Dolly Sods and has multiple wildlife management areas around it that are essentially just an extension for all of those species to thrive in the area.
I’ll never forget one time at Canaan Valley this past season. In the end, it wasn’t a successful hunt, but it was an individualized experience that no one – or very few people – can say they’ve also experienced.
It was a midseason duck hunt. I began close to the state park and ended in a strip of wetlands, walking about five miles. In the first hour of the hunt, I jumped a few mallards out of their cover and whiffed my the shots. I saw them land further down the strip of land, and, knowing it was still legal, made my way toward them. I’m not sure if they moved before I arrived at the spot or didn’t end where I thought they did, but it turned out that those three shots were my only ones on that group of greenheads.
After tromping around that tract a while longer, I walked back to my car and decided to try a small section of the Blackwater River. I had scouted out this area in late August and noticed it was a popular area for birds. Though late morning, I knew I still had a good chance as a chilly, light rain had been permeating the area since 5 a.m. I hiked through a field and down a steep hill to the river, putting on my waders and tossing my dozen decoys into the water once I found my spot. It was a tight, shallow, winding section of the water so there was no need for too large of a spread.
I stood in the knee-deep water behind some natural vegetation, waiting for a crossing or landing bird to present me with an opportunity. Plenty of ducks flew overhead, but none seemed to appreciate my handiwork with their fake counterparts. I gave it two hours before pulling out my decoys, changing out of my waders and making the mile hike back to my SUV for lunch.
For the next hour, I looked for nearby spots on my onX Hunt app, not ready to give up on that side of the refuge. After finding one potential area, I watched the area from my car for about 30 minutes to see if any birds were landing in the marshy field. Seeing nothing, I decided to drive another half hour to my final spot of the day. Just as the river, my preseason scouting showed a particular wet meadow to be a popular area. So when I got there and saw no birds, my concern began to grow, although I decided to give it a chance.
I’m glad I did. About 20 minutes after I settled in my spot, birds began to move into the area. I could hear them landing behind me. I awaited my chance with my spread. Shortly after, I got my second chance at bagging a duck. With the wind to my back, a mallard drake crossed in front of me.
My attempts on that bird fell short, but before I could get down on myself, and with one shot left in the Browning BPS I was using, another mallard – a hen – followed the same path. I made sure to lead the bird and as I pulled the trigger...
I removed the shell and loaded three more, hoping another pair or more would fly in and I’d get a chance to not rush a shot.
With legal light waning, that chance never came, though plenty of birds flocked into the area. I considered moving to the other side of the small island I was on but after peeking around the vegetation saw they were out of a good range and didn't want to force anything. I was also disappointed in the way I shot that day, and just thought it would be best to pack up.
So I made the half-mile trek back to my car and began the drive back to Morgantown. I was disappointed, sure, but as I mentioned at the top of this story I thought more of the experience as a whole than missing birds. I had plenty of opportunities and just whiffed – better than having no opportunities. I also had spent the entire day in one of the most beautiful parts of our state, surrounded by pockets of nature you only see in places like Canada.
It wasn’t a bad day for a duck-hunting sophomore going it solo, and when I return to the area this early season I know I’ll have more success. And regardless if I come away with a heavy bag or another empty set of hands save my shotgun, I’ll still love public land hunting.