Susquehanna: Gateway to the Chesapeake

posted on May 10, 2015

The pre-dawn black ducks toy with hunters’ hearts as they buzz perilously close to the decoys—an imposing spread of nine dozen magnums set amidst the massively wide Susquehanna River. The Chessie whines. The birds’ wings slash the air as they make final inspections. My 13-year-old thumb reaches—for the first time—for a safety in the presence of committed waterfowl. The shot is called, and Dad and I promptly tumble a pair of ducks to the river’s brownish-slate surface.

It is a thrill not only to have shot my first duck, but to have achieved it on the grand Susquehanna. To bag a duck here is to connect oneself with all those who’ve done so in its rich history: direct ancestors, perhaps; rough and ragged market hunters; decoy carvers past and present; indeed even the large-bodied and fearsome Susquehannock Indians who once canoed the river’s banks.

The Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary is not just a major migratory corridor for ducks and geese, but arguably among those places where this thing we call waterfowling began. Here’s what makes it special.

Bountiful Public Access
In my adolescence, Dad and I would launch the johnboat and go anywhere on the Susquehanna we pleased, free to set up wherever scouting revealed mallards and blacks. I thought everyone hunted that way.

But alas, many rivers of such breadth flow through populated areas, requiring the establishment of privately licensed blinds and permit systems. The beauty of hunting the Susquehanna is that much of its 464-mile path winds through rural Pennsylvania, thus affording a plethora of public hunting in unpressured, countryside locales.

“The Susquehanna offers everybody an opportunity to hunt between all the access and the birds that use it throughout the year,” says Andrew Dively, president of the Susquehanna River Waterfowlers Association. “However, just like with public deer-hunting areas, the guys who are willing to find better secluded areas tend to do best.”

There are exceptions, of course. Hunting pressure can be intense in the Harrisburg, Pa., area; along portions of the lower Susquehanna; and especially at the Susquehanna Flats on upper Chesapeake Bay. Still, much of the river valley offers a seldom-rivaled degree of access.

“The bottom line is that’s why I hunt the Susquehanna,” says Eric Megargel of Catawissa, Pa. “Almost every island is open to public hunting. If someone’s in your spot, just go farther down the river.”

Diversity of Waterfowl And Habitat
Another key attraction is the number and diversity of waterfowl that utilize the Susquehanna en route, largely, to their wintering grounds on the Chesapeake Bay. The river’s North Branch originates in Upstate New York, while the far narrower West Branch commences in the Johnstown, Pa., area. Together they act as a funnel, drawing waterfowl from the Great Lakes and New York’s Finger Lakes and guiding them to the branches’ confluence at Northumberland, Pa., and onward south. While waterfowl navigate the earth via stars, geomagnetism and other means, I believe that once ducks hit the Susquehanna they accept it as a highway to their intended wintering grounds. Given that the Susquehanna is one of the world’s oldest active rivers, this routine would’ve been established before man’s existence in North America. Regardless, the river supports nearly every brand of Atlantic Flyway fowl.

“Minus a few eiders, friends and I have shot every Atlantic species on the Susquehanna,” says Matt Kneisley, regional director for Delta Waterfowl. “There’s such a variety of birds—divers, dabblers and geese—that you just won’t see in other regions.”

As the river flows south, deep-water habitats are found in increasing plentitude. So too, not coincidentally, are diving species.

“From north of York Haven, Pa., down to Wrightsville and Columbia, there are pooled areas of water that resemble lake-style hunting,” says Dively. “Lesser scaup are a major species there.”

Redheads and canvasbacks are not uncommon along the lower Susquehanna, either. However, essentially the farther north one ventures, the fewer divers the river supports.

“I think they blow right through there in search of the larger water,” says Kneisley. “Divers aren’t a popular bird around the island chains.”

It was amidst those famous chains that I spent much of my formative years. The mid- and upper Susquehanna are likely responsible for the popular expression that the river is “a mile wide and a foot deep”. This is exaggeration—though I’ve waded from one bank to the other in spots—but suffice it to say much of the river is sufficiently shallow for waves of dabblers to feed across its breadth. Thus, bags often consist exclusively of mallards, blacks and the occasional early-season pintail.

“There’s also been a big swing toward gadwalls in the last five years,” says Dively. “Their overall population has tripled, so I think that should continue for seasons to come.”

The Susquehanna is also a fine Canada goose destination, particularly later in the season as Atlantic Population migrators supplement the large resident flock. The river’s island chains and surrounding farmland offer geese ample locations to rest and feed.

Wood ducks, too, are found in strong numbers along the heavily wooded river valley, particularly thanks to the efforts of sportsmen to foster local nesting. The Susquehanna River Waterfowlers Association alone maintains about 1,000 wood duck boxes and offers pre-made boxes and materials to interested hunters.

Still, my favorite time to hunt the river occurs after most of the woodies have pushed south, when extreme cold drives in fresh birds and locks surrounding ponds in ice.

“If I were to pick an ideal day to be on the Susquehanna, it would be in late November, in the midst of a snow shower with migrators on the move,” says Dively. “But an October day with a good acorn crop, lots of local wood ducks and a fresh push of migrators can be tough to beat, too.”

Connection to History
There are, however, plenty of other places one can hunt waterfowl and enjoy more consistent shooting. Why, then, do so many revere the Susquehanna?

“There’s a nostalgia to hunting the Susquehanna’s big waters,” says Jim Feaga, a regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “You don’t get the same sense of history sitting in a marsh.”

One can almost feel the presence of hunters past as that brown water meanders to the Bay. There were the Susquehannock Indians, who for centuries depended on the arrival of Canada geese for winter sustenance. There were the market hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, highly efficient duck killers who knew not the damage they wrought. Market gunners primarily targeted the Susquehanna Flats but shot as far north as Harrisburg. And there were men who carved their own decoys—indeed they had no other choice—prior to commercially available blocks from such legendary carvers as Madison Mitchell of Havre de Grace, Md. Mitchell began carving in 1924 and was soon the region’s dominant decoy producer.

“Interestingly, he made a separate bird called the ‘upriver decoy’ for the Susquehanna that became very popular,” says Kneisley. “It was larger and more bull-chested than a regular Mitchell decoy: Number one that meant more visibility, and number two, if you set out 100 oversized decoys you didn’t need to put out 200 standard decoys.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Susquehanna history is the ingenious strategies devised by the region’s hunters—tactics that in many cases exist nowhere else.

“The tales of rollover-style hunting are really intriguing,” says Dively.

The heyday of the rollover-style duck boat occurred from the ’20s to the ’60s, interestingly, somewhat beyond the Susquehanna’s peak waterfowl years.

According to the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, rollovers—basically over-sized canoes—were essentially only used between Sunbury and Highspire, Pa. Tactics include setting a decoy spread, waiting for ducks to land in it, and then launching the rollover. As the boat approaches the spread, its skillful (and brave) hunter balances the boat on its side to shield himself. At the opportune moment, the boat is rolled flat with the river’s surface so the hunter may shoot. It’s little wonder this potentially dangerous endeavor is seldom attempted today.

By far the most famous style of Susquehanna hunting—body booting—began in the Flats in the early ’50s. Following the sinkbox’s prohibition, hunters figured, well, “Let’s just stand in the decoys.” The tactic typically involves hiding oneself behind oversized decoys amidst a large overall spread. Ducks were the original target, but today wintering geese are more commonly sought by body-booters. Insulation methods include wet suits or oversized waders, but make no mistake: It’s no comfortable hunt and few are up to the thrill of this uniquely Susquehanna tradition.

“It remains fairly popular on the Flats,” says Kneisley. “But as far as I know, I’m the only person crazy enough to body-boot the main river.”

The Golden Age’s Decline—And Return?
“The Season Opened on the Flats of the Susquehanna River—FIVE THOUSAND BIRDS KILLED,” read a headline in the Nov. 1, 1893, edition of The Baltimore Sun back when newspapers cared about matters of such importance. “Plenty of redheads, blackheads [scaup] and baldpates [American wigeon], but few canvasbacks.” The average number of ducks killed per sinkbox was 90. William Linthicum of Baltimore and his party killed 121 ducks, 80 of which were redheads. And yet, estimated The Sun, thousands more ducks would’ve been shot “but for the calm weather, which stopped the flying.”

Oh to have seen the flights of ducks in the Susquehanna’s golden age, when it’s said rafts of canvasbacks stretched from shore to shore. It’s easy to blame the ensuing declines on the era’s market hunters, who gunned without concept of limits. Certainly the routine killing of thousands of ducks left a lasting scar. However, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918: Why, nearly a century later, does the Susquehanna fail to meet its potential to harbor ducks, especially canvasbacks?

“If we want to get the river back to what it was prior to the ’50s and ’60s, we have to restore the wild celery beds,” says Kneisley. “The celery was the key reason that the majority of cansvasbacks and other ducks used the river, but we lost it due to pollution.”

There is reason to be optimistic about such goals. Certain sub-aquatic vegetation that wasn’t seen two decades ago has begun to resurface. Celery is on the rise. And biologists recognize the factors that continue to hinder progress.

“Things are getting better, but large dams dating as far back as the 1800s are having an impact,” says Feaga. “Sediment has built up behind the dams and major rains cause it to overflow. Controlling the Susquehanna’s floodwaters through natural means is a key priority of Ducks Unlimited.”

Substantial sediment deposits are not only rich in algae-producing nitrates, but tend to cover the river’s natural seed bed. Neither bodes well for the vegetation ducks prefer.

“In the Flats, for instance, it’s estimated that 8 to 10 inches of sedimentation built up in the last 30 years,” says Kneisley. “It’s inhibiting the growth of sub-aquatic grasses.”

Fortunately the impact is slowly being reversed. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency indicate a steady decrease in the river’s pollutants and sedimentation, and the Susquehanna has responded.

Last November Feaga noted a major resurgence of native vegetation at the Susquehanna Flats, including celery and eel grass. Dively and Kneisley have made similar observations along the river’s main channel. As that natural duck food approaches its historic, glorious levels, it’s reasonable to surmise that so too will the waterfowl.

Given this assessment, it is my sincerest hope—in fact, my belief—that one day my 1-year-old son will witness Susquehanna canvasbacks from shore to shore.

Susquehanna River Fast Facts


• Length: 464 miles; longest river on East Coast that drains to Atlantic; longest river in continental United States without commercial boat traffic
• Age: Susquehanna was flowing by the Mesozoic Era, 252 million to 66 million years ago; one of the world’s oldest active rivers
• Rank by Volume: 16th largest river in the United States
• Sources: North Branch, Otsego Lake, Cooperstown, N.Y.; West Branch, approximately Carrolltown, Pa.
• Mouth: Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Md.


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