Week 26. Tyler Johnson: Quaker Neck Gun Club
If Maryland’s Eastern Shore is the goose hunting capital of the world and more geese are harvested in Kent County than anywhere else on the Shore, and if you make the case that there’s no more inviting goose habitat in the county than a field on the Chester River, then Tyler Johnson might have the best honker set-up in America.
Tyler and his family manage 2800 acres of farmland on eight miles of waterfront along the Chester River. Tyler’s family has been hunting this land for generations and he’s been managing it as Quaker Neck Gun Club since 1981. He’s seen Canada goose populations seesaw, and has had to adjust his hunting techniques accordingly.
Tyler was revolutionary in building impoundments here decades ago, and not surprisingly, duck hunting has also become a big part of his operation. He’s been credited by fellow hunters and wildlife organizations for his habitat management, including DU, which awarded him “Conservationist of the Year” for his restoration and enhancement of wetlands. Today they have about 40 impoundments over several hundred acres planted with standing corn, sorghum and millet.
I spoke with Tyler on a balmy September afternoon as we were anticipating the big migration. Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
Hunting season is right around the corner. When do your Canadas start to show up in big numbers?
They started coming in a little over a week ago [in mid September]. I saw quite a few — about 200 — which is a good amount for this time of year.
In terms of the mass migration, it’s pretty typical. The 15th-18th of September we start seeing the first birds come in. It used to be that in mid October we get a cold front, and some would fly straight down from Canada, maybe with a stop on the St. Lawrence or southern Ontario. We don’t see that push anymore till late in the season till the snow comes in.
We used to have a million birds, but now it’s about 400,000-500,000. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and have seen it change. They used to pass right over us and fly to the south, but with the advent of the combine, we short-stopped them — he’s going to follow that combine! We hunted them hard here for years, but now with the winter being relatively warm here the last couple of years and the harvesting of grain in New York and Pennsylvania, they’re up there.
What do you mean about the advent of the combine? How did that play a role?
I’ll give you a short history on harvesting grain. Pre-1950’s, they did it all by hand. It took a lot of work, but there was zero left out in the field. Back then, it was also a lot of vegetable farms and cows. The Canadas were only about 100,000, and it almost made the papers to shoot a Canada goose! The Canadas would fly right over us to where they were growing grain down south.
Then you had the advent of Mr. McCormick’s combine and the first mechanical pickers in 1950 or so. They could do a lot more, but left a lot more, and about 30% was left out in the fields. Well, the mechanical pickers made it about prime condition for geese, and population just exploded — kind of like snows now. The population boomed over a 20 year period as grain expanded. Plus there were a lot of good hatches and not a lot of pressure.
Well, at some point, things probably peaked. The season went from 90 days to 60 days; then from a 3-bird limit, to 2, to 1, and then to 0 with the moratorium.
It rebounded a bit, but then they started growing grain and corn in Upstate New York and Ontario, and now those areas are seeing more and more geese stopping further north.
It’s becoming more and more weather-dependent if they even show up at all. We’re going through a period of young birds that don’t even know Maryland exists!
Is the season just being pushed back to later in the winter?
If they do come down, its in late January or early February. The snow line used to be the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, and now its Pennsylvania-New York border or even higher up. The ice and snow is getting late and later, at least the last few years.
They use to fly straight from the Ugava Peninsula to Maryland. Not many of those birds are left — maybe a couple of generations — and now they just fly straight to the Finger Lakes.
So that’s one of the reasons we’ve shied away from Canadas. It’s either you adapted or you died. Basically, we’ve changed our whole clientele to ducks.
What species of ducks do you hunt, and when do you see peak numbers?
We have the early duck season the third week of October, which is really a wood duck season.
When you get a good cold snap, you’ll see fresh ducks. The Canadas you can see moving all together one week, but the ducks, not so much. When we see swans, we know the ducks are migrating. Occasionally we’ll see 150-250 mallards, but its a rarity to see the migration.
First its the mallards and pintails. Then the divers, and the greater scaup will come through after Thanksgiving. Then the lesser scaup come in, and by Christmas or in early January, the canvasback will start to show up.
The canvasbacks will stick around well into March, and the Canadas will too. The warm-water ducks that come through won’t come back through until we let the water out in April. The teal and ringnecks will be the last to come through. The ringneck is late, late, late, by the thousands in late March and early April.
By that time spring rolls around and we’re back into planting mode!
I know it takes a year-round operation to have a successful hunting season. What does the rest of your year look like?
We have 30 or 40 impoundments and 20 to 30 clover fields. The fruits of our labor are basically coming due right now [in late September]. We started planting sunflowers in April and May, draining the impoundments in April and planting in May. We finished planting in late June, and all through the summer we’re managing corn and sorghum. The whole time we’re also redoing clover plots and spraying for different weeds. It’s different every year of course - like this year we had a wet spring and it flooded the fields, and we had to replant.
We’re ready to start harvesting now [in mid-September], and we’re starting to work on our blinds. We have 50 blinds to brush, which is about a month-long job.
We manage deer too, and in October, we do a lot of bow-hunting and then the [whitetail] rut rolls through mid-November.
What would you say in peak rut?
November 10 if you had to pick one day. It is a question of weather — if it’s really hot at 75-80, they will go nocturnal and you could go a day without seeing them. If its in the low 60s, they’ll start moving during the day.
Lastly, your impoundments on the Chester River are legendary on the Shore. Is that the secret to your success hunting ducks?
I don’t want to say we taught the world about putting impoundments in, but we started doing it in the ’50s, and a lot of people have seen the success and started doing it too. From about 1965/1970 to 2000, hundreds have been put in in this county. If you look at an aerial photo, you’d think you’re in the prairie pothole!