SMITHVILLE, W.Va. — When you think of West Virginia in terms of hunting, you typically go to whitetail deer. Or maybe your mind goes to turkey, squirrel or black bear.
Dylan Frye does, too, but he’s not focused on all of the traditional animals — he’s in the pursuit of waterfowl.
“Deer hunting gets old and I wanted something to do that I didn’t pay much attention to,” Frye said. “I bought some decoys and I got halfway-decent with calls, but [I wasn’t great at hunting at first]. I didn’t realize that the biggest thing you want them to do is land in your decoy spread and when they’re slowing down to land, that’s when you want to shoot them.”
“At first I thought, ‘You see a duck flying you shoot it,’ so I learned the hard way after wasting so many damn shells,” he added laughing.
The 24-year-old Frye, a resident of Ritchie County and a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan and East Tennessee State, has been hunting waterfowl for 3 years. Frye came in contact with plenty of southern duck hunters while first attending Coastal Carolina on a baseball scholarship and then at a junior college in North Carolina.
“A lot of my friends from the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, they’re all duck hunters,” Frye said. “West Virginia is mainly a deer place and I don’t find many people to talk about waterfowl hunting with. But down there they say it’s duck hunting country. Hearing their stories and seeing their social media [made] me want to give it a try up here.”
Never taking part in a duck hunt in the southern states, Frye has only scoured watersheds in the Mountain State. His first hunt was at The Jug Wildlife Management Area in Tyler County, one Frye recounts as one of his least successful hunts but still a fun one. He’s also hunted around Buckhannon and St. Marys. But his favorite spot is in Belmont, W.Va.
The issue with his favorite spot is that, because there’s a lack of prime spots in the state, it’s over pressured.
“It’s so heavily hunted that I’ve got to get up at 3:50 a.m. and get out there at 5 a.m. before other people do,” Frye said, noting his 51-minute commute from Smithville. “Almost every single time I’ve gone there’s someone out there, [usually] with a boat.”
But even with the spot being as pressured as it is, Frye, who tends to hunt alone, has found success. He’s discovered that the spot holds mallards, pintails and Canada geese.
“I think it’s because we’re in the Mid-Ohio Valley next to the Ohio River. You’re going to find birds up and down the river,” he said. “That’s why I like the spot. Say the water is high and the waves are rough from the tug boats, they’re going to go to the shallow spots to feed. You can walk all over that watershed.”
So why, with an overall lack of birds and a typical yield of one duck, does Frye continue to chase the birds? Why not go back to stalking whitetail like the majority of West Virginia’s hunters? In short, it’s therapeutic.
“It doesn’t matter if a bird is close or far away, my adrenaline is going. That’s why I love it. It’s like fishing: If it was easy, it would be called catching,” he said. “You get to see nature. There’s a lot of different birds like hawks and blue herons. It’s great spending time in the outdoors and getting away from everything. I’ve used it as a stress and depression [counterbalance] since I’ve had depression and anxiety for a long time. I love going out there, it gets me away from the real world.”
Although Frye is attached to his favorite spot, he also wants to see more areas open up in the Mountain State.
“We can absolutely [harvest] more waterfowl in this state — we’re in the perfect spot,” Frye said. “It gets cold, but this is one of those states where it gets warm around this time every once in a while and [gives the birds] a happy medium. I feel like a lot of the birds around here stay around here, I don’t think they’re migrating. Obviously, they migrated in, but I think once they get here they stay here — it seems like I’m seeing the same ducks.”
One large issue is that West Virginia is landlocked and has no naturally-formed lakes, but some areas harbor waterfowl. Areas along the Ohio, Monongahela, Kanawha and Potomac Rivers provide suitable habitat — as do the tributaries — but lack of interest in addition to land commercialization plague habitat control.
However, some third-party organizations have done work in restoring waterfowl habitat in the state. Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reconditioned 1.5 acres of moist-soil wetland on Middle Island that was deteriorating “due to agricultural use”. The Ducks Unlimited press release noted that “because of dredging and modification for commercial activities, the Ohio River has few areas that can be protected from further alteration.” In total, Ducks Unlimited has been part of conserving over 70,000 acres of habitat in the Mid-Atlantic region (Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia).
And along with habitat falling by the wayside, another reason people tend to cite whitetail deer, turkey, bear and other animals when they think of hunting in the state is that those are the traditional animals that provide a backbone to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ purse. There’s no such thing as a West Virginia duck stamp — all waterfowl hunters need is a completed Migratory Bird HIP survey and a federal duck stamp. In 2018 only 3,500 birds were harvested, and the agency made no license money off of it, albeit a small estimated sum.
Further, in recent years there has been a nationwide decline in hunters and thus many animal harvests, and West Virginia is no stranger to the effects of it. Those two issues have their subsections of problems and possible fixes, but to Frye, one way to bring new hunters into the fold is to introduce them to chasing waterfowl. Then, he thinks the DNR could begin transforming some WMAs into a more suitable habitat for migratory and resident birds.
The 2019-20 season is almost over, ending on Jan. 31, but the 2020-21 season guidelines will be released later this year. For those who may be interested, Frye has one bit of advice:
“Make sure you do your research on everything (decoy spreads, calling, etc.) and scout the places you think you want to hunt.”
This story was originally written for The Dominion Post and was published on Jan. 25, 2020. Andrew Spellman has been a sports writer at the newspaper since June 2019. The Dominion Post, a 7-day publication, is the largest paper in north central West Virginia.