Hunters find unexpected messages on their targets
On the morning of Dec. 31, Bill Longan, his son, Robert, and his son’s friend, Russ Brown, searched the skies for ducks from a blind in Cohoke Marsh on the Pamunkey River.
Time was running out. The club only allows hunting until noon. With only a few minutes left, the hunters started to pack their things from the blind, ready to grab some lunch.
Brown unloaded the first shell from his gun when he caught something out of the corner of his eye, two mallards dropping into the spread. He turned to Robert, who looked at his watch. “11:59,” he said. “Take ’em.”
Brown raised his gun and dropped the drake mallard; Robert folded the hen.
Robert’s dog went for the birds, retrieving the drake first, which Robert tossed on the bank, before sending his dog for the hen. It wasn’t until the group had picked up the decoys and the last of the birds from the bank, that they realized that last drake was banded.
For waterfowlers, this is a special prize, a piece of jewelry delivered from the sky.
They are a testament of the migration, proof of where the bird has been, proof of time spent in the field and proof, too, of a little luck.
The vast majority of bands found on migrating waterfowl are part of the North American bird-banding program, which has banded millions of birds representing hundreds of species since 1904. They typically contain a series of numbers.
When Bill Longan asked what the band said, he expected a series of numbers. Russ’ response was much different.
“Ye must obey God,” was inscribed on the band.
Just 10 days earlier, and a handful of miles from where Brown’s bird was killed, Bobby Whitten, also from Richmond, had shot a hen mallard that came in on his side of the blind.
“I just poked my head out and killed it,” Whitten said.
His dog retrieved the bird, which, without much fanfare, had been placed in the corner of the blind. No one in the group had noticed that the bird was banded.
It wasn’t until later, at the car, when it was revealed.
The inscription on the band read, “Have faith in God.”
“I didn’t know what I had,” Whitten said.
What he and Brown both had were bands from the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation in Kingsville, Ontario, considered by many waterfowlers the crown jewel of bands.
Jack Miner founded the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Sanctuary for the conservation of migrating Canada geese and wild ducks in 1904. The same year, he was the founder of the waterfowl refuge management system.
Miner banded his first duck in 1909. In 1915, he banded his first goose. By then, all bands included Biblical verses, a tradition that has continued to this day.
Miner was a very religious man, according to Krystle DelBen, community engagement coordinator at the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation, which is what led him to originally hand stamp the Biblical verses on the bands. He viewed the ducks and geese he banded as “missionaries of the sky.”
According to Del-Ben, the foundation has received more than a few reports of the bands’ messages hitting at the right time for their founders, even one hunter who was contemplating suicide and attributed the message on the band with saving his life.
Miner, who passed away in 1944, banded more than 50,000 ducks and 40,000 geese in his lifetime.
The foundation continues to band waterfowl in Ontario each year. Most of the birds stay in the Mississippi flyway and are killed as they head south. Only a rare few jump flyways to the east or west, making Brown’s (whose bird was banded in 2007) and Whitten’s (whose bird was banded in 2015) even more prized.
In searching the records, Virginia hunters are lucky to bag a bird or two a year banded at the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation.
For more information on the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation, visit jackminer.ca
Capt. Art Conway of Conway’s River Rat Guide Service (804-746-2475) out of Ed Allen’s Boats and Bait reports Chickahominy Lake midday water temperatures have been in the mid-30s in the lower main lake from the weekend through Wednesday. The lake level Wednesday was a few inches above the top of the dam and had been stable for a few days. The water was light brown and clear in the central lower lake. The lake had been covered in ice since last weekend and still was covered at midday Wednesday. The ice should clear out in the next several days. The following winter patterns were in place before the freeze and should hold when the ice clears.
Most blue cats and bullheads were on flats and channels in the main lake and scattered in creeks and hitting live minnows and cut bait. Most crappie were along dropoffs and in channels in the main lake, especially near wood cover. Active crappie were hitting live minnows, Wright Bait Co. and Southern Pro curlytail jigs, small tubes, Kalin crappie scrubs and small swim baits. Small to medium yellow perch and white perch were scattered or in loose aggregates on some main lake flats and channels. They were hitting live minnows, small swim baits and small jigs. Most bluegill and shellcracker were along channel edges in the main lake. They were occasionally hitting small jigs, Nikko nymphs on drop-shot rigs, small swim baits and live worms. Most bass, pickerel and bowfin were on flats, along drop-offs or in channels in the major creeks and the main lake. When active, bass and pickerel were hitting live minnows, spinnerbaits, swim baits, stick worms, crank baits, jerk baits and jigs.
Stan Cobb of Green Top Hunting and Fishing (804550-2188 or greentopfishing.com) reports the following:
With the winter weather last weekend, not many of the saltwater anglers ventured out. Reports have been slow. Water temperatures have dropped in the Chesapeake Bay, making even the tautog fishing tough. The better bet for most species is the ocean. Ocean wrecks are holding good fish, but weather conditions have been less than favorable. Deep-dropping probably is the best option for bringing back loads of good-eating fish, but reports have been slow. Hopefully, this weekend will draw anglers to try their luck.
As mentioned before, weather conditions and ramp conditions have been less than favorable. Not many reports materialized from last weekend. Some were able to get out Saturday during the snow, with good results, which often happens during snowfall. Many of these reports came from Lake Anna, and those fishing for bass. Jigs, silver buddies, jerkbaits and swimbaits are mostly used in clear, cold water. The James River remains an excellent option, both the lower and the upper. On the upper James, it’s mainly the smallmouth that draw the attention. The upper Rappahannock is another excellent destination for targeting smallmouth bass now. Nasty weather conditions seem to produce the more memorable catches. Big smallmouth seem to bite more willingly in these times. On the lower James, most of the attention goes to the giant blue cats and the outstanding largemouth fishing. Both species bite well all winter, especially since there’s a warm water discharge at Dutch Gap. Many of the pits attract the bass and baitfish, and the many jetties along the river are great current breaks for the cats. There’s an abundance of bait in the James, so gathering bait usually is not a problem. The Chickahominy River is another excellent option for winter fishing. Bass get most of the attention here. However, the crappie fishing is outstanding. Look for the yellow perch run to occur soon. Most of the tidal rivers will offer great opportunities for these fish. Silver buddies are excellent lures for anything that bites, and should be tied on at all times during the winter. Dress warmly and wear flotation devices.
Robert Longan (left) and Russ Brown display the ducks they shot on the last day of 2016 at Cohoke Marsh on the Pamunkey River.