A Lower Eastern Shore Waterfowl WeekendPosted on: January 4, 2019 By: FHMD
It’s hard to imagine somewhere more quintessentially Maryland than the lower Eastern Shore. Deeply connected to both its past and a sense of place, it’s the source of most of our iconic blue crabs, the home of our remaining skipjacks and the center of some of the region’s last working maritime communities. It’s also a place where the land and water are so intertwined, it’s hard to know where one starts and the other begins. Heading south from the Bay Bridge, the fields get flatter and wider, hemmed in first by ditches and pine trees and later by marshes that open to water as far as the eye can see – perfect for waterfowl.
In the fall and winter, these wetlands, and their dense bottom grasses, transform into the richest waterfowl habitat on the east coast of the United States, attracting millions of geese, ducks and swans annually. Small waterfront towns have long harvested birds from this great migration and, today, their traditional hunting culture with its decoys, skiffs, and calls are a vital part of Maryland’s unique flavor. A winter trip to Salisbury, Deal Island and Princess Anne is the perfect time to explore the lower Eastern Shore’s great gunning places. Throw in a few stops along the way for some classic Maryland eats, drinks and local conversation, and you’ve got a recipe for a weekend as Chesapeake as they come.
Follow your stomach and Route 50 South through several of the Eastern Shore’s Chesapeake towns (Easton, Cambridge and Vienna) towards a down-home diner that will fuel you up for a day of lower Shore exploring. The Farmer’s Wife Eatery (27000 Ocean Gateway, Hebron, MD) does Maryland staples proud. The crab cake sandwich is substantial, lightly fried golden brown and filled with gorgeous lumps of the good stuff. Too much crab is impossible, so go ahead and get the flavorful, brothy Maryland crab soup. If you’ve still got an appetite, the oyster po-boy, with crispy local oysters and some lashings of hot sauce, is sure to set you right.
No waterfowl weekend on the Eastern Shore would be complete without a trip to the mecca of hunting history, Salisbury’s Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art (909 S Schumaker Dr. Salisbury, MD). Founded in 1975 to showcase and honor the work of Lemuel and Stephen Ward— two giants in the world of decoy carving—the museum’s collections and mission today encompass a broader environmental and artistic focus. Set aside at least a few hours to wander through the exhibits, where you’ll see everything from early 19th-century ‘sneak skiffs’ to the elegant lines and fine paintwork of the Ward Brothers’ best birds. Don’t miss the World Championship Gallery, where winners from Ward Museum-hosted annual carving competition are so lifelike and animated, you might find yourself instinctually ducking to miss the clutches of a carved hawk, owl or osprey.
Now that you’ve seen birds through the eyes of decoy carvers and artists, it’s time to go see them for yourself at the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Just a half an hour’s drive from Salisbury, Deal Island WMA is in the heart of Bay country in an area known as “Dames Quarter.” This vast 13,500-acre public refuge protects some of the Chesapeake’s most critical stretches of wetland bird habitat in the state. Deal Island Road cuts straight through the largest section of the management area, with several dirt roads that allow access for boaters, hunters and birders to some of the marsh interiors. It’s a surreal landscape—marsh grasses just above the tidelines so permeated by the Manokin River that the horizon almost seems concave. The wide-open vistas and grassy sloughs have turned a uniform wheaty gold by fall—the perfect backdrop for the teeming flocks of migratory birds overwintering there. Among the usual suspects, like Canada and snow geese, are a motley assortment of colorful wigeons, pintails, gadwalls, green and blue-winged teal and shovelers. Wary of passing cars, they collectively rise from the water in huge rushes of wings. Savvy outdoorsmen looking for glimpses of wildlife will park and walk the dirt road cutting through the management area with binoculars and camera at the ready.
Now that you’ve worked up a thirst, continue heading south on Deal Island Road towards Wenona. Deal Island is home to some of the Bay’s last true working waterfronts, and as you coast over the bridge from Chance to Deal, you’ll see some of the Bay’s last remaining working skipjacks docked at the Deal Point marina. Wenona, at the very southern tip of the island, is one of two small island communities still centered on the seafood industry. Arby’s Dockside Bar and Grill (8954 Deal Island Rd, Deal Island, MD) is a true Chesapeake watering hole overlooking the workboats and skipjacks, where the local watermen go after a day of hauling their catch. Polish off a cold glass of Cambridge Brewery RAR Nanticoke Nectar and a pile of hand-cut fries while you chat with locals, who are happy to share some fishing tales or give you a run for your money at the pool table.
Finish up the day by heading off-island to Princess Anne, where you can post up fireside at a cozy pub and unwind over a stellar meal at the Washington Inn and Tavern (11784 Somerset Ave, Princess Anne, MD). Built in 1744 as an inn and tavern, the Washington Inn has spent almost three centuries entertaining lower Eastern Shore travelers in style. Enjoy a cup of their decadent butternut squash soup and an order of the seafood-rich Eastern Shore Bouillabaisse by the fireplace, with a mounted sika deer over the mantel looking on in approval. Don’t push back from the table, though, before ordering a slice of the sinful Devil’s Island Cream Cake from the ‘secret menu.’ Wash it all down with a Maryland rye whiskey before scaling the stairs to your plush suite, where you can shuck off your boots, climb into bed and fall asleep to the sound of thousands of snow geese flying south overhead.
Now that you know where to go when you’re not hunting, be sure to visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources online for information on licenses and regulations before chasing birds. If sea ducks are what you’re after, visit the department’s Maryland Game Birds section of their website for licensed Maryland waterfowl outfitters and guides.
If you’re planning on staying a while, be sure to check out our Plan Your Trip section for information on lodging options, additional hunting guides and outfitters, outdoor retailers, shooting ranges, and more.
This post was written by Kate Livie
Images courtesy of the author