Story and Photos: Chesapeake Dawn

Written by: T. Edward Nickens

A pair of hunters raise their guns as a flight of ducks head for the decoys.
All photos by Nick Kelley for Garden & Gun

Editor’s note: Garden&Gun magazine has posted a wonderful story by T. Edward Nickens about the unique waterfowl-hunting family-centric culture at the northern end of Maryland’s Chesapeake bay.

Between a greenhead’s feeding chuckle and the hailing call of a hen mallard, Garrett Mullaney muses about the future of waterfowl hunting in America. The twenty-seven-year-old software sales executive is in the middle of a conversation about raising new generations of hunters when mallard and teal bomb in over Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay marshes. We hunker down in the blind as he segues seamlessly between talking about duck hunting and talking to the ducks, the mallard call never leaving his lips.

“I love the wow factor of taking new people out,” he says, then breaks off to keep track of the flock.

Birds at twelve o’clock moving to two o’clock quack-quack-quack.

“And the first step of getting new folks on their first hunt is critical…”

Turning now, watch them…

Keeper keeps an eye on the decoy spread.

“But how can we empower hunters to take new hunters out? Is there a way to incentivize how we pass these traditions along?”

On the right now, coming in, coming in!

And come in they do. Mallard, teal, pintail, and wigeon, by the dozens and by the hundreds. They set their wings and drop into an impoundment ringed with standing corn, edged with millet, bordered by marsh and tidal creek and brackish river. On this morning there are hunters scattered across this stunning waterfowl estate. But on most winter mornings—the property is hunted just a handful of times each year—the ducks have the spread to themselves.

The Lodge at Black Pearl is a private 840-acre farm bordering Maryland’s famed Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, along the northern Chesapeake Bay about thirty miles south of Easton. The property features flooded fields, cropland, marshes, woods, private oyster beds, and five miles of shoreline, and while it has functioned as both a coveted destination hunting lodge for the Washington, D.C., lobbying elite and a quasi-commercial hunting operation in the past, Black Pearl is strictly a family place today. Owned for the last ten years by Stephen and Vicky Mullaney, Virginia natives who met in Richmond in 1986, the property is now focused on introducing nonhunters to waterfowling, with a heaping side dish of conservation, ethics, and plain old hard work.

The Mullaney gang in the field.

Throughout the year, the five Mullaney children—sons Brendan, Ryan, and Garrett, and daughters Erin and Megan—invite friends and coworkers to hunt at Black Pearl. In recent years, some fifty new hunters have taken their first shots there. But they can’t simply show up and shoot. The new recruits are asked to help on summer and fall weekend workdays, brushing blinds with fresh-cut pine and switchgrass, tuning up boats, and cleaning thousands of decoys. It’s typically their first exposure to concepts of waterfowl biology, habitat management, and the heritage of conservation that has marked duck hunting in the region. In return, they’re invited to a “next generation hunt” at the end of each season in which the entire Mullaney family puts on a weekend of hunting, wild game cooking, and camaraderie that showcases the philosophies behind the Black Pearl way of life.

This approach to duck hunting is particularly fulfilling, Garrett says, when opening day isn’t so much a beginning as the culmination of months of preparation and planning and work. At first, he admits, “there’s some hesitation about that kind of commitment. But then they come out and eat crabs and work together for a weekend, and they’re calling us all year long and asking, ‘Hey, when are the work weekends this summer? Make sure my name is on the list!’” (Continued . . . )

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