On an unseasonably warm Wednesday in February, the James River and its many inlets were calm along the Colonial Parkway.
Along the side of the exposed aggregate road, solitary duck blinds sat propped up on posts in clearings and along marshes, hovering several feet above the river water.
Some of those blinds, lonesome after the closure of duck season at the end of January, will be reunited with their hunters come fall.
Others will remain unattended, falling into disrepair and abandoned.
Craig Metcalfe, a local boater who docks on Powhatan Creek, said abandoned duck blinds are a hazard for boaters and the environment in eastern Virginia. He is a James River Association “River Rat” volunteer, and has made it his project to clean up the abandoned blinds in Powhatan Creek.
Some blinds can go unlicensed and untracked for years, Metcalfe said.
“Because I am a boater, I see the debris that’s left in the water when people don’t maintain them,” Metcalfe said. “You can hit it with a boat.”
While Virginia Code prohibits hunters from leaving duck blinds to rot in public waters after their blind license expires, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries does not track abandoned blinds.
Repercussions and enforcement
A person who leaves a blind in the water without re-licensing it can be found guilty of a class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“Duck blinds are the responsibility of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries,” Metcalfe said.
Maj. Scott Naff, a VDGIF conservation police officer, said the department does handle cases involving abandoned duck blinds, but most are prompted by complaints or concerns from residents or hunters.
“There are some blinds out near Jamestown that people have called about in years past,” Naff said, estimating that the VDGIF receives between a dozen and two dozen complaints about abandoned blinds each year in eastern Virginia.
Because waterfowl hunting is only during the fall and winter months, some duck blinds may appear abandoned when they are simply out-of-season. Many blinds are repaired or reconstructed annually.
If a blind is abandoned, Naff added some former blind owners cannot be found, making it difficult to enforce the regulations surrounding the blinds.
“if we cannot identify the owner, there’s nothing we can do,” said Naff of enforcing regulations.
Enforcing rules against building blinds that won’t be used for hunting is also challenging, Naff said.
Some property owners will build and license blinds in front of their property to deter hunters from hunting near their property. Hunters are not allowed to hunt within 500 yards of another blind.
Using a blind as a deterrent and not for hunting, however, is a violation of state code.
Metcalfe suggested a $100 deposit for building a duck blind could create an incentive for cleaning it up at the end of the hunter’s use. If the hunter removes the blind from the water, they could receive that $100 deposit back.
Metcalfe has removed one abandoned duck blind from Powhatan Creek so far, and has identified four more than need to be taken down.
Metcalfe plans to start working on the next four this spring.
A method for taking down the blinds has been a work in progress: At first, Metcalfe planned to disassemble the blinds and take them by pieces to a dumpster by the James City County Marina. He discovered cutting their posts near the river bed and dragging the whole structure to the marina work better.
As a volunteer, time and money can be limited.
Several years ago, Metcalfe worked on an “Adopt a Blind” project to encourage people to “adopt” the blinds and fix them up. The signs advertising the project would have cost more than $100, he said, making the program not feasible.
In a way, the hunting community is self-policing.
Naff said many hunters hold each other accountable, reporting unauthorized hunting or regulation violations to the VDGIF.
Naff said many abandoned blinds are re-licensed by new hunters because waterfowl hunting is popular in the region.
“Waterfowl hunting has been a major part of tidal Virginia for centuries,” Naff said. “The duck blinds are kind of a part of the landscape in a lot of ways.”
The game department should still have a system to track which blinds are no longer licensed, Metcalfe said.
“They responsibility has to be in the hands of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries,” Metcalf said.