Where Waterfowling Is a Family Affair

At a historic duck camp on the Chesapeake Bay, a family has made it its mission to introduce new hunters to waterfowling, while instilling a conservation ethic that will carry the next generation

Photo: Nick Kelley

A pair of hunters raise their guns as a flight of ducks head for the decoys.

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…

“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.

Photo: Nick Kelley

At the ready in the blind.

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.

Photo: Nick Kelley

The morning sky is nearly darkened with ducks.

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!’”

The Eastern Shore is critical migrating and wintering habitat for a trove of birds, and not just waterfowl. More than 280 bird species have been counted on the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Across the Eastern Shore, landowners are showing a greater interest in improving migration and wintering habitat, says Larry Hindman, who spent more than four decades as chief waterfowl biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and is a frequent guest and guide at Black Pearl. Each year, Hindman says, about three dozen landowners meet with representatives of Ducks Unlimited and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to tour Dorchester County properties and share information about managing private lands for birds that have come from as far away as the Canadian Arctic, and will move from Maryland south to as far away as Central America.

Photo: Nick Kelley

Keeper keeps an eye on the decoy spread.

“What the Mullaneys have done shows the potential,” he explains. “At times, they winter more ducks than the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The benefit to waterfowl populations and other duck hunters is huge, because these ducks at Black Pearl are on their way to everywhere.”

Its focus might be on the future, but the past looms large at Black Pearl. The property has deep roots in Chesapeake history. The area was once known as John’s Point, and some historians consider the house built there, by Roger Woolford in the early 1660s, to be the first brick house built in North America. That house burned in 1856, and only a single corner of the old ballast stone and brick foundation remains.

Photo: Nick Kelley

The varying hues of iridescent waterfowl plumage.

The current lodge is an amalgam of buildings built and added to over the last forty years. In the great room, a massive stone fireplace reflects flames in windows that overlook the Little Choptank River. Scores of mounted waterfowl line the wood-paneled walls. A dining room seats more than thirty guests. The place rose to modern prominence during its ownership by the Washington, D.C., lobbyist Thomas “Tommy” Boggs. Boggs, the brother of journalist Cokie Roberts, was a partner in the Patton Boggs law firm, which in its heyday billed upwards of $100 million a year representing corporate and industrial giants. He turned a duck hunt at what he named Tobacco Stick Lodge into the must-have social invitation of the lobbying world. The spread—and its lavish affairs—were written up in political memoirs by Terry McAuliffe, former Virginia governor and chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005, and Mark Leibovich, a reporter for the New York Times. Dick Cheney hunted there. When Carl Bernstein profiled Boggs for Vanity Fair in 1998, he opened the story in the main room of Tobacco Stick Lodge.

Photo: Nick Kelley

Hauling decoys and ducks.

The Mullaney family has little interest in such fanfare. While Stephen Mullaney was a guest at Tobacco Stick for two decades, he was always more interested in the property as a place for family. His children had hunted there since they were preteens. In 2010, when Boggs approached Mullaney about buying the place, the opportunity kicked off a round of serious soul-searching by the Mullaneys as they pondered the kind of family they wanted to nurture as their kids grew older.

“My construction career had gotten to the point where I could live in the middle of nowhere if I wanted to,” Stephen explains, “but that conversation evolved into a discussion about what such a move would do to our family. If we wanted our family to be intact, and have the children see each other regularly instead of putting their eyes on each other once a year, we had to take a different approach.”

Photo: Nick Kelley

The Mullaney gang in the field.

Vicky thought that the kids would stay a little closer if they moved to the Eastern Shore. They could find good work in Northern Virginia, and stay connected to the family land. And that’s exactly what happened: After graduate school, each child moved to within driving distance of Black Pearl. The three boys now live in neighboring Talbot County. “That was a strategic decision,” Stephen says. “I didn’t want to just buy a duck-hunting place. I wanted a place for family.”

Photo: Nick Kelley

The Black Pearl lodge.

The approach has paid off. In the lodge kitchen, Vicky and Megan fire up a grill top. An accomplished chef, hunter, and angler, Vicky is the author of the stunning The Lodge at Black Pearl Cookbook, and leads Becoming an Outdoors Woman events at Black Pearl in conjunction with the Maryland DNR. Her wild-game cooking demonstration is a highlight at the University of Delaware’s weekend-long program that targets graduate students in its waterfowl biology studies. Many of the students are completely new to hunting, and others have never experienced a duck hunt. While the college students visit Black Pearl, the family gathers in force to guide and cook as the school uses the lodge as a base camp and hunting grounds to introduce students to conservation science and the heritage behind the pursuit.

Photo: Nick Kelley

Vicky Mullaney takes a pause between courses.

Tonight, Vicky says, grilled venison is on the menu. “And not just any venison,” she continues, nodding over her shoulder to the large windows behind the bar. Up the creek, she says, you can just see James Island, where marsh-loving sika deer were first released in 1916. Garrett shot this one, she says with pride.

With the grill loaded, she turns her attention to a platter of fresh-shucked oysters and her son Ryan, twenty-eight, who is taste-testing a variety of sauce recipes to dip them in. One morning months ago the pair concocted an oyster salsa so well received among Black Pearl guests they wrote up a business plan and potential launch. Black Pearl Chesapeake Oyster Salsa made its commercial debut last winter.

She beams as she watches Ryan dredge oysters through saucers of various tomato paste, fish sauce, and chile concoctions. “That’s what is so special about what we do here,” she says. “The whole family is involved. Four of our children are here tonight—guiding, cooking, helping everywhere. They gathered the oysters from the cages in the creek. They brought home the deer for dinner. This sense of family permeates everything we do.”

And what they do takes an enormous amount of work, but that’s part of the appeal. “The hunting season is short,” Vicky says. “But the work is year-round. It’s outside and it’s healthy and we’re so fortunate that all of the kids love it as much as we do.”

Photo: Nick Kelley

A pair of duck mounts watch over the gear for the next hunt.

Working year-round like this, Garrett says, has changed his perspective of what it can mean to be a duck hunter. “I view the seasons in a different way,” he says. “We’re working for these birds just about every month of the year. Seeing what happens during the actual hunting season is that much more rewarding because we know we’ve played a significant role in getting the birds here and getting them in the best possible condition.”

While the Lodge at Black Pearl continues the tradition of releasing pen-raised mallard, a longtime Delmarva Peninsula practice, thousands of migrating ducks and geese join these birds each winter. “I’ve seen more ducks in a single day here than I’ve ever seen in my life, anywhere,” Larry Hindman says. A mosaic of tidal waters, marsh, and managed impoundments of corn, millet, and even wild rice can draw and hold ducks in mind-boggling numbers. On a single day, Stephen Mullaney has watched upwards of ten thousand pintail and teal flood the marshes. It’s possible to shoot ten different species in a morning. With the exception of buffleheads and ruddy ducks. “They carry a ten-dollar fine,” Stephen says, laughing, “because Vicky thinks they’re cute.”

As Garrett and I watch from the blind that morning, flocks of pintail and teal spiral down into the fields. I stare at the birds, mesmerized, until I shift my focus from the birds over the decoys to the birds farther out. More are coming—hundreds more—and behind all of those, even more ducks stream into view.

Which is the point of what is happening at the Lodge at Black Pearl—more ducks, more duck hunters, more support for the increasingly difficult work of keeping hunters on the ground to support conservation. “If all you do is pay attention to traditions and heritage, and don’t look forward, you’re going to have problems,” Stephen says. “We’re doing all we can to hand off the best we’ve been able to build. And we tell our kids and these younger hunters: Now it’s on you. You’re going to have to step up, as well.”