For 16 years, a land manager in Virginia had been dumping bags of corn in a farm pond and inviting buddies to come shoot ducks
Conservation officers knew something was wrong with this photo, which was originally part of a social media post. Photograph from U.S. District Court documents obtained by Outdoor Life
Three Virginia residents and a taxidermist from Maryland have been fined and are now on probation after a joint investigation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources revealed the four men poached more than 100 wood ducks on a baited pond in Middleburg, Virginia, in October 2022. A fifth man, the land manager where the illegal hunt took place, was sentenced in November for his involvement.
Text and social media messages obtained by law enforcement revealed Michael Scott, 36, Eric Scott, 29, and Christian Hoyt, 39, all of Loudoun County, and Timothy Young, 48, of Frederick, Maryland, had communicated with land manager Clint Burlett, 41, about baiting wood ducks. Burlett’s own trail cameras documented Burlett emptying bags of corn into a .23-acre pond on his land in Middleburg. Their goal was to attract flocks of wood ducks to the pond, which is a federal crime. Some of northern Virginia’s wood ducks are resident birds and others are migrators, but they’re all susceptible to illegal baiting attempts, Virginia Conservation Police Sgt. Derrick Kekic tells Outdoor Life.
Photos and footage from those trail cameras, along with the men’s messages to each other, aided in their convictions. But it was a pile photo posted to social media that first tipped off duck hunters. The post included a photo of 11 people and 26 wood ducks, and a discussion of such a large group killing so many wood ducks in one hunt.
“We knew right off the bat that was highly unusual,” investigation supervisor and retired VCP Sgt. Rich Goszka tells Outdoor Life, noting that multiple people in the photo didn’t actually hunt and were just there for show. A daily limit of wood ducks is three per person. “So we backtracked and figured out who it was based on the post, and that they were on a piece of property they didn’t own. The person was a tenant caretaking for the property, which bordered Goose Creek in Loudoun County, so I got dropped off and walked the entire creek checking for bait.”
Goszka noticed that there weren’t many woodies along the creek, and certainly not enough to indicate that enough for a nearly nine-man limit would randomly arrive in a single day on an adjacent property. He eventually spotted the pond in the distance, with corn littering the edges and trail cameras fixed on the corn. So he began surveilling the pond.
“I figured they probably got tipped off and had seen me going in on adjoining property, because cameras were everywhere,” says Goszka, who describes the investigation as a mixture of old-fashioned bootwork and new technology. “We ended up getting enough information to execute a search warrant, got the target’s phone, and from there the targets confessed. We had all the pictures and text messages. The federal government got involved and the targets turned more evidence in and the rest fell into place … When you get into peoples’ cell phones, you find all kinds of information.”
On Nov. 3, 2023 Burlett, the land manager, was sentenced to 24 months of supervised probation with a revocation of hunting privileges and a $2,700 fine. He was convicted of one count of baiting migratory birds. Eric and Michael Scott, Hoyt, and Young were sentenced on Jan. 9, each receiving 18 months of supervised probation with a revocation of hunting privileges and $1,000 fines. They were each convicted of one count of purposeful take of migratory birds over bait. All parties were processed and sentenced in U.S. District Court in the District of Eastern Virginia. According to Goszka, the goal for the sentencing was less about collecting fines and more about taking away the one thing these guys clearly love: the ability to shoot wood ducks.
Burlett had kept track of the “pond record,” according to court documents, which was broken in 2021 when 118 wood ducks came in and the poachers killed 43 in a single day. Burlett included this statistic in a text message he sent Eric Scott in late September — the same day that one of his trail cameras captured him dumping buckets of corn into the pond.
A week later Burlett texted Young, the taxidermist from Maryland, to inform him that whether Young wanted to get a Virginia license or not was up to him, but that he was “almost a mile off the road,” that Burlett had “been doing this for 16 year[s],” that he “lock[s] the gate to the farm so no one can get in,” and that it’s “a pretty safe location.” (This detail appears to contradict Burlett’s interview with officers, during which he said Young didn’t know the pond was baited.) On Oct. 7, the group killed their first batch of birds and posed for the picture that would ultimately lead to their conviction. A woman, most likely Burlett’s wife according to sources, and children were also in the photo.
More texts with Young revealed that the party had killed 91 ducks in two days, which Burlett referred to as “carnage” in a social media post with a photo of dead ducks in the water, and that they were going back in again on Oct. 10 while the ducks were still “fucked up and confused, and hungry.” A photo from Oct. 10 showed the same core group of men with an additional 16 ducks.
Later in the month on youth day, Burlett let his son shoot the baited pond. His son killed one duck.
“This was nothing but a slaughter pen on a pond,” Goszka says. “You can almost tell by the stuff they’re putting out there what kind of hunters they are. These people are serial killers of wildlife, and those are the ones we want to go after. That small percentage is making a huge impact on a [bird] population and taking away from hunters who are really doing it right.”