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Duck Season Swan Song

January 29, 2018

Well, that’s that. Waterfowl season wrapped up this past weekend, and while I’d high hopes that it would end in a blast of glory, it didn’t quite go down that way in the end.

First, let’s back up a week.

On January 20, Kat and I were scheduled to join Aaron, with Fourth Generation Outfitters, to fill our swan tags.  This was our second year drawing the tags, and after hunting with him last year, we were pretty stoked.  Swan hunting isn’t difficult at all, but it’s a pretty nice experience that goes on well before, and after, the shooting is done.  They’re really beautiful birds to watch as they fly out in waves to feed in the local fields.  NC has the highest, wintering population of tundra swans in the country, so there are plenty to watch when they’re in the area.

At the expense of a longer story (some of ya’ll know I can go on), we arrived at the field on the morning of the 20th, and as we were unpacking our gear, I opened the console of the truck to get our tags.  The two envelopes were there, as I expected, but only one of them contained a swan tag.  It was Kat’s.  Somehow, I’d managed to grab the wrong one when I put them in the truck, way back in October.  So, here I was without my tag on a guided hunt.  Not cool.  I felt like an idiot (because that was, truly, pretty idiotic of me).

We went through with the hunt, and Kat made a beautiful, one-shot kill on a perfect, juvenile bird (the juveniles are the best eating).  Fortunately, Aaron chose not to charge me anything for my part of the trip, which was kind of him.  He also told me that, even though he would be heavily booked on the weekend of the 27th (swan season closes at the end of January), I could give him a call and he’d work me in if I didn’t fill my tag before then.

In the meantime, I’d received an invite from one of my old blogging friends, Jamie Cameron, to join a group up in Pamlico Sound for a day, and then to go up and hunt a flooded impoundment near Lake Mattamuskeet for the last two days of regular waterfowl season.  I hadn’t hunted up there since I was a kid, but most east coast duck hunters know that area can be waterfowling nirvana… when the conditions are right.

There are also a lot of swans in that area, so I figured I’d give it a day or so to get my swan before calling Aaron for the last ditch opportunity.

Our first day, we hunted out on the sound from a scissor-rig, which was a first for me.  I’d always heard of them, but had never had the opportunity to experience this sort of hunting before.  I’ve got to say, it was a damned cool setup, and perfect for the conditions out on that big water.  It was also a first for Iggy, as getting in and out of the rig (this one was based on a 21′ Parker, center console) was no mean feat.  He managed it with, if not grace, at least enthusiasm.

The ducks, unfortunately, were mostly no-shows for the morning.  We saw a few big flocks of divers out in the distance, and watched a handful of puddle ducks trading over the distant marsh.  Black ducks, in particular, teased us several times, hopping up and moving around the marsh ponds.  It would have been a good day to have a kayak to push up the shallow creeks.  C’est la vie.

After a while, we heard the distant hooting of swans.  They’re not early birds, by the way, and don’t get really active until around mid-morning.  They started rolling through in waves, mostly passing in the distance, but finally, a group spotted our decoys, and responded to the mouth-calling of our host.  They cupped wings and started floating in to us, which is a sight to behold, if you’ve never seen a white 747 coasting into your decoys.  There were two of us with tags, so as they swept over on the first approach, I held off on an easy shot, expecting them to complete the circle and come in for a perfect double.

They didn’t.  Instead of landing beside us, they pitched in about 75 yards away.  Soon after, another flock came and sat down right beside them.  We hunkered down, hoping against hope that they’d swim on over, but they seemed intent on paddling further out.  As we talked and watched them, our host yelped, “oh, sh**,” followed by the boom of his Benelli.  A teal had slipped in, and crossed right over the boat.  It did not make it much further.

The swans gracefully spread their wings into the steady wind, and seemed to levitate into the air.  Despite the calling (and cursing), they did not turn back our way and were soon disappearing in the distance.  That would be our last opportunity for the big white birds on that day.  That teal would be the only bird of the morning, despite a spirited fusillade, launched at a scoter a little later.

The evening found us set up on the Pungo river, watching tons of divers (mostly bluebills) moving around.  Our setup wasn’t quite ideal, so we had a bunch of close calls with flaring birds, until we made some adjustments to the camo around the motor.  That brought some birds a little closer, and soon we had put a handful of bluebills on the deck.  Iggy worked for his dinner that evening.

After we wrapped up the evening hunt, we rolled the hour up to Mattamuskeet to meet the rest of our party for the next phase of hunting.  It was probably around 8:00pm when we arrived, and as soon as I stepped out of the truck, I was hit with the constant background chatter of geese, swans, and all sorts of ducks.  The night was crystal clear, and the birds were taking advantage and flying back and forth to feed and roost.

The next morning, as we walked in to the blinds, the excitement was almost too much to stand.  Teal and wigeon twittered and peeped.  Wood ducks whined.  All around us in the impoundment, it seemed like something out of a Ducks Unlimited ad.   Iggy was so excited he broke, and dove into the flooded corn to chase a bird.  It was all I could do to get him back to heel, and guide him into the blind.

As the sunrise neared, the birds started lifting off in flocks and pairs.  We loaded the guns and counted the minutes until shoot time.  The blind across from us fired the first shot, dumping a wigeon on the flat water.  The guys down from us did likewise.  Birds flew everywhere, but none came close enough for our blind to take the good shot.  We had all discussed the plan earlier, that we’d let the birds work to the decoys and make the easy shots, but that plan apparently went by the wayside, especially for one particular blind (there’s always “that guy”).

The frenzy was short-lived, and within an hour and a half of sunrise, the flight had trickled to almost nothing.  A perfect, bluebird day was in the offing with no wind and no cloud cover.  However, the swans don’t care about bluebird days, and they were beginning to fly in earnest.

The guy who manages the impoundment knew a couple of us had swan tags, and he called my host to see if we wanted to come out of the blinds and try for our swans.  With barely a duck on the wing, the choice was an easy one.  We bailed, and an hour later, we were settling into a box blind, overlooking a couple dozen white decoys in a cut field.  As an unexpected bonus, we also had a guide to call (I can’t hold the note to mouth call for swans), and soon we had birds working.

The first few groups flared or went wide, but finally, a group of three came sailing in.  Again, watching swans with wings cupped, coming to your decoys is really an awesome sight.  After the fiasco of the previous weekend, it was even better.  The lead bird was a giant, and the guide called the shot.  “Kill that big one!”

I raised the old Savage and let fly… and down he went.  My blind partner emptied his gun, and on the last shot, his bird sagged, and then slowly drifted to ground a couple hundred yards away.

This would turn out to be my only bird of the weekend.  I never even fired a shot in the duck blind that day or the next.  On closing day, Saturday, the sky was so clear of birds that we actually came out of the blinds an hour or so early.  Our host had ordered a bushel of oysters for lunch, so we settled back at the house for that treat, and then I had to say my good-byes.

I pulled back into my own drive about an hour before sunset.  Not content to let the sun set on the closing day, I grabbed the 20ga, a pocketful of shells, and Iggy to race over and sit by the hog pond.  We jumped a single wood duck off the pond when we arrived, but I was confident birds would be riding in as the clouds were building in thick.  I was partially correct.  The wood ducks came pouring in, sure enough, but only about 20 minutes after the end of legal shooting light.

Iggy whined at my side, as I sat and watched them dump into the pond, one after another, until it was too dark to see them anymore.

Next year…

Duck Season… At Last!

November 13, 2016

All Geared Up Last year, duck season kind of rolled around and caught me unprepared.  I was also, to be honest, less than motivated.  We had plenty of rainy, grey days, but it was way too warm to get very excited about duck hunting.  Worse, it stayed warm all season.

On top of that, I still didn’t really know any good places to go.  It was my first season being back in NC, and over the 20 years since I moved away, development pretty much swallowed up most of my old hunting areas.  The places on the bigger water, along the Cape Fear pretty much require a motor boat, which I did not have.  The old, freighter canoe and the kayaks are OK for some things, but beating against a 5 to 7 knot current gets a little tiring.  I’m not the young man I once was, and I’m in nowhere near the physical condition I was in 20 years ago.

I’ve remedied some of that with the addition of a motor for the canoe.  This has given me mobility in a very shallow-draft boat, and I’ve been able to get out and do some exploring in the local waters, both the Neuse and the Northeast Cape Fear.  It’s also been a little chillier the past week, and despite the bright, blue skies, I was pretty fired up to get out on the opener.

It’s still early in the season, and up until this weekend, the temps have mostly stayed pretty warm.  I didn’t have really high hopes yesterday morning, but figured some of the local wood ducks would give me some action.  They did, but unfortunately, the action was to buzz by in the first shooting light, and then go on down and light around the river bend.  I never even pulled the trigger.

I have also been really looking forward to getting in a full season with my new(ish), CZ Bobwhite.  I’d been wanting a 20ga SxS for quite some time, and Kat hooked me up for my birthday last year.  I didn’t really get a lot of use out of it last season, though.  I had been a bit concerned because the gun tended to be very difficult to break open after a shot.  At first, I wrote it off to just being stiff and new, but it didn’t really feel that way.  During dove season this year, I killed a few birds, but had to pretty much break the action over my knee every time.

When I finally broke down and took a closer look, I could see a drag mark across the primer.  That’s a pretty good indication that the firing pin is either sticking, or over-protruding.  I considered trying to fix it myself, but decided against the risk of damage, and contacted CZ-USA about getting it repaired under warranty.  They told me to fill out the form (a quick process), then they sent me a repair authorization and a shipping label.  The standard turn-around time for warranty work is four to six weeks, but the rep I spoke to said it’s usually much quicker.  We’ll see.  FedEx picked it up on Friday, and I’m hoping to have it back by the time the duck season gets rolling in earnest.

R. M. Ducks?Iggy, by the way, was pretty excited about the season opener as well.  He’s not a big fan of doves, and usually spits them out when he gets close to me.  Ducks, though… well, he hasn’t had a ton of opportunity, but when he has retrieved ducks, I can see that he’s in his element.  I’m hoping the birds will come on down this season, so he’ll have plenty of chances to do his thing.

Morning In The Swamp

January 12, 2016

No matter how hard you wish it, a hooded merganser will not morph into a wood duck.

I tried, though.  The three mergansers zipped into the decoys just after legal shoot time, but the shadows linger in the edges of the river swamp so I couldn’t get a bead on them when they landed.  They came in low over the water, and skidded across the slick surface with that soft, swooshing sound.  I could see the wake as they coasted to a stop, but between the dim light and the intertwining branches, I couldn’t tell what they were.  A low approach like that usually indicates diving ducks, but all I’d ever seen in this stretch of the Northeast Cape Fear had been woodies.

The trio motored toward the decoy spread, silently cruising across the inky water, and as they broke into the open, there was no mistaking the big, white sail on the drake’s head.  I blinked my eyes, hoping that they were just playing tricks.  This had to be a wood duck.  I really wanted it to be a wood duck.  I needed it to be a wood duck.

But it was still a hooded merganser, as were the two hens sailing along behind him.

They put on a show for me, paddling around in the decoys, ducking and dodging.  The drake stretched his neck and lifted his boldly striped breast up out of the water, showing off his full glory.  It was a display that any wildlife artist would give an eyetooth to capture in oils or watercolors.  But all I could think was, “why can’t you be a wood duck?”

The plastic ducks floating still on the water must have become boring, and the three mergansers paddled on upstream a bit.  About 40 or 50 yards away, where the little cut opened into a pond, they idled away the morning.  The sun rolled up over the cypress trees, painting the sky with that magical palette that rewards the early-morning outdoorsman.  For a moment or two, I really wished I’d brought the camera.

But then I caught a glimpse of the mergansers at the edge of the swamp, and forgot about the scenery playing out along the treeline.  I squinted my eyes, peering through the tangled cat claw vines and hanging cypress branches.  Was that a white-feathered head, or was that the topknot of a wood duck?  I knew the answer before the question, but that didn’t dim the wistful thoughts.

If that were a wood duck, how would I get the shot?  I could slip over the side of the canoe into the shallow water.  I could sneak along the edge of the cat claws, up to the trunk of that big cypress.  Then I could step out, and as the duck launched himself into the air, I would give him a few feet and then, “BANG!”  I’d let the little 20 gauge speak death.

But it wasn’t a wood duck.  It would never be a wood duck.  I do not possess the magic to turn a hooded merganser into a wood duck.  So it remained a hooded merganser.

Finally, the three birds decided it was time to find something else to do… maybe go find some fish to eat or something… and they took off in that low, skipping, diving duck way.  They came across the opening in front of my hiding place, streaking by in a telltale flash of black and white that tells the experienced waterfowler, “fish duck, don’t shoot.”

It would have been a beautiful shot, if they had been wood ducks.  I’m pretty sure I could have made the single, and probably could have taken a hen too.  But I don’t eat mergansers, so I don’t shoot mergansers.

If only they had been wood ducks.

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