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…


2 Responses to “Duck Season Swan Song”

  1. Duck Season Swan Song | on January 29th, 2018 15:57

    […] Duck Season Swan Song […]

  2. John on January 30th, 2018 18:46

    You write brilliantly. Damn you.