Sunday, January 28, 2007

Final Serenade - 1/27/06 Waterfowl Hunt

It's usually a bittersweet day. As much as I love to hunt, there's always a little bit of joy in the ending of the season. It started back in September with doves, then geese and bow hunting whitetails. Now that I think about it, it started much earlier if you count preparing stand locations, working on food plots, turkey hunting back in April---good grief, this hunting business is hard work! And don't get me started on fishing...
We decided to finish up at one of Mark W.'s favorite lakes. Keith W. was on board and my youngest boy, Zane, was gonna make his inaugural waterfowl trip. After gathering all our accouterments (and a ton of snacks) Zane and I picked up Keith and headed to meet Mark at the lake. Mark had already launched his skiff, procured a location, set out his decoys and was returning to pick us up when we arrived. Don't you love hunting with guys like that?
It was a windy afternoon so when we got to our spot several decoys needed to be relocated. Zane got a real kick out of seeing the fake ducks being thrown into the water and was ecstatic to get to throw one himself. Set modifications complete, we headed to the blind.
We'd only been sitting down a minute or so when Zane remembered the brown sack in my blind bag carrying all the goodies. "Daddy, I'm hungry," he said staring in the direction of my bag. Out came the oatmeal cookies, goldfish (not your run of the mill hunting snack), pretzels and peanut butter crackers. Bottled water and apple juice were next, followed by some Christmas candy that had somehow survived the holidays. I was stumped as to where in the world Zane was putting it all but he had substantial reinforcements in the three grown men hunting with him and soon all our groceries (other than the pretzels he'd spilled on the ground) were gone.
Bellies full, or at least temporarily sated, it was time to hunt. Low lying clouds drifted east covering the setting sun and transforming our setting to ideal conditions. Several groups of mallards worked off to the south, circling and landing in an adjacent swamp, heading for shelter from the impending front. One flock of four birds headed toward us, but turned away at the last minute. It was sizing up as a good afternoon, then the action died.
Me and my little buddy decided to take a little walk. Actually this was a defensive tactic to keep him from driving both Keith and Mark crazy. Zane wanted to go sit in the skiff but we "explored" the woods a bit, checking things out but primarily stretching four-year-old legs. The minute we returned to the blind I noticed Mark standing at attention and Keith peering through the branches of a pine tree he was hiding behind. As if on cue they both shouldered their shotguns and fired simultaneously. When the smoke cleared we looked across lake and there were two ducks floating in the current. Actually, one was swimming in haphazard spirals just beneath the current, another shot of number 2's finished him off. Mark headed toward the skiff, with Zane in tow to retrieve their bounty.
They made quick work of it and were back in a snap, two ruddy ducks in hand, both "boys" grinning from ear to ear. These turned out to be the only ducks within range, the season ending very much like it had started. We packed it up, jumped into the boat and rode back to our trucks in the semi-darkness.
Although we didn't connect with many ducks it was a wonderful hunting adventure. My little boy had a blast, I got to spend time with good friends and we were blessed with another safe hunt. We left the lake, grateful for the afternoon, each other and the opportunity to enjoy a bit of the Creator's handiwork. Until next time....

You want to know what kind of friends you have? Take your children hunting with them and see how they respond. Mark and Keith were very patient and kind to Zane, treating him like one of their own.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Finally Wearing Wool - 1.20.07 Afternoon Waterfowl

Wouldn't you know it. Less than two weeks left in the season and we finally had some cold temperatures. Three days of winter weather had some ducks giving up their northern abodes and following the flyway into Carolina. Important family duties, namely cooking waffles for two little boys, holding my baby girl and laying on the couch with my wife, kept me from the morning hunt. Mark W. picked me up at twelve-thirty and we met Keith H. at his house at one. Skies were baby blue, with a few clouds but the wind was blowing pretty good, promising the decoys would be dancing on the water.
An hour later we were heading across the lake in Mark's skiff, eyes watering as cold air assaulted exposed flesh. Luckily it was a short boat ride. After setting out a load of decoys, under Mark's seasoned scrutiny, we piled into the blind. Guns were loaded, fask masks donned and gear was stowed in its proper location.
Keith pulled out a bag of beef jerky and some other snacks and passed them around. Making small talk and picking on one another helped passed the time. There aren't many places on earth more comfortable than a January duck blind shared with good friends.
After a while my legs needed stretching so I left the blind and walked around a bit in woods adjacent to the lake. Deer and turkey sign seemed everywhere and although I didn't have permission to deer hunt this property and the season ended three weeks ago anyway, I found myself looking at possible locations to hang a bow stand. I guess old habits are hard to break. As I was admiring a huge, ancient oak several shots rang out, coming from the direction of my buddies hiding spot. Dagnabit! I'm out on a hike and wouldn't you know it, ducks show up.
I hurried back to the blind to find Mark out in the skiff, picking dead birds up, and Keith standing on the bank with a big, goofy grin on his face. Apparently two different flocks, one ringnecks the other bluebills, had come into the blocks, catching the mighty hunters unaware. Somehow they'd connected on two birds. Of course they were disappointed in their shooting but both felt fortunate to have ducks in the hand. I had a hard time feeling sorry for them!
The sun followed it's course and the hunt ended with no other ducks being spotted. We pulled up our stakes and started picking up decoys. Of course a large flock of bluebills flew right at us, trying to land among the blocks even with the boat and three hunters sitting in the way, circling once, then again before flying off. It was a quick ride back to the ramp. I pulled down my wool cap over my ears and tucked my chin down into my coat. This was what duck hunting was supposed to feel like.

Note: Make sure you're aware of the sunrise/sunset time. On this hunt we left the blind twenty minutes too soon because we didn't want to hunt after LST. IF we had known sunset time we probably would have gotten a shot at that final flock of bluebills.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Surf's Up - 1.16.07 Waterfowl Hunt

It wasn't an environment I was used to hunting in. Well, there was water and there was muck and reeds and, hopefully, ducks so it wasn't that strange but to hunt waterfowl in North Carolina's Pamlico Sound, with gulls screaming, windy salt spray slapping my face and the crashing rumble of currents assaulting the shoreline.
After dropping me off on a small island, my guide, Joey Van Dyke, of Diamond Shoals Guide Service, put out four long lines of blue bill decoys the my right and two lines of surf scooter blocks to my left and drifted his skiff back into the bay, out of sight. Instead of using a dog to retrieve downed ducks Joey handed me a small, two-way radio and advised me to call him and he would use the boat to pick them up.
Rather than a layout boat or blind I would be hunting "redneck style," simply lying on the ground next to the shoreline. I started out fifteen yards from the breaking waves, trying to camouflage myself in some reeds. Barely five minutes after legal shooting time three sea ducks, two drakes and a hen scooter, headed right to the decoys. I emptied the magazine of my Benelli but all three birds flew off unscathed. Talk about humbling! A few minutes later two scooters came in. I made three shots but again, nothing dropped. Joey came on the radio and advised me to move closer to the decoys, in fact he wanted me just outside the sprayline. 20 mph gusts were reaking havoc on my shot string and an additional ten yards would make a huge difference.
The move proved a good idea and after the next flight of ducks came by, two were left floating in the ocean, feet up. I spent the better part of two hours, watching birds fly up and down the coast, shooting occasionally and actually killing a duck every now and then. Around ten Joey spoke into the radio and reminded me not to shoot any more sea duck since I had my limit, but to concentrate of divers.
Rain began to fall, so I cinched my hood tightly around my face and watched rain drops drip off my gun barrel. The warmth of my coat and the incoming fog must have put me into some type of trance because I didn't notice a huge flock of bluebills pour into the decoys. I had stuck my hands into the sleeves of my jacket to warm them up a bit (I'd forgotten my waterproof gloves). When I tried to shoulder the gun my right hand got stuck in the elastic cuff making it impossible to pull the trigger. The commotion of my arm flapping as I tried to extract my hand caused the ducks to flare but before they flew off I was able to fire off a shot hitting a beautiful drake and anchoring him five yards from shore. Oh to have had a "do over" on that group of ducks!
That was the last ducks of the morning. As the front moved in and the downpour grew stronger so we decided to call it a day. Joey picked me up, we stowed all the gear and road through the rain to the ramp content with a wonderful day afield and with a good mess of waterfowl laying in the bottom of the boat.

1. Make sure you check with you guide to see what equipments needs you'll have. I made the two mistakes in this regard. One, I was shooting a improved/modified choke but needed a full. Two, a pad of some sort would have come in handy, making me much more comfortable.
2. Take more shotgun shells than you think you'll need. I got a little worried when I got down to 1/2 a box of Kent's. The ducks stopped flying before I ran out of shells but it would have been nice to have the box of Winchesters I had sitting in the floorboard of my truck....
3. One disconcerting moment on this hunt was when I looked up and saw a large fin swimming just outside the decoys. I'd thought it a little silly when my guide said, "Don't wade out there and pick up your dead ducks. Let me do all the retrieving." Even though it was just a pod of dolphin I was more than willing to be compliant!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Putting On Wet Waders - Another 1.15.07 Waterfowl Hunt

After a successful swan hunt I drove to Columbia and headed south down Highway 94. I had permission to hunt a friend's impoundment in Hyde County and since I was meeting a guide near Englehard in the morning there was time to squeeze in an evening hunt near the fabled Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge. My waders were still damp from the morning's adventure when I stepped into the boots and pulled the straps over my shoulders. I grabbed a bag full of decoys (mallards and pintails) and my Benelli and headed toward the water.
With a diagram of the impoundment in my chest pocket, showing me where to set up, I walked toward a white, PVC pipe marking the flooded corn field's entry point. A large heron squawked, announcing my arrival, and lazily retreated to a more private location. My boots sunk six inches into the mucky bottom with each step and I could feel the coolness of the water through my waders. A constant breeze pushed low clouds across my peripheral and caused the fifteen decoys I'd thrown out to dance and dart, lifelike among the canes. I concealed myself in a blind, covered my smile with a camouflage facemask and enjoyed the "ducky" surroundings in which I found myself.
Swans flew across the impoundment and several groups of ducks made their way from somewhere to somewhere else, far too high to be part of the evening activities. A group of three birds came toward the blind, spotted the decoys, heard some soft chuckles from my call and decided the pond was a wonderful place for a visit. Without hesitation they locked up, dropped their landing gear and glided toward my blocks. Suddenly I remembered why I was holding a shotgun and raised it getting off two, quick shots. Two ducks flew away leaving one, a beautiful drake gadwall (my first), lying ten feet from my location. More swans flew over and more ducks but none had intentions of visiting the impoundment.
Thirty minutes before sunset I saw two blurs streak across the top of the water, landing in some weeds along the edge of the water. As I shifted around, trying for a better view, two ducks exploded into the air, apparently startled by my clumsy movement. I picked a target and fired a shot. One bird, a drake wood duck (one of my favorites), splashed into the water, thirty yards away. I walked out, picked him up and placed him on my seat next to the gaddy.
Minutes ticked off my watch and legal shooting time came to a close. I sat in the blind for several minutes, watching the sun dip behind the wooded horizon, thanking God for a memorable hunt.
As I picked up my decoys a pair of woodducks flew over the trees and landed in the impoundment. Noticing the camouflaged stranger moving through the water they jumped simultaneously and flew directly over my head. I grabbed the SuperNova, which was slung across my shoulders, pointed it toward the lead bird and just before pulling the trigger remembered it was past legal hunting time. Of course the ducks circled me again and again, each time closer than the time before, finally deciding they had another engagement elsewhere. I verbally chastised myself and quickly unloaded my gun. No duck was worth my integrity.
As I walked back to the truck several more shots range from adjoining property. Everyone has their price I reckon.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Well, I Swanee - 01.15.07 "Internet" Swan Hunt

"You're going to hunt what?" Several nonhunting friends had asked the same question upon learning about my next outdoor adventure. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission offers a special Tundra Swan hunt as a method of keeping the expanding population in check and "provide significant hunting opportunities." The permits are issued by lottery drawing with only 5,000 people being issued tags. I had a purty, red tag burning a hole in my pocket.
You don't see many swans in the Piedmont, so a place to get a shot at one of those big, white birds was needed. Enter the internet. One of the outdoor-related forums I'm a member of,, just happened to be organizing a get together/swan hunt. Conman's Guide Service in Creswell, NC was hosting the shindig.
I pulled up to Conman's place after dark on Sunday evening. There was a crowd of folks gathered around a large smoker and the smell of grilled meat (turned out to be venison, bear, pig and even some moose) and roasted oysters hung thickly in the air. I felt a little odd walking up, very similar to the new kid on the first day of school feeling, but was welcomed warmly
into the crowd. There was an interesting dynamic to this gathering. As I sat in the group, listening to the conversations and watching the interacting, it struck me how similar this was to every other hunt camp I'd been a part of. These people, most of which had met on an internet forum, were acting like lifelong pals. It was funny to hear grown men refer to each other as their online screen names like Luckybuck and Hawkeye rather than their given names but it was great to see the genuine camaraderie and hear their warm discussions. Plans were made for the
morning and the hunters broke up into small groups and dispersed into several cottages on the grounds. I found my spot, spread out my sleeping bag and laid down for some much needed shuteye.
Morning came several minutes before 5am, plenty of time for donning camouflage, eating some breakfast and downing some coffee. Then it was time to saddle up with 15-20 hunters piling into a modified,camo'ed school bus.
We arrived at the hunt location, one of the largest fields I'd ever seen much less been in, roughly twenty minutes later. The plan was for the hunters to conceal themselves among the reeds within an eight foot drainage ditch parallelling the field and await the arrival of swans.
It was a beautiful, eastern North Carolina morning but we didn't have much time to enjoy it. Only thirty minutes passed before someone shouted, "Here comes some, everyone get down." Straining ears were soon rewarded with the faint "Whoo" of incoming swans. Because we were posted down in the gully it was impossible to see, but each occasional, rhythmic "whoo" was closer than the one before. Soon , just over the crest of the ditch I could make out the black beaks and elongated white necks followed by the streamline bodies and graceful flight of several swans. The huntermaster, Andy, called out "Take 'em" and several shots thundered. At least one bird hit the ground, I didn't fire a shot. Before there was time for celebration another "herd" was spotted heading toward us. Here they came, streaming toward the decoys and toward our ambush spot. This group was coming straight at me. Closer and closer they came until finally they were in range. I picked out a large, adult put, swung my barrel a foot or so in front of it's beak and fired. As the pellets hit
home the swan hesitated and buckled a bit but kept flying. A second shot of BB's found their target knocking the bird from the sky and ending my hunt. The "all-clear" was given and I dragged myself up, out of the ditch, with my quarry, blind bag and shotgun and began my long
trek back to the bus, grateful for a safe, successful hunt. After everyone got their bird we piled back into the camo'ed short bus and headed back to camp. An hour later I was on the road, off on my next Carolina adventure. Driving down highway 94 it stuck me how I'd applied for the permit several months ago, planned this trip back in November, driven almost five hours to get to camp and my hunt was over with just two shots. Aren't the best things in life just like that?

1.To say a tundra swan is big is like saying my granny's buttermilk poundcake tasted "nice". According to the USGS website, adult swans are thirty-six inches long with wingspans of eighty-five inches. Males weigh twenty-eight pounds or more.
2. Success rates at Conman's are unbelievably high. We were 100% with all nineteen hunters scoring a swan.
3. If you're ever fortunate enough to harvest a swan don't forget to affix your permit to your bird, according the printed instructions or complete the attached survey (can be done online).

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Aquatic Trudgery - 1.06.07 Permit Waterfowl Hunt

My buddy, Mark M, and I had scouted out the location a week or so ago, not wanting to go in "blind". Walking into an unknown impoundment at dark-thirty, unsure where you're going and worried about messing up other hunters' plans is not my idea of fun. We'd picked out three, different spots and marked them on a gps. In our two-hour scouting trip we'd spotted a couple dozen ducks giving us high hopes for the hunt.
Since this was a first-come-first-served situation our goal was to arrive at the impoundment by 4am. When we pulled in there were no other cars in the lot and the relief was palpable. Option #1 was ours! As we pulled on waders and got our gear together, we shared the normal, prehunt banter; previous experiences, expectations for the day and, of course, the weather (we were experiencing some abnormally high temperatures for January).
After fifteen minutes of putting off the inevitable and one last check to make sure each had our permits we were off. For about 100 yards it seemed like a good idea to be wearing waders while carrying 50 pounds of stuff. From that point on my mind was contemplating things to leave by the road that could be picked up on the way back out (Did I really need that bottle of water, the folding chair, that shotgun?).
Eventually we reached our destination, put out the few decoys we'd lugged in, stashed all our gear and sat down to a breakfast of peanuts, oatmeal cookies and bottle water.
Twenty minutes or so before legal-shooting-time we assumed our strategic posts. Mark was stationed in a clump of several, small oaks, I was twenty feet to his left, against a large, pine tree. As the sky lightened we began to hear and see quite a bit of avian activity. Five minutes before shooting time a hooded merganser swam into the decoys. A minute or two later another duck of unknown species landed in the blocks. Of course they both disappeared before we could shoot.
I was watching a flock of ducks swing across the horizon but was startled by the report of Mark's Benelli followed by a splash, the first bird of the morning, a woodduck was laying in the water. Then it was my turn, two woodies were making a beeline over the decoys. I swung, lead the lead bird and pulled the trigger. Nada! Before I could make a second shot both birds escaped through the branches above me.
As I was picking up my spent shell and reloading Mark busted another duck, this one a bufflehead. For about twenty minutes there were ducks everywhere but none inside our range. In fact, I lost count of how many landed fifty yards outside the decoys. Man, it was a beautiful, Carolina morning. I found myself wondering how any person could witness the wonder of a color infused sunrise such as this and not believe wholeheartedly in the Creator. Mark interrupted my musing, unloading on a group of bluebills, taking one with his second shot.
I was begining to feel a little left out. My hunting buddy had three in the bag and I had zilch.
A pair of bufflehead streaking across the impoundment was about the change that. I didn't feel the first shot but saw the lead duck drop. Shells two and three were expended on the second bird and it miraculously hesitated, buckled and dropped, coasting to the ground a hundred yards away.
Although we saw more waterfowl no other shots were offered and the rest of the morning was spent making fun of missed shots and enjoying our surroundings. Around eleven o'clock we packed everything up began our journey out. For some reason the walk out seemed much quicker than the walk in. But the temperature had risen considerably making the sight of my truck awaiting our return a sight for sore eyes. With dry clothes on and gear stowed away we left the gamelands with several ducks, a new appreciation for the outdoors and shared memories to last a lifetime.

1. It was discouraging to see the how much trash including fast food wrappers, a breasted out goose carcass, condoms and beer bottles, littering the gameland parking lot, especially with a couple empty trash cans standing nearby.
2. If you're going to walk 3 miles make sure you're only packing necessities.
3. The enjoyment of hunts like this is compounded expodentially when shared with a good friend.
4. Put items you don't want to get wet (e.g. your wife's digital cameras) into ziploc bags. Make sure said ziploc bags are sealed completely after taking pictures of your hunt. If your wife's digital camera gets wet, try removing the batteries and memory card, blowing it out a hair drier, and allowing it to sit for a day or so before attempting to use it.