North Carolina Waterfowl Preview 2017
Try these North Carolina waterfowl hunts for everything from wood ducks to swans.
No matter the waterfowl species you like hunting or where you live, North Carolina has places you can go that will give you the best chance for a successful and satisfying hunt.
Access to places you can shoot a gun and where there arewaterfowl can be the trickiest part.
Drawing a tundra swan tag is not as easy as it once was, with about 80 percent of applicants earning a tag each season compared to the 1980s, when when there were more tags available to hunters than hunters who applied for them. Hunters who are not successful in the lottery now receive a preference point that guarantees they receive tags the following year.
Under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission issues 5,000 tundra swan tags each season. However, approximately 2,500 hunters actually tag a tundra swan. That means they may only apply for them in case they happen to decoy a swan as an incidental bird during hunts for other waterfowl. Some hunters may also acquire a tag, but do not follow through with the effort it takes to bring down waterfowl-hunting’s biggest game. If fewer hunters who are not serious about taking swans applied for tags, it would make the lottery more reliable for those who are truly intent on bagging one.
For example, my wife, Carol, and I, hunted with Conman’s Guide Service during the final Saturday of the season in January 2017. Erik Barrow, a commercial building contractor from Greenville, had also driven to Creswell for the hunt that morning.
“I have been waiting on a buddy to go on a swan hunt all season, but he keeps making up excuses not to go,” Barrow said. “This is the last Saturday, so I finally came by myself, after we applied for tags together as a party hunt.”
Our guides were Andy Hines and “Big” Mike Harris. They had scouted the winter wheat fields near Lake Phelps to find one where the swans were feeding. While some guides use stationary blinds, we hunkered down in a ditch. The tactic works for swans that are wary of hunters and decoys late in the season.
All three hunters and both guides set several dozen oversized swan decoys and Canada goose decoys painted white. We put on chest waders and sat on boards lodged between ditch banks.
“It has been so warm this season, most of the swans have already started flying north,” Harris said. “But, we will stay here as long as it takes for everyone to shoot their swan.”
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Barrow took the first swan at 8:30 a.m. It was a big, white adult bird.
“I didn’t mount my first and only swan, which I shot years ago,” he said. “I will probably mount this one because I don’t know when I will get a chance to hunt swans again.”
It took Carol and me until noon to take our swans. Most mornings, a swan hunt is over in a short time, but it depends upon how many hunters are in a party, whether they take turns instead of shooting multiple birds out of a flock, and the weather. The swans do not fly well in fog, rain or snow.
While most swan hunters use professional guides, other options are available. At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Bodie Island has 20 blind sites hunters can apply for in September. However, hunters can also wait in a standby line every weekday throughout the season. At Bodie Island, swan hunting is mostly a pass-shooting proposition.
Hunters can also apply for 16 blinds at Lake Mattamuskeet through the Commission’s permit hunt program. Odds are long for drawing a blind, but swans are abundant. Hunters can wait in a standby line if any of the hunters who drew waterfowl hunting permits do not show.
At Gull Rock Game Land, the E. Merle Edwards/Loop Road Impoundment holds swans during the latter part of most seasons. It is accessible from several ditch crossovers. The impoundment does not require a lottery permit and is open Tuesdays, Saturdays, designated holidays and opening and closing days.
DUCKS ON THE CAPE FEAR RIVER
The Cape Fear River is an interesting place to hunt waterfowl because it has so many personalities. In the lower stretches, hunters can take just about any duck that migrates along the Atlantic Flyway. However, the lower river has a six-foot tidal range, which is challenging to hunters who do not live nearby and are not familiar with its moods.
The lower river is dangerous to navigate due to metal fouls, rocky areas, sandbars and commercial shipping traffic. It is also large enough that any significant wind makes the river dangerously rough. Several ramps provide access to the lower river, including Dram Tree Park at the City of Wilmington and Commission ramps at Snow’s Cut and Fort Fisher.
A local law prohibits firearms in powerboats on the river in Bladen County until after deer season. I have found that the hunting can be good between the locks and dams, which offer a long, narrow, lake-like experience, when swamps along the river freeze, sending wood ducks to the river. I have also seen or taken other species, including ring-neck, mallard, gadwall, wigeon, teal and Canada geese.
Heavy rains make the Bladen County stretch impossible to hunt because the strong current and high water make setting decoys difficult. Hunters must set up boat blinds in most of this section because most riparian property is private.
Bladen Lakes Game Land has areas where hunters can set decoys or pass shoot on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays without having to apply for special permits. Inside the game land are beaver ponds and greentree impoundments that hold wood ducks, which can be plentiful at times. Other times, they are scarce. Hunters also take a few ring-necks and mallards. It depends upon how much water is in the swamps and how cold the weather becomes. Hunters should scout the game land at dawn and dusk to see where ducks are flying because wood duck hunting is a pass-shooting proposition that only lasts the first 10 minutes of shooting time.
HIGH ROCK, BADIN, TILLERY, BLEWETT FALLS LAKES
These Yadkin River lakes are excellent places to hunt resident and migratory Canada geese. Late in the season, hunters must check the regulations for the season dates for the Southern James Bay Population (SJBP) zone. The SJBP season is usually open in early November, followed by a couple of weeks of closure before re-opening from mid-November through December.
Hunters take many waterfowl species on these lakes, including puddle ducks that include mallard, wood duck, wigeon, gadwall and teal. Various diving ducks are also frequent migrants, including ring-necked duck, scaup, ruddy duck, bufflehead and the occasional goldeneye.
On the more populated lakes with heavy shoreline development, hunters typically set up on or near the islands and shorelines that are part of Uwharrie National Forest and Alcoa Game Land. These places have shoreline cover so hunters can create makeshift blinds among rock outcrops and erosion-felled trees. However, low-water conditions can preclude bank blinds so hunters should also be prepared to hunt from their boats.
The best places to hunt are the upper reaches below the dams. These areas have the shallowest water, which creates areas where puddle ducks and geese can feed. However, that means they also have the most dangerous conditions. Hunters must use caution because rocks can damage lower units.
At times, especially during cold, windy weather, any of these lakes can produce good hunting. Lake Tillery has the most puddle duck feeding areas due to all of its shallows and vegetation beds. Blewett Falls is the most scenic lakes to hunt because it has no shoreline development and, therefore, hunters will not have to endure disturbance from other human activities. The best place to hunt at Blewett Falls is in the Grassy Island area, but ducks may decoy anywhere in the lake.
Hunting these lakes requires a high degree of adaptability. Most hunters use aluminum johnboats with quick set-up blinds so they can move to places where they see waterfowl. Another important tip is having the proper decoy rig. When setting up decoys on points, hunters may need decoy lines more than 40 feet long with weights as heavy as a pound.
CARTERET COUNTY GAME LAND
With all of the blind ordinances in coastal counties that specify distances hunters must be from stationary shore blinds, it is getting more difficult to find places to set up in the sounds and rivers. However, hunters may find a good spot at the two tracts of Carteret County Game Land.
The game land has shoreline on the Newport River near Morehead City and on Pamlico Sound near Turnagain Bay. Hunters can head for these areas with assurance that they can set up their decoys without being too close to a shore blind.
Hunters use boat blinds to hunt this game land. Nearly any brackish marsh duck species may decoy. However, hunters can expect to see a preponderance of lesser scaup, green-winged and blue-winged teal, wigeon, gadwall, redhead, and bufflehead. This game land also has the potential to hold sea ducks.
In the Special Sea Duck Area of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, hunters have noticed a decline in their mainstay species — black or American scoters and surf scoters. Hunters may also see an occasional white-winged scoter or long-tailed duck.
While the number of sea ducks that survive to adulthood (recruitment) has been going down, hunting pressure has increased. While nothing indicates hunters are to blame, the USFWS reduced Atlantic Flyway sea duck seasons from 107 days to 60 days two seasons back, with a decrease in the bag limit from seven birds in combination to five, including no more than four scoters. The lower bag limit will have little effect on North Carolina hunters because scoters make up the 99 percent of the state’s bag.
While the decline for all sea duck species is occurring on a continental basis at the rate of 7 percent per year, the reason for the sea duck decline in the sounds may also be the reason for the decline in waterfowl and habitat at Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes national wildlife refuges. A years-long period of high water caused by excessive rainfall from tropical weather events is holding the water in the sound at an abnormally high level. This hurts the mussel population, and mussels are the primary forage of sea ducks.
My son, Justin, and I hunted sea ducks with Capt. Richard Andrews, of Tar-Pam Guide Service out of Bath. Although the decline in scoter numbers was noticeable, we bagged our limits of scoters.
“The scoters are still here, but are more wary,” Andrews said. “If you are patient, you can still take your limit of sea ducks if you know where to look for them.”
Andrews is developing new techniques to allow him to hunt deeper water than other hunters. As the competition increases, it packs sea duck hunters on the shallower humps in the sounds. Andrews shoots sea ducks with No. 2 and larger steel shot. However, he uses No. 6 steel to finish the cripples.
“You can’t kill a crippled scoter unless you hit it in the brain or spine,” he said. “You need a dense shot pattern to accomplish that, so I keep some of smaller shot ready at all times.”
The Atlantic brant population has also been declining due to shrinking beds of eelgrass. With the population around 3,000 in recent years, the USFWS has been reducing the season length and bag limit. Last season, the bag limit was one brant and the season ran for six weeks in December and January. Hunters must check current regulations before hunting brant because a season closure is possible.
The best place to take brant in North Carolina is Ocracoke Inlet. I have hunted several times with Dempsey Guide Service. Ken Dempsey and his sons maintain several blinds near Ocroacoke Inlet and specialize in pintail, wigeon and other open-water duck species. There are always brant in the area. The brant are more wary, with fewer juveniles in the population. Hunters will have their best shot at this handsome little goose if they hunt with a guide in this area.
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October 31, 2017 at 01:55PM