Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Week for the Ducks, the second half


 It's truly a land held in by water, these inner islands and peninsulas and lowlands of Northeastern North Carolina.

Through Creswell and across the Albemarle.  Past Hertford and over the Perquimans.  Around Elizabeth City and over the Pasquotank.  Into Virginia, and then across the Northwest River, followed by the North Landing River.  Down the narrow peninsula with Back Bay and Virginia's outer banks to the East.  Back down, across the border again, rolling down NC 615, through Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, and onto Knotts Island, jutting out into the Currituck Sound.  We are there. 



Well, we got there, but a day early.  


...


This was the second year we've been flying by the seat of our pants for one of our draw hunts.  Last year, we found ourselves not knowing where we could stay after scouting Goose Creek Game Land.  That year, we stumbled upon the Bayboro House Hotel, and luckily there was room for the three of us.  This year, like last year, we hadn't called ahead to reserve a place to stay... and we didn't really know what all our lodging options were.  

By around 4 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, we made it to the Knotts Island Market.  We'd check in there with the game warden the morning of the hunt, around 4:45 AM.  After talking to the girls at the register, we continued south down NC 615.  They'd suggested Barnes Lodge, almost right beside the Currituck-Knotts Island Ferry.  We pulled up in the dark, unsure we were at the right place.  For all we could tell, we'd pulled three trucks, one hauling a boat, into a random yard.  Across the way, was what looked like a bar.  More of a backyard bar added on to someone's home.  A few neon lights, a TV visible through the windows, and some palm trees outside.  Three guys in camo sat at the bar inside.  Edwin and I walked in, and introduced ourselves.  This was Mr. Barnes's son's backyard bar.  His dad was the lodge owner across the gravel driveway.  Walk on over and knock on the door, Barnes's son said, he didn't think anyone was staying that night.  We did, and sure enough, after talking Mr. Barnes and his wife, we had a place to stay.  A well furnished lodge at that.  Sure beats sleeping in the truck. 

We were the only guys there.  It was a decently sized place, and we had it all to ourselves.  The 82 year old Mr. Barnes, who grew up in the house, reckoned it had been built in the late 1800s.  After settling in, we drove back to the store, got some microwave pizza and macaroni for dinner since the grill was closed, returning just in time for the Carolina basketball game followed by some good bourbon and cards.  









The next morning was early.  But when we arrived at the market around a quarter till 5, all we saw was the sheriff.  We soon learned that we were a day early. 

 Woops.  

So it was back to bed for a while.  But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  We were able to better scout the area, assessing how the wind-influenced tides looked.  We were able to explore Mackay Island Refuge a bit, watching ducks and geese and tundra swans.  We soaked in the sights and sounds and smells of one the first settled areas of North Carolina.  And after a few laughs from Mr. Barnes (he had heard about our blunder from the Sheriff), we learned that he'd rent us a blind for a great deal.  









Unfortunately Edwin had to head back to Raleigh, but I called up my brother to see if he could fill in the next morning, Friday, so he drove up from Wilson.  

...

Feeling good that we had the date right this time, we checked in with the warden in the morning dark.  We drove to the put-in on Brumley Road and loaded the boat.  Thankfully the sound looked fairly docile.   Cutting through the breeze and light chop, we pointed east, towards the marsh of tidal ponds and creeks in-between Knotts Island and Carova Beach.  Due to the tide, the largely fresh but still brackish water was low no more than 2 feet deep, much of the water pushed towards the south by the wind.  We crawled along, the outboard idling, but we still reached our blind with more than enough time to set out the decoys, make plenty of adjustments, and hide the boat.  We'd made it.  I hadn't hunted the Currituck Sound in four years.  It was good to be back.

Maybe 20 minutes before shooting time big ducks were all over.  "Shh, look, pintails!"  "Listen, mallards." And black ducks, and widgeon, and gadwall, and teal too.  But shooting time came, thirty minutes before sunrise, and the amount of avian activity slumped...

It wasn't as cold as we would've liked... maybe mid 40's, but feeling cooler with the windchill.  It wasn't as cloudy as we would've liked.  But we had a decent breeze for a while, blowing out of the direction we wanted it to.  As far as picking shots, this wasn't a hunt where you are picky with your birds.  You take what you can get.  You've got to be able to reach out to birds sometimes, too.  On that big water, the birds are often a bit wary after dodging steel all down the coast.  They don't always giving you that picture perfect decoying shot at 25 yards.  













But we did pretty well for less than ducky conditions.  We were able to pick off a few pairs and singles.  We'll take it.  It's not all about the numbers, but we kept the double digit streak alive for our public land hunts.  

I'm forever drawn back to this part of our state.  There's so much history here.  It's a quite a thing to shoot over a body of water that has been hunted for several hundred years, with sportsmen coming from all over to experience a Currituck duck hunt. There's a specialness that you can't find in all the concrete and urban sprawl of Raleigh and Durham and Greensboro and Winston and Charlotte.  Most importantly, there are people like Mr. Barnes, who took in a few duck hunters with no place to stay, lighting a fire, and saying "welcome boys, glad y'all are here."  





Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Week for the Ducks, the first half


The week truly began a day early.  Not Sunday the 18th, but Saturday the 17th. Opening day of the final split of duck season.

Two buddies, my brother, and I rode through the dark to a local stickpond, not more than 15 minutes away.  It wasn't bone-chilling cold, but it was cool, and it was cloudy, with a thick, low, ceiling.  We didn't grab many decoys, just a handful of wood ducks and a few mallards and we headed down to the swamp.

You sense your way through the dark, through the briars and pines, gradually losing elevation, a slow drop down into a Eastern Carolina version of a valley, a creek bed, dammed up by beavers or the remnants of an old millpond dam, long overgrown, as the wild slowly reclaims what it always truly owned.  You think about how the birds have flown before, the direction from which the sun will be rising, the direction the wind is blowing (as it hopefully is), and you throw out the decoys based on that rough calculation.  It's all all part of the strategy, of the small adjustments you can make while duck hunting that make the sport forever exciting, forever rewarding - much like changing flies, changing weight, or changing tippet size while trout fishing.





It's not a long shoot, a typical Carolina swamp hunt for the most part - largely wood ducks - but also a non-typical Gadwall that sees the decoys and plummets down out of the stratosphere, wings locked.  A nice bonus for sure.  Then it's off to Flo's Kitchen for biscuits almost the size of your head.

...


Sunday goes on its way, and Monday shows up.  Now the truck's pointed further east, towards Creswell in Tyrrell County.  We've got a public land draw hunt at Lantern Acres Game Lands.  These draw hunts are a great thing.  Two other friends and I have lucked into at least one draw hunt every year for the last three years, and they are certainly worth the five bucks per game land or wildlife refuge to throw your name in the hat.  Too, they're a time when some high school buddies can catch up, escape school or work, and narrow life down to the bare bones, to some whiskey and a fire and some ducky-spitting rain and some thick mud and a lot of hard work to get on the birds.



You've got to love it when your predication about how the birds will work pans out just how you planned.  It's not just dumb luck.  It's covering the whole impoundment on foot before the hunt.  It's observing the birds the day before, what they like and don't like - especially what they're wary of.  It's a 3:30 AM wake up, even though you're staying a mere five minutes from the place, to get there first - there are no assigned blinds, it's a free for all.  It's hauling more than 100 decoys down a dike several hundred yards from the truck, then all the way across the impoundment.  You hope you're working down the correct cut through the impoundment in the dark.  

These draw hunts over the years have been a learning experience.  Wheels are essential.  Taking the weight of guns and shells and blind bags off your back saves you, freeing up strength to haul more decoys.  My little red wagon lives on.  We even saw a guy, who got there after us, zip along on a Segway.  





It's a competition.  Once shooting time begins, 6:42, it's competing for birds.  It's doing your best to convince those birds to come land in your spread, and not the other guy's. That's when hauling those decoys was all worth it.  Sweating through your long underwear and flannel shirts and jeans and jackets all under waders.  Just to have a larger spread than the other guys.  Not only a larger spread, but a smarter one too. You pay attention to the wind.  You group by species - ringnecks, mallards, pintails, widgeon, a lone bufflehead.  You leave pockets where birds can land.  

Our spot is ideal.  A pine island, covered by reeds and briars and brush, with open water pockets in front and behind, before tightening up with native aquatic vegetation and some Jap millet.  It's not cool like Saturday.  This day it's cold, low 30's, made colder by spitting rain where the damp sets into everything you've got on.  And with the rain and clouds, the birds are flying low.  

We expected more wood ducks.  We shot not a single one.  Instead, we were graced with hundreds of ringnecks, arriving in waves.  To put it simply - we could've limited out with 18 birds by 7:30.  Instead, we passed on some groups, groups so low and close it took all the willpower we had to not shoot.  We hoped for some big ducks.  Thankfully for us, our gamble paid off.  We picked off singles and several pairs, adding a drake black duck, some gadwall, and some widgeon to the bag.  

I'm not saying we're duck snobs.  We all love ringnecks.  They decoy like a charm.  They're fast as hell.  And like any duck, they can taste great. But on that day, that morning, it was worth passing on a few blackjacks to be able to take those other birds. 



We picked up around 10:30, having reached out limit, and hauled all our gear and birds back to the truck.  We worked our tails off, but that's what makes it all so rewarding.  It's no easy game hunting on public lands, even on those that require permits.  Birds don't come without a little sweat.  So we packed up the truck, rolled into Columbia, and had a hot meal at the China King.  



You know you're in the right place when you don't get too many surprised looks as you walk into a restaurant wearing waders, and charcoal from a burnt wine cork smudged all over your face for camouflage.  

Our next draw hunt was a few days later, up on the Currituck Sound.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Fall


Thanks to graduate school applications, LSAT studying, other so-called "real world" commitments, and an interruption from Hurricane Matthew, 
the fall hasn't yielded quite as much time in the woods or on the water as I would've liked.  But I have fit in a few trips.  Don't you worry.  



...

Fall will forever be one of my favorite times of year at the coast.  That salt air is starting to get cool and crisp, pleasant to breathe in through your nose.  The Intracoastal and creeks and tidal ponds start to clear up, the summer's muddiness fading away.  The Spartina grass begins to lose its summer green, now turning almost gold, leaving the salt marsh looking like fields of wheat.  There is a feeling of quiet, of solitude, of peace, when you are out in the marsh, letting the tide push you further into the maze of winding creeks, hoping to shoot a marsh hen, or, if you've traded the shotgun for a fishing rod, on the ready to cast to a feeding redfish or speckled trout.  







If not the coast, then you can haul to the mountains, to work on some trout (The mountains in the fall aren't too bad either).  And the trout might be pesky, sluggish, and down way-too-deep, thanks to some low and slow water, and you might only bring one eight to ten incher to the net.  


Damn I miss Wyoming.  But while North Carolina trout fishing isn't always quite like fishing "out west", it's rewarding just the same.  

That's what hunting and fishing is all about anyway.  A chance to get out there, wherever there is, with good people, and decompress and just breathe it all in.  The story is more of the same, but that's not always a bad thing.

And now, thankfully, the third split of Carolina's duck season is just around the corner.