Tried, True & New: Game Land Waterfowling

Tried, True & New: Game Land Waterfowling

Waterfowling can be an expensive sport, but hunters who study state and federal impoundments can find some quality hunting for budget rates. (Novemeber 2008).

Brent Sullivan shows the results of a successful hunt at a commission game land impoundment in the northeastern part of the state (Goose Creek Impoundment). Sullivan has a bag of widgeons and ringnecks.

Photo by Mike Marsh.

At one time or another, most of North Carolina's waterfowl hunters visit public game lands or wildlife refuges. Some have their initiations into waterfowl hunting at these public game areas and after learning all they can, go on to graduate to hunting other large bodies of water, private ponds and other places with fewer restrictions on times and dates they can hunt than public impoundments. Some only hunt a few days per season at an impoundment near their homes or, drawing a couple of lottery permits for far away impoundments, they participate only those days of hunting before calling it a season.

Still others take pleasure in hunting at as many different public game lands as possible. One hunter, who falls into the latter group of adventurous waterfowl enthusiasts, should come as no surprise: He is Doug Howell, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission's waterfowl biologist.

"Our impoundments fall into several categories as far as the type of habitat management and hunter management plans go," he said. "One impoundment area may even have several different units with different types of management."

As an example of the different types of habitat management, Howell detailed the management at J. Morgan Futch Game Land. The 600-acre commission game land is located in Tyrrell County and consists of a system of ditches and water control structures.

"Several units at Futch used to be commercial catfish ponds," Howell said. "They are ideal for management as an aquatic unit. They are flooded all year 'round and produce aquatic plants utilized by waterfowl, such as sago pondweed. Some aquatic impoundments also have other aquatics, such as widgeon grass."

The second type of habitat management consists of moist soils management units. In moist soils management, water is held up within the root systems of wetlands plants naturally utilized by waterfowl. Once the growing season is finished, these units are flooded to provide feeding conditions for waterfowl.

"With moist soils management units, we are trying to promote species of plants that have tubers, seeds or other plant parts, which are beneficial to ducks," Howell said. "Smartweeds, sedges, grasses and rushes are the important seed producers. If you were to let the soils dry out, you would get different types of plants, such as old field species like broom sedge and cattails that are not beneficial to waterfowl."

The third type of habitat management consists of agricultural plantings that are flooded in the fall and winter. This is the most expensive and intensive type of management. Few areas that have wetland and flooding capabilities are actually available for this type of management. The types of soils available with the potential for flooding with water after planting can also prohibit this type of management, because they do not support the growth of cereal grains, such as corn, millet or grain sorghum.

"The kinds of management we conduct on any property depend upon how much control we have over the water," Howell said. "We look at whether we can get enough water on a certain area and whether the soils will hold water. In many of the places we've purchased, there were existing ditches in place and all we had to do was put water control structures in place. Others required more extensive modifications, including the addition of pumping systems and wells."

Howell said perhaps more important to having quality hunting than habitat management is hunter management. The commission has several different types of management options. The least restrictive is a six-day-per-week game land without posted waterfowl impoundments (or at least six-day-per-week hunting allowed outside the areas of posted waterfowl impoundments). The management menu is complicated and subject to change every season, so hunters should always consult current regulations for the particular impoundment they would like to hunt.

Permit hunts are increasingly taking over, where once many years ago, many impoundments could be hunted without permits.

"An example of a generally open hunting area is Gull Rock," Howell said. "It is a six-day-per-week game land. Hunting outside the posted Gull Rock impoundments is therefore open six days a week. But in the impoundments, the hunting is more restricted. We control access inside the impoundments to keep hunter competition down, as well as to prevent the waterfowl from leaving the impoundment due to excessive disturbance. Another thing we've done to minimize disturbance is to limit scouting and install observation platforms hunters can use at many of our impoundments to prevent hunters from disturbing birds on non-hunting days."

All posted waterfowl impoundments have special rules, such as times of entry and departure and prohibitions on the use of motors. Parking areas are designated and certain roadways are typically blocked to prevent vehicles from alarming waterfowl on hunting days. These rules are in the regulations digest, on the draw permits issued to successful applicants and are also posted at each impoundment.

In contrast to areas that are open to waterfowl hunting on all hunting days, there are others open to waterfowl hunting only by special permit. These permits are awarded on a lottery basis, with the deadline for the early-season hunts of Sept. 1 and for late-season hunts of Oct. 1. Permit applications are available at license dealers, by mail or by telephone. Hunters should read the Special Hunt Opportunities booklet for available hunts and details on the application procedures.

In between the generally open category and permit-only category are those impoundments that have permit days, general entry days and those that require a simple point of sale entry permit for the entire season.

"J. Morgan Futch is one of the most restrictive access, permit-only areas," Howell said. "In that particular area, we felt that disturbance or over-hunting would be a problem and would not provide the quality experience hunters want. Some other permit-only waterfowl areas include North River Game Land, Currituck Banks and Currituck NWR, Mattamuskeet NWR, Roanoke River Game Land, Lantern Acres Game Land, Rhodes Pond Game Land and Suggs Millpond Game Land. Most of the impoundments we've established in the last five years fall into that category, and those we add in the future will likely continue to be in that category."

Restrictions on access are through hunter quotas for specific hunting dates and permits have occurred largely because hunters have requested them. Too much crowding is not conducive to quality hunting. Over the last few seasons, even the number of hunt dates for most permit-only impoundments have gotten more restrictive with three-day-per-week game lands now reduced to two-day-per-week hunting.

"There were also complaints of hunters bunching up," Howell said. "We're trying to listen to folks to alleviate some of these concerns and problems. We control this situation not only by the number of permits issued, we've also broken up some of the impoundments into subunits, so hunters must specify which unit they wish to hunt on their permit applications."

Impoundments with subunits are mostly coastal impoundments, including Goose Creek, North River, Futch and Suggs Millpond. But some of them are also in the Piedmont.

Goose Creek and Campbells Creek impoundments are hunted Tuesdays, Saturdays and some holidays. Goose Creek is one of the only impoundments with an open day on Tuesday and a permit day on Saturday and holidays. Holly Shelter and Gull Rock game land impoundments are hunted only on Tuesdays, Saturdays and holidays and have no permit restrictions.

White Oak River was recently designated as a permit hunting area for the entire season, except for the Huggins Tract, which has a quota, but the permits are issued at point of sale rather than by lottery.

Stone's Creek Game Land will have waterfowl impoundment rules for the first time this season, but no permits. Holly Shelter's impoundments will have no permit or quota restrictions. The waterfowl areas on these game lands will be open for hunting Tuesdays, Saturdays and holidays.

Currituck Banks Game Land has four blinds on property owned by the commission. The blinds are Water Lily, Spot, Parkers Bay and Southeast Island. There are also nine blinds at Currituck NWR under the same permit management as the commission blinds.

"We administer the Currituck NWR hunts just as we administer the Mattamuskeet NWR hunts," Howell said. "You can bring two guests if you are drawn and there is a standby list for blinds in the event someone doesn't show up for their hunting date. The check-in station is at Knotts Island Market. At Currituck, we don't advise people to come without being properly equipped, and there is a check-in at Mattamuskeet and Currituck. At Currituck, a lot of guides go for those open blinds. At Mattamuskeet, there is usually a waiting list the morning of any hunt."

Howell said the Currituck hunts are among the most difficult in terms of access. The water is shallow, muddy and the water level declines during a north wind.

"It's a tough place to hunt if you are not familiar with the area," he said. "It's no place for a 16-foot johnboat with a 25-horsepower motor. You need at least a 17- to 20-foot shallow draft skiff. It's big water and some places are a 30-minute ride. Spot and Water Lily are fairly easy to access. But I've had some interesting times getting to Parkers Bay and Southeast Island. We provide GPS coordinates for all the Currituck blinds. They are all brushed blinds and are comfortable once you get to them."

White Oak River Game Land must be accessed by boat. Some of the closer impoundments to the launching areas can be reached with small boats. But the larger water body areas, such as the Pamlico Point impoundment, must be accessed with at least a 20-foot boat. Other impoundments that require boats include Campbell's Creek, the Horseshoe Lake unit at Suggs Millpond and Rhodes Pond, where internal combustion motors are prohibited. Along the Roanoke River, some parts of the bottomlands away from the impoundments can be accessed by boat. North River Game Land has a waterfowl impoundment that has easy access and is under permit management.

In the Piedmont, Jordan and Harris are not impoundments per se, but are large lakes managed subject to the commission's impoundment rules with no permits required. Jordan is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and some holidays, and Harris is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and some holidays.

Butner Falls is open three days per week. It has some walk-in areas open for general hunting and a few permit areas. Knap of Reed, Brickhouse Road, Little River, Patterson Road and Highway 98 units are open to general hunting with no permits required, while Beaver Dam, Flat River, Butner Depot and Bluff units require permits.

Jordan and Harris are large lakes. They require no quotas or permits for hunting but are limited to hunting three days per week. Jordan hunts are restricted to Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and holidays. Harris hunts are restricted to Tuesdays, Fridays and holidays. Caswell Game Land had one small impoundment. But a new one will be open for the first time this season. The Brumly impoundment should create more opportunity for Caswell hunters. Caswell has permit-only waterfowl hunts.

Second Creek Game Land in Rowan County has permit hunts. It has a small impoundment and all waterfowl hunting is restricted to the impoundment except for Canada goose hunting.

"Everyone should read the game lands descriptions to become thoroughly familiar with the area before they go hunting," Howell said. "If you arrive without the proper equipment for the conditions, you're going to have a difficult or impossible hunt. Most of the impoundments have marked hunter crossings. Some require a small boat or wheeled transport of some type if you want to carry lots of decoys. I only carry four decoys when I hunt impoundments. An important piece of equipment most hunters don't bring is a walking stick, especially if you don't have a dog. You get excited chasing a duck and step into a hole or deep mud and your hunt can end. I use a stick to probe the bottom and for balance. Know your ducks, don't shoot at them too far away and don't use a call much, if at all."

Howell said hunters should be also aware of water levels. Last season's drought led the commission to provide details on impoundment conditions. Sometimes a hurricane floods an impoundment or damages dikes. When necessary, such water level information is provided on the commission's Web site.

Dale Davis, the commission's Northern Coastal Management biologist was very excited about Lantern Acres Game Land waterfowl impoundment in Tyrrell County. The fact that it adjoins Pocosin Lakes NWR is one of the reasons. He provided more detail of his favorite impoundments in the northeast.

"The Lantern Acres impoundment was completed in 2007," Davis said. "It was completed through a NAWCA (North American Wetland Conservation Act) grant. Ducks Unlimited and the commission did the engineering. It has two sub-impound­ments, each 100 acres in size, but treated as one unit in the drawing."

Lantern Acres impoundment has canals and a well for a supplemental water source. Some bottom was planted in millet last year, but most is managed for moist soils. Nothing was planted for this year, but some of the millet planted last year has regen

erated.

"We acquired Lantern Acres from Farmers Home Administration about 15 years ago," Davis said. "It was a farm that went bankrupt. It had a ditch system, so it was ideal for waterfowl habitat. Since it is close to the refuge, there should be swans and perhaps even snow geese utilizing the impoundment. There are also lots of wood ducks."

Davis also said Lantern Acres and Roanoke River's Conoho Farms impoundment units A and B have good foot access. Hunters who receive permits to hunt Roanoke impoundments can also hunt the swamps beyond the dikes, if water conditions allow.

"Gull Rock is another impoundment some people don't think about, but it can have some good hunting," Davis said. "It's managed on rotation, with three years of aquatics before it is transferred into moist soils management. Some years it's a good place for swans. When nearby private impoundments are hunted, hunts at Gull Rock can be excellent because the birds move to the game land. The impoundment is 300 acres and it's one of the few impoundments where no permit is required and has two-day-per-week hunting.

Like Lantern Acres, Gull Rock benefited from NAWCA funds last year. It should provide even better hunting because of the new work that was done.

"We installed a series of new water-control structures and pumping equipment that allow us to more easily drain and flood the area and re-circulate the water in the impoundment," Davis said. "We can also flood new areas on the other side of the road. We once planted some grain crops but found that a high salt content in the soil prohibits agriculture."

For a complete list and hunt details of commission impoundments, hunters should visit www.ncwildlife.org, and obtain a regulations digest and a Special Hunt Opportunities booklet.

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