Harris Lake's Late-Season Ducks
October 04, 2010
If you think the best late-season hunting for North Carolina divers occurs at the coast, guess again. Harris Lake is one of the best places in the state to bag a limit of ring-necked ducks.
John Bohanon, Darrell McCauly and Ralph Jensen bagged these ring-necked ducks during a hunt at Harris Lake. Photo by Mike Marsh
By Mike Marsh
While fishing for largemouth bass on a chilly February day a few years ago, I was amazed at the number of waterfowl I encountered at Harris Lake. The ducks consisted mostly of ring-necked ducks and scaup, but there were also some puddle ducks, such as mallards, using the lake. And there in the mix were flocks of Canada geese.
The waterfowl congealed into flocks both large and small as anglers flushed them. Boats ferrying crappie and bass fishermen to the weedbeds in the backs of the coves would blow up big flocks of divers into flights that were sometimes so thick they looked like smoke clouds billowing out from behind a hill. After buzzing about the main body of the lake for a few minutes or landing and resting on its choppy surface for a couple of hours, the disenfranchised ducks would usually settle down from the indignity of being run off their feeding grounds and return to the same cove from which they had been chased.
Many times, they returned to their feeding areas in spite of red-cheeked anglers wearing brightly colored coveralls, although the anglers were still casting within shotgun range. How quickly they learn to distinguish between bass boats full of anglers with fishing rods and boat blinds filled with hunters holding shotguns is amazing. But at Harris Lake, it seems to become a well-learned duck survival trait.
I made up my mind to return to Harris Lake in late winter to check out the duck-hunting opportunities. But it was not until several years later that I returned for a hunt. Still, the hunting was as good as I had envisioned. There were even more ducks on the lake than there had been after season's end.
Harris is a large lake bisected by the Wake County and Chatham County line. The 13,377-acre lake was constructed to supply cooling water for the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. Before heading back to hunt, I contacted Darrell McCauly, John Bohanon and Ralph Jensen. I discovered that a good deal of homework is necessary before a duck hunter heads to Harris.
McCauly is the most successful hunting guide on Harris Lake and Bohanon is his sidekick. Jenson crafts custom duck, goose and turkey calls from historically significant woods and rare woods and hunts with McCauly. McCauly and Bohanon won't hunt without one of Jensen's calls. While McCauly and Bohanon hail from Fayetteville and Jensen is one of my Wilmington hunting pals, all decided that a Harris Lake duck hunt justifies long-distance travel. In fact, McCauly and Bohanon hunt Harris Lake every day it is open to hunters during the waterfowl season.
"To successfully hunt Harris Lake, you have to understand the rules and regulations," McCauly said over a plate of Sunrise Surprise, a breakfast he feeds his clients consisting of venison sausage, cheese, vegetables and rice.
The hot, spicy meal washed down with coffee is especially welcome when frost sparkles on the decoys at the outset of a cold January dawn. Just the steam rising from the warm food and hot beverage is enough to ward off the chill, at least in the waiting period between the time everyone is nestled in the blind and the instant the adrenaline pumps kick on at the sound of the characteristically high-pitched whistling of the wings of swarming ringneck flocks flying overhead.
"Lots of the lake's shoreline is in the North Carolina Game Lands program, but some of it is owned by Wake County Parks," McCauly said. "The game land is marked with signs, but you have to know where you are if you are hunting and you step out on the bank. You sure don't want to get a ticket."
There are no special prohibitions against setting decoys or removing them during a certain time frame on Harris Lake as there are on most commission game land waterfowl impoundments. However, such restrictions on setting out decoys have been suggested by some hunters at Harris Lake who don't or can't get up early enough to compete for a prime spot at the head of a cove.
Therefore, hunters should always check the current regulations for the lake before setting out decoys the evening before a hunt.
McCauly and Bohanon usually set out at least 40 dozen decoys of several different species the night before a hunting trip. Sometimes, when their workday schedule permits, they set out their decoys in the fading light of late afternoon. However, camping on the shore of the Shearon Harris game land is prohibited. So the hunters spend the night in their boat, which they anchor offshore, and pick up their clients at pre-arranged meeting areas around the lake, including bridge overpasses and at the two lake N.C. Wildlife Commission boating access areas. The Holleman's Crossroads access area is located at the north-central part of the lake on SR 1130 and the Merry Oaks access area is located at the southern part of the lake off SR 1914.
Where they launch and where they pick up clients can depend upon the weather. The amount of effort and success of a hunt likewise depends upon the weather. When the wind is blowing out of the south, the southern access area usually has the best launching and recovery conditions. When the wind is from the north, the boat ride can be more comfortable and safe if the boat is launched from the northern access area. Using the high banks as windbreaks by staying downwind of them can save a lot of choppy water conditions for hunters. Of course, the best way to learn the lake's moods is to scout it out during daylight hours rather than in the middle of the chilly darkness.
"If it's raining, we just put a tarp over the boat and fire up a portable heater," Bohanon said. "The high banks and big trees create a windbreak. There's no regulation against setting out decoys the night before a hunt on the lake and we want to make sure we get our spot."
The passing of a cold front brings the best hunting conditions to Harris Lake. But snow accumulating on the decoys makes for poor hunting conditions because the ducks shy away from them. However, cold weather that freezes nearby beaver ponds and commission game lands' waterfowl impoundments sends lots of ducks to the open water on the lake. Cold conditions also freeze farm ponds and bring in fresh migrating flocks from the north to Harris Lake.
One of the things making Harris Lake so attractive to ducks is its enormous food base in the form of aquatic vegetation. The power plant has a scrubber system that adds minute amounts of phosphorous to the water, and is thought by some to increase the lake's productivity by acting as fertilizer. Beside
s some of the best fishing for big largemouth bass in the state, the submerged vegetation also yields the state's highest lake populations of late-season waterfowl.
Late-season fly-over censuses by state waterfowl biologists consistently show Harris has one of the top waterfowl populations in the state during January and most of those ducks are ring-necked ducks. Ringneck decoys therefore make up a large part of McCauly's decoy spread.
Still, there are lots of other species that hover over the decoys. In a typical season, McCauly takes scaup, canvasbacks, widgeon, mallards, gadwalls, goldeneyes, blue-winged and green-winged teal and wood ducks. There are many wood duck boxes around the shoreline that provide a supply of resident wood ducks, especially during the earlier parts of the season. There are always a few wood ducks around, even during the late season.
Harris is no small lake. Ducks are often seen by hunters when they are flying hundreds of yards away. McCauly blows calls that generate a lot of volume to attract attention. But when ducks are in close, he uses feeding chuckles and quit quacks to draw them in close.
"These ducks have heard it all," he said. "If you blow a hail call right in their face, it's sure to scare them away. A call like Ralph's that makes loud hails but is still good with the soft calls is really important for hard-hunted ducks."
"Lots of people blow loud mallard hail calls to ringnecks and other divers," Jensen said. "But I trill the mallard call with my tongue to make the diving duck call. Blow a high-volume hail call and they go the other way because there is a lot of hunting pressure at Harris. A ringneck will circle the decoys or blow right through them, then come back to land. You want to wait until he comes back for the second pass to shoot. Sometimes, they will even start to land if you blow that soft little feeding 'brrr' to divers."
McCauly, who has hunted on Harris Lake since 1987, said one of the keys to conquering waterweeds is having the right type of outboard.
"I come out here ahead of the hunting season and use the motor to clear a hole in the hydrilla," McCauly said. "Most hunters can't even get through the thick stuff with their outboards because they overheat when the vegetation blocks the water intakes. I have a motor that is designed to cool even in the thick hyacinth because it has special intake ports."
Besides chopping a hole in the vegetation for setting out decoys, McCauly thinks it makes the bottom clean enough so divers can successfully hunt for aquatic clams and the other invertebrates that make up a large part of their diets. While ringnecks feed on vegetation as well as mollusks, other divers like scaup are primarily carnivorous.
McCauly and Bohanon set out their decoys one at a time, and they are tied to single anchors. They have a system that allows them to set them out or pick them up in about an hour. The water in the backs of the coves where they hunt is shallow, so they don't have to deal with winding in long decoy lines as are necessary when hunting the deeper water on the lake's many points. Their lines are about 20 feet long and have special anchor systems that allow them to wind the line around the anchors instead of the decoys.
Still, they must constantly clean the weights and lines of vegetation or they would soon weigh down the boat, covered with the soggy mass.
Putting out that many decoys seems an extreme effort to most hunters, and is beyond their ability, finances or desire to accomplish. However, such a huge spread of decoys is not unusual to see on many of the larger lakes across the country or even at the various sounds along the North Carolina coast.
"My hunting parties bag between 700 and 1,000 ducks at Harris Lake each year," McCauly said. "I have had 14 hunters fill their duck limits by 11 o'clock. Most hunters will get plenty of shots during a hunt."
Besides getting to a good spot before other hunters and setting out huge decoy spreads, McCauly said part of the secret is staying late.
"We stay all day," he said. "Most hunters hunt during the morning for a couple of hours, then head off to work or home. By being the only hunter left on the lake, your decoys are the only game in town. You can decoy any willing duck that comes down the lake."
Lake hunting regulations prohibit the construction of any permanent blinds. McCauly explained that this means he cannot even leave a single cut piece of tree limb or brush standing when he leaves his hunting area for the day.
"We hunt out of the boat or line the bank with pallets for hunters to stand on at the edge of the water," he said. "I use quick set-up blinds and place vegetation around them. I can hunt several hunters out of one blind. But they have to be good hunters. Anyone who shows their face is going to flare off some ducks. Wearing a camouflage face net or mask is a good idea for someone who wants to look around and can't keep his head down."
Divers are tough ducks to kill outright. Therefore, McCauly uses a shotgun up to the task. Since he shoots a lot of shells during a season, he uses steel shot, which is less expensive than other non-toxic duck loads. He shoots a 10-gauge shotgun loaded with No. 2 and No. 3 shot.
"Most of the shots are close at about 20 or 30 yards," McCauly said. "But I want to be able to kill any cripples before they can swim away. Drake (McCauly's Labrador retriever) can catch some of them. But when they get out in that vegetation, it can take him a long time to pick them up."
While Drake can retrieve dead diving ducks and hard-hit cripples, hunting divers usually means McCauly heads out in a boat to help his dog retrieve downed ducks. Downing multiples out of one flock are the rule rather than the exception.
McCauly tends to hunt off the shoreline of the game land so he can leave his boat free for chasing down cripples. After everyone is in the blind, he hides the boat in the back of a cove and camouflages it with a fabric covering or a few tree limbs.
"You want to get on those cripples in a hurry," McCauly said. "Every minute you're out there, you're scaring other ducks away."
Harris Lake is open for waterfowl hunting on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and the opening and closing day of the applicable waterfowl seasons.
Hunters can hunt from boat blinds on the lake. Any boat used by a Harris Lake duck hunter should be large enough to handle the conditions. A 14-foot johnboat can be used on calm days. But the wind can create big waves. Hunters also need to carry as many decoys as they can to attract diving ducks and that usually means they need much larger watercraft. Hunters commonly use boats of up to 22 feet in length because they want to be on the lake when the weather is at its worst.
Some of the unsuccessful hunters at Harris Lake don'
t like the fact that McCauly sets out large spreads the evening before a hunt. But that's his method of staying within the rules and having excellent luck with Harris Lake ducks.
"There's nothing stopping anyone from having the same success that I have," he said. "Like anything else in life, you get out what you put into any effort. I found that it takes lots of decoys to be successful at Harris, so I do what it takes to get to a good spot and set them out. Hard work and dedication is the secret to success at Harris."
For more information, contact Darrell McCauly at (910) 486-0241.
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