Hunting Four Big-Game Waterfowl in Carolina
October 04, 2010
North Carolinians looking for big-game waterfowl are in luck. These four species can provide some good days afield.
By Mike Marsh
The dawn dew clung heavily against our pants cuffs as we waited for sunlight to illuminate the surrounding fields. Hurrying to place decoys in the freshly cut corn stubble, we hoped daybreak would bring flocks of honking silhouettes overhead.
The rush of activity and humid heat of early September burst beads of perspiration from Rick Coleman's cheeks. Our shotguns were stoked with huge pellets, steel BBs and tungsten-nickel No. 2s that would have been outlandish shot sizes for the usual early fall fare of teal or morning doves. But the gabbling of geese rose with the sun, their noise increasing to a crescendo of honking. The day's first flocks of Canada geese began to take flight from a farm pond on their way to feed in the surrounding corn stubble.
Hearts hammering, Coleman and I waited, hiding in a gully inside a cow pasture while geese were drawn in to the decoys that had been set for groups of hunters in fields farther from the nucleus of geese roosting in the pond. From their nighttime resting place, geese poured forth in numbers I had only seen on hunts in Montana or Nebraska. We let the first few flocks fly past, until we saw geese falling at the decoy spreads followed seconds later by the sounds of the gunfire that interrupted their flights.
Coleman chose a flock that flew low from the pond. We raised our guns, firing in unison at his signal. Three geese fell. After that, the shooting became a blur of activity: shooting geese, sending my Lab Santana to fetch them and hunkering down to wait on more as startled geese lifted off from the pond by the hundreds and others tried to regain its safety after taking fire from the hunters in the fields.
Thirty-two geese for eight hunters is not a bad morning anywhere. Considering the hunt took place on North Carolina soil an hour's drive from home and not along some foreign flyway that would have cost days of travel, thousands of dollars and hours of airtime, it's easy to see why hunts like these hold an attraction to North Carolinians interested in hunting big-game waterfowl.
The hunt was a result of an attempt to control the large resident goose population on the farm we were hunting.
"This farmer had never allowed hunting on his land," Coleman said. "At first he welcomed the geese. But now, there are so many generations of geese that they interfere with his planting and cover his lake, fouling the water. He decided that a controlled hunt would help him manage the problem and still maintain a goose population because he likes to watch them."
There are four big waterfowl of particular interest in North Carolina: Canada geese, swans, snow geese and brant. We'll discuss the hunting opportunities for each species.
Hunter Jack Demsey with a pair of brant taken from a blind on Ocracoke Island. Hatteras and Ocracoke are traditional hunting grounds for brant, but the birds also show up on other sounds and coastal rivers. Photo by Mike Marsh
CANADA GEESE There are three sources of Canada geese in the state: resident geese, migratory geese from the Southern James Bay Hunt Zone (SJB) and a population of Atlantic Flyway geese, which are also migratory. The highest numbers come from the resident population, which is estimated at 100,000 birds, according to Migratory Bird Coordinator Dennis Luszcz from the North Carolina Wildlife Commission office in Edenton.
"We brought in birds from northern areas and released them in the eastern part of the state during the mid-1980s," Luszcz said. "There have also been a lot of geese that have moved into inland areas from Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia. Private individuals have also released geese on farm ponds, park ponds and golf course lakes. The result is a huntable population of resident Canada geese across the state."
Other Canada geese migrate to the state to spend the winter. Geese from the SJB migrate from northern breeding areas into the western parts of the state. According to Luszcz, these geese number only 1,000 or 2,000 and are eclipsed by the size of the resident flocks. Therefore, the migratory geese and resident geese in the SJB are managed under one set of hunting regulations because the odds of taking migratory geese are low compared to those of taking resident geese.
In the state's Northeast Hunt Zone, which is composed of parts of Bertie and Northampton and all of Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington counties, the season is closed during the months following September to help protect the Atlantic Canada goose population, which is low. Even the September resident Canada goose season has been shorter by 11 days than in the rest of the state. Also, while bag limits during the September season are five per day and 10 in possession for the rest of the state, in Dare and Hyde counties (the core of the Northeast Hunt Zone), the bag limit has been two and the possession limit has been four.
In the Northeastern Hunt Zone, the number of resident Canada geese is about half the number of migrants. Therefore, an open season during the time when migratory geese are in the area would result in a high proportion of the kill being migratory geese. That is the reason for closure of the season in the Northeast Hunt Zone during the winter. The open season in September takes place before the migrants arrive. If the Atlantic Canada goose population increases, the season in the Northeast Hunt Zone may eventually be lengthened.
"We used to count only the Canada geese on the wintering grounds," Luszcz said. "Then we began counting them on the breeding grounds in 1988 and found that their numbers were getting lower. They had been increasing until last year. But they have yet to recover to their breeding numbers of the 1960s. They still have a long way to go."
The Resident Hunt Zone covers the southeastern central and some of the western parts of the state. It has the longest seasons and highest bag limits.
The resident flock is what complicates the picture during winter surveys. Most of the resident flock consists of the interior race or greater race. But there have been so many different races introduced that interbreeding has created a mishmash of races and hybrids among the resident flocks. To most hunters, they are simply "resident Canada geese."
"We make adjustments to all of Canada goose seasons as needed," Luszcz said. "It's a real complicated picture. Some populations are doing well and some are doing terrible. We have gone as far as we can go right now to open the seasons for hunters and still protect low numbers of migratory Canada geese."
The resident Canada goose season begins in early September and runs most or all of the month, date depending upon the zone. The bag limit is as high as five per day in areas with only resident geese. The late season in the Resident Population Hunt Zone runs from mid-November through January. In areas identified as part of the SJB Hunt Zone, the limit is reduced to two geese per day and four geese in possession. In this area, the season runs during parts of October, November and December.
"In the Piedmont, farms are the best places to hunt geese," Luszcz said. "If you find them in the lakes or ponds, you can decoy them for the first few days. However, they get smart fast. Then you have to hunt them in the fields. Most of the problem geese are out of reach for hunters because they're on golf courses and parks in cities like Charlotte and Winston Salem. However, there are still farmers all over the state who have problems with nuisance geese. In the eastern part of the state, there is more water and hunters have good luck with floating decoy spreads."
Pre-season scouting is the best way to find farms to hunt. Geese are easy to spot while sitting on farm ponds or winging to and from them at dawn and dusk. The same is true of geese that stay on coastal rivers like the Neuse.
Seasons in the central areas of the state are usually open for months or parts of months all the way from September through January except October. The western SJB Canada goose season has been open during all or parts of October, November and December.
TUNDRA SWANS Tundra swans are the state's largest waterfowl, with wingspreads of over 7 feet and weights above 20 pounds. Swans are of high interest in northern coastal areas because of the diminishing opportunities to hunt Canada geese in the late season.
"Swans are doing well and are increasing in the state every year," Luszcz said. "There are usually 60,000 to 75,000, mostly in the 10 counties of Northeast Hunt Unit for Canada geese. There are also a lot around Open Grounds Farm in Carteret County. It's not unusual for them to appear as far west as Tarboro in Northampton County."
Swan permits are issued on a lottery basis through a computer drawing, with procedures outlined in the Regulations Digest. A hunter must have a valid North Carolina hunting license before applying. Last season, the application fee was $10. The season had opened in October and lasted through January and the limit is one per permit holder.
"We have the highest number of permits of any state for the eastern population of tundra swans," Luszcz said. "They are also hunted in Virginia, the Dakotas and Montana."
Public lands where hunters might take swans are Lake Mattamuskeet and Bodie Island National Wildlife Refuges, also Currituck Banks, Futch, Goose Creek and Gull Rock state game lands. These hunting areas have lottery drawings for the open hunt dates.
Lots of hunters save their swan permits for a hunt in January, after the season for most other waterfowl is closed. They hunt with outfitters or find farmers and obtain permission to hunt on the huge expanses of winter wheat and rye fields near Lake Mattamuskeet and Pungo national wildlife refuges.
Swans will decoy to water spreads in public waters like Pamlico Sound and Albemarle Sound. They have, however, been getting smarter over the years. Still, large spreads of white floaters or rags set in fields will lure swans into range.
Hunters wait in ditches or hide among the decoys by wearing white disposable lab suits. Large shot sizes adequate for the biggest Canada geese such as steel BBs or tungsten-alloy No. 2s work well for killing swans.
Increasingly, swans are becoming archers' game. Bowhunters wait among the decoys until swans are gliding within 20 yards. An incoming or quartering shot is best since it minimizes the amount of lead required. It also increases the impact velocity of the arrow by adding the speed of the bird into the equation.
SNOW GEESE Snow geese are another target of big-game hunters. Once, greater snow geese were the main species found in the state. Today, however, an increasing population has been returning to Lake Mattamuskeet each year. Frustratingly, the hunting of snow geese is not allowed on the lake. But hunting snow geese is allowed at Currituck Banks and Bodie Island.
"Bodie Island doesn't have as many snow geese as it once did," Luszcz said. "They seem to have left the marshes for the farm fields."
The Pungo and Mattamuskeet snow goose populations have been increasing. "There are around 20,000 to 30,000 snow geese in the state each year," Luszcz said. "But they are difficult to count because they congregate in big flocks. The hunter success is spotty. When the season first opened during the 1970s, the hunter success rate was good. But it has dropped way off in the years since. Most snow geese are killed by hunters who see the birds in private fields and get permission from landowners to hunt. Then they sneak into gun range by using the ditches for concealment."
There are still some hunters who kill snow geese by using decoys, but not many of these sets are put out by casual hunters. It takes massive spreads of decoys to be effective at decoying snow geese. Most of the snow geese killed over decoys in the state are through the efforts of outfitters and guides around Pungo National Wildlife Refuge who are setting combination rigs for swans and snow geese.
While it is difficult for most hunters to distinguish between the greater and lesser snow geese on the wing, as much as 50 percent of a flock of lesser snows will be in the "blue" color phase, which can provide hunters an indication of the species makeup of a large flock.
Snow geese are not large geese and can be taken with shot sizes as small as steel No. 2s. However, most hunters use steel BBs or No. 2 tungsten-alloy shot sizes to increase their chances at other birds like swans. The snow goose season has run 10 days in October and then from mid-November through March 10. The bag limit has been 15 snow and blue geese with no possession limit.
BRANT Brant are the smallest of the waterfowl hunter's big-game species. However, that does not mean they are not tough birds. Steel No. 2s and tungsten-alloy No. 4s work well for brant. Still, most hunters use steel BBs or tungsten-alloy No. 2s when specifically hunting brant. Most hunters use Canada goose decoys and diving duck decoys to lure them into gun range. However, specialist gunners use brant decoys. The main trick for decoying brant is knowing where to set up.
"Brant are found for the most part on the shoals behind Hatteras and Ocracoke islands," Luszcz said. "However, hunters have had them come in off the sounds when there has been bad weather during a cold winter, and they can show up anywhere from Currituck to Core Sound."
The wintering population is usuall
y a couple of thousand brant. A few outfitters guide hunters who are after brant. The season has run from late November through January, with a bag limit of three birds and possession limit of six. During the early season, brant are less wary, but they do not have the full plumage showing the sharp white markings of their neck collars. Late in the season, brant wise up to decoy spreads and can get tough to decoy, but make nicer mounts.
"Eelgrass is their main food source in North Carolina," Luszcz said. "There are more brant in New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Massachusetts, with the biggest flocks in New Jersey. The Atlantic Coast population is probably 100,000 to 150,000. They eat sea lettuce in northern waters, which makes them taste bad. The brant here taste better because they eat eelgrass."
Freezing weather has brought brant all the way south to the Cape Fear area in seasons past. Therefore, hunters should learn to identify brant, even if they do not hunt them specifically.
Likewise, snow geese and swans have been taken in many areas farther south or inland in the state than what hunters think their historic range has been. Smart hunters will have along some larger size shot than their standard duck loads just in case one of the state's big-game waterfowl species becomes "lost" and decides to drop into a spread set up in an out-of-the-way location.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION For hunting season and bag limits, call (800) 675-0263 or visit the commission's Web site at www.ncwildlife.org.
For information on swan permits and permit hunts on state game lands, refer to the Regulations Digest or the Web site.
For information about Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge hunts, call (919) 926-4021 or visit the Web site at www.fws.gov.
For information about Bodie Island hunts, call (919) 473-2111, ext. 118, or write to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Route 1, Box 675, Manteo, NC 27954-2708.
For brant hunts, call Ken Dempsey at (252) 986-2102.
For swan and snow goose hunts, call Garganus Guide Service at (252) 926-9179.
For resident Canada goose hunts, call Daddy Joe's at (910) 653-2155, or visit www.daddyjoe.com.
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