The ride from Goldsboro to the community of Hobucken was a long one, so heading out early was a major part of the duck-hunting protocol. Waders were stowed, decoy bags loaded and a small johnboat slid into the bed of a pickup. A caravan of pickups switched on their cargo lights in Jimmy Millard’s back yard to facilitate loading them to the gunwales with hunting gear. The cockpit of each was also stuffed with hunters, and steam from wake-up coffee fogged the windshields as the trucks drove away.
“I hunt ducks nearly every day of the season,” Millard said. “My two boys, Chris and Matt, love to hunt whenever they get the chance to go. But work and school interfere sometimes. I’m on disability. But if I get someone else to go with me, I am still able to go on an impoundment hunt.”
Jimmy Millard can hunt anytime he wishes, but not his son, 20-year-old Matt Millard, a taxidermist who operates Millard’s Unlimited Taxidermy in a small building across the street from his father’s house. Matt was introduced to hunting at an early age. He enjoyed hunting ducks so much he decided to make a career out of mounting them for hunters.
“A lot of the ducks that hunters bring me come from the Goose Creek Game Land waterfowl impoundments,” he said. “Those impoundments are excellent hunting and hold almost every kind of duck you can name.”
The caravan took off in the wee hours. Despite a wake-up call of 3:30 a.m., the end of the drive between Goldsboro and Hobucken was met with a nearly full parking lot at the Spring Creek-Hunting Creek parking area, leaving hardly enough room left for parking the pickups.
“You have to get here early if you want a parking place,” Jimmy Millard said. “A lot of people come here on the non-permit days and there’s no room to park along the road shoulder. If you get here too late, you’re out of luck.”
The party hauled out their gear and pulled on their waders. Everyone grabbed a handhold on the johnboat, which was loaded to overflowing with shotguns, shells, shell bags and decoys. Brent Sullivan’s Labrador retriever frolicked along, checking out the scents in the reeds and marsh grass lining the edge of the dike between Hunting Creek Impoundment and Spring Creek Impoundment.
“I train labs and Brent’s is coming along,” Jimmy Millard said. “A retriever is an asset to have along on any hunt, but especially on an impoundment hunt. Some places it’s hard to get across in time to get to a wounded duck and you can waste a lot of time finding a downed duck in the thick vegetation. They save you hunting time and find ducks that you can’t. They add another dimension to a hunt just because you have them along. There’s nothing more rewarding than watching a dog you’ve trained make a good retrieve.
One hunter volunteered to pile in on the decoy bags and kick-paddle the johnboat across the canal lining the edge of the Spring Creek Impoundment. The impoundment dikes were created by excavating canals and piling the spoil alongside. A hunter simply stepping into the water from a dike could find only his hat floating. But just no more than 20 feet on the other side of the canals, the water is shallow. With exceptions for stump holes or soft spots, there is not much chance of a hunter going in over his chest wader tops after he clears the canals.
Once all the other hunters walked the dike separating Spring and Hunting Creek impoundments, they were met by the panting hunter in the johnboat. The rest of the party joined him in the shin-deep water by crossing a wooden bridge.
Submergent vegetation caught wader boots and in a few places mud tried to suck waders from feet. Flashlights waved as other hunters already in place gave their positions. The group spread out, two by two, after dividing several dozen decoys.
Dirk Smith and I hid the boat and stood on a hummock. As daylight neared, wings announced the arrival of a flock of teal like the sound of linen sheets ripping in a strong wind.
Gunfire announced shooting time. Every duo of our group got in some shooting. We spread out to cover as much water as possible, knowing that each would respect the other’s shooting zones to let ducks come low enough for someone in the group to get a shot.
Competition is a component of impoundment hunting, especially at the most popular game lands like Goose Creek. Getting there early and getting a good spot are keys to success. But so is courtesy. It’s not nice to shoot at ducks decoying to someone else’s rig or to fire at ducks flying so high there’s not much chance of clean kills. Impoundment hunters call out-of-range shooting “skybusting” and nothing makes tempers flare faster.
“If everyone waits until they have good shots, everyone else benefits,” Dirk said. “Look, there’s one over the decoys.”
Dirk downed a ringneck with a 12-gauge, 3 1/2-inch load of steel No. 2 shot for our first duck of the day. It would not be our last.
Dale Davis is the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s Coastal Management biologist. He supervises coastal game land crews and the crew that manages Goose Creek Game Land is in New Bern.
“Some Goose Creek impoundments are managed for moist soils and some for aquatic vegetation,” Davis said. “We usually stay with aquatic vegetation in an impoundment for about three years before changing it to a moist soils management regime. Widgeon grass, a submergent that grows to the surface as water height increases, is an important waterfowl food. It doesn’t form thick mats. But it can cause minor walking problems. We also manage for spike rush, another important waterfowl food.”
When an impoundment is converted to moist soils management, it produces millet, barnyard grass and smartweed. Rather than being flooded on a permanent basis, it is flooded after being allowed to dry to let annual vegetation grow.
“The average layman would think the native plants are weeds,” he said. “A lot of hunters don’t know what they’re looking at. We could plant some millet in Campbell’s Creek Impoundment and a few hunters ask why we don’t. However, it’s more cost-effective and more beneficial to waterfowl to manage for natural foods. Moist soil plants are much higher in proteins, so they’re better for waterfowl than grain crops.”