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Hunting North Carolina Waterfowl

Blackjack Attack!

June 9th, 2010 0

Ringneck ducks rocket past the decoys, flare wide, turn and come in for a second strafing run. No hunter ever forgets the excitement of a blackjack attack. (November 2009)


Bobby Caldwell with a ringneck taken at dawn on the Great Lake in the
Croatan National Forest.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

There are plenty of ways of identifying different ducks on the wing. Mallards fly high in large V-shaped formations when they’re migrating, but condense into big clouds when they’re descending toward the decoys. Mallard hens quack loudly and the drakes softly wheeze. The body art of both sexes is unmistakable within shotgun range. While other species are lesser known, they still have their flight signatures, vocalizations and colorations. One species has the loudest wings.

Jim Bushardt and I were hunting at Suggs Millpond Game Land. Overcast sky obscured starlight as we set our decoys. Suddenly, he stopped in mid-decoy drop. Freezing his head in an odd cant to one side so his ear was swiveled upward like a radar antenna to catch the sound, Jim named the ducks overhead by the sound of their wings alone.

“Listen,” he hissed. “Can you hear all those ringnecks?”

Even with the shell-shocked ears of a half-century’s steady diet of 3-inch magnum waterfowl loads, you bet I could. As daylight grayed the clouds, we could see the flocks rocketing overhead. Their wings sounded like those of a jet plane shearing the aerial elements, punctuated by rapid squeaks as they pumped up and down too fast for the eye to see.

At distances of more than 1,000 yards, the big billows of ringnecks were nearly always heard before they were spotted. As the flocks approached the decoys, their wings virtually screamed as they created enough drag to land by twisting their primary feathers.

It looked for like our decoys were under attack, bombarded by wave after wave of blackjacks, one of several gunners’ names for the ring-necked duck. Other names are ring-bill, bumblebee duck and jack. By any name it’s called, a ringneck is one of the sportiest ducks that flies.

A ringneck is easily misidentified on the wing, but easily identifiable once brought to bag. In flight, a hen ringneck can be mistaken for a hen redhead or greater or lesser scaup. The drake is almost impossible to differentiate from a drake scaup by all but the most accomplished waterfowl hunters until it is well within gunning range. White rings on the drakes’ bills are unmistakable, along with the forward edge of the underside completely black with a straight line separating the shoulder area from the white belly. Waiting for the flock to land before flushing the birds to pull the trigger is the best option for the novice so he can read the lines on the bills of the drakes. But even if one drake in a flock has been correctly identified before making the shot, care must be taken when targeting another bird because ringnecks and scaup do mix.

Once in the hand, the russet collar of the mature drake ringneck shows how the ringneck got its name. It seems odd that the Disney cartoon character, Daffy Duck, is supposed to be a ringneck, although he has a white neck ring. That can be blamed on the poetic license of fiction media: The wild ringneck’s coppery neck ring is the real deal, along with his demeanor. Daffy Duck is an easy target of his cartoon counter characters. But when it comes to interplay between duck hunters and ringnecks, there is no sportier webfoot.

Scaup numbers have been down in recent years, with no one knowing for certain how or if their population decline of 1 percent per year can be stemmed. But contrarily, ringnecks are having a heyday, with their population numbers consistently peaking at more than 13 percent above the species’ long-term average.

That means that hunters who prefer hunting diving ducks should learn not only how to identify ringnecks, but concentrate their efforts on waters that hold them along with low populations of scaup. North Carolina hunters have many such waters to choose from.

My personal experience with the ringneck began at Lake Norman in the 1970s. While hunting from the point of an island where the main waterfowl forecast was for mallards, with lightly scattered scaup and teal, I heard the shearing wings of a flock of ducks coming from behind my blind.

Although I tried to get my shotgun to my shoulder in time to fire it, I didn’t. The flock of more than 100 ripped the air above my decoys, nearly taking off the plastic ducks’ fake heads. By the time the gun was tracking their flight, the ducks were already out of range, so I held fire.

The flock banked and executed a half-mile turn across the big water, flashing black and white as they turned belly up to execute the high-speed maneuvers that returned them to the decoys.

Three shots from a pump gun seemed an anemic way to greet them, when I was presented with the potential for a real blood letting with a flock of that size. Two drake ringnecks graced the bow of my johnboat once I motored out to retrieve them.While I hadn’t been entirely certain of their species when I fired my shotgun, way back then when scaup and ringnecks were high bag-limit ducks, I knew immediately what they were once I grabbed them by their necks.

The huge flock of diving ducks apparently was lost in what I thought was a bastion of puddle ducks, peppered rarely with scaup. But since then I’ve learned such unnerving events were not occasional incidents. Therefore, I dubbed the ringneck the “diving puddle duck.”

Of all the divers, the ringneck is the bird mostly likely to be found in the company of dabblers. Since our first introduction, I’ve gunned ringnecks on water bodies from the largest in the state to some so small there was hardly any room for decoys. I’ve shot them in coastal salt marshes mere feet from the Atlantic. They’ve splashed down in the decoys I’ve set in enormous Piedmont reservoirs and mountain lakes. Setting my decoys in manmade impoundments where flooded corn fields or rice were the main waterfowl foods has created virtual strafing zones for uncountable blackjack attacks.

But they’ve also found their way into the mouths of my Lab retrievers in tiny streams and beaver ponds, where the only other ducks to be found were wood ducks. I even shot ringnecks in a creek that was so dry I had to get out to drag my one-man boat every 100 yards.

The ringneck can digest most anything. I’ve examined their crops and found the shells of clams and mussels, the stems, leaves and buds of aquatic vegetation, and invertebrates as well as crop grains. It is this ability to utilize any energy source that finds the little ringneck so abundant during a time when the other large diving ducks
— scaup, canvasback and redhead — in decline or only holding their own.

I’ve taken “the diving puddle duck” over every type of decoy spread. While hunting smaller beaver ponds and creeks, I’ve shot ringnecks over a setup of four wood duck decoys. They are absolute suckers for a spinning wing decoy of any kind, whether it be a dove, teal or mallard configuration set in addition to small or large floating spreads.

On larger water bodies I’ve found that ringnecks prefer large decoy spreads. I’ve decoyed them to mixed spreads of Canada goose, puddler and diver decoys set mostly with mallard, widgeon and scaup decoys.

But the fact is that ringnecks decoy most readily to ringneck decoys. While I have seen them land in the water beside any decoy, they will often flare at the last moment, and may or may not come back if there are not at least a few ringneck decoys in the decoy mix. While having them actually land is not a requirement, it is a good idea to have the possibility where scaup are also abundant and you need to positively identify the bird before the shot.

A binocular is a handy item to have along to help identify ducks on the wing, after they land or while they are swimming toward the decoys. When positive identification cannot be made, the ethical hunter must allow them to flare away. If they are ringnecks and haven’t been hard-hunted, there’s a better than 50 percent chance they simply need another pass to slow down enough to land. That wide circling maneuver gives a hunter with binoculars a few seconds to make a positive identification before they return — and you still need to identify them because scaup may pull the same maneuver.

Ringnecks, like other diving ducks, prefer to land at the head of the decoys. That means in mixed spreads of dabblers and divers, the diving duck decoys can be set in the most advantageous position for the hunter. However, another reason I’ve named them the diving puddle duck is their propensity to vary from this trait of most divers on a regular basis. I’ve seen a flock scatter itself all across a decoy spread, with individuals landing at any small opening; I’ve seen them bulk-land at the tail end of a classic 100-yard diving duck fish hook spread; and I’ve seen them ball into a big hole left in the decoys as the landing zone for puddle ducks or Canada geese.

The other unique trait of decoying ringnecks is how they respond after hearing the first shot. While I prefer having the wind directly at my back when decoying all other species of waterfowl, the speed of a ringneck is so great that it takes the duck a huge amount of sky-yardage before he can turn or flare upward. If the ducks are coming right at you and you want to take multiple shots at the flock, the odds are 99 percent that after the first shot, the birds will keep right on coming so fast that they will be behind you before you can get a second or third chance.

Since I’m right-handed, for a ringneck hunt I prefer the wind to be coming over my left shoulder, or directly parallel to my shooting position from left to right. The head of the decoys should be a few degrees left of my central field of fire at about my 10 or 11 o’clock position if my nose is at 12 o’clock. Ringnecks are highly predictable when it comes to their direction of approach. If there is any noticeable wind, they will decoy so they are facing directly into the wind. With this setup, the first shot can be taken when the ducks are just right of center, the second shot as they are over the decoys and the last as they flare upward to the left in departure, if you can pick a bird and swing the gun fast enough to keep up.

Like other diving ducks, ringnecks are tough to bring to bag. They can dive dozens of feet and stay submerged for extended periods if crippled. If a cripple achieves the safety of reeds or grass and you don’t have a retrieving dog, that’s that. Another slant on their incredible diving act is that they can also react by diving rather than flying when a hunter jumps up to shoo them into flight after they’ve landed in the decoys. While it’s frustrating when they dive and re-emerge out of shotgun range and you’re shouting and waving your arms to make them fly, your antics are also something to laugh about when the decoys are sacked and the hunt is over.

Ringnecks are not very large, so large shot sizes are unnecessary for taking them. In fact, denser patterns of smaller shot are more likely to immobilize them upon impact by striking the head or spine. I’ve hunted ringnecks with waterfowlers who prefer No. 6 steel. But I prefer No. 3 and No. 4 steel ammunition because it gives a dense pattern, with a shot size large enough to take larger ducks if they decoy. A No. 6 non-toxic tungsten alloy load is ideal for ringneck gunning.

There are other places besides Suggs Millpond Game Land in North Carolina where ringnecks are the dominant ducks. Among my favorites are Harris Game Land in Wake and Chatham counties, Great Lake and Catfish Lake in Croatan National Forest in Jones and Craven counties and Roanoke Rapids Lake in Halifax County. My preferences are not intended to disregard other ringneck waters, just good places for any hunter to begin looking for this high-bag-limit diver.

Harris Game Land consists of 13,937 acres and surrounds much of Shearon Harris Lake. Holleman’s Crossing Access is located near the center of the main arm of the lake on the east side off Bartley-Holleman Road. Cross Point Landing is located at the southern end. The best hunting areas are at the northern end, where hydrilla beds have taken root. Throughout the lake, the backs of coves attract ringnecks with hydrilla and other vegetation, along with mollusks and other invertebrates. Many bank areas can be hunted, but hunters also use boat blinds. Permanent blinds are not allowed. Hunting is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, holidays and opening and closing days of waterfowl seasons.

Great Lake and Catfish Lake also have special waterfowl rules. Waterfowl hunting is allowed Tuesdays, Thursdays, holidays and opening and closing days of waterfowl seasons. Great Lake is the best bet for ringnecks, and there are permanent blinds. When someone builds a blind, it is on public property, so others may hunt it. But courtesy should overrule competitiveness. Hunters who don’t build permanent blinds use boat blinds. The lake is so large, even moderate winds can create hazardous waves. Catfish Lake is smaller and safer. Boat blinds are popular at the small lake. Hunters flushing ducks off nearby Catfish Lake Impoundment create good hunting when the ducks seek safety at Catfish Lake. Great Lake has one public ramp. Catfish Lake has several primitive launches around its perimeter.

Roanoke Rapids Lake has shoreline development. While the lake owner grandfather ruled a few permanent blinds could remain, new permanent blinds are banned. Hunters use boat blinds or hunt from islands. Hydrilla is the main ringneck attraction. The Thelma Access is located on Warrens Landing Road.

Suggs Millpond Game Land in Bladen County has waterfowl hunting by draw permit only. When applying, ringneck hunters should enter the latest dates possible to give time for ringnecks to concentrate. Ringnecks winter at many nearby Carolina bay lakes, including Singletary, White, Baytree, Waccamaw and Little Singletary lakes. Public hunting is only allowed at Suggs Millpon
d impoundment and Horseshoe Lake, and hunters must decide which lake they want to hunt when applying.

Some hunters don’t enjoy eating diving ducks, but the ringneck is as different in the culinary department as it is in the character department. If taken on waters where its food is vegetation, a properly prepared ringneck is excellent eating. It’s less so if taken from a sound or reservoir its diet is mollusks and other invertebrates.

But no matter where it’s taken, the diving puddle duck ranks at the top, not just for the sporty gunning he offers and his delectability, but simply because he is still numerous. If you want to hunt diving ducks, there’s really not much choice any more. So seek out the hangouts of good old Daffy if only because his population is high enough to allow him to fill an entire bag limit, no matter the segment of the season following that for September teal. That fact alone awards the ringneck the crown, hands down, plus even the necklace of the king.

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