Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Hatteras National Seashore hold out the promise of topflight waterfowl hunting here in North Carolina.
Jimmy Cushing holds up a pair of pintails taken by himself and fellow youth hunter Justin Marsh at Mattamuskeet NWR.
Photo by Mike Marsh
For many Tar Heel State residents, hiring a guide or buying a boat and rigging up a big-water decoy spread is simply too far out of reach for their family budgets. Naturally, public access duck hunts are of interest to these hunters.
But even for those who can afford the cost of an expensive waterfowl hunting lease, certain public hunts are appealing quite simply because these hunts give the hunter a chance to see ducks cupping their wings in a historic setting that has achieved legendary status.
Fortunately, two exceptional North Carolina national wildlife refuges provide hunting opportunities for anyone who can endure the anticipation of waiting for a return postcard telling them they've won a couple of days in a hunt lottery or is willing to wait in line for a standby drawing for an empty blind.
Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Hatteras National Seashore both have comfortable hunting blinds set in prime waterfowl hunting territory. Most hunters who have participated in these extraordinary waterfowling opportunities agree that they have experienced the hunt of a lifetime even if the ducks don't fly. While just being "out there" blending into the surroundings of a pristine marsh is a heady experience, most of the time the bonus is a great bag of ducks from a blind worthy of gracing a millionaire's duck club.
Lake Mattamuskeet is located in Hyde County. It is the largest natural bay lake in the state at over 50,000 acres. The Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge is located at the site of a towering smokestack that once served giant, coal-fired, steam-driven pumps in the early 1900s. The pumps were designed to drain the lake for agricultural purpose. Fortunately, for waterfowl hunters, several drainage schemes to allow farming fell through and the lake was added to the National Wildlife Refuge system in the 1930s.
All refuge hunts begin at the lodge, where many of the refuge's offices are headquartered. For those wishing to up their odds for drawing a permit, latching onto a youth hunter between the ages of 12 and 16 is the way to go.
The youth hunts are held during the first and last hunts of the season. The first youth hunt can be the best hunt of the year, with many unwary ducks having arrived at the lake around Thanksgiving. It is also great for adults, who cannot shoot or carry guns on the hunts. However, what they get to see is not offered during the regular hunts, so the trip is worth every trigger pull not taken.
The youth hunt is a two-day event. At 8 a.m. the first day, a small fee is collected from each hunter. Each youth hunter can bring along another youth hunter and must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age with all the proper licenses -- North Carolina hunting license, federal waterfowl stamp, state waterfowl privilege license and HIP certification. Each youth hunter must have successfully completed a hunter safety course and possess a valid hunter safety card for verification. Since a youth hunter must be 12 to receive a hunter safety card, it limits the age of participants to those between 12 and 16.
A plan that works well is for two parents, each having along one youth hunter, to switch days in serving as the "guide." The parent who doesn't have the kids for the day's hunt can help set up decoys, then spend the rest of the day visiting the refuge outside the hunting area, taking in the visual feast of thousands of ducks, geese and swans.
The first morning of the youth hunt, refuge managers and wildlife enforcement officers give a presentation. Waterfowl identification, rules, regulations and hunt etiquette are discussed. The use of visual aids and the involved interaction between the youth hunters and refuge personnel keep the kids entertained. An orientation helps everyone by telling them what the blinds are like and where they are located, along with the degree of difficulty in getting to the blinds.
The classroom is then abandoned for a refuge tour that is not available for anyone else. The tour takes place in areas of the refuge that are off-limits to vehicles under normal circumstances. Tens of thousands of snow geese and blue geese are present in the hidden recesses of the refuge. Many other species of waterfowl along with many white-tailed deer and other birds and animals are seen during the youth hunt tours.
After a short time set aside for lunch-on-your-own, a gate is opened so hunters can drive to the parking areas designated for their blinds. The gate is closed at 1 o'clock and stays closed during the hunt so other visitors will not interfere with the hunt. Checkout time and the end of legal hunting hours are provided by refuge personnel during the orientation.
There are 16 blinds in the hunting area and different degrees of difficulty are involved in reaching them. Under normal circumstances, most of the trails can be walked with hip boots. Still, flood conditions or tripping and taking a spill can result in a hunter getting wet unless he or she is wearing chest waders. Chest waders are the way to go if you have them.
Fold-up carts, wheelbarrows, drag boats and decoy sleds can come in handy for getting gear to several of the blinds; reaching them may require long walks over land or through soggy swamps. For most blinds, slinging a bag of decoys over the back will provide all the necessary gear (along with a shotgun and a box of non-toxic shells, of course).
While 3 or 4 feet of decoy line is adequate, weights should be on the heavy side in the event the wind is blowing. The soft bottom allows anchors to drag in high winds and it can therefore take 6 ounces of lead to hold decoys securely.
The blinds are topflight. Constructed of a treated timber floor set on pilings with plywood sides, they are covered with military surplus camouflage netting and native vegetation, such as wax myrtle and reeds. A bench seat runs the length of the blind's interior along the back and a shell and gear shelf runs the length of the front. The blinds have open tops. One thing to be considered on the youth hunts is that the blind sides may be too high for small hunters to see over. A plastic drink bottle crate or small wooden box stuffed in the bottom of a decoy bag to stand upon is a great asset to those young hunters. In a pinch, a youth can stand on the bench seat while shooting. A stoop at the doorway to the blind serves as an off-and-on loading platform for gear and decoys and also can be used as a dog platform.
The use of a trained retriever is encouraged during the hunts. Lake Mattamuskeet is wide and shallow. A crippled duck can outswim a hunter walking along the soft, boot-sucking bottom; however, a dog can easily catch the cripple. A retriever also adds to the enjoyment of the hunt while decreasing the number of shells it takes to bag a limit of ducks.
A good spread of decoys for Lake Mattamuskeet includes a mixture of puddle ducks and diving ducks. Principal puddle duck species that are taken by hunters are teal, widgeon, pintail, mallard, gadwall and shoveler. Diving duck species include ring-necked duck, ruddy duck, bufflehead, canvasback and redhead. Coots are also abundant.
Swans are also common at the refuge. If a hunter has obtained a swan permit in the lottery drawing held each year, it can be used for a Mattamuskeet swan. Snow geese have been off-limits to hunters at he refuge because they are seldom seen in the hunting area.
The second day of the youth hunt begins between 4:30 and 5 a.m. when another small fee is collected as hunters check in. Legal shooting time is announced and the hunters again head for their blinds to beat the daybreak. The hunt ends the second day at 1 p.m.
The rest of the hunting season, waterfowl hunts are set up in two-day periods. There are 12 two-day hunts, including the youth hunt. Shooting hours for the regular hunting days begin at one-half hour before sunrise and end at noon.
The lottery for blinds takes place each year and is conducted by U.S. mail. Applicants must submit their name, address, birth date and three preferences of two-day hunts on a 3x5 card. There is a disabled hunter access blind. Physically disabled applicants must indicate their impairment on the card and youth hunters must mark "Youth Hunt" on their application card. Applications must be received by 4 p.m. on the first Friday in October. Duplicate applications are disqualified.
Each hunter may bring up to two guests of his choice to participate in the hunt. Unclaimed blinds are allotted to standbys on a lottery basis. All hunters must pay a $10 fee for each hunting day, payable at the hunt registration.
Some hunters do not show up for their blind reservations. Hunters without reservations are assigned blinds on a standby basis after everyone with a reservation has checked in.
Hunting at Cape Hatteras National Seashore is conducted in the same fashion. A lottery drawing takes place each year for 20 blinds at Bodie Island. A Reservation Request Form must be obtained by stopping at the National Park Service headquarters at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site off U.S. 64/264 north of Manteo, or by written request mailed to HUNT, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Road, Manteo, NC 27954, or a copy of the form can be downloaded and printed from the Web site.
Only one application per hunter is accepted. Applicants can receive no more than six days during the hunting season with no more than three consecutive days. Hunters can request up to six single days or three sets of two days or two sets of three days. Winners are notified of the days assigned to them.
Each hunter can bring one other hunter and one observer. But only two people may have guns. Compared with the generous above-water blinds at Mattamuskeet, the blinds at Bodie Island are small, at about 3 feet by 5 feet. They are partially submerged pit blinds and are notoriously wet in the bottom. Dippers are provided to empty the blinds of leaking water and rainwater but are sometimes missing. Hunters should carry some sort of dipper along when they head to a Bodie Island blind. A one-gallon plastic jug with the bottom cut out of it makes a serviceable and lightweight dipper for scooping water out of the blind.
The blinds are camouflaged with native vegetation that becomes trampled and broken as the season wears on. Successful hunters scrutinize their blinds before hunting, clean up empty shotgun shells and replace vegetative cover. Ducks are definitely wary at Bodie Island because they are hunted without interruption, unlike those at Lake Mattamuskeet.
Trained retrievers are allowed and encouraged. However, they must be kept on a leash while walking to and returning from the blinds. There is no dog platform or room for a dog in the blind, so a retriever must be steady and trained to remain motionless when waterfowl are approaching the decoys. Most hunters have their dogs sit or lie on the ground behind the blind.
Bench seats run the length of the back of the blinds and shell/gear shelves run the length of the front of the blinds. The blinds are situated in different types of water settings. Some are located at the edges of shallow ponds and others in the middle of ponds. The blinds inside the ponds do not allow the use of decoys set on stakes, such as silhouette decoys, which are popular with snow goose hunters.
Walks to the blinds vary from long and wet with soft muck dragging at waders to short walks overland. Drag boats, small canoes and heavy-duty decoy bags that can be dragged and floated to the blinds are all used by Bodie Island hunters. A heavy-duty plastic swimming pool boat painted to look like the marsh is a handy item for ferrying decoys and gear.
While Mattamuskeet hunters know in advance which blinds they have been assigned, Bodie Island hunters do not. Hunters meet at the Whalebone Junction Information Station for the hunting blind drawing at 5 a.m. After those with assignments have drawn for their blinds, the remaining blinds are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis to walk-in hunters. Hunter reservations must be cancelled by a telephone call no later than 12 hours ahead of the hunt drawing or any remaining reserved hunting days will be cancelled.
Waterfowl species taken by hunters at Bodie Island are predominantly teal, pintail, widgeon, gadwall, shoveler, merganser, bufflehead and snow goose. Anyone with a swan tag may have the opportunity to fill it during a Bodie Island hunt. Hunters must check out at the Whalebone Junction Information Station after the hunt, provide information on the species of waterfowl they have taken and turn in the numbers of any bird bands. A checkout form is provided. Once it is completed, it is placed into a drop box.
The best decoy spread consists of all the decoys a team of hunters can carry. Most hunters drag one- or two-dozen decoys to the blinds. But the most successful hunters take advantage of spreads with multiple species represented and cover the available water near their blinds.
A 2-ounce weight and 3 feet of line will hold decoys under most circumstances. But a strong wind can make lightly anchored decoys drift.
No one may shoot outside a blind except to retrieve a crippled bird. Any other departure ends the hunt for the day. These are points of etiquette that keep the hunting opportunity pleasant for all the hunters because some of the blinds are about 300 yards apart. Moving about unnecessarily flares ducks that may be working another hunter's setup.
"Sky busting" is the practice of shooting
at waterfowl out of range. Not only is it unethical, it hurts opportunities for other hunters by flaring ducks before they approach low enough for a certain kill. Nevertheless, it occurs on refuge hunts, usually by novice hunters who don't know the effective killing range of waterfowl loads. All hunters are admonished to avoid shooting at ducks out of range during the hunter check-in.
For those who haven't drawn a blind or who would rather participate in a freelance hunt, parts of Cape Hatteras National Seashore are open to hunting from temporary blinds or by jump-shooting.
At Hatteras Island, hunting is permitted within 250 feet of the Pamlico Sound shoreline, between the villages of Salvo and Avon, Avon and Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras, and Hatteras Village and Hatteras Inlet.
At Ocracoke Island, hunting is permitted on the Pamlico Sound side of NC Highway 12, within 250 feet of the shoreline, excluding Ocracoke Village, Hammock Hills Nature Trail, and the posted area near Ocracoke Pony Pasture.
www.mattamuskeet.fws.gov, for more information about hunting at Lake Mattamuskeet.
www.nps.gov/caha/hunting.htm, hunters will find more information about Cape Hatteras National Seashore hunting opportunities.