Goose Creek Game Land is one of the most popular public waterfowl hunting areas in the state, and it's about to get even better. (Nov 2006)
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."
Aquatic management areas are flooded all year 'round. As plants begin to grow in spring and summer, pumps raise the water level to allow the submergent plants ducks love to eat to grow up near the surface for maximum productivity.
"We get lots of widgeon on all six impoundments of the ma
in complex," Davis said "We also see teal, ruddy ducks, gadwalls, ringnecks and other species."
The pumps stay in place permanently and it takes quite a bit of manpower to operate them and keep the impoundments at their most effective water levels. Moist soil impoundments are just beginning to be flooded at the start of hunting season. Therefore, an impoundment that has water during the early seasons one year may not have enough water for hunting the next early seasons. However, all of the impoundments should be full by the November season segment.
"Hunting is a byproduct of waterfowl management," Davis said. "We don't just pull the plug after hunting season. We manage the water all year. Waterfowl management is some of the most intensive wildlife management there is. But it produces good hunting opportunities."
Indeed, the hunting is so successful that a number of years ago a permit system was initiated to lower the pressure and keep the hunting experience a quality event.
Campbells Creek, Spring Creek, Hunting Creek and Pamlico Point now require permits that are issued on a lottery basis on high-use days after Nov. 1. These days are opening days, closing days, Saturdays and holidays after the September teal season and short October season.
Two seasons back, except for the weeks with holidays or opening or closing days on a weekday, the impoundment hunts were cut from three days per week to two, leaving only one non-permit day per week (on Tuesdays) for hunters who don't draw permits or can't plan their hunts far enough in advance to apply for them.
Spring Creek also has a handicapped access blind, with hunt dates issued by lottery. The blind is accessible to ATV or motorized wheelchair from the parking lot. No permit is required for youth waterfowl hunting days.
Smith Creek and Hobucken impoundments are lower-use impoundments that do not fall under the permit system, but still are only open two days per week with the previously noted exceptions.
"I get very few complaints about the two-day hunting schedule instead of three days," Davis said. "Hunters tend to go along with anything we do to increase the quality of the hunting. But success depends more on the number of waterfowl utilizing the area than on the number of hunter days."
The impoundments vary in size. Pamlico Point is 754 acres, Spring Creek, 157, Hunting Creek, 135, Smith Creek, 13, Campbell's Creek, 340, and Hobucken, 40.
The parking area for Hunting Creek and Spring Creek impoundments is located on NC 33 west of its intersection with NC 304. The parking area for the Hobucken Impoundment is located just south of the intersection of NC 33 and NC 304. Just west of the Spring Creek parking lot is the commission's Smith Creek Boating Access Area. This ramp provides boaters access to Smith Creek Impoundment, about one-half mile away and Campbell's Creek Impoundment, about one mile away. Hunters use johnboats to ferry gear and smaller boats to drag over the impoundment dikes.
"Smith Creek is underutilized," Davis said. "You can put in at the ramp and go to the impoundment, and then use the crossovers or drag a small boat over the dike. You need to use a large boat to get there because you don't know the conditions that will occur. Wind is always a factor in hunting the impoundments that require access from boat ramps."
Pamlico Point, the largest impoundment and the most difficult to get to, is divided into four sections by dikes. A privately owned pay ramp is located three miles west of Pamlico Point on Oyster Creek Road with a drop box for dollars before dawn.
"You need a really big boat to get to Pamlico Point," Davis said. "You cross some big water and a strong wind makes getting there dangerous. Once you get there, there's a creek running to the intersection of all four of the dikes and your party can split up from there for hunting the different sections."
Taking a change of clothes and a means to get warm in event of a dunking is a good idea during any impoundment hunt. A step that sends a hunter into deep water along the canals or just a stumble and pitch into shallow water can make the experience miserable or downright dangerous. Other things to bring along include a stool, flashlight and pruning shears to cut reeds for makeshift blinds. Some sportsmen hunt from small boats covered with netting or other materials or from temporary netting blinds. No permanent blinds or gasoline motors are allowed in the impoundments. Hunters cannot enter impoundments before 4:30 a.m. and must be out by 1 p.m. Decoys must be out by 3 p.m.
Phragmites, a tall reed species, black needle rush, a marsh plant, and stunted pines and wax myrtle bushes growing on the hummocks and dikes make good cover for hunters. Phragmites is kept in check with herbicide treatments or it would take over the impoundments. Other than cover, the exotic reed serves no useful purpose to ducks or hunters.
"For 2006-07, we will open a new 1,500-acre acquisition to Goose Creek called the Parker Farm," Davis said. "It's a mitigation land under long-term management. It was a peat mine that's been restored, so we won't be doing any habitat manipulation. But there are ducks in the ponds. There's deep water and open water mixed with some thickly vegetated areas. It's located east of Aurora off Bay City Road, which turns off NC 33 near the Pamlico-Beaufort counties line. The road off Bay City Road to the game land is Bear Road. It will be open for hunting under the same permit system as other Goose Creek permit impoundments."
The new impoundments should offer excellent duck hunting for wood ducks and other puddle ducks. There are impenetrable places that will provide good cover for roosting and resting ducks. Hunters need small boats for access because the ponds are deep due to the type of mining that created them.
But that hunt was but a dream for the future during our hunt last season, a hunt that grew more successful by the minute. A ringneck flew over just out of our shooting range and one of the other members of our party downed it over his decoys. Plenty of ducks flew into the impoundment from the nearby sound and many decoyed to our party's decoys and to those of nearby hunters. While the shooting of other hunters (and our own shooting) sometimes turned entire flocks away from the impoundment, enough ducks decoyed to result in a good morning. Our bags included ringnecks, teal, gadwalls and widgeon -- the signature duck of Goose Creek.
Most hunters left the impoundments after the sun had been up an hour. But we stayed until 11 a.m. and got in some extra shooting, since our decoys stood out as the only game in town for ducks that knew there was a feast of natural duck food for the nibbling.
The return trip was tougher on hunters because the sun was up. Waders transformed into brown-and-serve bags as we portaged the boat and gear with the bonus weight of ducks.
At the parking area, Benjy Strope, a commission wildlife technician, checked our bag of ducks. He decapitated a few and
took intestinal samples as part of an avian influenza study.
"Looks like you guys had a good morning," Strope said. "These are some of our best impoundments. A duck or two per hunter is a typical bag."
Strope and other NCWRC technicians collect information on ducks bagged at commission impoundments and Goose Creek usually shows top results. To keep them productive, the commission asks that hunters and birdwatchers stay out of the impoundments on non-hunting days and that they use binoculars instead to spot ducks from the new observation towers at Pamlico Point and Campbell's Creek from a distance. Observation towers will also be erected at the other impoundments.
With what's now seven impoundments covering over 9,400 acres, it's no wonder waterfowl hunters flock to Goose Creek. Mention it to a dedicated Tar Heel duck hunter and he'll say he's heard of it, he's going there again, or he's returning from a great hunt. He might volunteer to guide you. But if he doesn't, you now have the scouting report to try the excellent impoundment hunting on your own.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For more information, check the NCWRC's regulations digest, special hunt opportunities booklet, or visit www.ncwildlife.org online.
Matt Millard at Millard's Unlimited Taxidermy at (919) 920-4888 in Goldsboro usually has the scouting report for waterfowl hunting at Goose Creek Game Land.