Sutton Lake's November Ringnecks

Sutton Lake's November Ringnecks

Want a change in your November waterfowling? Try hunting ringnecks at Sutton Lake. (November 2007)

Boat blinds are popular with ringneck hunters. Bobby Caldwell uses binoculars to identify ducks at a distance. Differentiating between scaup and ringnecks is critical, as scaup have been subject to reduced bag limits.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

November is a difficult month for North Carolina outdoorsmen. The deer rut is in full swing in the coastal counties, small-game seasons are open and nearly all species of saltwater and freshwater game fish are biting. However, a more recent phenomenon drawing hunters and anglers into waterfowl hunting is the long November duck season.

I can remember when the November segment of duck season was three days long, then a week long, until now it runs several weeks, usually from the second week of the month through Thanksgiving weekend. It was much easier to decide what to do in the "bad old days" of a short waterfowl season in November. You got your gear ready, then hunted every one of those days until the early duck season was over.

I happen to live in southeastern North Carolina, where good duck-hunting waters are far from legendary and, more accurately, are few and far between, at least when compared with the vast stretches of duck waters of the northeastern sounds, rivers and lakes. Even the inland reservoirs have more open water available for hunting than the scant puddles of impounded water acreage in the southeastern part of the state.

Nevertheless, there is one location that routinely draws ducks and hunters. Like any other place, it can be a spotty source of waterfowling fun. But it's relatively easy to gain access to and sometimes has an impressive number of ducks. Constructed in the 1970s as a cooling water source for the Progress Energy (then it was Carolina Power and Light Company) L.V. Sutton Steam Electric Generating Plant, Sutton Lake not only is an excellent place to fish, it can be an excellent place to hunt ducks.

Despite what most waterfowl hunters believe, November is consistently the top month for the number of waterfowl in the state. Aerial surveys by the North Carolina Wildlife Commission have proved this fact to be true. Many species are in the state at this time. However, some, such as canvasbacks, brants, black ducks and pintails, have been off-limits to hunting in recent Novembers, so hunters must watch carefully for regulations and bulletins on these species.

For these reasons, and because hunting and fishing seasons for just about everything else are also open, many hunters defer their waterfowl hunting until the "real" duck season comes in December, or until the deer season goes out in January.

Warm weather is another thing that keeps duck hunters off the water. Mosquitoes and biting gnats are nuisances until the first frost and it's hard to get enthusiastic about rolling on a pair of neoprene waders that are so warm they make you feel like a steamed oyster if the air temperature is much above freezing.

So, what is it that may induce hunters to check out the 850-acre lake in New Hanover County in November? If you guessed ringnecks, you've rung the bell and we have a winner!

Sutton Lake has very little puddle duck habitat in and of itself. But the Cape Fear River is nearby and puddle ducks, such as teal, mallards, gadwalls and widgeon visit the lake later in the season.

I've seen many diving duck species at some time or another at Sutton Lake. Indeed, it's the only place I would even recommend any waterfowl hunter in the southeastern part of the state could have a chance at a redhead. Sometimes there are good numbers of redheads. However, that usually happens when the weather turns exceptionally cold, not in November. In January, lesser scaup make a showing. Sometimes there are thousands, sometimes only dozens, and sometimes, none at all.

Last year for example, was a particularly good season for ruddy ducks, with many flocks of them. But coots, which are normally quite numerous, were low in number and scaup did not make a good showing.

However, in November, for whatever reason, diving ducks can swarm the lake. Some of these diving ducks are lesser scaup or "bluebills" as most coastal anglers call them. But many are ring-necked ducks, or ringbills as some hunters call them. Last November, hunters saw good numbers of ringnecks at the lake.

These two species can be difficult to distinguish in flight. At a distance, though, the unique whistling of the speedy ringneck's wings give away their identity. Their propensity to fly right through the decoys, zoom a half-mile out, and then zip back in for a landing at the head of the decoys also gives a hint. Drake scaup lack the white bands around the bill of drake ringnecks and hen scaup have a white patch of feather behind the bill not present on hen ringnecks. There are also differences in the rear edges of the wings, but these differences are so subtle, it takes a good deal of experience to identify them with absolute certainty. Nevertheless, hunters should learn the difference between ringnecks and scaup before hunting at Sutton Lake in November.

Both species can be present, but the bag limits for them are dramatically different. Scaup populations have been declining at 1 percent annually for over a decade. Though I'm telling my age here, I remember scaup being "10-point ducks" during North Carolina's point system days, then having a two-scaup bonus heaped atop the general bag limit for ducks, including scaup, that was five ducks. That meant bags of 10 scaup for 100 pounds, or seven scaup with the bonus system. But now, the scaup bag limit is two. Ringnecks, however, have had a bag limit up to the regular duck limit, which has been six ducks in recent seasons, and their numbers have been increasing.

While it can be hard to say why one species decreases while another increases, it's a fact of waterfowl populations and the evolution of different species, along with complex regulations that govern hunting them. If hunters decided they didn't want to learn to identify scaup, then the bag limit for both species would have to be two ducks, to prevent an over-harvest of scaup.

That's an oversimplification, of course, but in general terms, it indicates why hunters must learn to tell the difference between the two ducks. Unless they can, they have to stop shooting once they've reached their two-bluebill limit, which can happen all too quickly.

To be certain, some hunters let ducks land, or at least stretch their feet for the water, before firing. Still, flocks of the two species occasionally mix at Sutton Lake, so hunters should be very careful. With increasing experience, shooting can be done with more confidence. Veteran

waterfowlers usually have no problem distinguishing between the two species.

The best advice is to take binoculars with you during all trips to the lake, whether you are bass fishing or scouting, and observe the birds on the water and on the wing. Play a guessing game with your fishing or hunting partner, gambling a couple of tungsten shotgun shells or a fishing lure against his ability to tell which species of duck he's looking at.

Both species decoy well to either species' decoys. While having a stool of ringneck decoys is always the best bet for hunting ringnecks, in my opinion, they still decoy to scaup decoys and even puddle duck decoys.

Ringnecks are very interesting ducks. Over the years, I've begun calling them the "diving puddle duck." I've shot them in the tiny coastal creeks near Sutton Lake, as well as in the Cape Fear River, Northeast Cape Fear River, New River and many private impoundments where of all things they fly and feed at the same waters dominated by wood ducks. Even beaver ponds hold good numbers of ringnecks.

Scaup feed primarily on animal protein, but ringnecks love aquatic plants, such as hydrilla and pondweed. Sutton is full of nuisance pondweed and southern naiad, as well as several species of small clams. This gives ringnecks a dual-level smorgasbord at Sutton.

Sutton Lake's management seems to have some influence in addition to the general factors affecting duck numbers on a continental scale, such as population and temperatures. Any year when lake managers use herbicides to control aquatic vegetation obviously has an effect on the food supply for ringneck ducks.

Another interesting management scheme I believe affected the population four or five years ago was a planting operation conducted as part of Progress Energy's SLEMI (Sutton Lake Ecosystem Management Initiative). The lake was drawn down its maximum possible level, about a foot. Cypress and tupelo were planted around the edges. Some of them survived and can be seen growing today. But the lake turned a blue-green color, indicating an overturn or phytoplankton bloom. This seemed to have an adverse effect on the fishing for a year. But following this water chemistry change, there were more diving ducks than I've ever seen at Sutton Lake.

I surmised this affected the growth of waterfowl food vegetation or benefited the food sources of clams. But no one can claim this was a cause-and-effect relationship. Some anglers and duck hunters have complained about lake management projects. However, I do know this for certain: Any manmade lake that is completely left on its own eventually becomes a stable, and therefore, stagnant place in terms of fish and duck abundance. Changes in water levels and water quality are beneficial to certain species, no matter which way the pendulum swings.

There are going to be ups and downs, and change appears to benefit diving ducks at Sutton Lake. Several years go without many ducks at Sutton, and then suddenly, there are thousands. The evidence points to cyclical lake management. The fact that it's incidental to Progress Energy's primary purpose of generating electric power should keep hunters happy and they should compliment the company on allowing duck hunting to continue on the lake.

Sutton Lake is a game land, leased to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The creek to the south of the plant is accessed from the Cape Fear River and can be hunted as long as hunters stay on the public waters. But the game land south of the plant is open for archery hunting only, thanks to terrorist activities that have tightened up homeland security. On the lake itself, only shotguns may be used. While there was quite a bit of game land acreage to the east of the lake, over the past two years, that property was removed from the game lands program for security reasons and for reasons having to do with competing uses. There were some ponds on the now-closed property that held a few ducks. But the main draw was always the lake itself.

The entrance is a gravel road winding off U.S. 421 north of Wilmington. The boat ramp is at the end of the road and is maintained by Progress Energy and the commission, which have a solid partnership in managing all aspects of the game land, as well as the hunting and fishing.

Many trees were inundated when the lake was formed by the damming of Catfish Creek. That inundation created a log- and stump-filled lake. The low banks do not block much wind, so the lake can get choppy in the lightest breeze. Combined with logs floating, poking just above the surface, or hidden a couple of inches below the surface, rough conditions magnify the risk to small boats. Most hunters use aluminum johnboats and proceed across the lake at idle speed until reaching the dike system. While there are deep canals beside the dikes, which were dug to generate earth to build the dikes, the canals do have floating logs and overhangs. Experienced hunters sometime navigate the dike canals at planing speeds, but novices should use extreme caution until they get to know the water.

Hunters hunt from the dikes, some of which have cover and some of which are lined with concrete. A hunter who can sit very still out in the open can have good luck just sitting on the concrete dike. Ringnecks are not particularly bright, but become wary if shot at enough. Some hunters use the dike vegetation for hiding. Bank hunters cover their boats with camouflage material or paint them in camouflage patterns and hide them along the vegetated dikes.

Other hunters use their boat blinds for hunting, anchoring them on the "flats." These broad, flat, stump-filled areas away from the dikes are good bets because the dikes are very popular with anglers.

Sutton Lake boat traffic can be heavy or light, depending on the weather. Calm, warm weather brings out the fishermen, while windy, cold weather entices duck hunters.

When the hunting is good, some hunters have complained about all the competition when the boat ramp parking lot is full of duck boat trailers. However, my observation has been that having a number of hunters and plenty of anglers is better than having just a few hunters on the lake.

On such a small water body, ringnecks and other diving ducks merely head for the flats, forming huge flocks where they find safety. The flocks build and build, while lone hunters can only watch. But if there are enough hunters to cover the eight ponds formed by the dikes, they keep the birds stirred up, much the same as doves are on an opening day hunt over a good field.

Once the ducks start rafting up, all you can do is sit there and watch them. Rallying ducks, or chasing them up with boats for hunting purposes, is illegal. But hunters returning to the ramp after hunting often stir them up incidentally to navigation and fishermen stir them up as well.

While most hunters hunt during the morning, standard diving duck strategies work well at Sutton Lake all day. Find a flock of ringnecks and then set your decoys right in the same spot. Often the ducks return as you are setting out the decoys or erecting a boat blind.

For this reason, I only toss

out a dozen decoys, set up my blind, then wait 30 minutes or so for them to return. It's only then that I set up the rest of my spread, which consists of all the decoys I feel like carrying that day. On daylong hunts, I set out 200 decoys. On hunts of a few hours, I set out a few dozen.

There are certain places the ringnecks traditionally fly near shoreline cover and these places fill with hunters quickly. Some hunters have camped in their boats overnight to get a preferred spot, but this only happens occasionally. Some have discussed requesting special waterfowl rules for the lake, such as a three-day-per-week hunt and shooting hours. But after hunting the lake for three decades, I find these suggestions ridiculous. When the ducks are there, the hunting is crowded, but crowds help the hunting. When the ducks aren't there, neither are the hunters, so there's no crowding. I hope all hunters will realize this and seek to keep the lake open for hunting six days per week as it is currently.

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