For A Big Bag Of Birds, Hunt Bay Ducks

Most North Carolina hunters prefer shooting puddle ducks close to home. But those who want to experience waterfowling's essence head for big-water bays at the edge of Pamlico Sound. (Dec 2006)

Tiny coastal communities sleep along the shorelines of North Carolina's expansive sounds and the rivers that discharge into them. While some are awakening to the influx of outsiders who want to live or vacation near the water, many are still quiet little burgs.

The good thing about these yet-to-be discovered places, complete with swarms of biting mosquitoes and gnats that once served as natural "Yankee repellent," is that they lie beside some very big water. Not many people live in Hobucken or Vandemere, compared with places nearer the oceanfront beaches. But in wintertime, they swell in population -- not a population of human beings, but rather waterfowl. Diving ducks and sea ducks flock to the area as they have before the first European colony became "lost" at Manteo.

Chris Davis, age 19, has several blinds in Bay River and Jones Bay. His family has owned land there many years. Special local laws apply to Pamlico County shore blinds and can change at any time. The goal is protecting the last remaining private properties and the livelihoods of coastal guides. Davis works at an exclusive duck club at the mouth of the Bay River and also at a Vandemere farm supply store. He doesn't guide hunters from his blinds. He chooses to hunt them for his own pleasure and that of his friends.

Whereas a couple of seasons ago, outsiders were not interested in hunting the hordes of divers and sea ducks, sportsmen have discovered the Pamlico area and some now pay big money for hunting leases or buy shoreline properties outright, displacing the guides who traditionally were also commercial fishermen. The county blind law requires that anyone setting up a floating blind must be at least 500 yards from an occupied shore blind. But there is support for extending the law to apply to any shore blind, occupied or not.

I was hunting one of Davis' shore blinds on a tiny island, along with Jimmy Millard and his sons, Chris, 16 and Matt, 19. While Davis lives at the coast, the Millards live near Goldsboro. They help Davis maintain and build his blinds in exchange for hunting rights. Also along was Floydie Harris, a 17-year-old family friend.

"Keeping up blinds is a continuous process," Davis said. "Every time a hurricane hits, you lose your blinds. Sometimes you have to start all over and rebuild them from scratch."

The blind was generous, consisting of posts driven into the organic-laden soil and a wooden framework that supported cedar branches. But to hide several more hunters, the main wooden framework had a wing wall constructed of hay bales stacked on top of one another. The entire affair offered complete concealment for a large group of hunters and large groups of hunters are a necessity to get the most out of a diving duck hunt.

Bag limits for scaup, the main diving duck in bays, are much lower than in past years. Locally called "bluebill" or "blackhead," the two scaup species are suffering a long-term decline of about 1 percent per year, so harvest restrictions are in effect that allow only two scaup to be taken per hunter per day. A good shot will fill a bluebill bag limit with one decoying flock, so having plenty of hunters along helps lengthen the hunt.

Canvasback and puddle ducks are occasionally taken, with puddle ducks being more prevalent near the Goose Creek Game Land impoundment complex near the Bay River than at Jones Bay. In fact, hunters who want to combine a puddle duck hunt with a diving duck hunt can launch at a private ramp along the Intracoastal Waterway south of the NC 33-304 bridge near Hobucken and navigate north or south. On days the Goose Creek impoundments are hunted, the nearby waters are open for public hunting without a permit. Hunters on the game land move the puddle ducks, along with diving ducks like ringnecks, to the surrounding waters. But the farther a hunter travels from Goose Creek, the more likely his hunting will produce bay birds.

The Millards awakened at 3 a.m. for the drive to Vandemere, where they launched at a road end ramp with a pay box based on the honor system. The box requested $3 for anyone not a resident of Vandemere. The toll was paid and the long, cold, dark boat ride began. A spotlight and headlights illuminated a growing spread until an acre of diving duck decoys had been set in front of the blind.

At daylight, a smoke plume of scaup arrived. The resulting fusillade downed five, including a cripple that Jimmy and Chris chased down with the boat. The hunting was mostly for lesser scaup, which are smaller than greater scaup. A lesser scaup drake has a purple sheen to the head feathers, while a greater scaup's head has a green iridescence. There are also differences in the white edge on the primary wing feathers, but size and head color is usually enough for hunters to differentiate the birds.

Both species are tough to kill. Combined with the fact that at any time a big canvasback or one of the larger sea ducks, surf, white-winged or black scoter, could swarm in, these hunts require hunters to use big-bore shotguns with heavy loads.

"I use No. 2 or No. 3 steel shot," Jimmy Millard said. "I use high-velocity loads and a 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge shotgun."

Steel is the choice of most bay hunters because of the amount of shooting that must be done. Puddle ducks are considered easier to kill than diving ducks and they fly slower too, making them easier to hit. A puddle duck can swim 100 yards under water, but still can't compete with a scaup or a scoter. On rough, windy days, it is tough to dispatch a cripple.

"If one still has his head up, we whack him again," Jimmy Millard said. "You can waste a lot of time and ammunition if you have to get the boat after a cripple. I would much rather use a dog than a boat."

The Millards use a super-sized aluminum johnboat to carry hunters and gear. The extra-wide, extra-deep models are well suited for getting to shore blinds as well as for use as floating blinds.

Floating blinds are allowed at Jones Bay and Bay River. But hunters should use common courtesy in spacing themselves away from other hunters because there's plenty of water for everyone.

Most hunters do not hunt from shore blinds, because they do not have access to them unless they hire a guide. Instead they hunt from boats. The average 16-foot johnboat used for hunting inland lakes is inadequate for hunting Bay River and Jones Bay. A shift in the wind direction or an increase in wind velocity can really kick up water. Waves can reach 3 or 4 feet in minutes following a period of "slick calm."

But it's the wind that moves the ducks and the choice between good hunting and safe navigation creates a duck hunter's dilemma. The answer is to use a big boat and if that one isn't big enough, get a bigger one.

Still, the advantage of hunting these two small bays is that they are more protected than the vastness of Pamlico River to the north and Pamlico Sound to the east, which is the body of water to which they are tributaries. Hunters who launch boats at Hobucken to travel the Intracoastal Waterway to the north to gain access to Pamlico Point know just how rough the crossing at the southern edge of the Pamlico River can become when jostled by the wind.

But Jones Bay and the Bay River are protected by land during north, south or west winds. Hunters can use the shoreline as a windbreak on every wind that is not east and can set their decoys and hunt from their boats in the lee side of a bank.

There are some homes along these water bodies. Whether it is legal to hunt near them or not should take a secondary consideration to whether it is ethical. Some property owners don't like being awakened by shooting before dawn, so hunters should have the courtesy to stay a long distance from any waterfront homes, even if they spot ducks rafting there.

Divers' and sea ducks' brains are not as adapted to identifying danger as those of most puddle ducks. They can therefore be hunted harder and longer before they become decoy shy. Still, the dimmer bulb in their head glows a bit brighter with each passing day of the hunting season and they can become skittish of decoys.

The worst conditions to hunt them are bright, sunny days with no wind. But as the wind picks up and water gets rippled, they fly from place to place.

Freezing weather makes them feed more than warmer weather because it takes more calories to maintain the high metabolism of sea ducks. A wise hunter takes along a NOAA weather radio or a VHF radio to listen to the marine forecast and plans his hunting times and locations accordingly. Weather can change rapidly and getting caught in the wrong place during a blow is dangerous. Instead, a hunter wants be in the right place during a blow. Points of marsh are classic places to hunt during the days when the ducks are moving. Setting up in the lee of a point is a classic way to get in good gunning on divers stirred up by the wind like hornets from a bush-hogged nest.

Scouting the locations of duck concentrations is more important to consistently shooting good bags of sea ducks and diving ducks than finding a good location and sticking with it day after day. Most hunters will have the most success by planning to hunt an area for two or three days and using a boat blind or layout rig, instead of competing with other hunters to arrive at a certain place.

The best tactic is motoring through the bays, using binoculars to spot resting ducks and to identify the species of resting or flying ducks. Scouting for resting ducks is productive at any time of day. But to find flyways, it's best to watch before dawn or after shooting hours near sunset. A hunter watching where ducks roost and the flyways they use to get to nighttime resting areas can set up along them the next morning and have good shooting if the wind direction remains the same.

Ducks rest in the lee of banks and the stronger the wind the more they concentrate their numbers. Divers and sea ducks form immense flocks during the roughest weather and these flocks become broken up as groups leave to feed in other waters to get away from the competition.

When flocks of divers are feeding, they are very competitive. Birds in the rear of the flock surface after feeding and find that they are now in the back of the flock. They then leapfrog over the other ducks. It's a constant hopscotch game and that's why bay ducks universally decoy to the head of a spread of decoys.

hese large waters are the place to use classic diver spreads with the bulk of the decoys forming the hook of a "J" in front of the shooter. The shank of the "J" then tails off downwind, 100 yards or more, out to the lanes used by ducks that are usually out of shotgun range from the nearest bank or island.

It takes many decoys to set up this pattern, counted by hundreds, not by dozens. Decoys along the tail of the spread should be set about 5 feet apart and in a perfectly straight line with no gaps. Rigging them on a trotline is the best way to accomplish this, but experienced hunters can set single decoys in a line by allowing the boat to drift with the wind and dropping decoys over the upwind gunwale in a rhythmic routine.

Divers may land at any gap or bend in the straight leg of the "J." Therefore, any wayward decoys must be brought back into line. Even hard-hunted ducks seem hypnotized by a long, straight line of decoys. They lose their fear of objects like boat blinds and cruise to the hook at the head of the decoys, where they drop in front of them or right in among them.

It's easy to shoot decoys when hunting sea ducks and divers because they decoy so low. A gap in the decoys in front of the blind can cause ducks to drop right there. Shortening the hook of the "J" also provides an open shooting area.

Still, decoys are going to get shot. Lee Parsons, a Pamlico guide, showed me his trick for sealing pellet holes. He uses a hot-glue tool to seal shot decoys and it is so easy to do, he doesn't worry about them getting punctured. It's hard enough to hit a fast-flying bay duck without trying to shoot between decoys in the process, so repairing them becomes a prime consideration.

When hunting from a boat blind, smart hunters use fore and aft anchors for stability. Nothing flares ducks more than a boat swinging from side to side. In fact, any movement will scare incoming ducks. If surprised by a shout of "Here they come," you shouldn't reach for a gun or even turn your head. Simply freeze and let the other hunters get some shooting. Parson's words of advice when hunting bay ducks are, "Never let your shotgun leave your hands."

The anchor lines should have net floats attached. The line can then be untied from the boat and the anchor left in place with the float marking the location. This makes chasing cripples and retrieving dead ducks faster than if the anchors are hauled.

While most hunters use steel shot for divers because of its relatively low cost, many hunters shoot tungsten-alloy or tungsten-polymer or bismuth shot.

A good shot will save money using the more lethal pellets and even a beginner may save money when using them to retrieve cripples. A crippled diving duck can take plenty of shells to bring to bag because of the small lethal area represented by its head appearing for an instant above the water. Sometimes, all you get is one chance at a cripple, especially on a choppy day. A heavy load of tungsten No. 6 pellets will do the better job of dispatching a cripple, saving ammunition, cash and hunting time.

When shooting from a boat blind, open bores are better than tight chokes. If the decoys have been properly placed, ducks will give some close shooting opp

ortunities. Using an improved cylinder or modified choke helps compensate for the up-and-down motion imparted to a shotgun barrel by a rocking boat.

Hunters make plenty of excuses for missing bay ducks. But getting them to decoy says you've won the game. Some hunters miss out of shock and some fail to shoot when hundreds of bay ducks envelope their decoys suddenly, then vanish into the vastness like a wisp of smoke.

But either way, it's an experience you'll never forget and, for many of us, one you can't get enough of.

Find more about North Carolina fishing and hunting at:

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