Rapid Response For Roanoke Diving Ducks

Rapid Response For Roanoke Diving Ducks

Late-season hunts for diving ducks are a Tar Heel tradition. Here's a lake where these speedy ducks flock that many hunters have overlooked. (December 2007)

Darrell McAuly and his Labrador, Drake, with some typical Roanoke Rapids Lake waterfowl, including a mallard, ring-necked duck and lesser scaup.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

When most waterfowl hunters think of the hotspots that have the highest concentrations of diving ducks, they most likely think of the state's largest reservoirs or coastal swamps, rivers and sounds. Certainly, the national wildlife refuges come into play. But hunting them requires permit applications, lottery drawings, and hoping for luck to be drawn for a blind.

Nevertheless, there are some excellent places to hunt divers on some of the state's smaller hydroelectric power generation lakes.

Perhaps one of the most out-of-the-way and fairly undiscovered place for hunting diving ducks, as well as a few puddle ducks during the latter part of the waterfowl-hunting season, is Roanoke Rapids Lake.

Located in northern Halifax County, along the former Roanoke River channel that forms North Carolina's common boundary with Virginia, Roanoke Rapids Lake is a moderate-sized body of water of more than 4,600 acres. However, it's large enough to support a sizeable winter population of diving ducks.

Puddle ducks have always migrated along the Roanoke River's floodplain, using the hardwood bottoms for feeding, resting and wintering habitat. Downstream of Roanoke Rapids Lake these migratory puddle ducks, especially mallards and wood ducks, still hold sway as the predominant species in the river bottoms.

These puddle ducks still use the lake, which is located downstream of the Lake Gaston Dam. But swarms of diving ducks are what most hunters will see when they head to Roanoke Rapids Lake. Unlike many of the lakes in the interior of the state, and many vastly larger reservoirs, divers find not only resting areas but also nutritious food in the form of a state and federally listed noxious waterweed on Roanoke Rapids. Diving ducks can feed on bottom-dwelling organisms, especially species of small clams. However, both puddle ducks and diving ducks feed on Hydrilla verticillata, commonly called only by the plant's genus name, hydrilla.

Hydrilla is so prevalent on Lake Gaston it is the object of intense scrutiny, as federal and state eradication programs are trying to fight the weed with herbicides. There's even talk of forming special tax districts among the surrounding lakefront residential properties along the lake's 47 miles of shoreline to raise money for the control efforts.

However, once established, there's little chance hydrilla will ever be completely eradicated. The submergent plant has been called the perfect water plant, with branched stems up to 25 feet long. The leaves grow in whorls around the stem, creating a green vine-like plant as long and strong as twine.

Ducks eat the plant stem and leaves of hydrilla. But they are especially fond of the 1/4-inch-long turions, or small "nuts" at the leaf axils, as well as the potato-like tubers attached to the roots in the mud.

Roanoke Rapids Lake extends for eight miles between the Gaston Dam and the Roanoke Rapids Dam. Both dams are used to generate hydroelectric power for Dominion Company, which owns the lakes.

Roanoke Rapids Lake has seen some controversies over duck blind sites over the years. There is a rule that allowed blinds to be built on former sites of blinds. However, no new blinds may be built.

Therefore, most hunters use boat blinds, or sit among the rocks and trees of the islands in the middle of the lake for hunting waterfowl. The islands, and indeed the entire lake bottom and shoreline, are studded with boulders and cobbles, which can destroy the propeller or lower unit of a standard outboard motor. Occasionally, a jet drive outboard is seen on the lake. However, the danger of sucking a bunch of hydrilla into the drive mechanism discourages this type of motor as well.

Darrell McAuly is a waterfowl guide who divides his time between Roanoke Rapids and Harris lakes. Roanoke Rapids Lake has no North Carolina Wildlife Commission impoundment rules, while Harris Lake has date restrictions. McAuly and his clients shoot several hundred ducks at Roanoke Rapids Lake each season.

"I tried using an old blind site, but had some problems with the local hunters," McAuly said. "So I switched to a pontoon boat and built a blind on it. Now, I can take half a dozen hunters and park the boat anywhere I like without interference. I found it is actually better for hunting because I'm not tied down to a stationary blind."

McAuly has made modifications to his outboard motors. He has special intakes that can pick up and discharge cooling water in the thick mats of hydrilla.

"The average outboard can't take it," he said. "Either you bang it up on the rocks or the hydrilla clogs the cooling ports and it overheats. You have to go out and scout the lake well in advance to find out where you can go safely and where you can't. You can be running in 10 feet of water and it can go to 0 feet in a second. Or, you can run smack into a hydrilla bed in the dark and have to paddle or pole your way out of it. Daylight will catch you and you will miss the best hunting of the day."

McAuly's bag primarily consists of ringnecks and scaup, which he calls bluebills. But he also gets ruddy ducks, canvasbacks, blue- and green-winged teals, shovelers, widgeons, pintails, wood ducks and mallards.

"In the early part of the season, we see some Canada geese," he said. "But they get smart fast, leaving the lake before daylight and returning after it gets dark."

McAuly puts out as many as 500 decoys when he hunts. He said the whole trick to success is to out-compete other hunters.

"Diving duck hunting is a numbers game," he said. "I put out as many decoys as I can carry. I try to hunt the same places as much as possible because the motor wash will cut trails and openings so you can get out there to set the decoys."

He puts the decoys out before his hunters show up, and then he picks them up at North Carolina's Thelma boating access area at the end of Van Warren Road. There are two other boat ramps at the lake. But that's the one he uses the most when guiding parties of hunters. Another good ramp if the wind is blowing from the south is the NCWRC boating access area ramp near the Roanoke Rapids Lake Dam at the end of 5th Street in the town of Roanoke Rapids.

"Most hunters won't go to the trouble of putting out that many decoys," he said. "But I have a system that only takes 45 minutes to pick them up and less than that to set them out, even in the dark of night."

McAuly works with a partner and the team leaves their decoys stacked in the boat between hunts. They don't bother putting them in bags. However, they do have to get most of the hydrilla off the weights so the soaked-up water won't sink the boat. However, they don't really want the details of their techniques for setting out and picking up so many decoys in such a short period of time revealed. Decoy setting and rigging are among the most important and guarded secrets among duck hunters.

"Every hunter has to work out a decoy rigging method and decoy patterns and spreads that work best for him," McCauly said. "Everyone uses different decoys anchors and lines. How you set up and retrieve decoys also depends upon where and how you are hunting, the ducks that are using the area at the time, the size of your boat and your physical ability to handle heavy or light decoys and small numbers or large numbers of decoys. A lot of people have complained about how many decoys I use. But if they paid attention, they could have every bit as good a successful hunt as I have if they would get several buddies together and pool their decoys together to create a big spread over a larger stretch of water. A big spread outdraws a small spread every time."

McAuly uses a 21-foot Southern Skimmer boat with a center console to set out and pick up decoys. The decoys are all quality stock decoys, consisting of top-drawer duck-drawers like Avery's Greenhead Gear, Herter's and G&H. McAuly makes sure his hunters are safely ashore and headed for home before starting to pick up the decoys. He deposits hunters comfortably at the ramp, and then heads back to pick up his decoys, doing the hard part while the hunting parties have the fun.

When he sets up a spread, it covers a couple of acres. Most hunters think the ducks will land too far away to shoot, well out of gun range. However, he said it works for him.

"You won't get a shot at all if they don't see the decoys," he said. "Divers like big masses of ducks on the water. They've seen plenty of spreads on the way down from Canada or the West with only a dozen to five dozen decoys, so they aren't interested in them. While they get shot at over the smaller spreads, it's almost like they can't believe it can be unsafe to land where there are 50 dozen ducks floating on the water."

McAuly uses 1-pound weights to hold in the hydrilla beds when there's a big wind. He picks up the downed ducks with the skiff if his retriever can't get to them in the event a duck's been crippled and not killed outright.

"I lost both of my dogs to melamine pet food poisoning last season, along with a litter of pups," he said. "But I should have some replacements by this hunting season."

McAuly said the important things about hunting divers are using a heavy shot charge, calling sparingly, and staying still in the blind.

"I usually stay outside the blind on a rock and call from where I can see the ducks working," he said. "As long as I stay in the shadows and don't move around, divers think I'm part of the rock. But if a hunter starts moving around in the blind, showing his face and making the blind rock, the jig's up. The duck's will flare before getting near enough to shoot."

He advises all of his hunters to keep their faces hidden. If they wear face nets and don't move until ducks are in range, they will have some excellent shooting.

"Diving duck hunting is more dependent on the weather than puddle duck hunting," he said. "It needs to be blowing and it needs to be cold."

Cold fronts move the birds down from northern waters as well as freezing over smaller water bodies. There are oxbows, private ponds and beaver ponds all along the Roanoke River and ducks use these places until they freeze over.

"Some of my best hunting occurs after a freeze," he said. "I've had days after a freeze when everybody had their limit before 8:30 a.m."

Hunters after divers use an assortment of shotguns and ammunition, and shooting distances may be short or long. But either way, diving ducks are generally more difficult to bring down with authority than puddle ducks.

"It can take lots of time and ammunition to kill a crippled diving duck," he said. "It can be especially tough when he's landed out in a big hydrilla bed. You have to have a dog that knows how to get through the thick stuff and you have to have a tight-patterning gun to finish off any cripples. That's why I shoot a 10-gauge semi-automatic shotgun with heavy charges of No. 3 shot."

McAuly goes through several cases of ammunition each season. It saves him money using 10-gauge steel shot instead of a 12-gauge with one of the tungsten-based alloys.

"I certainly advise anyone shooting a 12 gauge to use the best ammunition they can afford," he said. "Some hunters and some 12-gauge shotguns will take divers cleanly. But you need to pattern your gun before going hunting to make sure the gun and load you use is tight enough for divers. You need a dense pattern because except for canvasbacks and greater scaup, they represent a fairly small lethal target area and require good penetration because they have lots of fat and feathers and can dive and swim so well. I wouldn't advise shooting anything smaller than No. 3 steel or a No. 4 or No. 5 tungsten-based shot. If you are shooting a 12 gauge, it pays to go with a 3- or 3 1/2-inch shell."

When selecting hunting areas, hunters should search for obvious signs of ducks. In fact, afternoon or late-morning hunts can be very productive if hunters pay attention.

While running across the lake, hunters can spot concentrations of diving ducks. If they set up their decoys and quickly set up a boat blind in the same spot, they will usually have good shooting. But the "quick" part is important.

Divers come back fast, so rather than set up a big spread of several hundred decoys, it's a better idea to prepare for a "rapid response" by setting out a couple of dozen decoys and waiting for the first divers to return to their favored feeding area. It usually takes between 10 and 30 minutes for the first ducks to return and hunters should be already set up and waiting, ready to shoot within that time.

After the first flocks return, hunters can add decoys each time they head out to retrieve their downed ducks. During breaks in the action, usually over the course of a couple of hours, they can build a pretty hefty spread of fake ducks by adding a couple of dozen each time they shoot at a flock.

Many hunters use trotline rigs for their decoys, putting up to two-dozen decoys on one line. This aids in setting them out with speed and keeps much of the hydrilla off the anchors, since there are fewer anchors to reach the bottom and become entangled in the plant stems.

"The hydrilla is the blessing and the bane of duck hunting at Roanoke Rapids Lake," McAuly said. "If it wasn't here, the duck numbers would be much lower. But it also makes it much more difficult to get around on, to pick up decoys and to retrieve downed ducks. But if the lake had a smooth bottom, devoid of any waterweeds, I don't think there would be much reason for ducks to come here or for hunters to come here to hunt them."

For more information, call Darrell McAuly, Carolina Water Fowler at (910) 486-0241 or (910) 263-3499.

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