A River of 10,000 Ducks

A River of 10,000 Ducks

Almost unknown except by local hunters, North Carolina's other New River offers some great scaup hunting when the weather turns cold.

Greg Pare watches an approaching flock of scaup from a boat blind on the New River. Photo by Mike Marsh

By Mike Marsh

There are a couple of rivers named "New" that run through North Carolina. The more famous of the two runs along the state's northeastern boundary and onward into Virginia. Most state residents have never heard of the other one and if they have, were probably initially geographically confused.

Nevertheless, in the opposite corner of the state near Jacksonville, there is an exceptional destination for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters, and a river runs through it called the New. However, unlike the rushing boulder-churned rapids of its mountain namesake, the southeastern coast's version of the New River is shallow and flat, its bottom lined with soft sediments and sand that are home to shellfish-like clams. The clams in turn attract one of the highest concentrations of ducks in the state.

Almost all of the ducks attracted are scaup, and the vast majority are lesser scaup. While scaup, whether the lesser or greater species, are not high on a waterfowl hunter's menu as the most exquisite duck ever to grace a New Year's feast with their presence, they are still a workingman's duck. A duck is, after all, in fact, a duck. Shotgun shells don't care. Boats don't care. Retrievers are just as ecstatic at fetching a scaup as they are at fetching a mallard.

Dyed-in-the-wool waterfowl hunters know that fast-flying, kamikaze-strafing, tough-to-decoy, hard-to-hit-but-harder-to-kill scaup have humbled the best gunners that ever sat in sink boxes of old, twisting cold-numbed lower backs out of joint in the confines of a watery near-coffin. The fact that scaup also require some of the most creative recipes to make them edible when they have fattened on seafood makes them no less a trophy bird in the gunner's eyes or mounted in their decoy-attack position against the stone of a fireplace chimney.

A hunter removing his soaking gloves to warm them in front of a fire and admiring a New River scaup mount will have earned his trophy in true waterfowler's fashion. A pre-dawn launch from a ramp streaked with glass-slick ice, a big boat moving fast across a vast expanse of open water, setting 100 or 200 black-and-white decoys bobbing in a likely landing zone and waiting for dawn to bring more warmth to the cheeks than the steam from a tepid cup of thermos-bottle coffee are the things that make a scaup hunter's day worthwhile.

Call them what you want, scaup, bluebills, blackheads or four-letter words: Every time you empty a shotgun of three shots that only strike air, there's a good chance it was these birds you were missing.

Luckily for North Carolina waterfowlers who are just glad to have a chance to shoot at a duck, these diminutive divers have shown up on the New River dependably, season after season. While their numbers have varied with the ups and downs of ducks in general, for the past couple of seasons there have been tens of thousands of them arriving on the New. Hunters from everywhere are arriving as well to give them a welcome.

Estimates vary as to how many scaup make their winter home on the New River, but guesses run from 20,000 to 100,000. But it is hard to count a flock of scaup, let alone flock upon flock. Tens of thousands are guaranteed in a good year.

Hunters drive across the N.C. 172 bridge entering or leaving Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, scanning the stretch of water for signs of scaup. The worse the weather, the more likely the ducks will have arrived. Once they do, hunters pay to launch their boats from the private marina at the southern foot of the bridge by sliding a few dollars into a box to pay the access toll.

So it was that I found myself at the ramp with two companions, Phil Pare and his son, Greg. It was as windy and cold as January gets, with white breath-clouds streaming from our mouths and fogging our vision.

That must have been what happened when I missed seeing the "End of Ramp" sign. The trailer dropped out from beneath the 20-foot boat like a sinkhole had opened and swallowed it. Eventually, after blocking the ramp for other hunters impatiently waiting their turns, Phil gunned the truck engine at my request to try to get the wheels to jump the dropoff at the end of the concrete. They didn't, but the rest of the trailer did. While Phil and Greg towed the bungee-repaired trailer to a welding shop to have the axle re-bonded to the frame, I navigated upriver in the boat to reconnoiter a hunting spot.

Surrounded by private property and the U.S. Marine Corps Base, the New River offers hunting to those who use their boats as blinds. While there are a few active stake blinds dotting the shallow sandbars along the gently sloping edges of the river, and some hunters erect "scissors" blinds of wood-framing covered with evergreen boughs, most build or erect kits to install custom blinds on their boats. A few of the traditional-minded resort to the most effective way of gunning for divers: using a layout boat.

Anyone heading for the New River in the yeoman's waterfowling craft of a 14-foot to 17-foot aluminum johnboat is undergunned for the event, boat-wise. The New River is 20 miles long and averages a mile or two across. But it is the widest at Stone's Bay and Stump Sound, the first places to navigate upstream of the bridge.

As I put my hands on my Lab, Santana, to warm them, I waited for daylight to come to Stone's Bay. Although the 20-foot bateau-style wood and fiberglass boat was designed for rough coastal waters, I wondered about its ability to take the cresting waves safely.

While not so wide by some standards, the situation along the New River is that the surrounding terrain is essentially flat. Therefore, a 20-knot wind loses no energy among the piney forests and cottages lining parts of the river. The shallow waters are quickly whipped by the wind into a heavy chop.

As dawn arrived, I saw a cloud of smoke lifting from the northeastern corner of the bay. I watched it billow as it moved across the water. But, as it sailed overhead, individual specks turned out to be duck-pixels, creating an illusion of solid mass.

Scaup! Thousands! Then another cloud of thousands appeared, then another and another. There were so many flocks they were uncountable and the numbers of individual scaup were incomprehensible. Shooting began to rumble across Stump Sound. Slowly in the distance, like an approaching thunderstorm the shots began. Then shooting became constant as the clouds of scaup strafed hunters' decoy sets, looking for places fit for eating breakfast after the cold winter's night had robbed them of their energy.

After an hour, the shooting tapered off. Hunters who had to head for work or other commitments, others who had filled their scaup limits, and still others who had decided to call it quits rather than compete for attention with vast floating rafts of the real thing a few hundred yards away from their puny spreads of a few dozen plastic fakes, pulled their decoys and began to head for the ramp.

I focused my binoculars on one group of hunters who had set up an aluminum-framed, camouflage-netted boat blind 300 yards from my position. While they had not limited out as yet, their shooting picked up as their competition was leaving. Boats making their way back to the ramp from upriver stirred a few scaup into the air. Individuals and small flocks continued to decoy to their setup. Along the river's flyway, I could hear a smattering of shots that signified other hunters were taking advantage of the schedules of the impatient or overworked.

While it didn't have the rapid staccato of a bag of microwave popcorn as it had at its peak, the sporadic gunfire sounded like the tapering off as the popcorn gets done, rattling a few "old maid" kernels in the bottom of the bag.

Thinking of food made me anxious for Phil and Greg to return. Thanks to cell phones, contact was eventually made. Motoring back to the ramp, I picked them up and ate the warm bag brunch they had so graciously picked up at a fast-food stop. After surveying the trailer patch job and pronouncing it adequate, I headed back upriver with the entire team.

We headed farther upriver than I had previously ventured. The sun was high and the air warm and clear by January standards. While we flushed flocks of scaup at all points along the way, we decided to set up where we found a large concentration in a cove shallow enough that all of our lines would hit bottom.

We pooled our stools and had a wide assortment of rigging and weights. Therefore, the shallowest lines dictated our location. By the time we had set up all of our decoys, which numbered around 200, curious scaup were flying by for a look.

Flocks we had flushed soon reformed 200 yards away, pulling birds that had been looking over our spread. By the time we finished erecting the boat blind, all was quiet as the ducks settled onto the water. A commercial fisherman passed through a flock. While most of the scaup settled back down in more or less the same place, a few cupped wings toward our decoys. Several drakes fell to our shooting.

A patrol helicopter from the Marine Corps Base stirred another flock that sent a few stragglers our way. A single here, a double there and within a couple of hours, we had our scaup limits hanging from their blue bills along the front rail of the blind. Taking the blind down and picking up the decoys, we headed for the ramp. On that particular day, preparing for the hunt and packing back up took four times longer than the actual shooting.

As bad weather is the friend of the diving duck hunter, good weather is his nemesis. There is nothing so bad as a windless day, with nary a ripple to ruffle a resting scaup's downy backside and not a shadow of a cloud to chill ducks into flight to look for an energy meal.

To a duck hunter, such "bluebird" days represent the worst possible conditions and require his most devious tricks to have a shot at success. So I jumped at the chance to share another hunt on the New River with one of the area's top hunting retriever trainers, Jerry Simmons.

Simmons uses a layout boat when hunting New River. The advantage (or disadvantage, depending upon point of view) is that when using a layout boat, only one hunter can shoot at a time. Since a layout boat is small and has a low profile, it will hide a hunter from the wariest ducks and the calmer the weather, the warier the waterfowl.

"I like to put a hunter in the layout boat, then move away far enough so the ducks won't shy away from him," Simmons said.

Simmons puts his layout boat inside a large aluminum johnboat and tows the entire rig to the ramp. The decoys ride inside the layout boat. He puts out approximately 100 scaup decoys and mixes in a few canvasback and black duck decoys as well.

"Only rarely do you decoy anything but scaup," Simmons said. "But you never know, and the other decoys add some color to the spread to increase visibility."

The trick to layout boat shooting lies in decoy placement. A shooter sitting inside the layout boat has only a limited range of shooting accuracy. For a right-handed shooter, from straight out front to about 100 degrees to the right is the zone of accurate fire.

"Some hunters have a lot of experience with sitting down to shoot and can shoot a limit of scaup with as many shells when they are flying well," Simmons said. "Others may take a box of shells to shoot three scaup, depending upon how well the birds are working the decoys."

Sitting in the water with only my eyes showing beneath the bill of a cap was an experience. Only the lapping of ripples against the hull could be heard in through the lip of the gunning cockpit. The soundproof chamber hid the sound of wings shearing wind as the first scaup sailed from behind and through the decoys. I never raised the gun.

The decoys were set in a long line that extended 100 yards into the river. The layout boat was anchored on a shallow bar where scaup had been feeding, then flushed at the sound of the outboard motor on the "tender" boat. The layout boat was anchored so the bow would swing into the wind like a weather vane. The hunter sat facing the stern, looking down the long line of decoys extending into the river. The current in the New is negligible, so it is the wind that controls the alignment of decoys and anchored boats. A large mass of decoys is set behind the layout boat, with the idea that ducks would follow the single-row line to land at the main flock near the boat.

That's just how it worked. Except for the occasional bird that flew a sortie with the wind, most of the scaup came directly into the wind above the long line of decoys and hooked left as they approached the head of the flock.

The shooting was mostly at singles, with the best shooting occurring as the shadows lengthened late in the day and ducks were gathering into large flocks to spend the night in security. A cell phone came in handy for calling Simmons to retrieve downed ducks as they drifted free of the decoys and to pick me up at the end of my limit so he could take his turn in the layout boat.

New River scaup are not easy to kill. If a bird has his head up, it's always a good policy to keep shooting. Once he begins to dive, he can use up a lot of hunting time, swimming a great distance beneath the water. It pays to use premium shells like those loaded with tungsten-nickel shot. Although they are expensive on a per-shot basis, they can be very economical by saving extra shots at cripples compared with shells loaded with steel. Scaup are smaller than typical "big ducks" like mallards, but are very tough.

In premium alloy shotgun shells, No. 5 or No. 4 shot is extremely effective. High-velocity loads of steel work well in shot sizes of No. 2 or No. 3. A high shot cloud density is very important for success with scaup. On the windy New River, high shot velocity helps keep the pattern on course.

One tip I learned with layout boat shooting is to stand up when dispatching a cripple. The low profile of a duck on the water is almost impossible to align with a shotgun bead when there is a chop measured in inches. Standing to shoot a cripple if the layout boat is safely stable increases the odds for adding a crippled New River scaup to the bag.

For boat launching, docking and campground facilities, call Jill and Jerry Hinnant, Snead's Ferry Campground and Marina, at (910) 327-1621.

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