All About North Carolina Swan Hunting: Part 1. January 9, 2012
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The North American Tundra Swan is the largest waterfowl that may be taken on the Continent. This magnificent bird breeds in the Arctic areas of Alaska and Canada and migrates from there to winter in coastal North Carolina and Virginia in populations that number in the hundreds of thousands. A limited and closely controlled harvest of these birds is allowed each fall with the majority of the birds taken in Coastal North Carolina near Lake Mattamuskeet and fewer on the Outer Banks. Swan shooting is also allowed in some states in the Western Flyway, but the grain-fed birds taken in late December and January from eastern North Carolina taste much better than those harvested from the alkali lakes of the desert Southwest.
For decades, I have hunted these birds with a variety of muzzleloading shotguns using the non-toxic shots now required for all waterfowl shooting. As this is a draw hunt, I may not go every year; but when I am drawn I assemble my growing pile of swan hunting materials and head north. In recent years I have taken a boat in case I am not drawn for public blinds at the Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge or for the blinds on Bodie Island which is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Using a boat allows me to hunt on public game lands in Pamlico Sound. My boat is a 14-ft. aluminum boat that is fine for lake hunting, but is only suitable for very near-shore work in protected waters near the sound. This year three hunters sank a 19-foot duck boat when waves driven by high winds splashed water over the back of the grounded boat and flooded it with the result that the boat pulled itself off shore and sank in 15 feet of water. The hunters were stranded until they were rescued several hours later. These shallow sounds can be dangerous and unforgiving places in any weather that is harsh enough for ducks to fly well.
The weather for this season’s hunt was unusually warm to the extent that mosquitoes were bothersome at Bodie Island compared to my hunt two-years-ago when many of the fresh-water ponds were solidly frozen and there was 2-inch-thick ice in front of the blinds on Lake Mattamuskeet. The result was that the swans had arrived, but other species such as snow geese and many varieties of ducks had not yet come in anything like their usual numbers. As with any hunts that are scheduled months in advance, I must go and take whatever weather there is. This is the reason that I stay for several days to increase my chances of success.
This year’s gun was a Thompson/Center Arms Mountain Magnum 12-gauge single-barreled percussion shotgun. The gun features interchangeable chokes and a relatively short barrel because it was principally designed as a turkey-hunting shotgun, rather than a waterfowler. I increased the gun’s weight by adding lead shot and beeswax to the hollow plastic buttstock and also often use a metal, rather than a wooden, ramrod. These weight additions, along with a slip-on recoil pad, make the gun more comfortable to shoot with 1 3/8-oz. waterfowl loads. The charge I used was 90 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven FFFg powder, a 1/4-inch over powder paper wad, 30-grains by volume of Cream of Wheat, a red Winchester plastic wad for 1 1/4-ounces of shot, 1 1/4-ounce by volume of HeviShot no. 4s, and two thin over-shot cards to hold the shot. The Mountain Magnum rifle and shotgun were somewhat unusual in that they used musket-cap nipples, instead of the more common no. 11 caps; and I employed CCI’s Musket caps on the gun. I like these larger caps for waterfowling because they are easier to handle than the tiny no. 11s.
Through a series of chance circumstances I hunted with Billy Best and his son Andrew when we appeared to claim a blind that a person had drawn, but could not legally hunt for some reason. (Perhaps he forgot his Federal Duck Stamp or HIP report.) By chance, this was blind no. 6, which is located in an impoundment back from the lake. Very often this blind is frozen in when I come to hunt. As it was still very windy, I had thought that this blind would be an ideal as waterfowl from the lake might come seeking quieter waters. This proved to be the case, and we had the best shooting that I have ever had from a Mattamuskeet blind. I had two chances at swan. On the first opportunity, the cap fell from the nipple as I raised the gun. On the second, I apparently aimed between two approaching swan and missed them both. We all did shoot some ducks, and I also took a coot. You may now view “Coot Soup for the New Year” on YouTube by clicking on the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sirFsYeHvAM.
It is entirely possible to miss swan, as was illustrated the next morning when I was invited by Carl Hyatt to join his group from Wilmington to hunt a private farm near the lake. There were thousands of swan over us shortly after dawn when they flew to feed in some of the many fields around the lake. These are very large farming operations, and these particular swan were coming to glean waste soybeans remaining after the harvest. The youngest shooter in the group had not taken a swan before, and he struggled to overcome a gun that did not fit him and was perhaps a bit over-coached by his dad and everyone around him, including me. It was agreed that he was to have the first opportunity at a swan when one appeared. He emptied his gun and did not hit it. On the second one, he repeated this event, and I fired a follow-up shot, dropping the bird stone dead in the decoys. Taking that bird finished my hunt, and I did not reload. I could not shoot another swan and nothing else was flying.
One-by-one the other shooters filled their tags, although two of the birds had to be run down and finished off. On these enormous birds you must shoot at the head and neck to kill them cleanly. In the meantime, our young shooter continued to manipulate the gun and fire. Between he and his dad, one swan was killed leaving him as the last shooter to fill out. At long last, a swan landed in the decoys and he killed it by shooting it in the head and neck. In retrospect, that was about the only shot that he could likely have made with any degree of precision with what was for him an oversize and ill-fitting shotgun.
Although some shot opportunities would likely have been available had we just sat in that field, the calling and full-body decoys made by Don Bald and the plywood silhouette decoys brought by Hyatt, really worked to bring the birds in close enough to shoot. If anything, this hunt illustrated that decoys and calling were useful and that nothing beats good gun pointing. It is also vital to know where the gun shoots with a particular load. It is common for heavy waterfowl loads to pattern low in many guns, and HeviShot loads will often impact feet below the point of aim. With my muzzleloading guns, I tailor the loads so that they shoot to the point of aim, even if I must use less powder and/or shot to achieve that result. On this hunt, I fired two shots and killed one swan, which is about my usual result. I resolved the loose-fitting cap issue by crimping the copper caps as I put them on the gun, and never had another cap fall from the gun. This was a simple act that I had to be reminded to do.
Bald, who is from Illinois, is noted for his championship-quality hand-made turkey calls. Some of these he makes out of ivory or other exotic materials, although he also commonly takes even these “art calls” and kills birds with them. He hand molded and carved his full-sized swan decoys, but does not offer these as a commercial product. His swan whistles are also custom crafted, and with proper inducement, perhaps he might be persuaded to make another one. His calling appears on the radio show as the frequent softer and higher-pitched calls in the background that are frequently masked by the louder calling of the live birds. To see Bald’s calls, which are unusual and handsome, go to his website www.baldscalls.com. He may be contacted by E-mail at email@example.com.
Although I had my Swan, I continued my planned hunt to the Outer Banks to see what conditions were like there after Hurricane Irene had swept through the previous summer. Some coastal areas had been hard hit, particularly the small community of Stumpy Point. There, half-sunk boats and debris still choked the canal from two hurricanes ago, and last year’s storm had not resulted in any significant improvement. Although people had, and were, rebuilding their homes, the town’s few businesses remained largely closed. This community needs some help from heavy-lift cranes and other construction equipment to help restore it to functionality and restore it a place where a visitor might want to come to enjoy the water, fishing and hunting opportunities in a truly wild environment.
On the next show I will continue my hunt on Bodie Island and contrast the wild and cultural environments between the largely uninhabited lands of Hyde County and the built-up resort and tourist facilities found across the sound in Dare County where towns like Nags Head attracts tens of thousands of summer visitors.