Hunting Tundra Swans In The Tar Heel State
March 31, 2011
60,000 tundra swans migrate to North Carolina.
I opened my mailbox to discover an envelope from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. About 5,500 hunters apply each year for 5,000 tundra swan permits available in North Carolina, so I knew my chances were good. Still, I knew 500 people would come up empty, and I have never been very lucky at permit or special hunt drawings. When I tore the envelope open, I saw the big orange tag: My 2008-09 tundra swan permit!
Now it was time to find a guide. I was hoping to make it a combination hunt for a swan and greater snow geese, and maybe Atlantic brant, as well. The Web site of Aaron Mathews and Fourth Generation Outfitters caught my eye because Mathews mentioned his passion for snow geese. With access to 16,000 acres of private farm ground in northeastern North Carolina, he has plenty of options. He also has 12 licensed pole/brush blinds on Currituck Sound for water hunts.
As I checked further, I discovered he had recently won the 2008 World Swan Calling Championship in Washington, N.C. Combined with a 100 percent success rate for swan hunters, I figured he was a good choice. My first call to Mathews satisfied all questions, so I set up a mid-January hunt.
Setting a Spread
I arrived at Currituck Sound on a Sunday afternoon. After I was settled in, Mathews came by to discuss plans for the next morning's hunt. At 27 years old with six years as a professional guide and several more years assisting his father as a guide, Mathews is very serious about waterfowl hunting and the habits of the birds.
"There have been a lot of snows feeding in the fields," he reported. With winds of 15 mph forecasted, he recommended a hunt in a wheat field. I was the only hunter, so he would pick me up at 4 a.m. because it would take nearly 45 minutes to reach our field, and we would be setting a large decoy spread.
With big white birds on my mind, I awoke early and fixed hot cereal. As I stepped outside, north winds and cold temperatures greeted me, but not nearly as cold as the single digits and teens I had left behind in Missouri. When Mathews pulled up with his truck and trailer, I quickly loaded my gear and we were on our way.
The stars were noticeably absent, and only a dull glow from a near-full moon as it struggled to let light show through the blanket of clouds.
After pulling off of the highway west of Elizabeth City, we were headed down country roads when the headlights startled a trio of ducks from the ditch. I asked if ducks would also be a possibility in our field, but Mathews said the ducks were rare in the fields. Two inches of rain a few days earlier had put water in the ditches and that was the only reason we had seen the ducks.
We rolled to a stop with wheat fields on each side of the road. The table-flat fields offered no cover, so we made our hide in a ditch and set the decoys into the field. Hopefully, that would pull incoming birds right over us.
I put my waders on as Mathews opened the trailer and began to get decoys ready. We carried the first tub of Texas rags across the ditch and 30 yards out into the field. The cloud-shrouded moon was all the light we needed as we began setting the 600 white rag snow goose spread in a three-legged X. The stakes went in the unfrozen ground easily, a far cry from the rock-hard frozen ground in Missouri's fields.
To finish the spread, we set three full-body snow goose and six swan shell decoys on motion stakes as the fourth leg of the X. With enough wind to give movement to the spread, I hoped it would fool late-season swans and the always-skeptical snow geese.
I began pulling facemask, shells and snow goose calls from my backpack while Mathews moved the truck and trailer half a mile away. I brought my old Remington 870 12 gauge 3-inch shotgun, and loaded it with No. 2 Hevi-Shot. I figured the combination would provide a dense pattern for a head and neck shot while still packing plenty of power to kill an adult swan that could weigh up to 20 pounds.
Whoos and Hollers
As shooting time approached, we pulled a few weeds to make a little better hiding spot at the edge of the ditch. I noticed the lack of goose and swan sounds, but Mathews said the roosts were quite a distance away.
It wasn't long before my guide started calling. To the south I saw a swan, almost ghost-like, as it flew through the early morning haze toward us. The calls brought the big bird right in. The world calling champion's clear "whoos" and subtle purring "whoos" he produced with his voice reassured the young bird, and it glided in and landed among the decoys. Within minutes, a second swan followed, also landing in our sprawling white spread.
It was 8:30 a.m., and birds were on the move. We saw a string of snow geese to the southeast, but they seemed to have another field in mind. It was then Mathews asked, "Are you ready for your swan?"
A quarter-mile south, a flock of eight swans was hanging low on the horizon, heading our way. The birds were answering Mathews' melodious calls and gliding in, fully committed.
"The fourth from the right," he instructed, picking out the most mature swan in the flock, which also happened to be the lead bird.
My eyes followed the huge white birds as they drew ever closer. When the flock was just in front of me 25 yards high, my gunstock came to my shoulder. I pulled the barrel in front of the lead swan's head. At the shot, it folded and then hit the ground with a resounding thump five yards in front of me.
With a few excited hollers, I jumped up and ran to my trophy. It didn't have a solid yellow bar running from the base of its bill to its eye, but it was a beautiful mature swan.
Although the swan weighed only 13½ pounds, its long neck and six-foot wingspan made it seem far larger than the 14-pound Canada goose I had shot a few years earlier.
Hoping for Snow
After a handshake and a couple of pictures, we hid the swan under some grass and got back to the edge of the ditch because snow geese were in the air. One small flock of about a dozen began working to our calls, but the wind had died to a light breeze and with no movement in the decoys, they only dropped to about 80 yards, then drifted away.
During the next hour and a half, after the sky
had cleared, I witnessed a steady procession of swans. Mathews continued calling them, landing a few more in the decoys. If I had missed my first opportunity, I would have been afforded 25 more chances. Even though I knew 60,000 to 70,000 tundra swans winter in North Carolina, the largest concentration in the United States, I never imagined seeing 3,000 to 4,000 of them within half a mile of us that morning. But I now understand how Mathews can guide 300 hunters to harvesting a swan each year.
The author's first tundra swan weighed more than 13 pounds and sported a 6-foot wingspan.
Just as my watch was nearing 11 p.m., a big swarm of snow geese lifted from a field two miles west of us. They were low and heading our way, but gaining altitude as they drew nearer. They were heading back to the roost and paying no attention to the decoys or our calls. One group was lower than the rest and right overhead, so we tried a shot.
They were higher than I'd like, but it would be our only chance. Our shots only seemed to speed them on their way.
By 11:30 a.m., all activity had subsided, so we decided to pick up. Mathews said that normally a lost snow goose or two mixes in with a group of swans, making it easier to bring them into good range. However, my hunt hadn't been one of those days.
While Mathews went to get our ride, I saw a flock of swans. I imitated the calls my guide had been making. The group of nine birds turned and glided over me as they looked for the source of the calls.
On the drive back to my motel, we saw a field holding 400 to 500 swans, as well as another field with a couple of thousand snow geese.
Ducks on the Water
Because the wind was supposed to be light the following day and the snow geese weren't cooperating, I decided on a puddle duck hunt on Currituck Sound.
Back at the guide's place, I skinned the swan and could already envision the breast on my smoker and the legs and wings in the soup pot as I put it in the cooler.
At 5 a.m., Mathews drove into the motel parking lot pulling an 18-foot deep V boat. He also has a 16 foot boat equipped with a mud motor, but we'd be crossing open waters on Currituck Sound, so he opted for the safety of the bigger boat even though it would be just the two of us once again.
When we arrived, three other boats were launching at the public ramp. We didn't have to wait long, and were soon on the water and on our way to the upper end of Currituck near the marsh.
Mathews dropped me off at a pole blind. While I got comfortable, he set a mix of three-dozen puddle and diver duck decoys, a dozen Canada goose floaters, plus four swan decoys to add visibility and confidence.
The winter Canada goose season in North Carolina is by permit only. I didn't have a permit, but they did make good background music throughout the morning.
Although the forecast was for rain in the afternoon, the slate gray sky was filled with low clouds already. Shooting time came and went with no activity, and the light wind died to little more than a breeze. Behind us, under the watchful eye of the Currituck lighthouse, a few teal darted over the marsh grass and a nutria swam slowly along the grass edge, paying no attention to us.
After about an hour, three pintail drakes flew in from the open water and dropped down to the decoys and our whistles. They skirted the edge of the decoys. As sprig feet reached for the calm water 45 yards away, Mathews said, "Get 'em."
I shot only once, because it was a long shot for my No. 4 steel. Mathews fired too, but the birds continued on.
"Watch him," Mathews said as the slender ducks headed back to open water. At 250 yards, one faltered and dropped from the group.
"I think you hit that one," Mathews said.
I wasn't sure, but I was glad we at least got one of the three.
Soon, the drizzle started, and as we sat under the roof of the blind, a small flock of buffleheads came in from our right. When I pulled in front of my first target, it sat down as I shot, and my pattern ripped through the water just in front of its bill. I swung to a retreating bird to the right, and my second shot again tore a path just in front of that little butterball. My third shot did the same to another of the little divers. They were closer and moving a bit slower than I was anticipating. Mathews' three shots resulted only in empty water as well.
"Oh well, they were just buffleheads," I said.
By 9:30 a.m., we still had only one pintail on the seat of the boat when we saw a black duck curling in perfectly to the imposters on the water. Both of our first shots drew empty air, but my second shot caught the duck squarely. It fell lifeless in the decoys. Steady rain set in a short time later, but Mathews said he would stay all afternoon if I wanted to.
A few swans flew past. Mathews told me most of the hunters he guides take their swans over water.
A pair of mallards made a couple of passes and were within range as they swung past on my guide's side, but he held fire since I had no shot.
As the rain continued to fall and the ducks were evidently comfortable where they were sitting, we decided to pick up at 11:45 a.m. We had a good decoy spread and what appeared to be a good spot, but rain and calm water just weren't enough to push the ducks around. It was late in a long season, so the ducks knew the routine and had their patterns.
Reasons to Return
My hunt in the Currituck area had come to a soggy end. Although the snow geese hadn't cooperated very well, I had two nice late-season ducks, and I had taken an adult swan over decoys. However, I was hoping my North Carolina adventure wasn't over.
After nearly two inches of rain, Wednesday dawned clear, windy and cold. I called another guide who I had spoken with about the possibility of a brant hunt, but I was informed the late-season birds were not coming into the area he planned to hunt. I thanked him for keeping me in mind and decided to spend the day sightseeing along the Outer Banks.
I don't know if I'll ever get back to North Carolina, but I hope so. I would like to go back earlier in the season for another try at greater snow geese and to hunt brant. Either way, my tundra swan hunt created a lasting memory.
Ron Peach travels frequently from his home in Kansas City, Mo., to hunt waterfowl.
If You GoSwan hunting in North Carolina requires a special permit, which is drawn by lottery. The application deadline is Oct. 1 each year. Cost is $10. Typically, about 5,000 permits are awarded. In 2009-2010, the swan season runs Nov. 14 to Jan. 30. For more information, visit www.ncwildlife.org. Contact guide Aaron Mathews of Fourth Generation Outfitters at www.quackkills.com.
If you'd like to learn about the history of waterfowling along Currituck Sound, visit the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education next to the Currituck Lighthouse in Currituck Heritage Park on Highway 12 in Corolla, N.C. The center features a large wooden and canvas decoy collection, a life-size marsh display, carving displays and gear, as well as a 12,000-gallon aquarium.