Sporting Life

On the Wing

An early peek on the Pamlico

By Tom Bryant

Weather was unsettled as expected this time of year. It was late fall, not quite winter. I was at our duck hunting club named Whistling Wings, located on the Pamlico Sound close to Lake Mattamuskeet. I was holding forth on my own, as the other members had Thanksgiving holiday travels to complete.

Thanksgiving at our house was over pretty fast. My brother and sisters had other plans and couldn’t come for dinner; Tommy, our son, could only visit for the day because of business commitments. That evening after Tom had left for the mountains and all the turkey fixin’s were put away, Linda, my bride, and I were at loose ends.

We were sitting by the fire talking about holidays and how they change as we grow older. “You know what, Babe? This is one of the quickest Thanksgivings ever. I think tomorrow I’m gonna ride up to the duck hole and check out things and see if ducks have arrived. None of the other guys will be there, but maybe I can get in a solitary hunt.”

“I don’t know, Tom. I hate for you to be in the middle of nowhere by yourself. What if you have an accident, get bitten by a snake or something? You would be in real trouble.”

“Lins, I also could get run over by a truck on May Street. I’m safer in the woods than anywhere.”

Linda laughed and said, “You’re right. If the bears haven’t gotten you by now, they probably never will.”

The next morning I was on the road early. It’s a five-hour motor to Mattamuskeet, and I wanted to be there by lunch to walk out to the impoundments and see if ducks were flying.

North Carolina duck hunting season is split, with the early season coming in October for three days, then in November a period of a little over two weeks, which we call the Thanksgiving season, and then the final period in the cold months, beginning in December and ending in late January. Usually, the duck club does most of our hunting in the late season, but we try to get together as many times as we can. There are five of us in the club: John’s a lawyer; Jack’s a judge; Tom’s a textile mill owner; Art is also a mill owner but retired; and Bryan’s a textile broker. And me, I’m a writer and newspaperman. A diverse group, we have spent many years experiencing the great outdoors, and in our own way, we’re pretty proficient in the wilds.

This was my first visit to the little cabin that has served as home during duck season since late summer, when we all met to work on the impoundments and also to build duck blinds.

We have three impoundments on the property bordering the Pamlico Sound. They are about 5 acres each, planted in corn during the summer and flooded with fresh water when duck season arrives. The impoundments are a food source and resting area for ducks of all species as they migrate south.

In the early days in the Mattamuskeet area, impoundments were scarce; but now, as Uncle Tom has often said, “If there’s a ditch that’s got water, somebody’s gonna put an impoundment on it.” He knows what he’s talking about since he runs a thriving business cleaning ducks and is a native of Fairfield, a small town bordering Lake Mattamuskeet.

In the early years of waterfowling at Mattamuskeet, just a few impoundments attracted loads of ducks. Now there are so many that waterfowl are dispersed all over the area. Great for ducks, but bad for hunters.

I noticed several flights of teal ducks as I crossed the Pungo River. Teal are small fast fliers that migrate early and also the species that I think is the best table fare. If they are on the Pungo this early, they should be on the Pamlico. A good sign, I thought.

Everything was quiet when I pulled in the parking area of our little cabin. I unloaded the vehicle, put together a quick lunch that I could take with me to the blind, strapped on my pistol in case I had to shoot a snake, and hiked out to our closest impoundment.

Earlier we had built a permanent blind next to the dike right over the water. It’s very comfortable with bench seats and heavy brush on all sides, the perfect place to watch for waterfowl unobserved. I ate my lunch of sardines, crackers and a big slab of sharp cheddar cheese and topped it off with a frosty bottle of Blue Moon beer. There is absolutely no drinking while hunting at our club, but this afternoon I was going to just watch, no shooting, and acclimate myself to the wilds once again. After the long morning ride through so-called civilization, which included the madhouse on Interstate 40, the cold beer hit the spot.

Daylight saving time was over and night comes a lot faster, so I packed my gear and watched the sun slowly sink into the marsh horizon. It was another beautiful sunset that can only be seen on the banks of the Pamlico. As I was slowly walking up the dike, I heard in the distance a couple of coyotes barking, and an owl hooted over in the tree line as he began his nightly hunt.

Right at the end of the dike and just before the road widens on the way to the cabin, I paused and looked back toward the Pamlico. I could see silhouettes of ducks as they swarmed over the corn. They were diving into the impoundment as if they were using it as a roost. I watched until it became too dark and hiked on back to prepare supper. I chuckled to myself as I walked up the little path that served as a road. Ducks seem to have a built-in clock. In the morning, a duck hunter can legally shoot one half hour before sunrise and, in the evening, must stop hunting at sunset. These laws are strict and enforced by game wardens down to the minute. The only time I’ve ever had a mishap with game enforcement was when I was given a ticket for shooting three minutes after sunset. That’s another story, though, but I will say that I was exonerated after my day in court.

The ducks that use our impoundments seem to be aware of the time, too, usually arriving too late and leaving too early. It’s a fun part of the sport though, trying to outwit a duck.

Supper was easy. Linda had put together leftovers from Thanksgiving for me to bring, so there was no cooking. Just warm up a delicious dinner. Wonder why turkey and dressing always taste better the second time around?

John had built a little kitchen island for the lodge to supplement counter space, and it usually worked out that after supper we all stood around the maple square enjoying an after-dinner drink while listening to our favorite music from a portable CD player. Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline entertained us with numerous famous country songs, but our favorites were “On The Road Again” and “Crazy.” Those CDs always get a good workout when the crew is all together.

I washed my dinner dishes, and then to keep up the tradition, I poured a couple of fingers of Scotch, cranked up the CD player, and enjoyed Patsy as she sang the almost mystical songs of her short career.

Before I retired after a long day, I turned off the outdoor lights and went out on the little porch, where we keep an outdoor grill. A quarter moon was high in the sky, and a soft mist, almost a fog, was lowering in the trees. I could hear the coyotes barking as they still looked for dinner; and in the far distance, the owl hooted as if it was tired of looking.

As I turned to go inside, I heard the unmistakable whistle of widgeon ducks flying high, hopefully right to our impoundments. Sweet dreams, ducks, I hope to see you in the morning.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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