I’ve always been intrigued by swamps in winter, “swamps” in this case referring to all manners of flooded bottomlands unencumbered by human development or other vestiges of civilization.
The still, dark waters of a beaver pond, littered with iridescent duck weed and leafy flotsam, is a magic potion that suggests adventure and mystery. The towering cypress and sweet gums that have escaped loggers’ saws because of their inaccessibility are sentinels, standing guard over the wild creatures who live there – and the occasional humans who come to visit.
I remember being one of those interlopers on a cold December morning many winters ago. My best buddy, Jim, was the other. We fancied ourselves duck hunters as we stood in the half-light of dawn, clutching well-worn shotguns to our chests and shivering from anticipation as well as the cold.
From somewhere farther down the flooded bottom, airy “too-wheets” echoed through the trees - the tantalizing sound of wood ducks.
Neither Jim nor I had ever bagged one of the exotic birds but we had seen them lots of times. It was usually when one of them flushed from the dense, flooded timber as we waded in, clumsy in our too-big hip boots. Or, as a small flock zipped through the trees in the gathering darkness, mocking us with their shrill calls. We rarely seemed to be in the right place at the right time, or to be ready if we were, but that didn’t dampen our fervor. We were confident that it was just a matter of time until our stealth and skill put a limit of wood ducks in our game bag.
Then, it happened – sort of. It wasn’t a limit and it involved more luck than skill. Hunkering down and scanning the patches of sky between the branches overhead, we were amazed to hear the “whoosh” of wings and a splash in an open hole just a few yards in front of us. Miracle of miracles, it was wood duck drake!
We squatted there, mesmerized, as the gaudy fellow pivoted his green and purple head, preening and shaking like a dog shedding water, his red eyes glowing in the dim light. Suddenly it occurred to both of us, the duck – OUR duck – was swimming away from us. In a moment he would be behind some vegetation and, like so many others in the past, home-free.
Jim and I struggled to our feet as one and swung our shotguns upward as the drake erupted from the water. Somehow one or more pellets found their mark and the duck plummeted back to earth. A few moments later, we cradled the soft, still form in our hands, stroked the burgundy breast feathers, and marveled at the bird’s vivid colors. Without it being a conscious act, we were repeating a ritual dating back to the first Native American hunters. What we were aware of was the fact that we were now, officially, DUCK HUNTERS! We had bagged a wood duck, legally and on the wing. It was a tale that would be told and retold many times.
There’s no way to tell how many young hunters have been introduced to duck hunting by wood ducks. According to N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) data, wood ducks have comprised between 30 and 50 percent of the total harvest of ducks in the state since 1980. In some seasons, the harvest has been nearly 100,000 birds. Biologists say wood duck numbers seem to be very good at the present and show promise of remaining stable.
Things have not always been so rosy for what many people consider to be America’s most beautiful waterfowl. By the late 1800s, wood ducks were on the verge of extinction. The destruction of bottomland hardwood forests and market hunting threatened to send the gaudy birds the way of the Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which gave the U.S. and Canadian governments the authority to regulate hunting seasons, may have been their salvation. An end to commercial hunting and complete closure of the wood duck season until 1941 brought them back from the brink.
Careful, conservative management has helped to keep wood duck numbers up since then. They have also benefited from the rebound of another wetland denizen.
Over most of the wood duck’s breeding range, which includes the eastern half of the United States and a few west coast states, beavers have made a big comeback in recent decades. Their incessant dam building has created duck habitat in many areas where it had been compromised by urban development, logging or farming.
Today wood ducks are found throughout North Carolina, with the largest numbers in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions.
Anyone wanting to try their hand at bagging a wood duck or two generally has to do no more than make their way into some flooded timberland or a shallow beaver pond before first light. Of course, a little scouting beforehand will greatly improve the odds. The best technique is to hang around an open area adjacent to the site just before dark and watch to see if woodies are coming in to roost. Even if you can’t see them, you should be able to hear their distinctive whistle and rush of wings as they pass overhead.
Smart hunters resist the temptation to shoot at wood ducks late in the afternoon. Birds that are disturbed as they head to a roost will often desert the spot for the rest of the season. On the other hand, shooting in the morning doesn’t seem to create that problem. They will often fly out to feed and then filter back to the swamp a few hours later to spend the rest of the day loafing. Some of the best shooting often comes right around sunrise and again at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning.
Hunters experienced in the ways of wood ducks sometimes use a few decoys – a half-dozen or so. Ducks in general are very gregarious and some fake ones on the water say, “Hey, everything down here is OK. Come on down.” A wood duck call does the same thing, plus it may convince birds that have already landed out of range to swim over and socialize.
Of course, all that is really needed in many cases is some good camouflage clothing, a spot next to a tree or other vegetation, and a smooth-swinging shotgun.
An awful lot of wood ducks have been bagged with nothing more. The hunters just waited quietly until birds were spotted or heard and then splashed the water with their boots to make it seem that ducks were landing. And, at least a few have been harvested by skinny, teenage boys, clutching single-shot scatterguns while they squatted in a swamp.
Ed Wall can be reached at email@example.com or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com