A salty sea breeze carried dark, ominous clouds in from the northeast as we settled into the weathered wooden blind and began our vigil. But when a sliver of orange sun suddenly glimmered through the blanket of gray clouds, I took it as an omen of good things to come.
And judging from the sounds around us, we were definitely in for a waterfowling day to remember. Dabblers and divers called to each other from every direction as we waited for legal shooting light.
When that precise minute finally arrived, the sky was filled with birds. Singles, small groups and large flocks of ducks were coursing through the air around us. With a few subtle calls, our guide turned several of the groups our way, and soon the sound of shotguns joined the chorus of duck talk.
First came the speedy buffleheads. Then a gadwall flew in, followed by another, then two pintails. A lone black duck approached next, and after that, widgeons flashed overhead. Scoters and mallards soon appeared, several falling to our shots, others flying away as fast as their wings could take them.
It was a hectic morning of duck watching and duck shooting. By the time the action paused, we had ten birds of six different species laid neatly across the floor of the blind.
It was time for a halt. But later snow geese would beckon. And if we had been smart and applied for a permit, tundra swans would have joined the available waterfowl to pursue.
You’ve probably heard of the Outer Banks as a world-famous surf fishing destination. But this narrow band of barrier islands off the northeast coast of North Carolina is also a winter waterfowling paradise. The 175-mile long chain of sandy islands is one of the best spots in the East for ducks, geese, and swans. And if you want to make it a combo trip, surf fishing is also terrific here right now.
The area from Cape Hatteras north to the Virginia border includes five inlets and a smorgasbord of bays, sounds, and backwater sloughs that attract waterfowl by the tens of thousands every winter. Since the temperature averages 43 degrees in January, there’s always plenty of unfrozen water to keep attracting birds and lots of aquatic vegetation for them to feed on.
All four sounds on the inland side of the barrier islands hold ducks including Albemarle, Croatan, Currituck, and Pamlico. Smaller, secluded creeks and coves protected from the strong breezes that blow across this area can be particularly good spots to set out a decoy spread.
Public hunting is available on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore at a number of locations. Twenty blinds are also offered on Bodie Island for hunters chosen in lotteries. Both Ocracoke and Hatteras islands are open for public hunting with some restrictions. Consult the Wildlife Resources Commission for current rules and regulations.
The state also offers duck hunting by permit on its Roanoke Island Marsh Game Lands near Manteo, which covers 1,766 acres. The site listed above has all the details on hunting there.
Hunters coming for the first time would do wise to consider hiring a guide. They know how to navigate the sometimes tricky shallows and monitor the tides to set up in the best areas at the right times. They have the blinds and are experts at calling in most cases. Outfitters also usually have retrievers to fetch birds, which adds immeasurably to the hunting experience.
One of the best operations is Outer Banks Waterfowl and Fishing Guide Service (outerbankswaterfowl.com; 252-261-7842) which has been in operation for over 35 years. They were the guides in the hunt described at the beginning of this piece. Other outfitters can be located on the internet or through local chambers of commerce.
A typical guided hunt offers an incredible chance for a varied bag. An average harvest for a party is about ten ducks, including five to seven different species and possibly snow geese and brant as well. Common varieties include black ducks, mallards, pintails, widgeons, teal, buffleheads, gadwalls, scaup, and scoters. One time you might hunt in a marsh blind, the next time a semi-pit blind, open water layout boat, brush blind, or stake blind.
Guides will monitor bird movements from day to day and pick the location and type of blind and location that offers the best chances for an active day of both shooting and waterfowl watching. And that second factor is an equal part of the pull of this area. Seeing the sheer abundance of ducks trading across the skies throughout the day is a thrill in itself.
Family Fun: If you bring the family, there’s plenty for them to do. Try visiting the North Carolina Aquarium, the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Elizabeth Gardens, or the Nags Head Woods Preserve. Sea shell collecting, fishing, and bird watching are other popular activities. For details on these activities and destinations as well as restaurants and motels, visit outerbanks.org.
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