STAG PARK — The night sky was clear and starlit, with only a slight breeze whispering through the few pond pines. As sunlight gradually illuminated the landscape, it revealed several pickup trucks parked along Lodge Road in Holly Shelter Game Land. Shortly thereafter, 30 minutes before sunrise, the shooting began.
Ducks flew from an impoundment at the headwaters of Ashes Creek, heading toward the Northeast Cape Fear River or along the creek itself. In minutes, the shooting tapered off and hunters began leaving the impoundment.
Jon Henderson, 30, a utility company lineman from Teachey, was hunting with Chris Quinn, 33, a landscaper from Richlands. They paddled their tiny boats back to the riser that impounded Ashes Creek and began loading the boats and gear onto a trailer pulled by a pickup.
“I’ve hunted this area from a Creek Boat my whole life, but I had never hunted Ashes Creek Impoundment,” Henderson said. “We saw a ton of ducks. Most of them were wood ducks. We also saw some teal and a couple of mallards. Lots of ducks were in the back of the impoundment, where you can’t get to them.”
“It’s my first time here, but I’m coming back,” Quinn said last month. “I have a baby due in a couple of weeks, so I like hunting close to home.”
The adjoining impoundment is the 200-acre main impoundment that is managed to produce plants ducks feed on. The Ashes Creek Impoundment serves as a reservoir to fill the main area, also serving as a reservoir for holding ducks by providing ideal roosting habitat. But this year, there was plenty of water and both impoundments were full.
Both were burned by a wildfire in the summer of 2011, which charred the peat soils of the Ashes Creek Impoundment down several feet in places, creating open water where in the past there was nothing but thick vegetation. The fire also helped the hunting in the main impoundment by opening it up and allowing wild grasses and other plants that serve as waterfowl food to grow. One area of the impoundment that was planted with millet in previous years was allowed to grow, untilled, because it held an exceptional stand of smartweed, which ducks feast on. One of two bridges across a canal that provides access to the main impoundment from Lodge Road was burned and hadn’t been replaced. But the shooting from the area of the useable bridge showed that ducks were utilizing that area and the hunters who dared to cross it had some luck.
The ground fire also burned holes in the dike between the two impoundments, leading to water loss in the main impoundment. A water level gauge showed it to be down several inches.
“If you shoot a duck down in the main impoundment, you will have trouble finding it without a dog,” Henderson said.
“The grass is really thick and there’s not much open water to set your decoys where the ducks can see them. Higher water would help.”