The screen of a GPS unit glowed in the darkness, illuminating the face of a hunter who was trying to find the right track in the inky blackness. Eventually, he was able to sort out the direction he needed to take to get where he wanted to go.
“I got turned around, paying too much attention to my dog,” said John Blanton, a 64-year-old retiree from Cape Fear DuPont. “She is excited and I don’t want her to stand with her feet on the gunwale or she could fall in. Now, I am on the right heading.”
It was Nov. 16, and the hunters were happy to be on the water on a weekday when competition from other hunters slackened. Blanton found a spot where the tall grasses and reeds along the bank broke the wind along the edge of Pamlico Sound. He and his hunting partner, Jerry Simmons, began setting out their decoys. They set them in rows of identical species – wigeon, scaup, Canada geese and others, finishing off the spread with five plastic black ducks grouped against the bank.
Blanton ran the boat up to the bank repeatedly with Simmons dropping the decoy’s weights one-by-one while the wind blew it away from the bank, until the decoys were in rows so straight that it would make a general reviewing his troops proud. Blanton powered his 20-foot Sea Ark aluminum boat into the shoreline until its bow rested in the grass. Then they flipped up the sides of his homemade blind, hooking its top rails to the boat’s center console to keep the blind erect.
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Checking his watch, Blanton ticked off the minutes until legal shooting light would arrive, 30 minutes before sunrise. Long before that time, he could hear the whistle of waterfowl wings flying overhead.
As shooting light came, a flock of ducks decoyed, but they were upwind toward the head of the decoys. Blanton was in the stern of the boat, where he could not shoot. However, Simmons’ shot knocked one of them down.
“What were they?” Blanton asked.
“Pintails,” said Simmons, a 70-year-old dog trainer from Castle Hayne. “It looks like a nice drake, too.”
Simmons took the bird from his Labrador retriever, Deacon. Deacon had marked the duck’s fall as it thumped into the marsh. He said a drake pintail is the most prized trophy duck for most hunters in North Carolina’s coastal waters.
A few minutes later, a flock of wigeon set their wings to land among the decoys. But, before they could, the hunters knocked four of them down. This time, Blanton’s Lab, Sadie, teamed up with Deacon to retrieve the birds.
“The ducks are flying well,” Blanton said. “But you never know what they will do on a certain day.”
He launched into a complicated discussion of how the ducks would fly when the wind was blowing from a certain direction and how they would disappear for days when it blew from another direction. He also explained how much better they worked his decoys when the weather was cold.
“Today, it’s fairly cold,” he said. “The ducks seem to be here, too.”
The hunters saw several flocks of ducks and, at one point, were calling to two flocks of Canada geese. Blanton said they were resident geese.
“If they come to the decoys, we will be happy to have them,” he said. “But they get pretty smart if they stick around all year long. The migratory geese usually decoy better and they should arrive later on.”
A bird sneaked in and Simmons knocked it down. When his dog retrieved it, he saw it was a drake blue-winged teal in full plumage.
“They usually migrate through before they have their full coloration,” Blanton said. “It has the white crescent and purple head of a mature drake. You had better mount that one because you may never shoot one like it again.”
Simmons placed the bird in a guarded area, where the dogs would not find it and pick it up. He saw a lesser scaup hen, or bluebill, slip into the head of the decoys. He fired once and missed, downing it with the second shot.
A race between the dogs ensued. At one point Deacon was in the lead. However, a high wave swept him behind Sadie. Deacon swam past her as the bird dove, which it did several times until he found it by feeling underneath the water with his feet. Clenching it in his teeth, he began the long swim back.
As both dogs returned, the hunters cheered their efforts. Deacon also chased down another crippled duck that dove that morning. When it went under, he completely submerged, diving beneath the waves for a few seconds to make the retrieve.
“We love seeing ducks and shooting ducks,” Simmons said. “But the best part of the hunt is watching your dogs work and seeing them do something incredible that they have not done before. What they are capable of doing is amazing, when it comes to retrieving a bird.”