Sunlight twinkled off the frosty ground of a harvested corn field in Hyde County, its normally soft, black soil frozen to hardened whiteness. Tadpole Gibbs and Jerry Simmons set about their work, Simmons handing out the decoys stacked inside the blind and Gibbs twisting heads onto the bathtub-sized plastic shell bodies to turn them into resemblances of swans.
“They haven’t been flying as early as they should,” Gibbs said. “Normally, I try to set up right at daylight, but they have been flying later because the duck season closed last Saturday.
“There must be 10,000 swans resting in the waterfowl impoundment behind the field and every swan is either already sitting on it or heading there to join all the others. Without duck hunters to scare them off, the swans might go to an impoundment and sit there all day.”
Gibbs operates Jennettes’ Guide Service, which he bought from his father-in-law, Tom Jennette, 10 years ago. Before that, he had been working for the guide service for 18 years.
“Hunting has always been in my blood,” he said. “I’ve been hunting since before I can remember.”
Gibbs has swan-hunting blinds in three fields and the hunters he guides have a 100 percent success rate. However, the hunts are not always over quickly.
“Today, we may have to wait hours to get a chance,” he said. “We may not be able to be choosy, holding out for big white adults. But a young, gray-headed swan makes better eating, anyway.”
After setting out dozens of full-bodied snow goose decoys and the huge swan decoys, the hunters returned to the blind. Flocks of swans, large and small, materialized in the distance. As often as not, the hunters heard their hoots and whistles before they saw them.
“They are all heading elsewhere,” Gibbs said. “It’s hard to convince them to land here when there are thousands of swans over there.”
Gibbs called to the swans, using only his voice to mimic the sounds of their conversations. He whooped and they answered, appearing to diverge in their flight patterns to look over his decoys then fading away.
Eventually, however, a flock came by that seemed more interested in the decoys than the others had been. Simmons fired one time and took his swan.
“It’s been a good morning so far,” Gibbs said. “It’s the last week of the season and my daughter has a permit and I have a permit. I don’t get to hunt with her very much because I’m so busy this time of year. But today, we are going to hunt together.”
Alexandria Gibbs, a 23-year-old student, had been waiting in her vehicle a few hundred yards away. After Simmons took his swan, he left the blind and Alexandria entered it.
“Swans get more difficult to hunt every year,” Gibbs said. “They get warier and warier. We used to set out white plastic garbage bags and they would decoy. Now, we have to use realistic swan decoys to have a better chance.”
Alexandria had taken one swan when she was 17, but had not taken one since.
“It went a long way across a field and I had to chase it down,” she said. “I didn’t remember that part being much fun. But I got a swan permit this year so I could try again.”
“If a hunter wounds a swan, he has to chase it down and kill it on his own,” Gibbs said. “A hunter gets only one permit, so I cannot shoot his swan, even if it is crippled.”
North Carolina has the highest number of wintering tundra swans of any state and their numbers around Lake Mattamuskeet can be 75,000 or more. The state is allowed to issue 5,000 permits, more than any other state, in accordance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hunting season framework.
About half of the permits are used annually, while the others go unfilled. Hunters must apply for permits in a lottery and hunters from within or outside of North Carolina may apply. This year’s season was open Nov. 8th through Jan. 30th.
“About 85 percent of my clients come from other states,” Gibbs said. “They hear about hunting swans and it becomes something they have to do. The first thing to have applying is a North Carolina hunting license.
“I remember being able to go into a place where they sold hunting licenses and being able to get a leftover permit just by asking for it. Those days are gone and hunters who don’t get their permits accrue preference points toward the next season’s drawing. I’ve had some hunters go as long as three seasons without drawing a permit.”
Within minutes after Alexandria entered the blind, a flock of three swans decoyed low and close. She fired her shotgun first and her father fired his at a departing swan. Both were adults in full white plumage, with yellow patches at the bases of their bills.
While she hunts other game and shoots clay targets to sharpen her skills, Alexandria has been too busy with school to hunt swans. However, this year, she decided to apply for a permit.
“One day, I hope she will take over the business from me,” Gibbs said.
“I want to do that, someday,” Alexandria said. “But, today, I just wanted to enjoy a hunt with my dad.”