"What happened was, I met Chris Hatley during a business trip," Slate said.
Hatley, a Salisbury resident who organizes end-of-the-season duck and tundra swan hunts for supporters and officials of "Hunters Helping Kids," noticed a Ducks Unlimited sticker on Slate's vehicle during their first meeting. The two struck up a conversation and soon realized they had a common interest.
Slate had a neighbor and hunting partner, Chip Bolick, who also loved getting up on cold dark mornings, loading up Vadar, his black Labrador, and going to a frozen duck blind.
"The only problem for me and Chip was we had to hunt lakes near us, and we'd usually only see a handful of ducks," Slate said. "I was used to seeing thousands at the St. Lawrence River."
At Lake Tillery, where they often began early-morning hunts, Slate said he and Bolick often saw only 20 ducks per day - most of them flying high out of shotgun range.
"It was nothing like the St. Lawrence River," Slate said.
Then Hatley told Slate about eastern North Carolina. With two daughters who were champion skeet shooters in high school and avid duck hunters, Hatley is one of the state directors of Hunters Helping Kids, whose mission is to take seriously-ill and underprivileged youths on their first (and sometimes only) hunting trips. Hatley often travels to Hyde County to administer youth hunts and fund-raising banquets. He also arranges a late-winter waterfowl hunt for HHK officials and supporters.
"We came down here (the Pungo/Rose Bay area) with Chris and his buddies several years ago and have been coming back ever since," Slate said.
Why is Hyde County the No. 1 spot in North Carolina for Canada geese, ducks and tundra swans?
The answer is easy - access to large bodies of water, plenty of food, large national wildlife refuges and fairly mild weather that draws these birds like magnets each winter.
Not only does the Atlantic Flyway pass directly over the region, but it covers massive Pamlico Sound that borders the eastern and southern edges of Hyde County. In addition, Lake Mattamuskeet and the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge are in the middle of the county, while just to the north is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (and Pungo Lake, another outstanding winter waterfowl impoundment). Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge, accessed from U.S. 264 at Rose Bay, lies to the southwest.
Most years, with cold, winter weather arriving up north, rafts of ducks, geese and swans descend upon Pamlico Sound and Hyde County's major impoundments, streams and rivers, where they spend nearly five months awaiting the spring thaw before returning to the upper prairie states, Canadian provinces east of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission manages three game lands in Hyde County -Gull Rock, New Lake and Pungo River - that provide excellent waterfowl hunting, usually starting in late December. The best-known and largest, Gull Rock, is adjacent to Pamlico Sound and includes Caffee Bay, Juniper Bay, West Bluff Bay, East Bluff Bay, North Bluff Point, Hog Island, Benson's Point and Mount Pleasant Bay.
Gull Rock draws waterfowl hunters from across North Carolina and Virginia, probably because it includes the massive Loop Road impoundment, which can attract thousands of birds when weather conditions are too dicey on Pamlico Sound to permit resting and feeding.
At 50,000 acres, Lake Mattamuskeet - which survived several multi-million dollar efforts to drain it and convert its rich bottomland into crop fields near the turn of the 19th century - is the largest natural body of water totally inside the state's borders. Extremely shallow (average depth is two feet), the lake has extensive wetlands at its borders and is a haven for geese, swans, dabblers, divers and puddle ducks.
However, not only do public game lands and the wildlife refuges lure waterfowl to Hyde County, local farmers have discovered turning crop lands into waterfowl impoundments pays a lot better per acre than soybeans or cotton. Annual dues to shoot ducks over a decent impoundment these days are in the tens of thousands of dollars.
A secondary benefit of Hyde's many private waterfowl impoundments is all that food (corn, wild millet, panic grasses and spike rushes) lures ducks, geese and swans that may fly across less-costly leases, game lands, the Pamlico Sound, rivers or streams to offer less well-heeled (but strategically-placed) hunters a chance to bang away.
Some Hyde County hunts are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-administered permit hunts at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Through a draw-permit system waterfowlers (three per group) earn access to blinds at the lake's south shore. Hunters can apply for waterfowl permits starting Sept. 1 each year at N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission service agents or by calling 888-248-6834, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Applications must be received by Sept. 5. The basic permit application costs $10; hunters must pay $12.50 per day at the Mattamuskeet Lodge when blinds are assigned each morning at 5 a.m.
Pungo Lake, meanwhile, is a favorite winter nesting area for swans, ducks and geese. No waterfowl hunting is permitted, but thousands of birds leave the lake every winter morning to fly to surrounding private agricultural fields, offering excellent hunting opportunities.
Slate and Bolick have hunted at or near most of those places inside Hyde County.
"We've hunted Down East for the last six years and always look forward to coming back," Bolick said. "It's because we see so many more ducks, and there's lots of places to hunt."
Last year, Bolick and Slate joined Hatley and his HHK supporters, officials and some young hunters at two rented trailers in the town of Fairfield near the north shore of Lake Mattamuskeet.
From that base of operations, they scattered each morning in the predawn darkness to different venues, some on Pamlico Sound, others on the Pungo River, some to large farms where they set out decoys for tundra swans.
Hunters know it's much easier to take down a tundra swan floating into the wind, wings set to land in a set of decoys, than a green-winged teal or wood duck darting through the air at 60 mph. So swan hunting is better suited to youthful wingshooters.
Shooting skills with a scattergun are prerequisites for successful duck hunting. Having effective and rugged equipment, in fact, may be more crucial to the sport than any other waterfowl endeavor.
Tough, reliable shotguns are a must; a boat fitted with a waterfowl blind can be a major help, decoys are essential, the right shotshells are required (no lead shot allowed), a top retriever is always helpful - as is an accurate shooting eye - and, finally, hunters need to know duck identifications because game wardens and USFWS officers frown on shooting too many of a species or banned ducks.
It's no fun paying fines for breaking those rules and ignorance of the law is no excuse.
"I use a Remington 870 with 3½-inch shells," Slate said, "in Kent Steel No. 2 shot with an improved-cylinder choke."
Slate uses the load, which is a tad on the heavy side, for almost all ducks, because steel's mass is less than lead and has less knockdown power.
"It used to be one shot would mean one bird, but now I'd say it takes me two to three shots per bird," he said. "Sometimes it takes more if you have a dog, and he's got to retrieve a cripple."
Bolick said in 2007 and 2008, he mixed Winchester SuperX No. 2 shotshells and Winchester High Velocity No. 4s "but sometimes it's hard to find the No. 2s."
"I shoot an improved cylinder, which opens up (the shot's spread) quickly, but you give up something in distance. But I think it's a good choke for 25- to 30-yard shots, which is what I like to take."