Bluebill Skies

Jerry Simmons hunts scaup at the New River from a fiberglass layout boat.

The New River near Sneads Ferry and Camp LeJeune is a haven for thousands of scaup and late-season hunters.

A raw, icy wind rippled the Cordura fabric of an Avery collapsible boat blind. Catching the wind like a sail, the fabric billowed, causing the Nylon anchor rope to creak and the aluminum framing of the blind to squeak as if it were strained to the breaking point.

Above the slapping of waves against the fiberglass boat hull came an odd but simple statement: “You’re cornbread.”

Basil Watts, a river pilot from Southport, offered this culinary puzzle. Then he rose from a steel-framed folding stool. Duck wings cut the air with a sound like ripping linen.

He fired once and a fat drake lesser scaup splashed down a few yards away. Watts chuckled when asked exactly what new species he’d shot — a cornbread duck?.

“What I meant was I was going to fry him up with some cornbread,” Watts said. “There was no way I was going to miss a duck decoying that close.

“A lot of hunters won’t eat a bluebill. But I think all of the marsh ducks taste the same when they’re floured and pan-fired in hot oil. I like to eat them all.”

Watts was using a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun to hunt scaup at North Carolina’s New River near Jacksonville. Normally he hunts with a 20-gauge double barrel. But New River scaup can be tough to bring down, especially when conditions are right, which translates into windy and cold.

Most of the ducks are relatively small lesser scaup. But a very few greater scaup, redheads and canvasbacks and widgeons will come to the decoys.

At the backs of the feeder creeks, a few wood ducks, teal and mallards are shot each season. But most hunters like Watts wait until the bitter cold of late winter brings scaup to the open waters of Stone’s Bay and Courthouse Bay.

“On the windy days, you can set up almost anywhere and kill your limit of scaup,” Watts said. “Some people think it’s getting crowded around here. But on the calm days, the ducks raft up by the thousands and just trade between the flocks.

“On days like that, you need a crab-potter or duck hunter heading back to the ramp to move the birds around if you are going to get any shooting at all.”

There are various estimates on how many scaup or “bluebills” call New River their winter home. Recent years have seen estimates of 125,000 to 20,000 birds on the river.

Boats line up along leeward shorelines to have a crack at the birds and blinds dot the shallows in places. A few blinds are locked and posted against entry. But the signs are all bluff, no substance.

According to the N.C. Wildlife Commission, New River has no blind rules, and blinds built at public waters are public blinds. Still, with all the good gunning available from boat blinds, there’s no need to engage in an argument over a blind.

Jerry Simmons, a professional hunting dog trainer and shooting preserve operator from Wilmington, and Dan Whisnant, a retired teacher from Porter’s Neck, use a layout boat for hunting at New River. They wait until the scaup have made an appearance, then head to the river with a super-sized aluminum boat with the layout boat nestled inside.

“I made the layout boat from one of the old molds a couple of decades ago,” he said. “It’s fiberglass, and it’s heavier than some of the newer models. But the weight adds stability.

“Anyone who has tried to kill a bluebill that hits the water as a cripple while sitting down in a layout boat knows it’s a waste of shotgun shells. You have to be able to stand up to finish off a cripple, especially when there’s a ripple on the water.”

While Watts uses softer No. 5 Kent Matrix shot to avoid damage to his vintage double barrel shotgun, Simmons shoots No. 6 steel in an auto-loader.

“You’re going to get close shots,” Simmons said. “That’s the purpose of using a layout boat. Even when it’s calm, they never seem to learn about layout boats until it’s too late.

“A dense pattern is the most important thing when you’re shooting scaup. I use small sizes and an improved-cylinder choke and can kill my limit with one magazine of shells.”

Continent-wide scaup numbers are declining. While 25 years ago there was a two-scaup bonus on top of a five-duck limit and 30-odd years ago there was a point system that allowed a bag of 10 of the sporty little divers, in recent years the limit had been three scaup included in the regular bag limit for ducks. This season, the bag limit for scaup has dropped to two.

“Using a layout boat is traditional,” Whisnant said. “You get more out of your duck hunting by using a layout boat because of the method. You can pick out a couple of nice drakes, then watch other ducks decoy before calling your partner on the radio so he can take a turn.

“If you’re in a boat blind and the birds are working well, you can take turns and shoot only drakes. There may be a ringneck in there, so you have to pay attention. You might get a bonus bird if you can spot the rings around the bill of a ringneck. Otherwise, it’s going to be a bluebill shoot, so you just sit back and enjoy the show.”

Chris Lee, a Carolina Beach taxidermist and Ray Bradshaw, who works for a Wilmington beverage company, took their first trip to New River for a scaup hunt last year.

“We were surprised at how fast and hard to kill a bluebill can be,” Bradshaw said. “When the wind is blowing, they turn on their afterburners and you’re lucky to get off more than one shot before they’re out of range. I was shooting 3 1/2-inch steel shot loads, and I hate to say how many shells it took to bring down a scaup.”

“I like scaup because they’re a pretty bird to mount,” Lee said. “I mount them for clients who like to see them with their wings spread as if they were landing. They open their feet to break the wind as they hit the water, and it’s a beautiful sight. It helps you remember the day when you see a mount like that.”

A retrieving dog is an asset at a New River hunt. While a tender boat is used to pick up dead birds during a layout boat hunt, using a retriever from a boat blind, as used by Watts, Lee and Bradshaw, prevents them from picking up the anchors and chasing birds, causing lost hunting time.

“Everybody should see it at least once,” said Greg Pare of Wilmington. “The flocks can be so thick they look like smoke rising up off the water.”

Greg and his father, Phil Pare, own a mobile automobile body-repair business in Wilmington and make the hour-long drive to New River occasionally. They launch at the private pay ramp at Sneads Ferry Campground and Marina.

“They’ve made some improvements to the ramp the past couple of years,” Pare said. “You can use the Wildlife Commission ramp at Jacksonville. But with gas prices what they are, for us it’s about as economical to pay the $10 ramp fee to use the first-class facility at Sneads Ferry as to make the longer drive to Jacksonville.

“Depending upon where the birds are located, it may even save boat fuel when the birds are at the southern end of the river.”

Some scaup hunters have done their homework and know their way around New River.

The best tactic is to scout during daylight hours and use a GPS unit to mark navigational aids. Many oyster beds hide in the shallows and can wreck an outboard motor’s lower unit. Sand bars near the edges of the river can strand boaters who are moving too fast.

“We find the birds before we hunt,” Phil Pare said. “We load the boat with decoys. We set them in a fishhook pattern with the bend of the hook right in front of the boat.

“They move along the string of decoys like they’re hypnotized and by the time they see the boat, it’s too late.”

The Pares hunt during the afternoon or at mid-morning. They like to be able to see before placing his decoys.

“If you flush a flock of ducks, they’re there for a reason,” Phil Pare said. “They’re feeding or resting out of the wind and will come back after you flush them off the water. Most of the time, they’re decoying before you can get the boat blind set up.”

The Pares use steel shot and Remington Hevi-shot. Phil likes No. 3 steel or No. 4 Hevi-shot. Once Greg shot 10 times at a crippled bluebill with 12- gauge, 3 ½ -inch steel loads, before dispatching it with one shell full of No. 4 Hevi-shot.

“Shooting tungsten shells can save you money in the long run by letting you bag your birds with fewer shells,” he said. “I take a few steel and tungsten shells along on a hunt. Sometimes you need the heavy artillery to kill a scaup.”

The Pares stabilize their boat blind by using two anchors that prevent the craft from swaying in the wind.

To keep from having to pull the anchor each time a duck is downed and to provide a rapid takedown in the event of a crippled duck, many hunters who use boat blinds, such as the Pares, tie anchor lines to a plastic jug or net float. They untie the line from a cleat and toss the float in the water. When they return, they merely bring the float into the boat with the line attached to prevent having to raise and lower the anchor.

“Too much movement scares the birds as they are working the decoys,” Phil said. “You need to be quiet and stay still while they are coming in.

“Some people believe a diving duck is a stupid duck, and sometimes it seems that way. But by the late season, they’re pretty wise to duck hunters and decoy spreads. They can circle way out of range, teasing you before landing way out in the river with a flock of real ducks.”

Boat blinds, stationary blinds layout boats and other types of blinds will work for New River scaup. A few groups are using a “scissors rig,” a style of boat blind consisting of a wooden frame that holds pine saplings. The rig pivots open like scissors and rests on the bottom. The boat is hidden by the tree limbs and the rig takes only moments to set up.

New River hunters, no matter the style of hunting blind they use, agree the more decoys, the merrier the hunt. It takes a lot of decoys to lure bluebills away from the huge rafts of real ducks.

“A good starting point is about 100,” Phil Pare said. “We base our spread on scaup decoys, then add wigeons, redheads, canvasbacks, mallards, black ducks, and whatever else will fill up the water.

“Scaup aren’t too particular, and it’s a numbers game. On a New River duck hunt, the more decoys you put out, the better luck you are going to have.”

Besides the duck hunting, there’s another reason hunters like to head for New River. The Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base is located along much of the shoreline. Since a lot of the base consists of training grounds and amphibious landing zones, it’s undeveloped.

“A lot of the lakes and rivers along the coast are lined with million-dollar houses,” Watts said. “But at New River, you can hunt in places where the scenery is mostly natural. The high bluffs and pine trees are pretty to see and make a perfect background for a duck hunt, whether the scaup are in the mood to work your decoys, or if you have to do your duck hunting with a pair of binoculars.

“It’s a pretty place to see a duck.”

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at

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