Larry Avins of River Oaks Farm included waterfowl management among his daily chores to create quality hunting.
While suppertime at a duck camp is always a loud and rowdy affair, breakfasts are usually subdued. Not only do the revels of the night prior to a hunt tend to tire happy hunters, the wake-up call in the morning is the time to begin a meditation, the mental preparation for approaching the peaceful sanctity of a well-built duck blind after a sloshing walk through the water.
A few hunters caught catnaps on soft, comfortable couches after a light breakfast to top off tanks already brimming full from the previous evening’s heavy meal. Four hour’s sleep doesn’t leave much time for digestion. Talk was no louder than a murmur as hunters began pulling on waders and checking the contents of their gunning bags. Lab’s toenails scratched against the porch steps and noses poked the door as excited whines increased along with the tempo of hunters’ conversations. As decoy bags were loaded the growing excitement in their masters’ voices made retriever tails wag faster as they dove into kennel crates in the beds of pickup trucks. Their tails sounded the arrival of hunting time like rock and roll drummers, pounding frantic rhythms against the sides of the plastic crates.
“It’s going to be a good morning for a duck hunt,” Larry Avins said. “We’ve got a little bit of wind, and the ducks will be working well.” Hunters conjectured about which blinds would be best for hunting, based on the wind coming out of the northeast. They spoke of how they would place their mallard and ringneck decoys and where the biggest concentrations of ducks had been sitting the day before during drive-by binocular scouting expeditions. But Avins merely chuckled. He gazed at the ready-to-go crowd and closed the door to his cabin, making sure no one was inside when he turned off the porch light. “If the hunters here can shoot at all, everyone will get a limit of ducks,” he said. Avins owns and operates Pinewood’s River Oaks Farm. He worked for the S.C. Department of Corrections Agriculture Program for a time.
But he’s been a farmer all of his life. So what possessed a tiller of the soil to turn to waterfowl management for a career? “I’ve always loved to hunt ducks,” he said as he wheeled his pickup to a stop at the end of a dike. “Farming a field and flooding it for ducks is just adding a step to the process.” But it’s not as simple as that. Avins turns his farmland into waterfowl impoundments and sets them up as clubs. The membership numbers are based on how many hunters he feels an impoundment can support per acre over a season of hunting ducks. Lee Satterfield of Green Sea and Basil Watts of Southport, N.C., accompanied Avins and another hunter. They split into pairs before wading into the pond and setting decoys in openings among the flooded standing corn. A wind row of trees and soil strippings served as a makeshift blind. The wind row, now partially submerged, was created when the pond was built. Avins can excavate an impoundment, using the material to build a dike, till the bottom and plant it with corn in a single year. “I use hydrated lime to adjust the soil pH,” he said. “It doesn’t take as long to raise the pH as powdered lime, and I can start growing corn the first year.” While there is a large pond, with bass up to 14 pounds swimming in it that anyone member can fish, the waterfowl impoundments are flooded each fall by pumping systems and wells.
Avins owns two farm tracts with a bunk house at each farm. One bunk house sleeps 12 and the other sleeps 20. While there were a total of 35 members during 2005-06, more impoundments have been added this season. Farm programs pay a substantial amount in matching funds for the pond construction as conservation practices. But corn in ponds is expensive to plant, costing $350 per acre. Add in pumping costs and maintenance of the property and bunk houses and it’s easy to see why waterfowl management is an expensive form of wildlife management. Toss in raising mallards to augment the wild bird supply raises the cost even more.
“We hunt Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the season to keep from burning out the shooting,” Avins said. “In the early season, we get Canada geese and teal. We get lots of ringnecks, redheads, wood ducks, a few shovelers and some wild mallards. But I released 1,100 mallards, this year.” Avins buys 4-week-old mallards from Robbie Davis in Dazell and from Frost Waterfowl in Darlington. Then he sets them free, feeding them until the corn in his impoundments ripens. The pond he was hunting, Red Barn Pond, covers 20 acres. A pair of 20-acre impoundments are associated with the other bunkhouse and the farm he calls “Elenora.”
The federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program program helps with one 10-acre impoundment per farm and pays up to 90 percent for earthwork and water-control structures. The impoundments feature are wooden blinds with bench seats, camouflage material, dog platforms and shelves for ammo and gear that can accommodate several hunters. Early in the season the blinds are really effective, but later in the season ducks have learned that hunters wait in the blinds. That’s when hunters can choose other locations instead of blinds — as long as they don’t interfere with each other. River Oaks has two levels of membership. An individual membership allows a hunter to come by himself, which means no family members or guests, except during youth waterfowl day. A blind membership allows a hunter to bring up to three guests, but he must be with them in order for them to hunt. There are no guides. Members just show up, spend the night or drive to the place during the morning and hunt. These restrictions keep the hunts productive all season by limiting the number of hunters. During one of the two weekly hunting days, about two-thirds of the members show up.
“Everyone usually kills a limit every time they go,” Avins said. “But ducks can get blind shy. Sometimes you have to move into the flooded trees and brush for better luck.” He uses a dozen ringneck decoys and a few mallard decoys. He also likes to use the spinning wing decoys. But he doesn’t like to call too much. “They can get call shy pretty quick,” he said. “It’s better to call sparingly and only if you have to get them into range. Use feed calls and very low hail calls, and it keeps them from learning about the blinds.” Decoys hit the water with a smack as Avins set them near a clump of trees at the edge of Red Barn Pond. Wings sounded like jet engines overhead as ducks were flushed from their roost. As daylight grew, mallards flew over in waves. It was almost like a dove hunt there were so many ducks. They quacked and decoyed like migratory ducks and the dog retrieved them just the same. A whistling of wings announced the bumblebee silhouettes of a flock of ringnecks buzzing over the ponds. A couple of them fell to gunshots.
“A ringneck is a fast duck and can be hard to hit if you’re used to shooting mallards,” Avins said. A flock of mallards circled overhead. Avins dumped a big drake with a load of No. 2 steel shot. “Duck!” he said. Of course, a mallard’s a duck, but he was simply warning other hunters about the falling quacker. The mallard hit so close, it almost hit Avins. The retriever didn’t know what to think and got so excited, he broke and ran 10 feet to pick up the duck before being given a “back” command. That’s the way it went until the sun came up; hunters were shooting everywhere; ducks fell from the sky; and retrievers picked them up or hunters waded through the decoys to add birds to their game straps. Within a couple of hours, the shooting stopped. As predicted, everyone had shot his limit of ducks. It was time to gather the decoys. Watts and Satterfield picked up their decoys as ducks flew overhead. It was impossible not to watch the ducks as they quacked their displeasure with the intruders in the flooded corn.
“It’s a soft bottom,” Watts said. “It’s also cold. That’s why I use a wading staff when I set out and pick up decoys. You can feel the bottom ahead of you to find roots or holes. Then you use it for balance or stick it in the mud and tie the bag to it to keep it from drifting away while you’re picking up a decoy. Too many hunters don’t use a wading staff and take a dunk that can end a hunt on a cold day like this.” Satterfield helped build the pumping system. He said with Avins’ acreage, there’s almost no limit to the number of impoundments he could build. “We’re putting in some new wells and pumps to serve a couple of more impoundments,” Satterfield said.
“Lake Marion is nearby to supply wild ducks and the released mallards provide lots of additional opportunity. There’s no reason why lots of other hunters can’t get in on these exceptional hunts. The hunting is as good as it gets in South Carolina or any other state.” Anybody with farm land can do what Avins has done. But the key to having lots of wild waterfowl in the flooded fields is having a big nearby lake, such as Marion. Some hunters scoff at shooting released mallards, which have a clipped toe to identify them from wild ducks. But these birds provide shooting on a par with wild mallards. However, for the purist the draw will be shooting ducks such as wood ducks, ringnecks, redheads and teal, which are certain to be wild ducks. The Canada geese are mostly likely resident geese, which are also feral birds like the mallards Avins releases.
“They all get wild when you start shooting at them,” Watts said. “Any duck that’s been shot at becomes smart in a hurry. You use the same techniques with the released mallards as with the wild mallards. They’re just as hard to bring down. “I shoot a double-barrel (shotgun) so I shoot Bismuth No. 5s. But if you use a semi-automatic or pump gun, you should still use a premium pellet like tungsten or bismuth to keep from losing cripples in the flooded timber and standing corn. “Some places are thick enough a dog can’t get through them to retrieve a wounded duck. You can shoot steel, but if you do, go with the larger sizes like 2s and 3s.” Ducks, fortunately,l taste the same if they’ve been feeding on flooded corn as well. Even divers like ringnecks develop excellent flavor that is more a culinary delight than a duck that feeds in a lake, swamp or marsh.
“I like any duck,” Watts said. “They all taste about the same the way I like to cook them and that’s fried.” Avins is always present during hunt days since his waterfowl operation is, after all, just a part of his working-farm operation. He hunts often, but is likely to be seen sitting with hunters after the hunt, making sure everyone is happy with the numbers of ducks, the blinds, the clubhouse and is having a good time.
“There’s more to hunting than just shooting ducks,” he said. “But these days, it takes a lot of time and effort to find enough ducks at public land to put together a hunt. That’s why I started building impoundments. “I enjoy the hunters and the hunting and just needed to the ducks. With all the work involved, it has to be a fun experience, and fun is what River Oaks Farm is all about.”