After pulling on their chest waders at 6 a.m., six hunters left a comfortable cabin and drove to a nearby wheat field to set a spread of over-sized shell and windsock decoys in the soft, black soil near Pantego, N.C. The “weep-weep” sound of a young swan soon turned their faces skyward.
“There’s one already,” said Tyler O’Dell, head guide of Wildwing Adventures. “It’s a gray one.”
The swan was a juvenile, its head and neck covered with gray feathers. It called while circling the decoys several times before leaving to join a distant flock. Most of the hunters in the party wanted to take home a large, white adult to eat, photograph or use for a taxidermy mount.
Tundra swans reach peak winter numbers in northeastern North Carolina in December and January, with 75 percent of the eastern population of approximately 100,000 making area farms and the Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes national wildlife refuges their winter homes.
Under the framework allowed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission issues 5,000 tundra swan permits to hunters, more than any other state. Hunters can apply for a permit through the Commission’s Permit Hunting Opportunities program. A season first opened in 1984; all most hunters had to do was request a permit, but now the wait for a permit can take a while, because hunters from throughout the nation journey to North Carolina in hopes of taking home a swan trophy.
O’Dell was guiding his girlfriend, Jenna White, and his father, Kevin O’Dell, on their first swan hunts, along with Charley Southworth of Gaffney, S.C., and two other hunters. They set up on a family-owned farm where Kevin O’Dell was not particularly happy about flocks of swans flattening acres of wheat with their saucer-sized feet. Tracks were everywhere, and white swan feathers wafted across the golf course-green wheat in the morning breeze. Tyler O’Dell had obviously chosen the right place to hunt.
Hunkering down in a ditch, they waited, listening to hundreds of swans waking up on Pungo Lake, lifting off in twos, threes and squadrons of dozens.
White swatted her swan with a 20-gauge shotgun loaded with No. 3 steel shot. She walked out to retrieve it and came back with it slung over her shoulder.
“A 20-gauge is a big-enough gun if you aim for the head and neck and take close shots,” Tyler O’Dell said. “But most of my hunters use 12-gauge shotguns loaded with steel BBS. If you hit one too far back, which is easy to do because they are flying faster than they look, they can go a long way before falling. That’s when the bigger shot makes a difference.”
The other hunters affixed their tags to the legs of swans, each in turn. Southworth finally got the trophy bird he was after.
“I got a gray bird 25 years ago, pass-shooting at Bodie Island, and it was tough hunting,” he said. “This time was much easier, and I have a big, white adult. I will probably it mounted because I don’t know if I will have the chance to hunt them, again.”
O’Dell has the advantage of being able to move around on many of privately owned fields to take advantage of where he sees swans feeding and resting. He uses the most spartan of blinds, cutting fresh pine saplings the day before a hunt. Driving to the hunting area, he takes the trees from his pickup bed and stabs them into the ground on each side of a ditch.
His hunters sit on one ditch bank, with most of the trees along the opposite bank to hide their faces and outlines. He prefers his clients to wear camouflaged face nets to avoid spooking the birds, and all hunters must wear waders. The large number of decoying birds more than makes up for any missed opportunity. It is also a small price to pay for being able to pack up and move in moments if swans are landing in another area.
While O’Dell’s rapid-deployment hunting can be considered the SWAT-style method, another guide who hunts the same area, Willie Allen of Outback Outfitters, uses a stealthier method, hunting from the same reliable ambush points.
“Whenever it is cold, windy and rainy, it’s nice to have a comfortable blind with a roof over your head,” Allen said. “I build my blinds out of plywood and cover them with landscaping mats. The camouflage is perfect for corn or soybean stubble.”
Allen sets his blinds up when swan season begins and removes them after the season ends. They are roomy enough to accommodate six hunters. A bonus is that he can leave his decoys inside the blind so he doesn’t have to carry them to the field for each hunt.
As with O’Dell’s hunts, Allen’s hunts are typically one-hunter-at-a-time affairs. Having only one hunter shoot at a time, lets each hunter select the bird they want and assures no one accidentally hits more than one swan. Hunting on the last day of the season and trying to fill his own tag, he carried three hunters, including Jerry Simmons, a dog-trainer from Castle Hayne, N.C.
“Whenever I can get a swan, I take it to my kennel to train all of the retrievers,” he said. “Since you only get one tag, your dog won’t get many opportunities to learn how to handle such a big, heavy bird. It is a lot different from a Canada goose.”
Simmons said the best swan dogs are big, male Labradors and Chesapeake Bay retrievers. Larger dogs usually just pick up the bird by the body and naturally hold it high enough that they do not trip on the head, neck and wings.
“Smaller dogs can do it if they have the grit,” he said. “It might not be pretty to watch, but a small dog with big desire will eventually bring it in.”
“I had a hunter who brought two Labs that were very well-behaved,” Allen said. “He and his partner had two tags. One retrieved one swan, and the other dog got the other one, just like that. An advantage of being in a blind is that the dog will not spook incoming birds by moving around or making noise. Dogs get excited once they learn what a swan sounds like.
“Most of the time, I have a party of hunters who made the trip together and are close friends. Sometimes kids come along, and they can be fidgety. Being inside a blind allows hunters to talk, joke and move around to eat or drink coffee, which are things you can’t always do if you were out in the open. Your gear stays dry and doesn’t get black mud all over it, and you don’t drop your gloves or hat in the water. A good blind makes the most beautiful hunt in the world that much more pleasant because it is easier for everyone — especially for the guide.”
HOW TO GET THERE — From Raleigh, N.C., take US 264 east to Washington, then continue 22 miles to Pantego, which is at the intersection of US 264 and NC 99.
WHEN TO GO — Tundra swan season opened Nov. 12 and runs through Jan. 31, 2017. Hunters must apply for a permit and must have a valid North Carolina hunting license to apply. For more information, visit www.ncwildlife.org.
EQUIPMENT — Most hunters use 12-gauge shotguns with full chokes and load them with steel BB shot. For shooters of small stature, a 20-gauge loaded with No. 3 steel shot or larger can do the trick if the head and neck are targeted.
HUNTING INFO/GUIDES —Tyler O’Dell, Wildwing Adventures, 919-349-6381; Willie Allen, Outback Outfitters, 252-944-7928. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds
ACCOMMODATIONS — Quality Inn, Washington, 800-291-9434; Hampton Inn, Washington, 252-940-4556.
MAPS — iDeLorme North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-452-5931, www.delorme.com.