Monday, January 23, 2012

Hiding from Ducks in Plain Sight on the Nottoway River

There are no secret spots anymore. Not east of Interstate 95, anyway.   But there are spots that exist right under your nose that you'd never think would hold fish, ducks, or anything else of much value.  In our case, just a half mile off a state highway, a set of cool springs floods the headwater woods of the Nottoway.   

Years ago, the state highway department found this place, a failing cotton field, and excavated it to create a gigantic replace wetlands filled for a highway project.  The new wetland was designed to hold only  a few inches of water over several acres.  After monitoring the site for the required number of years, the state moved on with their work elsewhere.  

Around that time, beavers moved into the wetland, quickly determining that the flooding was not sufficient for their own work. Several years and about five hundred feet of beaver dam later,  the place is filled with a few feet of water, aquatic grasses, and lily pads - not at all what the wetland restoration gurus intended.  In this case, we had also lucked out because the wetland is still privately owned, and we had permission from the landowner to hunt (in exchange for any and all bird meat).  A few steps through the swamp will tell you that the wildlife sure are happy that such a big wetland has been left for them, in plain sight but very much out of mind.  

Tug tells the story of our arrival in the beaver swamp in embarrassing detail, but essentially it went like this: 

1) boat a mile down the river in the pouring rain, two hours before dawn.  
2. Pull the boat up on shore.  
3. Haul all hunting gear up a muddy 20 foot tall man made berm, in the dark.  
4. On the other side of the berm, walk (with chest waders) through 7 foot tall brambles and fallen trees for about 100 yards. 
5. Wade into flooded cypress swamp that rings the beaver swamp, for about 100 yards.
6. Accidentally walk back to the river, downstream of boat.
7. Argue in the woods, in the dark.
8. Try to figure out directions by looking through tree tops at "sunrise" though it is still an hour before sunrise. Idiots.
9. Wade back into flooded cypress.
10. Stumble into beaver dam.  Piss off beavers.
11. Walk into beaver wetland. 

Not my most attractive pose
Finally, we had arrived.  As soon as I had taken about two deep breaths, wood ducks began streaking over our heads in the dark.  A few of them were swimming out in the wetland, about 100 yards in front of us. 

As the sky began to glow pink, the wood ducks' flight became furious.  Always left to right and overhead.  Tug had the distinct advantage of having seen this flight pattern across this wetland before, and his shooting showed it.  Wood ducks on New Year's Eve. In Virginia. Hard to believe. 

Tug, staring at the "Wood Duck Dispenser"
area of the swamp
Right at sunrise, the ducks stopped moving.       I'd love to say that the wetland was silent but for the work of beavers and songbirds, but it was actually a little loud, with trucks thundering down the highway about a half-mile from our position. And since it was deer season, which in southern Virginia means monster trucks full of beagles, the average noise of 18-wheelers was occasionally punctuated by the wonh wonh wonh wonh wonh of 48" Mickey Thompsons at 60mph. 

The sun came up quick.  It got warm quick.  Our pre-dawn flight was a treat of clouds, rain, and birds, but now we were forced to acknowledge, again, that this is just not a good winter for duck hunting.  I thought back to goose hunts around New Years where air temperatures were near, or even below zero, and how we'd have to just stay flexible until the geese flew, which could easily be 11am. Not this year! The temperature quickly got into the mid-60s.  Another beautiful April day in December. 

We were waiting for a big flock of ringneck ducks to fly in - ringnecks typically winter south of the VA-NC border on big reservoirs and freshwater lakes across the wide coastal plain.  A week before our hunt, Tug and his buddies found a flock of about 200 ringnecks on this wetland. A few birds came in at 830am, but landed 150 yards from us in open water.  They were quiet but aggressive feeders, and we kept waiting for the big flock, which never came.   We were treated to a pretty tame display of pairs of ringnecks arriving, feeding, and then leaving, never giving our decoy spread a look or coming within about 80 yards of us. 

My chariot arrives
Around 930am, we called it quits, knowing that we had a long walk back to the river still ahead of us - this time, in warm weather, while covered in cold weather gear.   We found our way out with no problem, retrieved the boat and headed back upriver to the ramp. 

It wasn't a bad hunt, despite all the factors working against us.  And as we motored back upstream, I started to get excited for spring.   That's absurd for me - I have never gotten that feeling in the middle of waterfowl season.  But I think for the last few weeks of this waterfowl season, it's going to take some serious weather, serious birds, or the opportunity to rekindle a special friendship to get me back on the water without a fishing rod.  

Will any of those opportunities come to pass? I don't know, but I'm already checking stream gages for trout fishing.  And that's not a hopeful sign for additional hunting days!


Passinthru Outdoors said...

Great read. Love me some wood duck. Thanks for sharing.

Mark Coleman said...

Love the color on those woodies.

tugboatdude said...

Another nice write up big broseph.Thanks for writing up all the hunts,you did an excellent job.Now bring on the Spring Bass Spawn!

Kirk Mantay said...

PTO - we've been cursed with a lack of migratory ducks this season, which means we've been blessed with at least some meager flights of paired up, local wood ducks. Here in MD, people are still killing teal and woodies in January, which is unheard of.

Mark - thanks. They are beautiful birds!

T - thanks. It was hard to do so much writing about a trip that seemed like it started and stopped in a blink of an eye. Glad I did it though.

Bill Howard said...

Good story. Still getting mostly woodies here in North Carolina as well. One more Saturday and its done for another season...

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