Mike Wilson: Make mine a redhead

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, November 9, 2023

Mike Wilson

Mike Wilson
Guest columnist

If zipping along in the dark at 26 knots in 25 degree temperatures and 20 knot winds in a 21-foot fiberglass tub in skinny water and then wading 500 yards to your island blind isn’t your cup of tea, then by all means do not go to Cedar Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to hunt redheads! On the other hand, if you think you might relish the challenge of bagging a limit of these beautiful, wary, and delicious speedsters and you care to experience an unforgettable hunt — not only for the shooting, but also for the stunning natural beauty all around — then read on…

One of my buddy’s most precious memories of his adolescence is hunting redheads there with his dad and brother over 50 years ago, and constant reminders from an inveterate fowler at his church that nothing had changed there — more on that later — finally pushed him over the edge, so we decided to go to the Core Sound area near Beaufort instead of Mattamuskeet for our annual pilgrimage to the coast. A video from our guide Clay of a cloud — no exaggeration — of redheads getting up off the water certainly did nothing to discourage us. He met the four of us, including my buddy’s brother and his old friend from Raleigh I had not previously met, the evening before to explain the game plan.

The next morning we boarded his boat for the 40-minute trip to the island blind, which lay on the ill-defined boundary between the Core and Pamlico Sounds. When I saw the shoals, stilt blinds, flounder nets, and other assorted obstacles that we passed, I was especially thankful that our guide had lived there all his life. He now uses GPS as an aid to navigation and maintains that he has lost something of his “edge” for boating in the dark, but I saw little evidence of it. He explained that, while the sound is officially tidal, the water level is much more dependent on the prevailing winds than on lunar cycles. A southwest wind pushes the water out, while the northeast wind usually blows it back in. The median is a depth of a few feet, but when the sou’wester is sustained for several days as it was before and during our visit, the water may be only a few inches deep. One expedient in such circumstances is jet outboards, which allow you to skim along very handsomely in shallow water with a good running start. The guide, a marine mechanic in the off season who had actually pieced his motor together with parts salvaged from several others, regretted losing horsepower with the addition of the jet drive, but had also seen enough busted lower units to treasure it.

We scattered enough large rafts of birds along the way to see that we were entering a “target-rich environment.” We arrived at the blind (luckily, there was enough water on day one to permit drop-off right on the bank) with 20 minutes to spare. There were over 300 decoys spread around the point, the majority closely spaced and tethered to large nylon nets, apparently the only innovation to the drill in this century…Before legal light we could see uncounted strings of redheads winging their way both north and south (curiously enough), and before long they started buzzing our spread. We had been warned that they were unlikely to “cup up” and land, instead typically flying by to look things over, and that is exactly how the next two hours went. None of us would profess to any expertise in wing-shooting, so while we had many opportunities to down ducks, there were relatively few casualties. (The guide had actually told us he thought “a bird per box” was a respectable yield for that kind of pass shooting.) I was struck by the beauty of the drake I collected — my first redhead — with my Sweet 16; the picture in the Audubon guide does not nearly do it justice.

Things grew very sporadic after that initial flurry, but we had committed to spend the whole day on the island because the round trip to shore was so long, so we passed the time watching cormorants, pelicans, and distant (darn!) pintails and occasionally napping as best we could in the blind or on the marsh grass. The locals call this spot Great Island. Personally, I began to wonder how much hyperbole had affected the rest of the local geography since the whole barren piece of land would have fit handily onto a football field…

We had winged one hen during the busy window that morning that had glided hundreds of yards away in front of us, and the way the wind was blowing, it appeared that it would be pushed north and out of reach in short order. Checking later, I could see a definite duck with its head erect, however, that was not moving downwind at all. We all watched it through binoculars and discussed what kind it was, even consulting the duck identification guide. Finally, not wanting to let it suffer and knowing that the water was very shallow, I decided to walk it up and bring it in. I suppose it took me some 15 minutes to cover the quarter mile and approach it very slowly so as not to flush it too soon. When I got within 35 yards, it looked nervous and ready to take off, so I shot to anchor it, and it did not react at all. And that’s because it was actually a decoy that had escaped someone’s spread upwind and snagged out in front of us. I will not soon live this down and may have to find new, less sarcastic hunting companions…

As predicted, the last hour of legal light afforded a real air show all around us. We managed to collect several nice redheads before time to shuck our shells out and pack it in. The ride home was very enlightening since I was, naturally, volunteered to stand beside our pilot at the helm to help trim the boat, so I got to chat with him about his work and his life. Like many others in the area, Clay had started fishing and hunting the sound in diapers. He lamented the lack of opportunity for young people there and fretted over the loss of nearly a whole generation to the allure of the city. He told me of decoys inherited from his grandfather that still held prominent positions on the outside of his spread and recounted somewhat sadly how a client had recently shot one of them up so badly that it was no longer serviceable; he then wrote on the bottom with a Sharpie the date it was “retired” and added it to the memorial shelf in his workshop. Consider that for a moment: a decoy cemetery. I found it very touching, as did the rest of my crew when I shared it later at dinner after hot showers.

He also solved the mystery of what he had been doing some hours earlier. We had seen him in mid-afternoon with a couple of individuals about a half mile away who appeared to be sitting on lawn chairs right on the shore, and when a big flock of redheads came by high, they fired. We saw two redheads crumple and fall before we even heard the report of the guns; a third joined them before they hit the water. Then they packed up and left. Curious, no? Well, it turned out that one of the gentlemen was an old family friend who, at 87 and saddled by the constant necessity of an oxygen canister, had asked to be taken out for a hunt with his best friend that would surely be his last. He had brought out his old bolt-action Marlin goose gun with a 36-inch full-choked barrel — a relic from the days long ago when goose hunting was the greater attraction on the Banks — and he downed two beautiful redheads with most likely the last two shots of his life. (I must confess that it is hard to write this without choking up a bit; we all have a final hunt coming some day, and I really hope I can go out like “the old guy with the goose gun.”)

I was especially interested in the local watermen’s subculture. When I told Clay I had noticed a few state boat ramps along the shore and asked him about regulations concerning boat blinds, etc., he indicated with a rather stern look that it was essentially a matter of “common law” and that one really wouldn’t want to encroach accidentally on the space between blinds that had been handed down from generation to generation. He intimated, now chuckling, that any number of new blinds had mysteriously burned down in previous years and that the very best way to enjoy hunting the sound was to engage a local guide so folks could make a living. I ultimately concluded that I really couldn’t begrudge that.

On day two the water level had receded so much that it was no longer possible to get the boat close to the blind as we had the day before, so we were let out a third of a mile from the island and we hauled our gear there on sleds. As we trudged eastward in ankle-deep water toward the blind, the panorama before us was one of the most beautiful I have seen in my lifetime. The sight of those strings of ducks silhouetted against that “tequila sunrise” pre-dawn light was one none of us will soon forget.

Unfortunately, the action that morning was not as hot, but we did have a few opportunities. We had more or less already concluded that we would not stay out all day and had pre-arranged with the guide to pick us up at about 10:30. Incredibly, at 10:25 a small flock surprised us by winging in and dropping right into the spread, so we were able to collect two more fine specimens to take home. The wind had turned enough to push some water back into the sound, so with some effort our trusty pilot was able to bring the boat to the back side of the island for the return trip. He cheerfully asked if we liked oysters: while we were hunting he had dug up a five-gallon pail full for us to pass the time. We divided them among us, and I can say without a doubt they were absolutely the best I have ever eaten. Core Sound has a very special flavor, and I can’t wait to go back next year.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.