North Carolina holds a great multitude of species for hunters to pursue. Most reviews of the state’s Whitetail opportunity rate the state either at a B or C, just average. This is due to a large population, with a number of good size deer but not large number of trophy whitetail being taken. We have large black bear on the east coast ranging from 300 to over 700 pounds regularly taken, making it a destination for trophy black bear hunters not wanting to travel as far north as Canada or Alaska. We even have a growing population of large wild boar (much to the chagrin of local farmers) in the southern part of the State. Not an exceedingly large state, North Carolina is very diverse in its geography. One, less mentioned, but unique trophy opportunity the State has is Tundra Swan.
Most waterfowlers jokingly call the Tundra Swan the 737 of waterfowl. They are huge with an average wingspan of 66” to 83” (some getting even bigger). They fly high with excellent eyesight, making them difficult to decoy. North Carolina is one of 2 states on the eastern seaboard where you can get this hunting opportunity and, with the largest population of this migratory bird, is the State with the largest number of permits given out. There can be anywhere from 65,000 to 80,000 of these large white birds passing through North Carolina on their migration south. During the 2017-2018 season there were 6,250 permits awarded to the 7,159 applicants. From discussions with others during my most recent hunt, the number of applicants was down quite a bit from previous years. (At the time of this article I could not find the numbers for the 2018-2019 season.)
I’ve been a whitetail hunter for years and have had various degrees of improving success over the last few years. However, as an avid hunter I’m always looking for new opportunities to extend my season and get out into nature. I first learned of this unique opportunity when a friend went on a swan hunt several years ago. I watched a few videos, listened to a few accounts, and ultimately bought a shotgun in anticipation to go on this new adventure. As I live in the Northwestern part of the state the opportunity was not local and I would have to travel and book a guided hunt (something I had never done before). I have never done any waterfowl hunting before either, so this was going to be a first of many for me. Many duck and geese hunters dream of this opportunity. These birds are large, beautiful, and surprisingly fast. Which means shooting them at extended ranges are near impossible. You have to get them close. Very close. Because only a handful of states even allow hunting swan, there are no production swan calls and very few decoys. A good guide knows how to call them in with just their voice, and my guide was no exception.
In July of 2018 I put in my $25 for an opportunity to go on this hunt. There is a point system for swan permits and I have spoken to a number of hunters that haven’t been drawn in several years. I did not expect to get drawn this year but applied to gain the points to better my chances for the next season. In October I got the notification that I had gotten lucky, very lucky. Out of all my friend I was the only one drawn which meant I had to embark on this adventure on my own. Generally speaking I like having people I know and trust with me while I hunt and try new things. It’s a security blanket of sorts. However, I was drawn, I had the permit, I had the gun, and I was determined to make this venture a success.
On the recommendation of my friends I contacted Mike Nobles of Conman’s Guide Service in Creswell NC. They hold a 99.9% success rate, according to their website. So, the opportunity was there, it was up to me to make it happen. I booked my hunt for January 19th and began my road to my first foray into waterfowl hunting. I contacted Mike several times before the hunt and he was great every time I spoke with him. The hunt was set and the gear gotten.
I didn’t sleep well the night before. Partly due to a night in a hotel and mostly due to the excitement and nerves of the coming morning. I was up at 3:30 that Saturday morning and despite a lack of sleep I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to go. Out in the fields of eastern North Carolina my GPS decided to take me a few miles past the guide’s shop, but fortunately I left in enough time to rectify the issue. Got there right on time and everyone was ready to go. We drove from there to a cut corn field about 30 minutes away. We geared up and walked out to the irrigation ditch where 2 other guides were already setting up. We helped putting the decoys together, and those that knew what to do, helped put them out in what appeared to be a hap-hazard formation in the field. (I later found out there was some organization to this madness and the decoys were positioned in a planned way.) Donned with chest waders we got into the irrigation ditch in thigh high black, muddy water. Cold but not too bad (thank God for chest waders). I found out the birds were not decoying like normal so Mike decided to add white Tykex suits to our camo to help coax the birds into the field. Part of our problem was a local corporate corn farm had a flooded field that they left corn in and collected the insurance on. This meant the field was full of corn and pulling the birds into it, bypassing us. It made getting these birds to come to us very difficult.
The first 2 birds to come were picture perfect. The sunrise was gorgeous that morning. Shortly after sunrise we had birds coming off the nearby lake in groups of 10 or so. Squawking as they do, making the morning a gift from God. Words don’t do it justice. Out of the groups 2 birds decided to come in alone. They heard the calls, flew right in and cupped perfectly for a landing. The guides yelled out, “Shoot” and that was all it took. They were maybe 25 yards from the shooters on that end of the ditch and 3 shots later they both came down with a thud that sounded like a 20# bowling ball being dropped in the mud. Since I was alone and new to this hunt, I wanted to watch and immerse myself in hunt before ever grabbing a gun. Over the next hour and a half, we watched thousands of birds come off the lake, fly overhead and head to field of corn a few hundred yards away. None few close enough to even attempt a shot but were close enough to hear the wind running over the wings. In a sound I can only describe as a troop of kazoos flying overhead. Around 9 am birds began leaving the corn field and started working there way back to the lake. For some reason, only the birds will know, the birds coming in from behind us began to respond and get in close. So, the whole group of 10 hunters and 3 guides turned to face the west, toward these groups coming out of the field. Soon shooting opportunities presented itself and shots were taken.
Eventually another group of 2 came in for a landing, cupping in the way they do. Again, they were at the opposite end of the ditch and the first bird was shot. It also came down hard and close as soon as the shot rang out. However, the second turned and headed parallel to the ditch. It wasn’t until it got down within 30 yards of my position that my closest guide said to shoot. Maybe everyone else was in awe of what was going on but this bird passed at least a half dozen hunters before reaching me, unmolested. When I heard the command to shoot, I began to shoulder my shotgun and take a bead on its head (the only place to shoot a swan). I had earlier been corrected by my guide to not move when these birds come in, it’s a lot like turkey hunting in that way. So, I was perfectly still until that command was given. When I snapped into action the bird instinctually flared up to get out of danger. I only shot 1 time but I found out later it was probably at the last second. The bird was really on the outer reaches of my gun. However, I was focused on making a good shot at the head then following through, which is exactly what I did. The hunter next to me had also taken a couple of shots but it was after I had hit the bird and they were misses. As soon as I shot, I saw the hit and the bird react. It immediately began fluttering and falling out of the sky. With wings as big as these birds have, even mortally wounded and unable to flap, they can glide a long way before finally meeting the earth. My bird landed a good 200 yards away, bobbed its head as they do, and finally expired. In a manner of seconds, the action portion of my hunt had begun, and ended.
I had spent several hours in an irrigation ditch expecting the non-stop action you see on waterfowl TV shows. Finally getting into that action and ending quickly was not expected. But I was certainly happy. The guide tells me to get my bird. As I was starting to climb out of the ditch I was stopped by my guide telling me to get down. Three more birds were coming in and shots were about to be fired. The action was truly starting to get good. After another 15 minutes and half dozen more shots were taken, I was finally able to retrieve my prize.
Never being this close to these birds before I was not fully prepared for the immense size. After retrieving my bird (200 yards away) and getting back to the rest of the group I was told that those of us with birds were to go back to the truck so the rest of the hunters could spread out a bit more. I only wish they had said that before I walked out to retrieve my bird. While the bird was 200 yards away from me, it was only 50 yards from the truck. That being said while some long walking with awkward gear happened, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I spent the last few hours of the hunt talking with other hunters that had been hunting swans for years. Learned a lot about the hunt, the expectation, and had a great time with other hunters sharing stories. One thing I have always loved about the hunting and firearms community has been the people. It’s made up of great, salt of the earth people that are not only “willing” to share but “want” to share their experiences and help. I made new friends, had new experiences and had a great adventure. One by one everyone in my group got their birds and by Noon that day we were all together enjoying the spoils of our hunt.Hunting is a lot more than just killing. I’ve been preaching this for years. People who don’t hunt ultimately had the same questions when I told them about my swan hunt, “Why do you want to kill a swan? What are you going to do with it?” While I haven’t decided on what part of the trophy I want to display of my swan, you can rest assured I won’t waste any of it. Swan are cooked a lot like turkey and are said to be very good to eat. Can’t wait to try it myself. As to why, well it’s not about the killing. It never is. It is about a day in God’s creation. It’s about the joy and comradery of the hunt with other hunters (even strangers). It’s also about the challenge. For me on this hunt, it was the challenge of getting out of my comfort zone and doing something new. I delved into a new foray of hunting by going after a very rare trophy. I succeeded. This means more to me than anyone will know. For that I’m grateful and thank the Lord for the opportunity to harvest from his bounty. If you’ve never hunted before I highly recommend trying it. It is something you have to experience for yourself to fully understand. If you do hunt and want a unique opportunity, I highly recommend swan hunting in North Carolina. The birds are plentiful, the tags are too. You will get a bird that is huge and a challenge that you may not find anywhere else. You won’t be disappointed.