The Hunt is On!
With the endless caravan of 4-wheel-drive vehicles loaded down with poles and gear, it’s easy to focus on fishing as the primary pastime of the Outer Banks.
But for all the fun folks have catching critters below the surface, it’s worth remembering hunting’s role from Corolla to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and multiple points in between.
Currituck, after all, borrows its name from an Algonquin Indian term meaning “The Land of the Wild Goose.” The wetlands of the northern Outer Banks have been a haven for hunters for centuries and played notable, well-known roles in sites such as the Whalehead Club, Currituck Shooting Club, and Pine Island Club.
Wealthy hunters from the Northeast flocked to the Currituck Sound and shot so many geese, mallards, black ducks, and swans in the early 1900s that hunting regulations were enacted in 1918 to make sure waterfowl didn’t go the way of the buffalo on the plains. Private retreats like Whalehead remained, but slowly transitioned from hunt clubs to beach attractions as the decades passed.
Today, hunters enjoy duck hunting and deer hunting throughout the Outer Banks during brief seasons in the winter months – a change of pace from the non-stop fishing and surfing of the spring and summer months. Like those who came before them more than a century ago, these hunters wake up early and brave the cold for the camaraderie and the sporting nature a good hunt provides.
For Joe Tyson, that means bushels of oysters with buddies around a roaring fire, the good times interrupted only by the necessity of getting to bed early enough for that killer 4 a.m. wakeup call, then heading into the woods to test your mettle against Mother Nature.
“The camaraderie around the campfire is the most essential part of the hunting experience,” Tyson says. “You hear the best stories, from old dudes and young dudes, everybody’s just so excited – the night before you’re about to jump out of your skin. Then after you’ve been hunting hard, you’re so cold and it warms you up, some spirits and good friends, that’s the deal. That’s where it all goes down.”
Tyson, a teacher at First Flight High School, has been hunting and fishing since his childhood. He loves taking a long weekend to places like Milwaukee, NC – a dot on the map in Northampton County about 15 miles south of the Virginia border, not the Midwestern mecca of beer and cheese curds – to what he calls “the buck capital of North Carolina.” He also enjoys quicker trips around Currituck County, game lands on the Outer Banks – heck, there’s a stand right off Eckner Street in Kitty Hawk.
“You could probably go up there and smoke a big deer,” Tyson says with a laugh.
Best of all, when Tyson does bring down a deer, none of it goes to waste, providing meals for months for his family and friends.
Duck hunter Ray Scott, on the other hand, doesn’t worry with processing any birds he may bring down: “That’s something I let other folks do,” he says with a laugh.
Like Tyson, Scott started hunting in his youth because “that was the thing to do” in little Weeksville, just south of Elizabeth City. Some 45 years later, the recently retired athletic director at First Flight High School still relishes that feeling.
“For me, it’s very enjoyable, it’s relaxing,” Scott says. “You get out with nature. I also like training dogs and watching them work and hunt alongside of you.”
Scott and a handful of friends hunt blinds together from the Little Alligator River to Second Creek to North River while also using float blinds to hunt open water throughout Dare and Pasquotank counties.
He’s not picky about where he hunts, save one minor detail: “You kind of want to be where the ducks are,” Scott reasons. “That’s why you spread out. It gives you options.”
A typical hunt for Scott includes leaving the house around 4 a.m., putting in from the boat ramp around 5, setting out upwards of 200 decoys – and then waiting. “Crawl up in your blind and drink you a cup of coffee before shooting time,” he says. “Most of the time you’re just sitting back with the good camaraderie, talking about anything that comes up, and keeping your eyes open in the skies.”
In recent years, Scott has had to keep his eyes open for alligators as well. He no longer takes his dogs on hunts with him until the weather turns much colder and the gators get less active.
“We have seen 8 to 10-foot alligators around some of our blinds. It would be just like losing a family member,” he says.
When the dogs are out, they retrieve more birds than Scott and his buddies can eat, but “none of them ever go to waste. We eat a few and give away a lot to people that don’t go hunting that still like to eat duck.”
Bagging quality time outside is pretty cool, too, and there’s no limit on that.
“It’s just about being out there and enjoying the surroundings, watching the sun come up, watching Mother Nature,” Scott says. “We never get upset when we don’t kill anything.”
That slow pace is something Troy Crane relishes as well. Crane serves as captain of the Marauder and has run Marauder Sport Fishing Charters for more than 20 years. During the summer, “We go so hard” fishing every day of the week. So when fall arrives and charters slow, Crane shifts from captain to guide, leading duck hunts throughout Currituck and Dare counties.
“It’s nice to do something different, break the monotony,” Crane says. “The waterfowl hunt to me is more one-on-one. I get to spend a lot of time sitting in a duck blind talking to them, sharing stories. That’s what I really like about it.”
Crane, who has hunted waterfowl since he was a kid, has several fishing parties from the summer come back for fall and winter hunts, plus other folks who just want to hunt with him. Visitors from all over the U.S. and as far away as Great Britain and Australia have joined him.
“There’s a lot to do here, hunting and fishing. It depends on what we have in terms of weather,” Crane says. “You never know how the Outer Banks is going to go from one extreme to the other. Last year duck hunting you could get a sunburn and two days later we had a full-on snowstorm and were frozen for a week.”
A favorite winter activity on milder days is known in the industry as “cast and blast,” which features a duck hunting trip in the morning and striped bass fishing in the afternoon. The number of fishing trips ebbs and flows based on how cold it gets and what the local scene looks like.
Before Hurricane Isabel arrived in 2003, sound fishing for striped bass – rockfish – was great, but has dwindled. Puppy drum and red drum can be found before it gets too cold, but last year’s prolonged freeze “decimated” the speckled trout population, Crane says. The Manns Harbor bridges off Roanoke Island tend to be good structures to find fish around the pilings, but sometimes, people who try to book fishing trips around Thanksgiving and Christmas are out of luck.
“Because things have changed over the years, I’m brutally honest with most people: ‘Look, it probably wouldn’t be much of a fishing trip, it’d just be a boat ride.’ You’ve got to tell them the truth,” Crane says.
The truth of the matter is that the Outer Banks has been a sportsman paradise for centuries and doesn’t show any sign of losing that title anytime soon. ♦
Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.