10/16/09 — Marsh hen hunting on a new moon tide

View Archive

Marsh hen hunting on a new moon tide

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on October 16, 2009 1:46 PM

Astronomical high tides may threaten other coastal interests. But every fall when we hear warnings of shallow coastal flooding and beach erosion at the time of high tide, Basil Watts and I burn cell phone minutes planning a marsh hen hunt.

"Based on the tide table, we're going to have a high tide of 6.8 feet," said Watts, a retired Cape Fear River pilot. "It won't be as high as it was yesterday, but we should still have good hunting. Bring Tink along so I won't have to pole across the flats to retrieve marsh hens.

"That should save us some time."

Tink is the Lab that now owns me, filling Santana's place by the hearth a few weeks ago. She already takes hand signals and fetches birds to hand. She even survived her first marsh hen walk-up hunt handily, flushing and retrieving several sora and Clapper rails.

But this hunt would be different since it was her first time in a small skiff. Watts hunts rails the old-fashioned, time-tested way poling his boat through the marsh.

"I made this boat because I couldn't find another one I liked," he said. "Boats with flat bottoms or bows don't pole through the grass. This one is made of juniper with a 1/2-inch plywood bottom. I painted it white because if you paint a wooden boat any other color, the wood will rot."

Watts used a 2-horsepower motor to cross the Atlantic Intracoastal water, joking with me to hang onto my hat. The tide flooded the western marshes near Southport leaving tell-tale ribbons of high grass along the edge of tiny tidal creeks he called "guts."

He scarcely began poling when the first marsh hen flushed. My hand load of 1/2-ounce of No. 8 shot fired from the modified choke of an old Stevens double-barrel .410 shotgun. The bird spiraled down and Tink headed out for the retrieve.

Getting back in the boat with a rail in her mouth, she wet both of us down along with the cherished double gun, the first one I ever bought on my 18th birthday when I was old enough to fill out the paperwork. The old shotgun has survived with striker and firing pin replacements and a stock refinish, along with the installation of choke tubes in both barrels.

Basil's Noble .410 rested at ready, facing the stern of the boat in the event a marsh hen flushed behind. Watts is so good at marsh hen hunting he can pick up his shotgun and kill a bird while still hanging onto his pole. When he was a teenager, he poled for pay.

"I used to get $40 to pole a hunter back when that was high wages for a grown man," he said. "But it was an awful lot of work. When I do it for myself, though, I call it fun."

Watts was poling his boat on a waxing new moon, meaning the tide wasn't as high as it could have been during a full moon and wouldn't remain high very long. He tipped his bamboo pole with a PVC pipe fitting to give it a solid grip on the marsh mud. The cupped tip tossed a plug of mud into the marsh.

Tink, a young dog with boundless energy, wasn't as steady as she should have been and splashed overboard after the plug. A sora rail flushed, then a clapper and a king rail. I downed them all.

Tink made her way back, then followed my whistle stops and hand signals to the downed birds. The time she saved Watts poling was offset by the time she wasted breaking for the mud plug. But it was good training for future marsh hen and duck work.

The wind grew in velocity and prevented us from hunting more than a couple of hours. Watts killed one marsh hen that was sneaking away after we passed him. By the end of the tide, I added 14 clapper rails and big "coasters," which Watts calls the king rails because the move so slow. They appear to be coasting rather than flying.

"I get just as much fun out of poling as I do shooting," Watts said. "Marsh hen hunting is fun no matter who is doing the poling and watching or the shooting. When you hit the tide right, it's the fastest wing shooting you'll ever see."