01/29/10 — Father-and-son team up during swant hunt

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Father-and-son team up during swant hunt

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on January 29, 2010 1:46 PM

Swan music caught the attention of Richard Manuel. Turning to his son, Robert, he asked whether the swans were in range.

"No, not yet," said Robert. "But it sounds like they're getting close."

The father-son team from Herndon, Va., was hiding in a Washington County farm ditch in water that was shin deep. The banks were 10 feet high, so they kneed depressions in the soft soil to keep from sliding into the water. Watching the cloud-studded blue sky of mid-morning over the top of the ditch, they hoped swans would set their wings to several dozen swan and snow goose shell decoys.

When the flock did appear, it circled out of gun range. Seeing something they didn't like, the swans flew on. This happened several times, as it had in darker moments at dawn.

Culley Wilson, of Wild Wing Adventures was the guide. The Manuels and several other hunters spent the night before in his hunting camp cabin before waking for the drive to the epicenter of North Carolina's swan wintering grounds.

"Swans are roosting at Lake Phelps and Pungo Lake," Wilson said. "They will fly out to feed in fields between the lakes, where we should have some good hunting."

Tundra swans, also called whistling swans to differentiate between them and protected trumpeter swans, are long-lived waterfowl that can weigh more than 20 pounds, making them the big game of waterfowl hunting. They have delayed sexual maturity and reproduce slowly, so their harvest is controlled by a lottery permit system.

Smaller wintering populations occur primarily in Eastern Flyway states of Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. A few also winter in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario and Mississippi Flyway states. But the vast majority of tundra swans spend the winter in northeastern North Carolina.

To manage swan numbers, which feed in damaging concentrations in farm fields, sport hunting is allowed with a goal of taking less than 5 percent of the population annually. North Carolina issues 5,000 permits under a lottery system each year and one swan may be harvested per license. About half of hunters receiving permits harvest a swan.

"In the early years, everyone who wanted one received a permit," Wilson said. "But this year, I didn't get one because there were more than 5,000 applications."

Wilson had driven along a muddy field road, nearly sticking his big four-wheel drive pickup truck in the process because the roadbed had been turned to a bog by rain. Stopping on a high spot, he and another guide, Tyler Odell, set swan and snow goose decoys beside a shallow ditch. The hunters had hunkered down, trying to keep their heads below the bank as water crept coldly into waders. One hunter had taken a swan, but several flocks veered away.

"The wind shifted and swans are coming in over the ditch so they can see you," Wilson said. "Lets move to another location."

That's when the decoys were hastily picked up and rearranged near the deeper ditch where Richard and Robert awaited their chance. Despite the better hiding spot, swans kept flaring away. Then the wind switched direction making the swans decoy in front of the hunters rather than over the ditch.

"This flock is coming closer," Robert whispered. "We're going to get a shot."

Rising to shoot Robert downed his swan. But Richard's shotgun jammed.

Before he could clear the jam, another flock circled. He borrowed his son's shotgun and filled his one-swan limit. A check of his shotgun revealed that sliding around in the ditch filled the action so full of mud the head of the ejected shell was completely packed with black.

While it was not the Manuels first swan hunt it was their first together. The previous year, Robert hunted with a youth group sponsored by Avery Outdoors, an outdoor products company for which Wilson serves on the professional staff. Richard hunted in a group guided by Wilson while Robert's group had another guide.

Robert is home-schooled, which has led to an especially close bond with his father, who is a government information security consultant. Robert said his first hunt was fun. But this hunt was better.

"I missed my dad being there on my first swan hunt," Robert said. "But hunting together made this one more exciting. I was even there to give him my gun when his wouldn't fire."