Last Day of the Season

Jenny Scarborough
"Ocracoke is the most awesome place to hunt and fish," according to Joey Arakas (r) of South Carolina
"Ocracoke is the most awesome place to hunt and fish," according to Joey Arakas (r) of South Carolina

Standing outside in the winter darkness just after 5 a.m.

everything is still and quiet. Until Russel Williams pulls up in his truck. I toss my borrowed waders in the back and hop in the cab between Russel and Sam Privette, a longtime visitor to the island.

Surprisingly, given the hour, other people are on the move too. Four or five sets of headlights pass before we can pull onto Highway 12. What strange migration is this? It is the last day of hunting season, and Ocracoke's six professional waterfowl guides are heading to work.

"There's Beaver, and Earl, and Monroe, and Ronnie," said Russel, picking out the trucks in the darkness.

At the Quork Hammock docks, armed men in camoflauge suddenly appear in the light of head lamps. I pull on my waders and try to go unnoticed.  Many of the things being said, most of them quite funny, are not for tender ears.

The six hunters and I hunker down in Russel's Carolina skiff and he opens her up. The sky and sound are a seamless pool of black. A few minutes later we stop at what seems to me an unremarkable spot. Two of the men hop overboard. I am told to get out, too, so I can see my first sinkbox.

There must be some magic to making this happen. The blind is like an oversized refrigerator box sunk into the sea bed, large enough to hide two men, their guns, binoculars, bird calls, sandwiches and choice of warming drink. Here's the trick: the box doesn't extend above water level, yet the box stays dry.

They are remarkably good places to hide from ducks, and were designed by a now passed generation of Outer Bankers. "Sink boxes just look like ducks sitting on the water," Russel said. Maybe a photo to illustrate?

The magical, wonderful sinkbox.
The magical, wonderful sinkbox.

On Green Island, Allen Foxworth and Sam are charged with my continued education. Not much smarter than a duck, it takes me a minute to locate the concrete pit blind. Just after dawn, a large flock of redheads undulates over the water, swirling and dipping like a tree in the wind.

"Salt water ducks have to find fresh water after five days," said Sam. The birds we see "will head inland to Lake Mattamusket. They eat the roots of grass and the snails attached to them."

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Sam Privette!
Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Sam Privette!
click image to see Sam's amazing photos

Pintails are more elusive than redheads, and the diminutive bufflehead won't come into decoys because larger birds habitually bully them, I am told. "Teal is delicious," said Allen, especially if you brown the skin and thinly slice the breast.

Not everyone loves the taste of duck. "I always ask if they're going to eat 'em," said Russel. "If they are not going to I'll give them to the older people on the island."

Sam recalls a trip he took to Texas, when a flock of thousands circled his blind. "It was just mesmerising. Oh, to have had a camera." He said, "For me, hunting is not so much about the shoot. It's about being out here, and the serenity of being in the wild."

Ducks are unpredictable, and good shooting days can't be guaranteed. "Lots of days they'll fly at dawn. Some days they'll fly throughout the day, and some days they don't fly at all," said Wade Austin, who owns Ocracoke Duck Hunting.

Dawn typically is the best part of the day for hunters. "The climax comes at the beginning," Allen told me, with a mischievious grin.

The one and only Russel Willliams
The one and only Russel Willliams

A camera is the only thing shooting from this particular blind this morning. Shot guns have a range of 100 yards, but no birds come that close. They have wised up over the course of the season, said Allen.

Others in the party are having better luck. We hear shots in the distance as well as the low om of the sea buoy in Hatteras Inlet.

Allen and Sam, both native South Carolinians, soon discover they share acquaintances. The lively, erudite conversation touches on farming, federal policy, and the Clemson - South Carolina rivalry, among other things. The Confederacy does, in fact, get mentioned.

Periodically the men fall silent and scan the sky with great intensity. I am kindly told to "get your head down" in an urgent whisper.

Last Day of the Season

It is not yet 9 a.m., and Krispy Kreme doughnuts are being washed down with canned beverages. "All hunting clubs are just drunk fronts," says Sam. I find that I am enjoying myself.

Russel and Wade return together to check in and report what's happening elsewhere. Both men have been working long hours for six weeks straight, and before that spent a month and a half preparing blinds and decoys.  It is the last day of the season, the sun is warm, duck kebabs from yesterday's hunt are marinating for later, and what Russel describes as "the great expanse of the Pamlico" surrounds them.

The two are telling stories and anticipating the annual end-of-hunting-season celebratory ski trip, when Ocracoke locals storm Snowshoe, West Virginia for a few days to ride hard and play hard. Oh, to be a fly on the wall on one of those trips.

Last Day of the Season

(No, wait, I've been on one of those trips. Once. Some people just aren't tough enough to hang.)

Most clients, almost entirely men, return year after year to hunt in Ocracoke waters. Monroe Gaskill, Beaver Tillett, Earl Gaskins and Ronnie O'Neal are the other island guides. All grew up here and have decades of experience. Most clients find them through word of mouth.

"We all try to help each other out," said Wade. They refer hunting parties, and give one another a hand when needed, he said.

Russel ran 187 guys out to his blinds this year, he said. Visitors pay between $150 - $175 for guide service, and contribute to the winter economy by staying in motels and eating out.

Last Day of the Season

Joey Arakas has been making the trip from Myrtle Beach for about 15 years now, often with a group of shotgun toting friends. Joey hunts and fishes all over the world, and in Alaska each spring. "Russel runs a top notch camp," and makes trips to Ocracoke "by far the most fun," he said. "I love the open water. The curtain blinds are the best way to hunt."

No need to wait a whole year for the fun of Russel or Wade. In the summer Wade runs ATV tours to Portsmouth Island. Russel trades decoys for tackle and runs William's Guide Service as a charter fishing boat.

Thanks to Russel and Wade and the South Carolina crowd for welcoming me and making me laugh. Big cheers to Sam and Allen for their wit, wisdom and warmth. Extra thanks to Sam for the invitation and the 5 a.m. text message saying "Come on!"

Want to learn more?  Sink boxes recently were a topic in Ocracoke Journal, Philip Howard's terrific blog.


Comments powered by Disqus