Growing up in eastern North Carolina can have a profound effect upon a young outdoorsman. The culture and heritage that’s passed along, combined with the ample experience of seeing and experiencing the area’s wildlife help shape and mold lives.
Matthew Cagle and Allen Bliven have unique experiences that eventually led them to the same place: creating products for waterfowl hunters. When not busy traveling with their business pursuits, these waterfowlers relish the time they can spend on their old stomping grounds hunting ducks, and the things they’ve learned can help hunters looking to bag some ducks along North Carolina’s coast, on public or private land.
Having grown up near Greenville and hunting public land most of his life, Cagle recognized he had to break away from the status quo to be a successful duck hunter. Along the way, he developed skills that set him apart from other public-land hunters.
“Most public-land hunting in the rivers is by boat,” said Cagle, who created Rig’Em Right Waterfowl, manufacturing waterfowl gear. “No matter how much marsh grass you put on a boat blind, it sticks out like a sore thumb if you’re not hunting in marsh grass. The best boat blinds are those that allow you to blend your boat in with the natural surroundings and look like part of the scenery. Spend some extra time hiding the boat in natural cover and then use the available cover to help brush in the boat even further.”
Cagle said that when ducks get scared and are preparing to fly out of an area, they bunch up in a tight circle — a look identical to most decoy spreads when hunters toss dekes out in a random ring around a blind. He suggests mixing full-bodied decoys in with floaters, arranging them in a more relaxed fashion so you aren’t putting ducks on alert the moment they see your blocks.
“Ducks standing on the shore, laying around on stumps and spread out across an area is the way real ducks behave when they are relaxed,” he said. “Some will be loafing, some will be sleeping, and some will be bathing and preening, which is where a lot of splashing and motion comes in.”
Cagle is quick to point out that even the best decoy spread and the best blind in the best-looking location is an exercise in futility if ducks aren’t in the area you’re hunting.
“Guessing at an area is no substitute for scouting,” he said. “After every hunt, I burn a lot of boat gas or truck gas scouting the area to see where the ducks are loafing and rafting. Big flocks usually come in with the weather, so it’s important to put your time in and identify at least the general area ducks are using.”
While arriving before the crack of dawn is the duck hunter’s motto, Cagle learned that it is much easier kill a limit of ducks, especially in a crowded area, by waiting until mid-morning to go into the duck grounds — when most hunters are packing up and leaving. Even when hunting time ends at 11 a.m., he’d rather hunt the last two hours instead of the first two.
“It’s thinking outside the box that will put you in a better situation,” Cagle said. “Almost every duck hunter out there today is using spinning wing decoys, and I believe ducks that have been hunted a while put this together with getting shot.
“One of the first things I came up with at Rig’Em Right was a more compact, easier-to- use jerk-cord system. The movement of four to six ducks on the water is more natural than a spinner, and that attracts even wary ducks.”
Most waterfowl hunters understand that ducks prefer to land into the wind, but they fail to realize that a rising sun behind the back of the hunter also makes him virtually invisible.
“I’ve hunted cross-wind situations plenty of times so I could get the sun at my back,” he said. “A right-to-left shot is much easier if the duck has no idea you’re there.”
After spending plenty of time hunting open-water sounds for divers, Bliven, a call-maker, decided it was time to invest in his own private land and let the ducks come to him. He bought a small farm near Swan Quarter on the south side of Lake Mattamuskeet. He soon discovered that it wasn’t as easy as he thought, and he learned some valuable tips in manipulating his own land.
“First, not all farmland is equal,” he said. “We purchased land on the south side of the refuge and realized there were local flyways that ducks used to trade between the lake and the sound. We were fortunate; we get our birds later in the season, but some lands are just simply not in the right path. Migrating birds flock to the north end of Mattamuskeet earlier in the season and use those fields up there to feed. Once those crops get scarce, they move to the south end and start working this area more heavily.”
Bliven said that lands with sandy soil are not very suitable for turning into impoundments as they do not hold water well, resulting in increased pumping costs to flood fields.
Along with water, food is also a big concern. Bliven’s land was graded to manipulate water, but he discovered that seasons of drought meant no water and no ducks. He finally went the distance and built a well to guarantee him water even during drought times. He also chanced upon a cooperative farming arrangement in which a local farmer plants and harvests two-thirds of the crop while leaving the remaining third for Bliven’s ducks. The move saved him an estimated $500 an acre to plow, plant, and maintain the crops himself.
“You read a lot about exotic duck foods, but to me, corn is the best crop to grow,” he explained. “First, ducks love it, and second, it allowed me to co-op with a local farmer. That wouldn’t be possible with Japanese millet or other duck food that isn’t marketable.
“Another thing I recently discovered is that the deeper the water, the more divers and mergansers we had coming to our land,” he said. “By maintaining just six inches of water over the crops rather than six feet, I’m saving money on pumping costs, and I’m getting more puddlers like teal, mallards and widgeon.
“This depth of water level is much easier to control with the well pump rather than trying to use tractor pumps to drain surrounding ditches. The well also guarantees me water when surrounding properties are dry. If no one else has water, I get their birds too.”