Leggett Lump is hardly even that. While nobody really knows where the name originated, the “lump” is a slight rise in the bottom of a couple of inches in height above the surrounding expanse of Pamlico Sound.
While some might call the rise in the bottom a sand bar, it doesn’t qualify in the dictionary of native O’coa’kers. Capt. Wade Austin negotiated a shallow pathway only he knew to Leggett Lump. A fourth-generation resident of the barrier island, the 38-year-old lives in a house on property handed down from his grandfather. While luxurious mansions locals dubbed “motel-ominiums” spring up around him, he makes a living the old way, guiding waterfowl hunters and taking vacationing tourists for tours of Portsmouth Island. “It’s over there somewhere,” he said. “We should run over the edge of the lump at any minute. I dropped lost my GPS overboard last week, so it will take few minutes to find my blind.” It was a moonless morning, with no clue for navigation except stars and red lights flashing miles away atop a communications tower. The water was a black mirror, robbing the sky of everything, including shimmering reflections of star constellations. The blind that Austin sought was a concrete box buried in the highest point of the lump. Leggett Lump is submerged during high tide, so even for an experienced captain such as Austin, with the waters of Pamlico Sound near Ocracoke Inlet constituting his backyard, the blind would have been impossible to find in the darkness except for its guardians — 200 floating diving duck and pintail decoys and five-dozen brant shell decoys tied to a floating framework of 1x4-inch treated lumber called a “wing.” Austin drove as close as he could get without grounding atop the bar. That left him, my wife Carol and me with a 100-yard walk in ankle-deep water. Austin uses a 24-foot Carolina Skiff with a 175-horsepower jet-drive outboard to negotiate the shallows of Pamlico Sound. He also uses the boat to ferry ATVs to Portsmouth Island so tourists can see the National Park Service attractions of the island and abandoned Portsmouth Village each summer. During winter, he uses the shallow-running craft to ferry duck hunters to his stake blinds and curtain blinds. During the day, he sees clamshells whizzing below in water depths measured in inches. “It’s scary how shallow this boat will go,” he said. “You have to be brave enough to stay on the throttle in 6 inches of water or you’ll get stuck.” Austin bobbed up and down, dumping a plastic drywall bucket he used to de-water the blind. Shining a light inside revealed a trickle through a block wall. “You might have to dip water out during the day,” he said. “This blind’s been here 8 years, and that’s the only leak she’s sprung. Are you ready to get in?” Austin explained the use of the curtain, key to the blind’s success. It was adjusted with ropes and cleats. “A lot of people won’t even get into a curtain blind because it’s looks cramped,” he said. “I hunt with only an inch of curtain showing. Pintails are wary and can spot anything that sticks up.” The curtain blind was invented at North Carolina’s Outer Banks as a way to replace now-illegal sinkbox blinds. Sinkboxes were deemed illegal because they were considered to be overly effective at concealing waterfowl hunters. Many Ocracoke islanders still erroneously refer to their curtain blinds as sinkboxes out of deference to the former way of hunting and this perpetuates confusion for off-islanders and it’s nearly as good at spelling curtains for ducks. The reason curtain blinds, are legal is because they don’t float. By definition, a sinkbox is a low-floating device having a depression, which affords a hunter a means of concealment below the surface of the water. Curtain blinds are permanently affixed to the bottom. They are similar to pit blinds used for field shooting except for the curtain, which is raised and lowered with the tide. As he steadied my wife, who was stepping onto a wooden bench that doubles as step and seat, Austin paid a compliment. “I’ve only had two other women enter a curtain blind,” he said. “I’ve had grown men refuse to get inside. They think water will come pouring in and it’s also a tight fit. If you’re claustrophobic, you won’t like it. But the tide rises slowly so if water starts coming in it only trickles. Water around the blind is so shallow, all you have to do is get out and stand up to keep from getting wet.” But as the raw wind blew, any hunter would realize standing outside the blind for extended periods isn’t an option. The boat leaves and you’re there until it returns, with the only shelter inside the blind — and no land within wading distance. Austin left us with instructions to call when we were done hunting. The cellular communication link was excellent despite the blind’s apparent remoteness. Austin doesn’t usually stay with hunters because there’s only room for two inside a curtain blind. He moves decoys for future parties while clients hunt; but he’s always a short ride away. Sunrise brought diving ducks in singles, pairs and flocks of hundreds. Redheads and scaup swarmed like bees. Brant landed within 20 feet of the blind and Canada geese flew 10 yards overhead. While brant and Canada goose seasons weren’t open, duck season was. We filled diving duck limits quickly then waited for a later flight of pintails Austin predicted, adding surf scoters to our bag. North Carolina has a special sea-duck zone at coastal waters more than 800 yards from any land, and we were well outside that distance. So sea ducks constituted a bonus bag. A drake gadwall was scored, along with a missed opportunity at a rare black duck. But other than pintails, most other puddle ducks don’t venture into the open waters of Pamlico Sound. Once we had drake “sprig” apiece, a cell call brought Austin back to the blind. The tide fell during our hunt requiring a curtain height adjustment every 15 minutes. It was easy to adjust the top edge of the curtain to within about 2 inches of the water surface and the small sliver of wood frame showing didn’t seem to deter the ducks. Hollow decoys balanced on the curtain helped with concealment by shading faces and breaking the blind’s rectangular outline when given a critical bird’s-eye once over. Each time a bird was downed, one of us chased it down before wind carried it away. While water near the blind was inches deep, at 100 yards distant it was too deep to wade. A retrieving dog would have been an asset, but there’s no place for a dog inside a curtain blind. Austin made accommodations for one of his more experienced hunters to use his dog without another person hunting. But using a dog is an exception for curtain-blind hunts. Austin puts large groups or hunters with retrievers in stake blinds. He rotates hunts between several blinds to prevent waterfowl from becoming wary of a particular spot. He wasn’t surprised at our limits of divers, just that Carol was such an excellent shot. “I’ve never seen so many ducks flying that close,” she said. “They were so close they were hard to miss. It was one of the best waterfowl hunts we’ve ever experienced.” Austin smiled at her comment as he tied a float to the curtain. Then he untied the ropes holding the up the curtain, filling the blind with saltwater. “When I come back, I’ll pick up the line to raise the curtain,” he said. “It only takes a few minutes to pump it out.” He untied the wing, which was tied to the blind to keep it from swinging. Lifting the boat anchor that kept the wing in position upwind of the blind. The wing prevented waves from swamping the blind. He tied the wing to a concrete anchor buried in the sand 30 yards away from the blind. If the wing had remained in place, waves would have banged it against the curtain. He unclipped decoys from the wing, then retrieved floating decoys. The upwind section of the wing measured 16 x16 feet and extensions on each side of the blind measured 5x8. It was built in detachable sections for boat transportation. There was enough distance between the 1x4-inch boards for Austin to step between them. A classic curtain blind has two parts: a base of concrete and concrete block and a classic curtain of Atlantic white cedar planks, a native wood that withstands rot, covered with an outer cloak of waterproof fabric ( traditionally canvas). But modern materials have made curtain blinds more durable as well as more waterproof. Austin has classic curtain blinds. But he has made one with a fiberglass base and plastic fabric; it’s easier to build and maintain. Still, keeping up a curtain blind is a year-round effort. Storms destabilize bases and waves rip apart curtains. Abandoned curtain blind bases dot the sound near Ocracoke Inlet. They are usually marked with white PCV pipes sticking up above the water. But plenty can only be found with an outboard motor propeller or boat hull as it passes over, creating a bad situation during the chilly weather of winter. Austin learned to build curtain blinds from old-time hunters. He grew up on a diet of hunting because there weren’t any other winter pastimes for kids at Ocracoke. He jump-shot waterfowl, then learned to decoy them. Building a proper curtain blind became something of an obsession and now he operates from as many as eight blinds. The floor of his classic curtain blinds are 6 inches thick and cast of concrete mixed with saltwater atop a table-like wooden form elevated above the high tide. The legs are knocked out from under the slab and it falls into an excavated hole. If necessary, it can be leveled by removing sand with a pump or jetting device. The sides of the box, measuring approximately 54x48 inches and 42-inches deep, are made of concrete-filled concrete blocks. Steel rebar set into the floor slab helps hold the blocks in place. Bolts are set in top of the walls for attaching the fabric. The curtain is built on land to dimensions that allow it to slide inside the concrete box and allowing it to be extended to a height of 5 feet. This allows hunting from the blind in places with a maximum tide range of approximately 2 feet. So finding a location for building a curtain blind is as important as building the blind. Tide ranges along the oceanfront may be as great as 6 feet in North Carolina. But in the state’s sounds, it decreases substantially. A section of 2x4 lumber is attached to each inside corner. A hole is drilled in the bottom of each 2x4 where they extend below the cedar framework. Ropes are attached to the top of the concrete box and threaded through the hole. Inside the blind the ropes are wrapped around boat cleats set on each 2x4. Shortening or lengthening the ropes raises and lowers the curtain. Each corner can only be raised or lowered an inch or two in sequence to adjust the height of the curtain because of the tight fit between the wooden framework and the concrete box and because of the ropes holding the other three corners. Waterproof fabric is attached to the top of the wooden framework and to the top of the concrete box. The flexibility of the fabric allows the wooden framework to be raised and lowered like one section of an accordion or an old time Kodak camera’s focusing device — while keeping out water. The bottom of the fabric is sealed with a gasket compressed between wood planks and the concrete by tightening nuts on the bolts extending from the concrete.