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As I was attempting to use the self timer on my camera to take what in the trade is known as a “hero shot” with my 2011-12 swan in front of the Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge sign, a small eco-friendly car with a swan license plate on the front drove up and stopped. The lady driver sat in her car and took a photo of my swan and muzzleloading shotgun. As she was preparing to drive away I waved and she gave me a dismissive look and wave off such as one might bestow upon a child who had done something distasteful, but knew no better. She made it quite clear that she did not want to talk to me.
As she was obviously very interested in swan, we actually had more common ground than she might have thought. I suspect that her passion about these birds has resulted in her being a member of the Swan Society whose members follow with considerable interest the annual migration of the various swan species from the Arctic to their wintering grounds in the U.S. Those in the Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina, area are legally termed Tundra Swan, but are biologically perhaps more correctly called the Whistling Swan, compared to the Trumpeter Swan, which is an endangered species restricted to the Western Flyway.
A limited harvest of Tundra swan is permitted in North Carolina and Virginia and in a scattering of Western states during their Fall migration. This is done by permit only with the number of permits depending on the annual swan reproduction. The biological objective is to keep swan numbers in check so that they do not overstress their nesting or wintering environments. These large fowl eat a lot and can deprive other migrating species, such as ducks, of food. Before their was a season, North Carolina guides referred to them as “Sky Carp” because they consumed much of the plantings done for ducks and geese.
When I hunt swan in late December and early January they have been in the state for about a month and have been fattening on corn, soybeans and other field crops. This diet makes them the best eating of all waterfowl. Those taken from alkali lakes of the Desert Southwest are not nearly as tasty. When I have one, I often have a swan for my Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. Unlike turkey, swan meat is dark because of the many blood vessels used to drive those powerful wings. When properly cooked, it tastes like a very good roast beef.
Why kill swan?
1. Population management is the primary objective that most federal and state wildlife agencies will cite for maintaining an annual swan harvest. Each hunter who draws one of the limited number of tags has the chance of taking only one bird per season, and must report the results of his hunt whether he went or not, any bands recovered, etc. The penalty for taking an illegal bird may include fines of between $500 and $1000 and might also mean confiscation of the firearm, vehicle, boat and gear associated with the hunt.
2. The challenge is to attempt to take one of these magnificent fowl cleanly with one shot. Using muzzleloading guns, which are slow to reload and most often only have a single shot, puts an additional burden on me, which I accept as part of the hunting experience. Over the years I have taken a number of swan and often, but not always, killed them with a single shot. To be effective, this shot must be at the yard-long head and neck of the bird. As I have most often have only one shot opportunity at the time, I am careful to try for only close-range birds and, in addition, must keep all of my shooting components dry. By the time I hunt swan, I have used that gun and load for the entire hunting season and know it very well. The best advice that I can give any swan hunter is to know your gun and exactly where you must point it to get a good killing pattern on your bird. Some heavy waterfowl loads can shoot a foot or more below the point of aim.
An episode of my radio show, Hovey’s Outdoor Adventures, broadcast on January 9, 2012, presented hunts from a public blind at Lake Mattamuskeet and also a shoot in an agricultural field about 15 miles from the lake. On the field shoot some of the cartridge-gun shooters struggled to take their birds. I killed my swan with a single shot from my Thompson/Center Arms Mountain Magnum 12-gauge shotgun using 100 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven powder, a 1/4-inch hard cardboard over powder wad, 20 grains of Cream of Wheat, a red Winchester plastic wad for 1 1/4-ounces of shot, about 1 3/8 oz. of no. 4 HeviShot (a tungsten iron non-toxic mix that is heavier than lead) sealed in the barrel with two thin over-shot cards.
This single shot ended my hunt. I am not always so fortunate and had missed a swan the day before by apparently letting the eye guide me to shoot between a pair of approaching birds, rather than picking out one and killing it. Wingshooting, even on huge fowl like swan, is never a sure thing in hunting situations; as was abundantly illustrated on my radio broadcast.
The previous discussion covered the mechanics of swan shooting, but more challenges to the hunt are to arrive with all of the gear you need, physically make something of a trek out to your blind location (particularly at Bodie Island on the Cape Hatteras National Wildlife Refuge where you may walk through a mile of flooded marsh to your blind) and put up with severe weather conditions during your hunt. This year was quite warm, whereas two years ago every small pond was frozen solid and only the largest part of the lake and the salt-water Pamlico Sound had open water. (You can see a video of this hunt by clicking on the following link: http://youtu.be/BCPjQOBr7aI.) Walking through flooded marshes and operating boats under these conditions can be quite interesting. This year some hunters sank a 19-foot boat in the sound when waves crashed over the rear of it, flooded it, pulled it off the bank and sunk it in 15 feet (or more) of water. Fortunately, the three hunters were rescued.
3. Swan are excellent on the table. During past centuries it was a hanging offence to be caught eating a swan in England, as these birds were reserved for the Royal table. In North America these birds have been eaten since colonial times. When they have been on good feed they are excellent with the younger gray birds being better than the older ones, as is typical with any fowl. For best results swan need to be plucked and cooked in moisture.
4. Swan hunting provides a much-needed income boost to area residents who live in an impoverished part of coastal North Carolina. Hyde County, the location of Lake Mattamuskeet, does have large-scale agriculture in areas that are dry enough to farm; but much of the area is undeveloped marsh and forests. The county’s population is only about 8,000 with the principal non-agricultural employers being county government, a prison and the school system. The Fall waterfowl hunting season provides a boost to the economy by filling motels, restaurants and giving local merchants some needed trade.
5. Human interactions are also part of the swan hunting experience. These include running into other hunters, (as I did and unexpectedly joined two different groups on their hunts), interacting with local residents and even, in my case, attempting to give the area a boost through my radio show. When you and others are facing the same challenges there is a bonding between like-minded people that, although temporary, can be quite strong. You come to care about each other and each other’s problems and challenges.
6. Fun is a word that has thus far been absent from this discussion. Where does it come in? Killing an animal, as an act, brings a complex series of emotions. There is an elation that you have struggled to accomplish something and have successfully completed it. There is often “Ha-Ha” humor in the sometime completely ridiculous situations that hunters get themselves into that is easily understood and shared with other hunters. These experiences ultimately related to story telling, that can get so extreme and enjoyable that it actually interferes with the ongoing hunt. (You cannot put two talkers in a turkey blind together, for example, because they will never stop yacking long enough to get their bird.)
Killing a swan, to me, is no more enjoyable an act than slaughtering a pig at a “hog killing.” I have seen, and dealt, sufficient death in my life to say that I appreciate life and take it only when I am going to make use of the animal. To me the highest value that an animal has, even a swan, is to provide food for the hunter’s family. I have trophy heads on my wall, but I am more interested in shooting meat rather than horns. The best trophies, the most long-lasting ones, are trophies of the mind rather than horns on the wall.
So where does that leave me and “the swan lady.” I think it is a safe assumption to say that we both respect these native North American birds and wish them, and their kind well. My enthusiasm does not extend to the imported European mute swan or Australian black swan, which are now wild breeding populations. Mute swan by the thousands are now causing problems in a number of states and are even mixing with migrating populations of swan that winter in North Carolina. Control measures are now being conducted on these populations. Often the best, and least expensive, measure of control is to open a hunting season on them and consume them. In these hard economic times and in a country, and world, where millions are going hungry, there is no reason for not utilizing these exotic swan as a food source. If they were good enough for European Royals, I think that they are good enough for us too.
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