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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: Deceptive speed makes tundra swans prized waterfowl targets
NOT MANY PEOPLE can get away with calling me “young man” anymore, but Louis Proffitt gave a big smile Monday morning when he said, “We have socks that are probably older than you.”
“Isn’t that right, Sammy?” he asked Sam Cave, who was placing the last tundra swan decoy amid the winter wheat in a spacious Essex County field just as the sun began rising over the Rappahannock River.
“Well, I turned 82 this year,” Cave replied. “And I’m 74,” Proffitt added.
It was about 26 degrees. Ashland resident Cave arrived early to the hunting site and had already unloaded his four-wheeler and hauled a few dozen shell decoys, full body decoys and silhouette decoys out to his blind.
He was clearly hurting, having taken a tumble two days earlier while cutting wood. His upper back was severely bruised, he guessed without benefit of a medical exam, and several bandages covered cuts and scrapes on his weathered hands.
“I sure wish I felt as good as I did when I was 50,” he called out. Somehow, my 50-something physical complaints were instantly diminished in the presence of this tough senior waterfowler.
Virginia is one of seven states that currently allow tundra swan hunting. The others are Utah, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and North Carolina. Each state conducts a lottery for a limited number of tags. Virginia currently issues 600 tags. North Carolina, the main terminus for tundra swans’ winter migration, issues the most, 5,000.
Getting a tag is one thing; getting a place to hunt is another. Many hunters get a tag and try to luck into a swan while duck or goose hunting. Then, there are locations where the swans just seem to congregate in flocks. The farm Cave and Proffitt hunt is one of them.
Cave graciously let me share a blind with him and his grandson Brian Catlett on Christmas morning last year. Brian and I both had swan tags. Cave’s ample spread of decoys and well-timed calls resulted in quick success on big mature birds for both of us.
Migratory tundra swans are not the same as mute swans, which are larger and considered a nuisance species. Tundra swans migrate from far northern Canada.
Populations are divided by geography with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in concert with waterfowl flyway councils, setting target population sizes of 80,000 tundra swans in the East and 60,000 in the West.
While the birds are big (4 to 5 feet long, with wingspans that can reach more than 7 feet), they are deceiving in terms of body weight, not weighing much more than a greater Canada goose. Adult tundra swans have completely white feathers and typically weigh 16 to 21 pounds.
Juvenile swans are smaller and their feathers often have some gray tinting. Most adult tundra swans have a yellow spot on their black bill, just in front of the eye.
The birds that visit Virginia first rest for a while in North Dakota and Minnesota before flying nearly 1,000 miles nonstop to the Mid-Atlantic.
Birds flew early and a neighboring blind collected the first swan by 8 a.m. But, it was soon clear that the inbound small flocks were not behaving as carelessly as seen on previous hunts.
Something wasn’t quite right and they’d usually flare away from the blinds at 60 to 80 yards. When a pair of mature birds approached from the front and started veering left at about 45 yards out, I popped up and shot, sending three loads of steel BBBs at the bird on the left. I may have well been shooting blanks, and the pair flew away disappearing out of sight over the river.
“You shot behind ’em,” Proffitt declared.
He may be right. My last duck hunt was in Arkansas a couple weeks ago where we were shooting high-velocity (1,700 feet per second) loads. The shotgun shells I was using for the swans were rated at 1,400 feet per second. Plus, due to their size, it’s easy to deceive yourself into thinking swans are flying more slowly than they really.
Bottom line: I whiffed. It wasn’t my first time and certainly won’t be my last.
About two hours later, a solo swan decoyed straight in, put out his landing gear and banked left for Proffitt. His Remington barked twice and soon Proffitt was attached his big blaze-orange tag to the swan’s leg.
Early afternoon action was slow. New Year’s Eve was beckoning and people in blinds around us began pulling the decoys. We followed suit.
Naturally, as the last of decoys were in the bag and most of the gear already back at the vehicles several hundred yards away, geese and swans decided it was time to move. I sat there on my bucket with my shotgun encased as seven motivated birds whizzed by. Oh well.
“Catch you next year,” I smiled.
King George County resident Lora Tolliver shared via email last week that she got a post-Christmas hunting gift. “After four years of dedication, I finally got the big one. I finally got a 10-pointer,” she wrote, adding five exclamation points for emphasis. While Tolliver has been a successful hunter in terms of taking deer, clearly, this buck moved her deer hunting excitement meter a few levels higher.
Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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