Many waterfowlers will be happy to forget the 2015-16 duck season. “Lackluster” is a kind term for the year many hunters had, as warm temperatures and plentiful water kept birds scattered across the northern reaches of North America. Hunters in the southern states were especially frustrated, with few migrators seemingly making it to North Carolina or lower.
One did, however, and brought with it memories that one North Carolinian will always treasure. Twelve-year-old Ben Sykes killed his first banded duck on Feb. 6, 2016. The bird was a beautiful wood duck drake that, according to the band’s information, had traveled a long way in order to make the boy’s season unforgettable.
Sykes was hunting with his father, Philip, during the state’s special Youth Day hunt. The two had already hunted through the regular season with little to show for it, but being the ardent duck hunters they are, they couldn’t resist another chance at cupped wings. Ben’s friend Noah, also 12, and Philip’s friend Brad were along for the day, adding another hunter/mentor pair to the hunt.
“I told my dad, ‘Dad, this thing’s got a band on it!'”
They were up and gone early but only beat another group of hunters to the dock by seconds (the game land they were hunting is typically a draw area, but is first come, first served on Youth Day). The morning was icy cold and foggy, with air temps registering a frigid 24 degrees. A flock of 50 or more geese rocketed away as the hunters approached their chosen piece of water — a good omen for the excited youths.
They set up on a partially submerged log to get out of the unusually high water. Rainy conditions had caused the water level to rise to their chests, with the fallen tree offering a bench of sorts to offset it. Dawn brought a wood duck by their makeshift blind, then another, then another.
“It was raining wood ducks,” Philip said. “The boys lit into them. They definitely did more shooting than they did killing, but it’s all about the experience.”
Thirty minutes into the shooting came the most influential drake of Ben’s young career. Several birds circled behind the hunters, with the banded bird among them. It made its way toward the 18-decoy spread the hunters had tossed out, giving Ben a perfect one-shot kill.
“When I went out to pick him up I just thought it was a normal drake,” Ben said. “When I picked it up I saw that jewel; I told my dad, ‘Dad, this thing’s got a band on it!'”
Ben would later call in the band’s information and find the drake had been banded in September 2015 near Vermont. It fell to Ben’s new shotgun — “a Stoeger 3000 12 gauge with No. 3 Winchesters” — making it even more memorable for him.
“We were all really excited and took a bunch of pictures. It was just a really cool experience,” Ben said. “It really wouldn’t have happened without my dad and his buddy Brad getting us out there.
“It was a good experience — what duck hunting can be. I wouldn’t say it was the worst I had,” Ben joked. “It was very intense and fun all at the same time.”
Ben still has his priorities in order regardless of his newfound success with duck bands. The hunting and the company are what made the trip truly memorable.
“Me and my dad are big into duck hunting. I do a little bit of deer hunting, we do turkey hunting — but duck hunting has been our main thing,” Ben said. “It’s like it brings us closer together.”
Unfortunately, Noah won’t remember the morning as fondly as Ben will. Not long after the banded bird was collected Noah tried to move and caught his leg on a submerged log. He fell forward into the water, filling his waders and soaking himself up to the neck.
“He’s 12 years old and he doesn’t hunt as much as Ben,” Philip said. “He came up … he didn’t know what to do. He was about to cry, and I said, ‘You’re going to go back and get in the vehicle.'”
Thankfully, Noah was near enough to the truck that he was not in danger from the cold. He sat and warmed up via the heater while the other three picked up decoys, but he did get a photo with Ben before they left.
“We got in the car and my friend was like, ‘You know, I was about to shoot that duck,'” Ben joked. “He was trying to claim it.”
Note: Sykes plans to mount the banded drake with a hen he shot later in the season on the second Youth Day.