My son, Justin, was home from UNC-Charlotte for Christmas break and, as we’ve done since he was old enough to sit in a duck blind, we hunted waterfowl. A highlight was a duck hunt at The Mill Pond Hunting Club near Whiteville.
Our guide was Vinson Bowers, who had grown up in a glass-fronted home overlooking The Mill Pond. From a small aluminum boat, Bowers set out a dozen wood duck decoys in front of the blind on the 68-acre lake. But he also set out a pair of diving duck decoys.
“The ringnecks have come down,” he said. “They move to this area, using Lake Waccamaw and other bay lakes when it turns cold. We always have a few of them at The Mill Pond during the late season.”
As the sunlight peeked through Spanish moss curtains draped among the ancient cypress and blackgum trees, wood ducks squealed in surrounding swamps. The rushing of wings announced a flock of wood ducks was decoying and two drakes fell to Justin’s shotgun fire flashing orange against the blackness of the pre-dawn.
“Ringnecks will fly later than wood ducks,” Bowers said. “If we were hunting only wood ducks, the shooting would be over before the sun rises above the trees.”
Ring-necked ducks are an anomaly among the group of ducks known as diving ducks. Diving ducks are capable of swimming down 40 feet or more beneath the surface to eat mollusks and submerged vegetation that puddle ducks, such as mallards and wood ducks cannot reach. Puddle ducks typically feed in water depths of 18 inches or less.
But the ringneck, which is also called the ring-bill for the drake’s white nose ring, the blackjack, or simply “jack” is unique among diving ducks because it may surprise a puddle duck hunter along a small body of water such as a coastal creek or small pond. Since it feeds on shallow vegetation as well as deeper submerged plants, I think of it as a diving duck that acts like a puddle duck and have nicknamed the ringneck the “diving puddle duck.”
Besides it’s unique bill ring the ringneck is identified by the russet collar around its neck. Daffy Duck, of cartoon fame, is a ring-necked duck, but poetic license allowed his creators to draw him with a white ring that is much easier to see than the ring on the neck of the real game bird.
Ringnecks can be confused, even at shotgun range, with lesser or greater scaup and limits are much lower for scaup at two birds per day than for ringnecks at six per day. The characteristic that sets ringnecks apart is distinctive sound of their wings, which sound like jet streaking overhead accompanied by a high-pitched, pumping whistle.
The Mill Pond was built by Capt. Valentine Richardson just after the Civil War and was used to power a gristmill. Jackson Brothers Lumber Company purchased it to power a steam-operated sawmill in 1925 and built a fishing cabin. The cabin became the Brunswick Walking and Drinking Club in 1928 and hosted many wealthy individuals who participated in the excellent quail hunting, including Ross Perot, Jesse Helms and Emile Du Pont. But when Lawrence and Julia Bowers purchased The Mill Pond, organized hunting ended in 1958. But their sons, Vincent and Larry, continued hunting ducks and fishing for bass.
The original clubhouse is used for entertainment area. The Bowers’ home became a hunting club again when Rick Edwards and his son Richard acquired the property in 2006. The club has eight members, including Vinson Bowers.
“We kept everything in its historic state as much as possible,” Rick Edwards said. “The cabin still has its original woodwork and poker table dating to the 1920s. Each member has his own bed in the Bowers’ house, which serves as the clubhouse.
The sound of wings sound of wings ripping clouds caught Vinson Bowers’ attention.
“Ringnecks!” he hissed. “Get ready.”
Ringnecks are super-fast ducks. As the pair buzzed The Mill Pond like bumblebees, one fell to Justin’s fun. The other flew on, missed by his dad.
Our Lab, Tink, retrieved the drake ringneck. Added to wood ducks, the diving puddle duck was the perfect compliment to a bag of millpond waterfowl.