Harkers Island , NC Pastimes

The Loon Hunt

The people on Harkers Island still like to hunt loons, as proven by the following story.

The loon is a large, migratory waterfowl, just a little smaller than a goose. It has powerful, straight hollow legs, and can out-swim most any fish. Like its southern competitor, the pelican, it eats its own weight in fish every day. It nests in Canada, but its favorite fishing ground is around Cape Lookout, North Carolina.

Near Cape Lookout, on Harkers Island, lives a hardy group of fisher-folk, who had rather have a “loon-in-the-pot” than the more popular goose, canvasback, or red-head duck. They like to hunt the loon for three reasons. First, they like to eat it. Second, they use the leg bones for fishing lures. Third, the excitement of the forbidden hunt adds zest to the sport which has been a part of their lives since the earliest days on the Island. It is against the law to shoot the loon, and there is never an open season on hunting them. The United States has an international treaty with Canada for the controlled right to collect the loon’s eggs for making glue.

One of the most avid loon hunters I ever knew was Telford Willis of Harkers Island. Many years ago I went to haul his fishing boat out on my railways in Beaufort several times a year. Every time he came to have his work done, he would excitedly tell me about his last loon hunt.

“Grayden”, he would say, “You can stand there and shoot until your gun barrel gets so hot you have to lay it down to let it cool off.”

A little bothered, I asked, “Telford, why in the world do you want to kill so many loons?”

He quickly answered, “That’s just it. You don’t kill’um, you just shoot ‘um.”

I smugly said, “I’ll bet you and I can kill one every time I shoot.” “All right, come on down,” he said “and try your luck.”

So I made plans, and went down one morning before daylight. Telford was waiting at the appointed place.

As I walked on the dock, I saw ten other fellows in the boat. They were all hollering, “Come on, Grayden, hurry up! We got to be there before sun-up.”

We got in the boat and headed across the channel, about two miles from Harkers Island to Shackleford Banks. (Shackleford runs due west from Cape Lookout to Beaufort Inlet, a distance of eight miles.) We pulled the boat up on the sound side of the island and walked about a mile to the ocean side.

Here, Telford and I stopped behind a big sand dune. The other fellow began to disappear in the semi-darkness as they walked down the beach. When they thought they were out of gunshot reach of us one of them stopped behind another sand dune. The others went on until they had spread out about a mile down the beach.

A little puzzled, I said “Telford, I’ve been on a lot of hunting trips, but this beats all I’ve ever seen.” Telford whispered, “You just be patient. The loons will start flying any time now, and you’ll see.”

Loons don’t fly in flocks like most other waterfowl. They usually fly alone, or in pairs. They fly just off-shore of the breakers, parallel with the beach, but further offshore, and flying faster than you think. Just about the first flutter of dawn I heard a gun fire way up the beach. Telford was getting excited, and said, “Get down, Grayden, here he comes!” About that time another gun went off, and I saw a loon coming, seemingly about six feet above the water, and about six hundred yards away. “Bang!” went another gun, and I saw some feather fly off the loon, but he kept right on coming. That loon flew the gauntlet of ten sand dunes, guns booming, and feathers flying, until he got right abreast of our sand dune. Telford gave me a nudge and said, “All right, Grayden, here’s your chance. Stand up and let him have it.”

I stood up and held that 32-inch “Long Tom” about two feet ahead of the loon’s bill and cut loose both barrels. Telford emptied his five-shot automatic in the same direction. What few feathers were left flew off, but the loon kept right on going. Telford threw his gun down in disgust and doubled up his fist. He shook it at the disappearing loon, and shouted, “Go it! You straight leg. We may not eat you, but you’ll freeze to death this winter.”

Source: Carteret County, NC: Folklore, Facts, and Fiction, by Mary and Grayden Paul; Sponsored by Beaufort Historical Association; 1996; pp. 13-14.

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