MOYOCK, N.C. -- It has been four years since North Carolina's wildlife managers stuck out their necks by opening a hunting season on tundra swans, and no one has stepped up yet to whack off their heads.
"We expected problems but didn't get them," said Dennis Luszcz, state waterfowl project leader. "Oh, we got a few letters from people in New Jersey, places like that that are closer to urban areas. But people in North Carolina are more rural, and they seem to understand that a swan's no different than any other waterfowl."
What concerned Luszcz four years ago now concerns wildlife managers closer to home as the prospect of swan seasons in Maryland and Virginia looms. They worry about the perception many people have of the huge, long-necked, snow-white birds from the far North as too graceful and lovely to hunt.
"There's something about taking the big, white bird," said Maryland's waterfowl chief, Larry Hindman, who will soon have to wrestle with the question. "They're white and beautiful like the mute swans you see in the zoos, and people just don't like to see them shot."
Neither Hindman nor Luszcz shares that reluctance. They say tundra swan populations are high enough in the East these days to support a limited, controlled hunt without hurting stocks of the giant birds, which migrate from as far away as the North Slope of Alaska to winter around Chesapeake Bay, Back Bay and Currituck Sound.
At the moment, federal waterfowl experts say there are excess tundra swans. They've targeted an ideal wintering Eastern population at 60,000 to 80,000 birds, and Luszcz estimates more than 100,000 in the region this winter.
The U.S. Interior Department will issue new guidelines, probably this summer, that should clear the way for Maryland and Virginia to open swan seasons next year with strict controls, allowing perhaps 500 hunters per state with special permits to take one swan a season.
But Hindman said Maryland might opt not to take the season, just to avoid expected "sociological poroblems." He cited a furor in the 1970s over opening a season for snow geese, which hadn't been hunted in 45 years.
Snow goose season opened anyway, and the species has continued to thrive in the mid-Atlantic despite expansion of dates and bag limits. Luszcz said the same thing has happened with swans in North Carolina since the season opened there. He said populations are up in Nevada, Montana and Utah, where swans have been hunted since 1962.
North Carolina operates a tightly controlled season, offering 6,000 permits a year, which usually results in about 3,000 reported swan kills, Luszcz said. Interestingly, the permits have not been gobbled up by swan-hungry local gunners, and it's still fairly easy to get one, even for out-of-staters.
To see what swan hunting was about, I wrote in last fall and got a North Carolina permit, then arranged with Dick Darcey, a retired Washington Post sports photographer who lives on the Outer Banks and duck hunts avidly there, to set up a date.
Darcey said it was no problem -- he had a blind in a wheat field near Currituck where swans flew past by the hundreds. Success, he said, was guaranteed, and on arrival it looked that way.
The blind couldn't have been better -- a pit dug into the ground and surrounded by a couple hundred decoys, mostly cut-up old rubber tires, turned inside-out and painted white.
The location couldn't have been better -- a large field of fresh, winter wheat a mile or so from the Sound, where snow geese, Canadas and swans rested at night by the thousands. A quick walk around the field revealed goose and swan scat and tracks everywhere, proving they'd been feeding vigorously and recently.
But when snow geese started flying at first light, it was clear they knew what a hole in the ground surrounded by white statues meant, and they showed no enthusiasm for landing close by.
We picked a few snow geese out of the packs of thousands, and Darcey's optimism was not dampened in the least. "Don't worry," he said, "when the swans fly they'll come right in. Hardly anybody hunts them here. They're not wary like the snows."
The swans flew on schedule, starting about 9 a.m. You could tell them by the eerie "whoo-whoo" of their distinctive cries, and their great, long necks and snowy bodies rendered them unimistakable. But fly close? No way.
It was as if they had radar. Even flocks heading straight for the blind got about 100 yards away and veered off left or right.
We blew our swan horns and waved our flags and tried everything in the book, but when morning gave way to afternoon and the flights began to taper off, we hadn't lured the first swan in range. Joel Arrington, who had hunted swans at Lake Mattamuskeet, said this was a change indeed. "Obviously," he said, "they're getting wary, and I'm glad to see it."
It was only by pure luck our party of four took one swan. I was trudging back across the field to get some gear from the car when two swans came soaring toward the blind, veered off to the left and headed straight for me. I moved not a muscle, and when they were directly overhead threw the gun up and brought down a monster of about 22 pounds.
It is not easy to say how it felt to kill this bird. At first it felt good to do what you came to do and do it well. But over time, as I thought of the great bird's grace in flight and the marvelous journey that had brought it, I began to have doubts.
And when I delivered the huge beast home, still snowy white and so big I had to cradle it like a baby to carry it in the door, the kids looked shocked and my wife, who loves nothing better than a good goose dinner, said angrily, "You shouldn't have done that."
I'm afraid I agree.
Maybe it's illogical. There are plenty of swans around. They really aren't any different from any other waterfowl, except in size and color. And I'm sure ours will be superb to eat.
But somehow it seems a waste to make dinner of one. Even to a diehard waterfowler like me, the thought occurs:
Some things are just better left alone.