It has not been the best of duck seasons. Better than last year for most, yes, but warm weather, drought and abundant food resources have made it challenging for many hunters, myself included. Yet despite it all, there have been days of great shooting. For me, no surprise, the last day of the season here in Rhode Island was hands-down the best one.
We went into Narragansett Bay for a late Saturday hunt, which quickly turned into a scouting trip. On Sunday morning we were back, on the X with hundreds of bluebills overhead riding the 30-knot winds. Hunting from the boat, tucked into a lee thick with cattails and marsh grass, with 80 decoys out front – mostly old Herter’s foam bodies, as you can see in the photo above- it didn’t take long for the birds to commit. The dekes were close, 15 yards out, and the scaup and a few buffies nearly landed in the boat.
There’s something about bluebills. In a flock out over the water they fly the way drunks drive: speeding up, slowing down, breaking left, turning right. But up close in the decoys, you see just how controlled they are, banking like F-18s, feet sideways clawing at the wind.
After shooting our limit – extended to four this season – we just sat there and watched. Seemingly suicidal in the cold weather, they bombed into the spread, landing even as we picked up the dekes.
I’d trade all of October for five more days in January. But the northeast waterfowl seasons are all wrapped up, and much of the Mid-Atlantic and south closes on Saturday. Still, if you’re only going to hunt one day this season, Saturday is it. Just bring your facemask.
“It’s cold!” said Avery Pro Staffer Bryn Witmier, who hunts Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic coast. “But we haven’t lost birds. We haven’t gained birds, either.”
High winds have kept much of the larger bodies of water open, Witmier said, so birds don’t appear as concentrated as single-digit temperatures might imply. But don’t think the cold isn’t affecting waterfowl. By most accounts ducks are on the move, trading around locally, looking for food. Geese, on the other hand, have been hunkered down and flying at sundown. One group of Pennsylvania hunters killed a limit this week by waiting out a 4 p.m. goose flight. The birds spent the day on the roost, conserving energy, before flying late for an evening meal.
That doesn’t mean you want to sleep in. “I say go early and stay all day,” Witmier said, “because you never know when they’re going to fly. It’s not supposed to be as cold Saturday, and when it gets late in the season like this they get unpredictable. You don’t know if they’re going to fly at 9 a.m. or noon or 4 p.m. Wait the birds out.”
The same rule applies to open water duck hunters, according to Capt. Bob Wetherald, a Benelli and Final Approach Pro Staffer and owner of Mid River Guide Service. Wetherald hunts the Chesapeake Bay and says peak bird migration is on: “We’re killing birds. The average guys are shooting a box, box and half of shells a day, getting limits.”
With this cold weather and vegetation locking up with ice, greenheads seem to be pushing south for better groceries, into Virginia and the Carolinas. But diver shooting is hot on the Bay, and just like I’ve seen in Rhode Island, the greater scaup flight is thick, with lots of “giant birds and more drakes than hens,” Wetherald said. If you’re hunting them this Saturday, play the percentages and throw more hen decoys than drakes. “The birds are starting to pair up,” Wetherald said, “so if you have a dozen decoys, put a pair here and a pair there. Put them in their species groups, don’t intermingle them, and use a decent spread.”
Beside the good bluebill push, canvasbacks are showing up on the Bay, too. “We’re seeing canvasbacks every day now and having opportunities to kill them every day,” Wetherald said.
Farther south, hunters haven’t been spared this recent cold and snowy weather.
“Coastal hunting has been good. The bonus scaup has been a blessing for a lot of coastal hunters,” said Field & Stream Editor-at-large and Raleigh resident T. Edward Nickens. “I’m hearing about good hunting in the sounds around the outer banks. But once you move off the coast into inland swamps and river complexes, it takes some nasty northern weather to get the ducks moving.”
On Monday Eddie and his 13-year-old son, Jack, had the opportunity to chase tundra swans (and did so successfully, as the photo below indicates). Every year North Carolina issues 5,000 swam tags. “What was neat about this hunt was you always think of tundra swans in the northeast part of the state, on the coast and in the costal impoundments, but these birds every year are mobbing farther and farther west inland.” Eddie and Jack drove an hour and 20 minutes outside Raleigh, spent the night in a $29.99 Motel 6, then walked 200 yards into a peanut field the next morning. “It’s over fast,” Nickens said. “It’s over with one shell.”
What makes it so much fun is the sheer size and number of the birds. They came in twos and threes a half hour after sunrise, filtering into the spread of 60 snow goose decoys, letting the group of five hunters pick their shots. “You get to decide on a juvenile with some grey on the body and head but a little tastier in the crock pot, or a big, white, white as a fresh snow, mature bird,” he said. “For the next 90 minutes we watched 50 to 60 circling around, with that primeval sound they make, seven-foot wingspans … it’s a spectacle. It’s not a hard hunt, it doesn’t take a long time, but your jaw is dropped the whole time. It’s a spectacle.
“When you kill one dead, stone cold dead, it’s like someone threw a sofa out of an airplane,” Nickens said. “It is a thunderous crash.”
I’m applying for a tundra swam permit next season. Maybe Eddie will take me out if I have him up here for bluebills.