Sea ducks are strange, beautiful birds, but chasing them across the Northeast is hardly a typical day in the duck marsh
Josh Pelletier saw them first. “A wad of birds coming in,” he said, “way out by the buoy.” With him hunkered down like a crab, his eyes barely poked over a rim of kelp-covered rock. “Man, those are big ducks.”
Big and getting bigger. The birds 3 three feet off the deck, and by the time we rose to fire, the eiders were B-52s in front of the shotgun muzzles. Common eiders are the largest ducks in North America, growing to more than 6 pounds, and these black-and-white drakes, with heads the size of golf drivers, are among the most striking ducks in the world. When three eiders hit the swells, Pelletier and I holler with excitement. This is exactly what we’d come for.
Around us sprawled 50 square miles of Boston Harbor’s big water, dotted with three dozen craggy, inhospitable islands. To the west, the city’s skyline rose in the gray dawn like jagged teeth strung with Christmas lights. To the south, the Deer Island Light winked a quarter mile away. There were five of us—my buddy Pelletier, a trio of Pennsylvania hunters, and me—and we’d wedged our bodies between refrigerator-size jetty boulders, slipping on rock snot and kelp, calculating carefully just how low we could go without taking breaking waves over our waders, not to mention straight in the face.
We celebrated our success only long enough for the seals to make their move. Pelletier and I had laughed at them a half-hour earlier, when their gray heads popped up in the surf just minutes after we made landfall on the rocks. First there was just one, then a dozen cruised the shallows as our guide, Adam Smith, set out the decoy ganglines and we ferried gear from the boat to the jetty. Now, as a pair of eiders vanished into the gray surf 30 yards from our perch, I realized just how weird this duck-hunting trip might turn out.
For the next five days I would travel the coast chasing sea ducks—first in Boston Harbor and then along the rocky Maine coast. We’d be up against rough weather, tough luck, and trophy-stealing carnivores, in a whatever-it-takes hunt, for some of the oddest birds in the air.
Sea ducks are the Rodney Dangerfields of the waterfowl world. It’s a big group of species—eiders, scoters, oldsquaw, harlequin, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and mergansers—and most hunters recite a litany of shortcomings when it comes to gunning these birds. I’ve heard it for years: They are too easy to decoy, dumb as rocks—and about as tasty. Some of the disrespect likely stems from their haunts and where you have to go to find them: Open saltwater sounds and craggy rocky islands—hardly the marsh-fringed environs most waterfowlers dream about. But, truth be told, many detractors have never tried their hand at shooting a sea duck, much less eating one. And, for sure, too few have never pursued them in their classic haunts along the Northeast coast. Over the course of a week, I would learn that sea ducks might not be as colorful as a woodie or as wary as a pintail, but these boreal birds are as tough as forged steel, gorgeous in their own right, and offer some of the most challenging hunting anywhere.
Easy to shoot? Maybe. But I discovered quickly that they can be very hard to hunt.
Casting off this morning, we piled into Smith’s customized 24-foot skiff and lumbered down the Mystic River, a few hundred yards off the Boston shoreline. The boat is part barge, part blind, and carries an ungodly amount of big-water gear—buckets of longline snaps, upwards of 300 decoys, and 1,000 pounds of decoy anchors, many of them fashioned from 100-year-old window weights. For a while it seemed as if we might shoot ducks from Paul Revere’s Old North Church. We motored past the old Fore River Shipyard and past Logan International Airport, with commercial jets screaming overhead. Buoys and channel markers blinked red, white, and green all around. To the east, the open Atlantic yawned black and endless.
Smith has navigated this world for decades. At 68 years old, he’s brawny and chatty, his face lined with the adventures of a seafaring life. He ran commercial fishing boats to big water for 30 years—his last vessel was a 74-foot Georges Bank trawler—and he tried to retire but grew bored. “I thought the guiding business would be a fun way to make a little coffee change and have something to do,” he said. Now Smith is an institution in the niche world of sea duck hunting, with clients from South America to the Mediterranean. He works six days a week, rigging dekes and moving boats till the midnight hours to be ready to cast off by 4:30 a.m. each morning.
Over the course of our two-day hunt, we gunned from jetties and rocky outcrops, jump-shot ducks holed up in hidden island ponds, and turned our sights on black and surf scoters that strafed the boat blind, anchored just a few hundred yards off the beach. But the most memorable pile of rocks was the craggy, slick jumble we hunted on our last morning. We motored a few dark miles off of Marblehead, Mass., and listened as Smith laid out the plan. “This is a full amphibious assault, guys,” he said. “There’s a little stretch of sand between the rocks, so be ready. As soon as you jump, get the hell away from the boat. I don’t want to haul any crushed bodies back to the ramp.”
Smith gunned the rig between teeth of reef and rock, the boat lurching with waves battering the transom, the hull grinding into hard bottom. “Go! Go! Go!” Smith shouted as we vaulted over the bow, packs on our backs, guns in hand, and sprinted away from the boat and up a narrow scallop of cobble and sand. I got holed up along a wrack line of crushed shell, bashed lobster pots, dead gulls, and a rotting seal carcass before clambering to a semi-dry post among the boulders. It was the highest tide of the year, and one second I would be standing on a pebble beach, leaning against a 15-foot-tall rock cliff, then the next wave would give me a bum’s rush, swirling around my waist.
Already Pelletier and I had agreed to a drake-shooting pact: We’d cherry-pick the biggest male eiders possible, holding fire on hens and hoping for mature, salmon-breasted males. It’s easier said than done, with scoters strafing the rocks, to which we clung like barnacles, straight out of a rising sun that backlit every bird into a nearly indistinguishable black blob. I finally dropped a drake with a last-second shot as a flock came in low, then curled off the rocks, with just enough arc so the sun reflecting from the sea lit up a white-breasted duck.
Now it was Pelletier’s turn, and he locked on a pair of birds flying wingtip to wingtip, the right-hand duck flashing a drake’s white signature. He gave the birds a death stare, hands flexing on his shotgun, and I stifled a laugh, feeling the tension. These birds, now flying one in front of the other, weren’t playing his game. Pelletier would have to shoot rifled slugs to home in on the drake. Ten yards from the decoys, they set their wings, big fat feet splayed out, and when their toes were an inch above the water, Pelletier came up shooting. I howled as he rolled them both, and he looked over, grinning sheepishly. “You know, I was waiting for them to show me a little daylight between the wingtips,” he shouted, “but I just couldn’t take it!”
Bobbing in the surf, however, was a pair of common eiders under a red Atlantic sky. We’d take that any day of the week.
The Maine Event
A day and a half later, I would have happily endured a few waves in the chest for firm ground beneath my feet. At sunrise I was flat on my back in a skinny layout boat with barely enough room to wiggle my toes. My garb didn’t help: I was wearing three layers of synthetic thermals, a fleece top, a goose-down sweater, and a camouflage jacket on top of it all. I was staring into the rising sun, and I was missing birds left and right. Actually, just to the right.
These birds had it all figured out. They skimmed the water surface, funneling from the open ocean toward a broad, rock-dotted cove tucked far into Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Nearly every duck skirted the decoys at three o’clock, which any right-handed shooter knows is hardly any shot at all. I’d taken five shots in a half-hour, and I don’t think the shotgun stock was on my shoulder a single time. Oldsquaws rocketed in like black-and-white bats. Dark scoters flew past the spread. I’d knocked down but a single eider hen. Three hundred yards away, my buddies were huddled in the boulders of a rock island, waiting their turn in the layout, listening as I stunk it up. One more miss, I told myself, and I’d wave the tender boat in to give someone else a chance to load up from the layout.
That’s when the gift bird arrived. A hundred yards away, a trio of ducks was coming in on a string, and one black silhouette caught my eye. It was larger than the other two, and, even from that distance, I caught the glint of white flashing from its head and back. I shifted in the layout boat, brought the gun as far to the right as possible, and twisted till my ribs were cracking. A fat drake eider could set things right in a jiffy. I lost the duck in the water’s broken chop, picked up a flash of white, and lost it again against the dark silhouettes of distant trees. Then the eider was over the decoys, two feet off the water at two o’clock. The first shot was low, and when I pulled the trigger again the stock butt punched me in the chest. The bird skipped like a rock. As we motored over to my buddies for the switch, I hung my head for my poor overall showing—but in my hand was one of North America’s most interesting ducks, shot in one of waterfowling’s most interesting places.
If Boston Harbor is the sleeper destination for East coast sea duck hunters, Maine is the mecca. Huge flocks of the birds migrate down the Maine shore, feasting on mussels and clams in the shallows along the corrugated Atlantic coast. I rolled in late one night to meet a small army of hard-core sea duck hunters, led by Bill Brown, who heads up Ducks Unlimited’s efforts across Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. We took over a tiny mom-and-pop hotel in tiny Stonington, Maine, at the end of the tiny road on Penobscot Bay’s Deer Island. Duck boats filled the small parking lot. Chest waders and camouflage jackets hung over the rails. Every flat surface was turned into a gun-cleaning station.
The afternoon after my fine display of layout blind marksmanship, we gathered over steaming Styrofoam plates of lobster and smoked eider, the crackle of a NOAA weather radio a soundtrack to a planning session for the next morning’s hunt. Brown was sweating the details—checking the tide charts, obsessing over the wind. He’s wiry, with a thin mustache and dark eyes, narrowed with concentration. When chasing sea ducks, he told me, you can’t take anything for granted. “Rising tides cover the rocks,” he explained, “and the birds change their bearings. Everything looks different, and they have to move to feed. And the wind forecast? Good luck with that.” In fact, good luck is what a sea duck hunter counts on most often, because in this wild country, everything has to fall into place: the weather, the rocks, the tides, the sun, the fog. And the birds.
Big trouble can find anyone who doesn’t take the conditions seriously. With 13-foot tides, a three-acre island at low tide can vanish within six hours. Many of the guides and locals won’t even consider hunting with fewer than two boats per party. “What are you going to do if one boat runs over a rock and busts a prop?” asked Sean Prince, one of the hunters in our camp. “You could have guys on an island 50 yards away, and the tide will just take them. You can’t take chances out here.”
The next morning we cast off in a trio of tough aluminum skiffs, one outfitted with the layout boat clamped to the gunwale. Brown’s yellow Lab, Eider, shifted around in the boat, channeling his owner’s nervousness. The wind was from the west, not the forecasted northwest. Little things add up. Brown glanced over at me: See what I mean? A 45-minute ride in the dark brought us to Black Duck Point, which, of course, is not its real name. “With these tides, we won’t have long,” Brown said. Oldsquaws chattered in the fog. “They’re laughing at us,” Brown said. “Let’s teach ’em.”
In the weak light of a foggy dawn, the spread of magnum sea duck decoys looked like a container ship of bed pillows broke up on the rocks. Blinding up meant hunkering down again in lichen-spackled crags, staring into a flat, monochromatic horizon, as tidal swells eddied and whirlpooled underfoot. For the moment, the birds ignored the easy-to-decoy sea duck playbook, turning away from the spread at the edge of range. Once a lone drake eider sailed straight into range, feet outstretched, and three gunners opened up. The bird crumpled instantly, then popped to the surface like a cork, head up and swimming hard. We opened up with a non-toxic metal curtain: At least five shooters unloaded a hellish volley of cripple shot. The eider, enveloped in a corolla of a thousand shotgun pellets, didn’t tip belly up until the seventh shot rang out.
On the rock, we were in awe. Larry Slipp, a New Brunswick hunter in our group, whistled. “Geez, can you believe it?” he said. “It makes you wonder how much rust they have under their skins.”
In fact, the legendary toughness of sea ducks goes beyond their ability to shed steel shot. The party line that these birds are as difficult to cook as they are to kill has led “to a culture of wanton waste when it comes to sea ducks,” said Brad Allen, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, as he smoothed out the feathers of our just-retrieved trophy. Though opportunities for shooting buckets of sea ducks are common, he explained, so too is the practice of dumping buckets of sea ducks into the marsh or a dumpster. “That attitude has been around forever,” he said. “But this is a special animal. It could be 7, 8, maybe 10 years old. The record for eiders is 22 years old. And only 5 percent of eider ducklings ever make it to maturity. I’d really like for hunters to understand what a freaking magnificent creature these birds really are. They deserve more than to have the bejesus marinated out of them for jerky.” Or worse, to get tossed out the truck window.
We hunted the rising tide until the radio crackled with a voice from the tender boat. “Hey, you guys look like a bunch of seals up there. Think you can hide a little better?”
But that was impossible. We’d fled the floodtide waters like periwinkle snails moving up a rock, and there was nowhere left to run. Already we had a fine morning’s take: four drake eiders, a pair of hens, two oldsquaw drakes, and a drake surf scoter. Locals call these ducks “skunkheads,” but what a beauty of a bird—all black except for a wildly colored bill and a head that looks as if it were sculpted out of rainbow sherbet. By the time we cast off our skullcap of granite, the weather was already turning. The morning’s glassy seas were capped with white, the red dawn skies now smoky. We pounded through rolling breakers all the way to the Stonington docks.
The front built all night long. The rains came at sunset and the small-craft advisory was up before midnight. No one would hunt for the next two days. It’s the bugaboo that faces big-water sea duck hunters: Here, on the barren edge of the Atlantic, with nowhere to hide from high tides and harsh winters, you might not want to wait for a trophy bird. Shoot every duck you can, shoot every one as many times as it takes, and hunt every sunrise you get. Because today on the rock may not be just the best hunt of the trip—it may be the only day you get.