Shopping for Sea Ducks

Posted Dec. 19, 2008, at 6:49 p.m.

“You want to do what?” I asked nervously a handful of years ago, hoping against hope I’d misheard my “Better Half’s” proclamation. No such luck, my wife really did want to drive to Portland for some last-minute holiday gift shopping, and worse yet she wanted to go on the upcoming weekend!

“Have you lost your mind? That’s the weekend before Christmas. If the traffic doesn’t kill us, we’re sure to get trampled in one of the stores,” I pleaded. That’s when I got the old steely-eyed squint, head tilt and prolonged silence, followed by one short, sharp observation; “If it was a hunting or fishing trip, you’d find a way, and even grin about it.”

Yippee, we were going Christmas shopping! Not unfamiliar with such forays, I was very aware of who was to be the purchasing agent and who was to continuously lug packages from the stores to the car until my arms, legs or heart finally, thankfully, gave out. Yea, Happy Holidays, I mumbled to myself as I sat in my recliner and sulked. If we were going to Bangor, I could at least sneak in a sea duck hunt at Lamoine, Naskeag or Deer Isle, I fumed, and then an idea bloomed. Perhaps this road trip could yield as much shooting as shopping if I played my cards right.

My cousin Steve Hitchcock and I grew up together hunting and fishing every field, forest and flowage in central Aroostook County. Steve now worked in Portland and resided in Scarborough, just a stone’s throw from Crescent Beach and the ocean with some great summer striper fishing and late-fall sea duck gunning right at his doorstep. If I could finagle a hunt for early Saturday morning, I’d still be back to play Santa’s helper for my Mrs. Claus by lunch. She would just be hitting her shopping stride by then and after a few hours on the ocean pursuing eider, scoter and old squaw, I’d be a much more tolerant and jolly elf.

Sea duck squad

As was often the case, Steve’s schedule suddenly became very fluid when an opportunity arose for us to spend some quality rod or gun time together. After just a brief explanation over the phone, a time slot suddenly opened up in Steve’s Saturday morning itinerary. As a matter of fact, after watching flocks of eider winging back and forth along the beach each morning from his large window overlooking the ocean, Steve already had been thinking about an outing. My call had just sealed the deal, and he even suggested I call a couple of our other waterfowling cronies to fill up the shooting squad and make all the effort of setting out a large decoy spread worthwhile.

It was an easy sale. Two phone calls produced two more companions. Mike Wallace, another cousin, and Buddy Horr, a longtime hunting partner and devout sea duck addict, were each on board before I could finish my first sentence; and they weren’t even trying to avoid Santa’s helper duty. Since most of our previous eider excursions were centered around the mid-Maine coastline, our trio was truly enthusiastic about exploring some new territory along a southern shoreline.

Sea duck hunting is not a sport for the faint of heart. Cold weather drives great numbers of eider from the north to inundate every cove and bay along Maine’s coastline. During December and January when conditions are cold, often snowy and frequently feature unsettling ocean conditions, sea duck gunning is at its best. Winter weather, waves or wind can change drastically within half an hour, turning a December dream hunt into a nightmare. Ocean waterfowlers with second-rate clothing or gear, those who exercise poor judgment and the inexperienced can quickly find themselves in dire straits.

After a couple of decades of sea duck hunting, my best buddies and I have twice gotten into trouble in the last four seasons. Once cost me a new prop for my motor and lower unit repairs totaling more than a thousand dollars. A second misadventure occurred when an unexpected storm blew in over 30 minutes, turning a sunny day with calm seas into sleet-filled skies with violent winds and treacherous, tossing waves. Fearing for our safety, we actually had to abandon a full string of 15 expensive eider decoys after nearly swamping while trying to retrieve them. Realizing the decoys could be replaced and we couldn’t, discretion trumped valor and we headed for land. The next day only our weighted trot line with seven dekes remained; more than half were lost along the storm-swept shoreline.

Uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous conditions aside, gunning from ledges, remote islands and rocky coastal outcroppings for big, burly eider ducks and speeding, spritely old squaw ducks is a unique, invigorating sport unto itself. As large as small geese, eiders are deceptively difficult targets to knock down and keep down; their thick plumage hinders shot penetration, their seemingly slow flight speed is an illusion, and if not mortally shot, they dive deep and long, rapidly escaping shotgun range. At this point hunters must quickly get the boat to chase and dispatch wounded birds before they are lost. Old squaw are very small, fast flying and perform erratic flight maneuvers. On top of all this, they are a beautiful quarry in form and coloration. Prepared properly, each species yields a tasty table treat, so all in all, ocean waterfowling can be very rewarding, despite seasonal conditions.

Winter weather?

With a good hour before shooting time, Mike, Buddy and I met at Steve’s house where his camo-curtained duck boat and trailer were already hooked to the truck and pointed toward the beach. We all exchanged greetings and chatted excitedly while transferring guns and gear to empty spots among the many decoys already in the boat, but something just wasn’t right. After making a couple of trips between our truck and the boat it dawned on me, there was no wind and, despite the early hour, the temperature was above freezing.

Fifteen minutes later the boat was launched and Steve was motoring our quartet toward Watt’s ledge and a small island not far beyond. Stars glistened everywhere in a clear ebony sky like a flashlight through a birdshot-riddled target and the only breeze came from the forward motion of the boat. Nearly flat calm, only small wavelets marred the reflection of moon and stars dancing along the sea’s surface. My wool ski hat was too warm, so I switched to a camo cap, and my gloves remained in my coat pocket where they’d been since leaving the beach.

If anything, my three layers of insulated clothing and hip boots were too warm. This wasn’t like any sea-duck hunting weather I was used to, and we were only three hours south of our normal gunning grounds. After unsuccessfully trying to convince us that these were standard conditions for southern sea gunners, Steve had to admit we were experiencing a rare December day. I wondered aloud how the ducks would respond to the unusual weather. Often the best shooting occurs when the elements are harshest.

Short on shells

Dropping Buddy and Mike off near a long finger ledge at the end of the island, Steve maneuvered the boat while I set our one short line and one long line of eider decoys. By the time the two parallel strings of false fowl were swinging in the outgoing tide, our two friends were hunkered among the rocks and visible only when they waved a white and black duck flag to simulate flying eiders.

Steve and I would shoot from the boat, squatting behind a three-foot-high camo curtain erected around each gunnel from bow to stern. Before dropping anchor near Watt’s ledge so the rock formation would backdrop our boat’s outline, we laid out a special set of decoys. Large dual silhouettes on floating boards that are sized to fit perfectly in layers one inside the next when stored and well painted to be seen at long distances were set in a line about 30 yards away. Steve then fed out a string of a dozen more magnum cork eiders for the tide to straighten then move about randomly off the stern.

Halfway through this exercise five eiders suddenly winged within 15 yards of us from the predawn gloom. Hopes suddenly elevated. With a few minutes left before legal shooting time Steve and I settled into our respective seats to uncase shotguns, sort shells and store gear from underfoot. Three common scoter flew past, then a half-dozen or so old squaw buzzed the boat and finally a male and female eider swung teasingly near. Steve suggested we try to shoot just the male eiders, an idea I wholly subscribed to, and I was just thumbing my first shell into the magazine when a barrage of gunfire erupted from the island. Steve grinned and chuckled while looking up. “Let the games begin,” I said, grinning back in anticipation.

The sun climbed over the horizon, the temperature became even more comfortable and the tide really began to flow. Shallow water made nearby mussel beds more accessible and every sea duck from the Portland Head Light to the Portsmouth bridge got the memo. A trio of eider flew past not 10 feet off the water, and when Steve flagged they buttonhooked right past the port side. The cinnamon-colored female kept going, but a charge of No. 2s from each of us tumbled the stark white-and-black males leading and trailing her. More shots from the island alerted us that Mike and Buddy were also doing a brisk business.

I was facing the bow, spotting approaching birds and alerting Steve as to numbers and location, while he did the same from the stern seat. There must have been some confusion in procedure because two shotgun reports followed closely by an eider cartwheeling across the surface near the silhouettes was my clue that a bird was near. “There was only one,” Steve offered and didn’t even have the courtesy to look contrite.

We unhooked from our tether to pick up downed birds and then quickly buzzed over to the island to see if our buddies needed any ducks retrieved. Thinking ahead, Mike and Buddy had set up so the tide would drift any downed ducks to the shoreline, and they had already waded out to collect four eider and two scoter. As the tide continued out, shots became longer from the island and the boys, thinking one box of shells was plenty, were halfway through their supply already. As Steve guided the boat back to our decoys and hook up buoy, four eider that had landed in our absence flew away into the steadily rising sun.

Forty minutes and several volleys of shotgun fire later, the two-way radio crackled to life and Buddy informed us he had five ducks, Mike had six and there were three shells left between them. I told them to sit back, enjoy the beautiful October day that somehow snuck into December and make every shot count. As the day brightened and the temperature rose past the mid-40s, the number of ducks trading between the open ocean and the feeding flats dwindled. They also became warier of our setup on this bluebird day, but every once in awhile one species or another would wander within range.

By midmorning Steve and I had 11 ducks in the boat, which we decided was plenty. Most of my last several shots had been at old squaw passing at subsonic speed and, not surprisingly, most were misses. After awhile a couple paid the price. For the last hour I’d shed my jacket and hunted in only my long-sleeve chamois shirt. The sun was warm, the ocean calm and the shooting and companionship rewarding for all of us. Back at Steve’s house there was lobster stew waiting.

Since that outing I’ve turned several Christmas shopping trips into sea duck shooting trips, and while there have been great gunning days, there’s yet to be a sunny, warm late-December ocean outing like that first one. Do you know I played chauffeur, carried and packed presents all afternoon with not a gripe, groan or bah humbug! As far as I was concerned, Santa had delivered my best gift already, a warm-weather waterfowl outing I’ll never forget.

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