My partner, Mike Bard, and I were trying to remain optimistic. After a long, sleepless night in the Anchorage airport, we were about to fly to Valdez, Alaska, the final leg of our journey from New York and Pennsylvania.
I sent a text message to guide Brian "The Swamper" Rhodes to let him know we were just about to take off. He told us the boat would be ready to go upon our arrival. I jokingly asked if there was a McDonald’s we could stop at before heading out to grab some breakfast.
"Ha! Ha!" he replied, and said breakfast would be ready when we arrived at the airport. Tim Bouchard, owner of Alaska Wildfowl Adventures, would pick us up and take us back to the house to quickly get our gear unpacked and change into our hunting clothes.
After a short flight and smooth landing amongst towering mountains, we stepped onto the tarmac and inspected the sheer beauty of Alaska. The small port town of Valdez, also known as "Little Switzerland," has about 4,000 residents, with a famous oil terminal as its center point, and it couldn’t have been situated in a more beautiful place amongst tidal waters and snow-covered peaks along the southern coast of Alaska. We headed to the terminal and turned our attention to watching luggage being offloaded.
"The guns made it," I said to Bard as the ground crew placed our gun case onto the conveyor, followed by our duffle bags. We were 15 hours late, but we had our guns and gear, removing what had been our biggest fear. All of the day’s previous headaches disappeared, and the reality we were about to experience a dream hunt settled in. It was time to hunt Barrow’s goldeneyes and harlequins. Despite a lack of rest, we were ready to hop in a boat and head out into the crystal-clear waters these ducks use as their winter home.
Bouchard showed up just as our baggage arrived. We grabbed our bags and guns, and then headed to our base camp. After a quick breakfast, we packed the boat, slipped into our waders and headed for the launch.
Bouchard decided to spread two groups of hunters across a deep bay to help keep the birds moving. Bard and I listened as our guide described the area we were hunting, the quantities of decoys we would be using and the reasoning behind it, along with the current bird situation. While numbers were down slightly for the second week of November, Bouchard said he didn’t think we would have any trouble getting our birds.
As we pulled up to our hunting spot for the day, Bouchard made fast work of putting out two strings of goldeneye decoys and five harlequin decoys just off to the side. Bouchard told us there was no reason to put out big numbers — a foreign concept to Bard and me.We set out the decoys and were hunting just two hours after our plane touched down. Talk about a fast turnaround to a rough start.
We saw a lot of bird activity as we loaded our guns and nestled into the rocky shoreline. With the tide slowly dropping, ducks moved constantly to different areas in search of food and water. We were right in the flight path.
In a whirlwind of bird activity, Bard and I each had our first harlequins, also known as blue ducks, before we even realized the hunt was officially underway. Call it good timing or just dumb luck — it didn’t matter to us. We already had our first two gorgeous drakes in hand and took full advantage of our chance to admire all the beauty these ducks have wrapped in such a small package.
As the day wore on, ducks continued to move despite unseasonably warm temps, clear skies and bright sunshine. A pair of drake buffleheads decoyed perfectly, but the harlequins weren’t playing fair. Every time they would start our way, the live birds just off to our left would suck them away from our fakes. Bard was elected to take a short walk around the corner to flush any sitting birds. So with any luck, the next birds in would fall prey to our imposters.
"On the left," Bouchard whispered. Bard and I slowly turned our heads and watched as seven harlequins swung downwind and began to approach. The ducks’ wings gracefully disturbed the water as they barely touched the surface. Each duck hung its landing gear down. The sharp contrast of blue and white on the birds, along with an orange brown crest and flanks, made the drakes easy to distinguish.
As they swept over the decoys, Bard swiftly dropped a drake. I hesitated, waiting for a clear shot at a drake, but when a hen swung just in front of my target, it was too late. The tension on the trigger was already underway. My gun recoiled. A scotch double of harlequins fell at the report — a drake and a hen lay just outside the decoys. Bouchard slid the boat into the water and, soon after, we increased our bag from four to seven ducks, including five gorgeous blue ducks for the wall. It was a good start to our three-day hunt.
Bouchard headed across the cove to check on Rhodes and his client. We prepared for the possibility of finishing out our four-harlequin season limit on the first day.
"I think there is something behind us," Bard whispered as we sat on the shoreline, admiring our birds.
I ignored his comment at first, but then decided to play on his fears.
"I just heard something back there, too," I said.
Thoughts of bears crept in because of recent conversation and the torn-up birds Bard had found when he went for a walk. I could see Bard was by no means frightened, but a touch concerned. I continued to play it up and even went back to investigate, but it was nothing more than the sounds of birds and small animals frolicking in the leaves. I am not sure if Bard was satisfied with my search or if he looked over his shoulder for the next few hours, but I think he was a little cautious with the thought of a monstrous bear lurking in the shadows just beyond the fallen pines behind us. With darkness falling and an incoming tide that seemed to shut down the flight, we packed it in for the day and headed back across the water to port.
Day two was set to be a Barrow’s goldeneye shoot, as we set up in an area that Bouchard said harlequins don’t frequent. From the moment we set decoys just after legal shooting time until the time we finished out our three-man, 24-bird limit, we saw goldeneyes non-stop.
Sitting out on a rocky point totally exposed was something that was not only foreign to me, but something I thought was a waste of time. I was quickly proved wrong when I shot my first goldeneye at closer than 10 yards, decoying straight into my face. Bouchard told us just to stay still. As long as we did, the birds finished with reckless abandon.
Bard and I continued to wear them out, picking out nice drakes and a few hens for the wall. Meanwhile, Scott Olds, the other hunter in our group, tried to fix his gun. It had hung up after the first shot. Olds, a seasoned big-game hunter from Idaho, has experienced multiple safaris to Africa and a successful polar bear hunt in the Arctic. Watching him attempt to un-jam his shotgun was something I will never forget.
With birds swarming the decoys, Olds came unglued. The pump action would not open, so Olds decided that literally beating the butt-stock on the rocks to force the action open might be a good way to get back in the game. I don’t know how long we stared in amazement, but his relentless effort to get his gun open made for quite the conversation amongst the rest of us. At first, I just wanted him to calm down and allow us to keep shooting, but as he continued his attempt, it became apparent I would never be able to shoot because I was about to fall off my rock with laughter.
With four birds in the bag for me, three for Bard and Olds at two, Rhodes and I decided to go out, pick up the birds and sort them before we would no longer be able to decipher whose birds were whose. As we picked up birds downwind, the goldeneyes continued to test the abilities of the two shooters left on shore. When we finally collected all the downed goldeneyes, Olds had somehow surpassed Bard and finished his limit. Arriving back at my shooting spot and wondering how Olds had killed all of the birds, I learned that Olds’ use of earplugs allowed him to neglect the fact that Bard was supposed to shoot the next one. He had optimized our "Shoot Fast or Shoot Last" motto. I just smiled and laughed, while Bard sat disheveled about what had just happened.
During a lull in the action, we heard the sound of geese approaching from our left. Bard and I were positioned for a good opportunity on the geese. As they came out of the narrow creek and crested the trees, my first shot sent a white-collared Canada tumbling to the ground, while Bard’s blast rocked the lead bird. Unfortunately, the sight of the falling bird distracted me, and Bard’s gun jammed after his first shot, so we came up with only one each to add to the bag. After the rest of the 200 geese winged out of range, I picked up the goose and admired the smaller sub-species features compared to the normal fat residents we shoot at home. An unexpected trophy on the trip, absolutely, but definitely a goose I am excited to add to my trophy room back in Pennsylvania.
After the geese vanished, the Barrow’s started whistling back into the decoys. Bard and I finished our limits only one hour and 45 minutes into the hunt.
After taking pictures and reliving the Barrow’s experience, we packed up and headed out to try our luck on some sea ducks from the layout boats. With an increasing wind, the ride to the spot was rough. Unforgiving seas jarred the bodies of the five passengers aboard the boat. Added to Scott’s gun exposé, the banter and humor created by the Swamper, as well as the fast and furious action, this hunt is firmly etched it into my mind as one of the best hunts I have taken part in.
With three hunters and only two layout boats, I chose to set up a few blue duck decoys on a spit. I let Bard and Olds try for surf scoters from the layouts because neither had shot prime representatives of the species. With no luck on my end and darkness coming fast, we pulled the layout boats. Olds and Bard killed three scoters between them. We stowed the boats on shore for the next day’s hunt.
After another great meal, and with the time change still playing games on my sleep times, I headed to bed early. The sounds of whistlers filled my head and I felt the gentle rock of the waves as I drifted off to sleep.
Ducks À la Carte
With heavy snow forecast for the third day, we decided to split up and finish off what each of us wanted on the last day of the hunt. Bard and I opted to finish our four-bird harlequin limits, while Olds looked for more scoters and possibly some long-tailed ducks (oldsquaws) that were missing in action for most of the trip.
After setting out three decoys on the spit I hunted the day prior, it wasn’t long before we had takers to our meager spread. Four birds came to the decoys and left unharmed as they skirted us just wide. Shortly after, a single bird approached from the left and committed. As the duck swung toward the decoys, I noted the contrast of the blue and white body identifying him as my last blue duck drake of the trip.
Just as the harlequin was about to touch down, I fluidly shouldered my shotgun and fired, ending my hunt on Alaskan waters. Bard finished his harlequin limit as well, while Olds killed a few more scoters and a drake longtail for his trophy collection.
As the day grew on, the unpredictable Alaskan weather showed its face in whiteout proportion. Just like the beginning of the trip, our flight was delayed. It wasn’t unusual given the time of year. Our hosts invited us back to camp, where we could hang out, shoot the bull and recall the hunts.
Even with many hours spent trying to catch some shuteye in various airport lobbies, I wouldn’t trade the entire experience of hunting blue ducks and Barrow’s goldeneyes for anything.
David Rearick of Butler, Pa., will travel anywhere ducks and geese are flying.