As the tide reached its peak and the sun rose into a cloudy sky, I spotted the first birds in the distance. Minutes later, a pair rounded the point. Before we could shoulder our shotguns, they landed just outside of the decoys. We left them alone, certain the next birds would offer closer shots.
Within minutes, Fritz Reid pointed excitedly to a dozen birds heading in from the open bay. They came in low, their distinct black-and-white plumage flashing like a neon sign. I cupped my hand and mouth-called softly "Turr-r turr-r, turr-r," as wings turned into the wind. This time, we were ready. When they were over the decoys, we came up shooting.
When the smoke cleared, four brant stayed behind. Reid and Gary Stewart were quick to retrieve the birds — Stewart’s first brant ever!
Brant are pursued by a small, but dedicated group of sportsmen. Since the market hunting days, brant shooting has been practiced by individuals who religiously keep track of the tides, learn the habits of the birds, endure wet, cold coastal weather, and own and maintain boats, motors and decoys for the singular purpose of pursuing these small tidewater geese.
Brant are waterfowl many hunters have heard about, but have not seen. These unique geese are intimately tied to saltwater environments. Two races of brant inhabit North America: the Pacific or black brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) that winter along the Pacific Coast, and the Atlantic or light-bellied brant (Branta bernicla hrota) that winter on the Eastern Seaboard. The most notable identification marks are a small patch of white on the upper neck and the striking white ventral region on the otherwise dark body. The undersides of the Atlantic race are lighter than those of the Pacific. Brant are among the smallest geese species, averaging slightly more than three pounds.
Recently, I hunted brant on the West Coast and East Coast during the same season. The first leg took us to San Quintin Bay on the Pacific Coast of Baja California, in Mexico, 190 miles south of the border. Mexican law requires all visiting hunters to be accompanied by a registered guide. While black brant are hunted from Alaska to Mexico, San Quintin Bay is the most important brant harvest area on the Pacific Coast. Hunting brant has been popular there for 70 years.
A few weeks later, I stepped off an airplane in Baltimore, Md., with Atlantic brant in mind. Soon, I was heading east on Highway 50 bound for Chincoteague Bay on the eastern shore. Chincoteague lies both in Maryland and Virginia, and boasts a long history of waterfowling. During the market hunting days, many of the brant and diving ducks served in the restaurants of Baltimore and Richmond were shot here. Today, it is a wintering area for Atlantic brant — a species for which the season was closed in the 1970s, but reopened in the early 1980s.
I have hunted brant from Alaska to Mexico and Canada to the Carolinas for more than 30 years, yet each fall when I see my first flock of brant, I am captivated by their elegant but simple coloration, diminutive size and long-distance migrations.
Brant hunting is steeped in tradition and held in high esteem by a small group of hunters.
They know a day spent on tidewater for brant — whether East or West — is among the finest waterfowling experiences anywhere.
Gary Kramer is an accomplished wildlife photographer from Willows, Calif. For information about brant hunts at San Quintin, go to www.bajahunting.com. For hunts on Chincoteague Bay, go to www.pitbosswaterfowl.com.