Gunning off the chilly Atlantic coast.
Venturing out on the bays of the North Atlantic in December is serious business. Subfreezing temps, snow, ice, stiff-to-gale force winds, anchors, decoy lines, and shotguns can make for a deadly combination. To succeed at this business of seaducking€¦indeed, to survive it€¦requires teamwork, teamwork founded in clear communications. And that's why we paid close attention to Todd Jackson's first orders of the day.
Eiders on the move.
"When I say drop the anchor," he instructed authoritatively, "I mean drop it imediately."
So when our man in the bow, good buddy Duncan Price, responded to Todd's command with "Huh? You mean now?" I kinda cringed.
The disgusted look on Todd's face said it all. Duncan grinned in reply. Then he mumbled, "Well, if he's goin' to dish it out, it's comin' right back at him. I can take it. Let's see if Todd can."
A charter captain on Lake Superior who routinely fishes 50 miles offshore in an environment every bit as potentially hostile as the ocean; Duncan is a patient man who calmly deals with his share of customer-induced woes. He would prove a worthy adversary for our host.
Deploying the rig with nary another hiccup after that rocky start, our first day's hunt began to unfold. I had gunned with Todd and his operation before, and had a fair idea of what to expect. For Duncan and my son Bill, this was a whole new, open water ballgame. With the players€¦the eiders, oldsquaws, and scoters€¦characteristically, unlike any birds they'd ever hunted.
Things were quiet at first, and with no one talking, the silence was deafening. But then, Todd, ever-the-eagle-eyed one, piped up in his Mainer tongue, "Heah! Here they come. Five white drakes sandwiching one hen."
As the big, graceful ducks sliced fully broadside and in bright, stunning contrast to our otherwise dull gray world, wave-topping between the boat and the stark, granite ledge we were anchored in front of, the good captain ordered, "Take the white birds!" We rose in unison. Since they came from my end I worked on tail-end Charley, cannonballing him into the surf; while Billy and Duncan vollied on the rest. But when the smoke cleared we had only one bird down.
"Aw, man," Todd groaned. "You guys whiffed?" he questioned my partners in disbelief.
"Eider fever, I guess," replied Duncan with an antagonizing grin. "Not to worry. Now that we've got the range we'll pound 'em next time."
And they did, sort of. Both Duncan and Billy had to learn the cripple lesson the hard way. After they each knocked a
drake out of the next decoying flock, both lowered their guns to admire their work. As they did, the two still heads-up, powerful swimmers seized the moment and headed out to sea, leading us on a not-so-merry, ammo-depleting chase. All the time during which flock after flock of eiders, at the peak of the morning feed flight, poured tantalizingly into our unguarded decoys.
"You gotta stay with your bird, the one bird, until it's dead," Todd implored the obvious.
Ivan the wonderdog enjoying the cold work.
Message sent. Message received, and without comment.
Tough lessons learned aside, we steadily picked away at our five eider limits as the angry skies lowered and began to spit a sleety, stinging snow. With the thickening squalls rolling sideways across the steely-colored, whitecapped waters on the teeth of a building west wind; the scene was that of a classically snotty seaducking day if there ever was one.
After picking up the gear and with the spruce-studded shores all but totally obscured, Todd earned his waterman's pay, skillfully guiding the bucking 21-foot Banke's boat across the heavily-heaving, frothing waters of Blue Hill Bay.
The moisture had inevitably begun to seep in around our necks and wrists as the boat finally, and thankfully grounded to a halt on the pebbly beach at the landing. The hunt had been a wild one, but we all agreed that it was a damn good one. And better yet, though momentary combatants when out in the boat, Todd and Duncan conversed like long lost buddies on the hour-long ride back to the lodge.
The Suburban's thermometer read a bone-chilling nine degrees as we set out at 4:30 a.m. on day two. After layering ourselves for battle, Todd took an easterly heading, cracked the throttle, and we roared off into the fading night with a full moon to light the way, and only the faintest orange hint of dawn to buoy hopes that warming daylight would eventually come.
But with the grudging sunrise came a stiffening breeze that drove the damp, gnawing cold through layers of wool and down, on into our very souls. The rigors of setting the spread thawed our cores, and the movement kept our hands pliable enough to function.
Our first set proved duckless, and after just a half-hour Todd opted to make a move. Something we'd do four more necessary, but agonizing, nerve-fraying times before we fired our first shots at 9:30 a.m. Without saying as much, we all sensed it was going to be "one of those days." When I offered that sometimes the birds have to win, Todd, gritting his teeth, replied through numbed lips, "The hell they do!"
With that he had us on the move again, this time more determined than ever to find a huntable number of birds.
After the boat-ride-from-hell, we sat down amid a world of eiders. I don't have any idea how many there were in that bay, but they surely numbered in the thousands. And the show they put on as they constantly traded over the chopping seas was worth the price of admission. Though we still couldn't get the birds to work, other than about mumbling about numbing feet, no one was complaining.
A parade of eiders passed us by only to land on an "x" 100 yards or so away. Making our last stand, we pulled up and moved one final time, anchoring near that magical spot apparently marking a feed bed. And darned if we didn't start to get som
e shooting. With the birds still not decoying, our shots were rangy pass-shots at best. But being a lot better than nothing, we literally warmed to the task, finally managing to put a duck on the water now and again, much to Todd's apparent relief.
Happy sea duckers.
It was after we'd done just that€¦knocked down a wide-swinging, fully-plumed drake€¦Todd erupted, "Get down. Get down!" He actually shouted over the howling wind as a big wad of eiders winged our way. Billy and I had reacted immediately. But Duncan, seemingly stubbornly and quite deliberately, (though he actually hadn't heard Todd), stayed on his feet; his gaze fixed on our duck as it swam ever-so-feebly, but with its head still barely up. Then he snapped his gun to his shoulder and fired what should have been the finishing shot just as the flock of 50 or 60 eiders he was completely oblivious to, approached the edge of gun range.
Poor Todd. After trying his damnedest to get us into birds on this brutally frustrating day, he just sat there open-mouthed and shook his head.
By then, Duncan finally realized something was missing. That he was in the tank again. Turning to Todd, he asked, "What? Huh? What's the matter now? You said to keep shootin' until the bird's head was down, didn't ya? There," he continued, pointing to the still paddling duck, "see?"
For once our host was at a loss for words. Duncan was technically correct. We all knew it. At first keeping my thoughts to myself; I couldn't help but smile until I laughed out loud. Todd looked at me like I was nuts. Then I offered, "Look guys. Just take a step back. Look at this situation€¦ this show€¦from an outside perspective. Then tell me it's not funny!"
There was no argument.
After collecting that cripple and once back at anchor, it was Todd's turn.
"Hey Duncan," our leader began.
"Oh, here it comes again," Duncan interrupted' "man I can't believe I'm paying for this abuse."
"Remember Duncan, just like on your fishing boat, the captain always reserves the right to change his mind at any time?"
That said, all was right with our world.
We finished a few birds short that bitterly cold, yet memorable day. But it hardly mattered.
The Final Morning
With single digit temps to begin our last morning, its fair to say we expected more of what we faced the previous day. But as we arrived at the landing we found the bay's waters laying mirror smooth.
Looking down the line.
It was a fast, but thankfully short boatride to the ledge Todd planned to hunt. We worked quickly and efficiently, with everyone finally being on the same page. And we spoke only in hushed tones, as if to not disturb the unusually quiet and surprisingly comfortable atmosphere, while we rigged the decoy strings. With the eider rig set Todd idled out to the center of the passage, as he called it, where we dropped anchor to hopefully do some pass-shooting at the early-flying oldsquaws.
It was downright bare-handed pleasant as we sat there watching predawn's eastern sky come ablaze in an amazing, layered display of yellows and fluorescent oranges in every shade imaginable. Being on the thermally pleasant 48-degree ocean water, in the total absence of a chilling breeze was the place to be, even with the low ambient temps.
We were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune when I spotted a pair of blurry-winged rockets low over the water, bearing down on us from the east.
"'Squaws. Load up. Here they come," Todd blurted out the obvious.
Billy and I were not ready, but ol' Duncan was on the ball, already locked and loaded. He popped up, swung hard on the screaming incomers and pounded the spike-tailed drake, sending it skipping across the flat water like a stone. It was a pretty shot.
The trophy duck had no sooner lay still than my Yooper (a fellow from Michigan's Upper Penninsula) buddy was on his game, taking full advantage of his 15 seconds, if not 15 minutes of fame. Puffing out his chest like a banty rooster and almost breaking his arm patting himself on the back, he came out smokin', directing his comments at any of us who'd listen, but most specifically at Todd. Figuring he finally had the upper hand, Duncan began a loud, rambling discourse, the point of which was that he'd finally gotten the program down.
"So there. Now what ya got to say? Huh?" Duncan, not so seriously challenged, defying Todd to respond.
"Here they come again!" Todd replied, avoiding, thankfully I'm sure, the baited question.
It was Duncan's shot again. But being more premeditated and not just reacting, he aimed, committing the major sin of shotgunning. One, two, three shots geyersed behind, behind-er, and even farther behind the fortunate, but rangy longtails.
"More lead. More lead. more lead!" Todd cheered happily after each hapless pull of the trigger.
I was almost relieved. Had Duncan connected again so quickly it could have gotten really ugly.
Flock after 30- to 40-bird flock lifted off the open water to the east only to work their way down through the passage to our welcoming set. The majority of the spectacular morning flight passed us by. But enough birds committed, gliding in on a locked wing final approach, that we could easily have shot out, finishing our combined seven bird sea duck bags in the first half hour. We passed on the big flocks in an effort to prevent collateral damage to hens on our intended drakes-only hunt, and to avoid needlessly educating so many birds. Instead we shot only singles, pairs, and small groups. And even then we had problems. Along with the three mature drakes one volley produced, floated two unlucky hens. After that unintentional miscue we finished up one gun, one bird at a time.
With our last bird down and Todd's burly black Lab, Ivan, tracking it down in the running tide, we sat back to enjoy the continuing show. As still more eiders splashed into the blocks Duncan offered, "These birds really aren't the brightest bulbs in the box are they?" Billy, usually the quiet one, quickly countered, "Maybe so, but after what we've been through the past coupla' days in their pursuit, what does that make us? Rocket scientists?"
Point made. Point taken€¦ by all of us.
"You're right, Billy," Duncan came back. "I guess all I really know for sure, is this hunt sure has been fun."
As we continued to enjoy the eider parade Duncan, a competitive taxidermist by avocation, bemoaned the fact that he didn't have a really good, fully mature hen bird to match up with the drakes he's set aside for mounting.
"I can fix that," Todd volunteered confidently, obviously itching to get in on the action. Though he'd killed a couple of the oldsquaws, he hadn't opted to shoot any eiders to that point in our hunt.
So we sat back to watch "the man" at work.
It wasn't long before Todd found the bird he and Duncan wanted, then fired.
"Did you get it?" I asked, having kept my head down.
"I shot didn't I?" came the answer in a purposely exaggerated, cocky tone befitting his youthful 36 years, that could only bite him in the end.
"I'm goin' to take a drake too," Todd then added, explaining, "I haven't shot one in a while."
After looking a few over he sprang to his feet and missed a close-working single twice! There was some indecipherable grumbling from his end of the boat, but not another word, wisely, was said. Then he tried a second drake. The result, I'll admit amazingly, was the same. "Oh well," he said shaking it off, "It's time to pack 'er in anyway."
When I asked him later why he didn't make the most of the opportunity, Duncan just pointed to his head, and with the wisdom of his 50 some years, said, "It's in the bank. Let the young guy chew on it for a while. I'll save our little story for another time. A time when I'll no doubt need it. And the good Lord willing, I will be back in time. All the kidding and B.S. aside, I've far from gotten my fill, thanks to our buddy, Todd, of the sights and sounds of these special birds and the naturally wonderful surroundings in which they thrive. For now," Duncan continued, "let the games continue!"
Editor's note: For sea duck hunting out of Searsport, Maine, contact Todd Jackson, Penobscot Bay Outfitters, 118 Nickerson Road, Searsport, Maine 04974-3932; 1-888-Sea-Duck; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.