November 03, 2010
Gunning Maine's shores for sea ducks.
"There will be plenty of eiders and scoters, as well as black ducks, wood ducks, and some mallards. The old squaws don't come down until later in the season," Troy said.
I was talking to Troy Fields with Traditions Guide Service in Shapleigh, Maine about early season sea duck hunting along the coast of southern Maine. I was hoping to combine a late October sea duck hunt with some puddle duck hunting while viewing the New England fall colors and scenery. "Plenty of eiders and scoters"--that had a nice sound to it.
When I asked about lodging, Troy offered his fully furnished cottage, next to his house on the shore of Mousam Lake.
The plans were beginning to take shape, and when I inquired about buying fresh lobsters from a commercial dock, Troy replied, "I've got a license for five traps and can set them a few days before you get here."
With all of this plus the offer to use his kayak on the lake for puddle duck hunting, it was beginning to sound too good. We've all had well-prepared plans that just didn't turn out as we were hoping, but I was ready to put these plans to the test.
After three-and-a-half days of driving, I was relieved to see the plywood eider decoy with Troy's name on it, at the entrance to his drive. It was, in my mind, a typical Maine setting with huge pine trees lining the road and the drive. His house, cottage, and storage barn were right on the beach of Mousam Lake with the patio doors of the cottage facing the lake, mere yards from the water. This would be my home for the next five days.
After introductions were made with Troy and his engaging young daughter Hannah (a terror on the local trout fishery, I would learn), we transferred my gear from my pickup to the cottage and Troy related details for the next morning's hunt. Later he was going to go in to work for the afternoon and evening.
Loadin' the rig.
A 42-year-old full of energy and enthusiasm, Troy works full time as a nutritionist at the Dover Rehab Living Center in Dover, New Hampshire. Besides guiding for sea ducks, he also guides for deer, turkey, moose, fishing, and more throughout the year. Growing up in southern Maine, he knows the area well and puts that knowledge to good use.
Sea Ducks & Lobsters
My alarm was set for 4 a.m., but after staring at the clock for nearly two hours, I got up at 2:30. Forty-one years of waterfowling has done little to douse the flame, especially when it involves a new adventure that I'd been dreaming of for years. I built a fire in the wood burning stove, got dressed, and checked my equipment, making sure that I had everything I might need.
After a 60-minute drive, we were greeted by cool and calm weather at the Saco River public access boat ramp and dock. Due to the possibility of tough conditions on the Maine coast, Troy uses a 20-foot Lund Alaska boat with a 75-horse Honda motor and a smaller back-up motor.
On the 15-minute boat ride through the predawn darkness, Troy answered questions and pointed out the commercial fishing dock and boats, a local college, and more. Soon we were on the outside of the jetty where we would hunt. With the eastern horizon slowly gaining color over the calm ocean waters, I could see the dark silhouettes of ducks lifting off the water as we idled towards the jetty. When I saw the long sloping head and bill of one, I realized that I was seeing my first eider.
Setting decoys went quickly because Troy was using only three pre-rigged long lines of six decoys. One of the decoys was a snow goose for added visibility, with the remainder being eiders.
After seeing videos and reading of others using several dozen decoys, I began to wonder how well the small spread would work. Any apprehensions would soon be answered.
The Wood Island lighthouse.
With the decoys set, Troy positioned the boat parallel to the jetty and dropped anchor. He then draped army camo netting around the boat and the front "shooting platform," and we were set. With calm waters and a few clouds, the eastern sky was filled with brilliant colors that were reflecting on the ocean as dawn broke, and I was momentarily lost in this new world. Hearing a splash in the decoys, I regained my senses and turned to Troy. "Go ahead and load up," he said.
It didn't take long before another scoter came, making a low fast pass over the decoys.
As soon as I pulled the trigger, I knew that I had raised my head from the gun stock to see the shot, and the pattern went over the top of the bird--a clean miss on my first chance, and a disappointment to say the least.
When I reloaded, another scoter made a pass, and again I missed, but a second shot caught the bird squarely. "My first sea duck," I exclaimed as I felt my hands beginning to shake. I looked over at Troy and could see a smile through his face mask.
I watched my duck for a moment, belly up and floating on the incoming tide, but more ducks were on the move, so I shoved two shells back into my pump gun. A trio of white-wings came racing by, and when I raised my shotgun and pulled the trigger, a pair of the speedsters ran into the same pattern of number two steel. Both splashed down and lay motionless on the water; a double. Now my adrenaline was skyrocketing!
The bay was quiet except for the echoing reports of my shotgun and the motors of passing lobster boats, but we were still getting a steady flight of ducks, and soon a pair of eiders came across the jetty to take a closer look at our spread. My gun came to my cheek as the big chunky birds drew near. At 20 yards, my first shot connected. Swinging and firing at the second bird brought another heavy splash. A two-shot double on my first eiders.
Troy unhooked the anchor line, and we motored out to pick up my five prizes that were riding the tide. I netted the first eider. When I held it in my hands, I studied the long sloping bill and salt glands. Compared to the puddle and diver ducks that I normally hunt, it had an exotic look to it.
When the boat was once again anchored, it didn't take long before two more shots put another eider and a stocky adult drake white-wing down. Without a doubt, the small decoy spread had worked.
The hunt was everything that I had hoped for, but the young morning still held much more adventure. A check of the lobster traps produced 11 lobsters, with two of those being large males.
All females must be released, and all males are measured for "keeper" size. My supper would be truly fresh lobsters.
After resetting the traps, Troy took me on a tour of the bay, including an up-close look at the functioning Wood Island Lighthouse and commercial fishing and lobster boats. We also spotted a couple of large rafts of eiders and scoters, so we now had more ideas for the hunt on day number two.
After returning to Mousam Lake, Troy left for work, and when I finished cleaning ducks and fixing a quick lunch, I had a try at sneaking some ponds that Troy had shown me for some puddlers.
One long narrow pond held some black ducks, mallards and wood ducks, but my approach didn't go unnoticed by them. So I went back to the cottage to have a go on the lake with the kayak. Having never used a kayak, my technique was severely lacking, but I persevered.
Sea ducks, cruisin'.
The afternoon was sunny, calm and warm, which was great for paddling and observing the fall scenery, but the few ducks that I saw were loafing close to houses. Near sunset, I did manage a nice fully plumed drake wood duck as I was preparing to pick up my six decoys.
As I paddled back over the still waters at dusk, the large white orb of the full moon rose above the trees, and I marveled at the beauty around me and relived the day in my mind.
All of this, and I still had two lobsters and a big pot waiting for me back at the cottage.
High Winds, Big Sea
Day two would be quite a change from day one, as we were greeted by strong winds when we reached the boat ramp. Our setup would be near the Wood Island Lighthouse, just off another island where we had seen a large raft of ducks the previous morning.
The decoys were set, the boat was in place, and I would again be shooting from the front boat platform. There were ducks all around us, but despite the rough water, there was little movement. A young drake eider swam within 15 yards. I stood, hollered, and waved my arms, but it just swam away, never attempting to fly!
A few minutes later, an adult drake eider swam toward the imposters, looking for company. At 40 yards, it began skirting the edge of the decoys, so I stood, and it did fly, but I didn't try the long shot, not wanting to possibly chase down a cripple through the rough conditions.
The boat was rocking with the waves, and lobster boats were turning around after venturing to the mouth of the bay, but the ducks seemed content to sit tight on the rolling waves. A pair of scoters did come by on the outer edge of range, and a pair of hen eiders decoyed perfectly, landing a mere 20 yards from the boat, but I held my fire.
As the waves grew, I spied a trio of ducks heading our way, and Troy said, "Old squaws." My heartbeat began to increase, but they went wide, following the channel around the island. It would be my only glimpse of the long-tailed birds on my trip.
Troy decided on a move, so we picked up and set up on the lee side on an island where we saw a mix of eiders and scoters rafted. They flew away as we drew near, but this setup didn't pan out as the birds never did return.
After 45 minutes Troy decided on another move, and as he began to pull the camo netting in on the boat, a young drake eider made a buzz across the back side. A snapshot brought him down, and though he was on his side, his head was still up. Not wanting to chase him through the choppy waters, I sent three loads his way to anchor him.
We tried to check lobster traps after picking up decoys, but the increasing wind and waves were too strong to hold the boat in place. Foregoing that, we slowly motored back into the bay where Troy stopped the boat to look around. We had heard a few shots throughout the morning, and we did spot decoys and a boat near the jetty where we'd been the previous day.
As we rocked along with the waves, Troy spotted a small group of white-wing scoters coming with the wind pushing them quickly toward us. He handed my gun to me, and I had time to drop a shell into the chamber. A quick passing shot left a big drake behind as the other three raced away. Before we could start the motor, an eider winged by, and a shot sent it to the rolling waves as well. It wasn't a classic sea duck decoy setup, but the results were good.
The author with a fully plumed white-winged scoter.
We picked the ducks up and motored back through the calmer waters to the boat ramp. There had been opportunities that morning that I didn't take, but I was happy with what I'd seen and the ducks that I did take.
I changed my plans about a kayak hunt on the lake for the afternoon because the growing winds were causing whitecaps and big swells and I wasn't about to venture out on the lake with the small craft. I did check the ponds, but they were void of bird life except for a lone great blue heron.
No lobsters for supper tonight, so I sliced a few scoter breasts, browned them in a skillet, smothered them with barbecue sauce, and simmered them. They were surprisingly good, after all I'd heard about their flavor.
The following morning would be my final day of sea duck hunting, so I checked my backpack to make sure everything was ready. Troy had suggested a hunt with me stationed on the rocks of the jetty, and I wanted to be prepared.
Rocks, Waves And High Tides
During the drive to Saco Bay, the weather report over the radio was predicting wind and higher than normal tides because the moon was at its closest distance to the earth for the year. We were hoping that this might create good duck flights, and it did.
After giving a radio to me and dropping me off on the jetty, Troy began setting decoys as I tried to make myself comfortable on the big boulders. The sky was filled with low dark clouds, and I could see the ghostly silhouettes of ducks on the move as they
flew just above the waves. It wasn't as windy as the day before, but the decoys were riding a roller coaster of waves.
A shot and a miss on the first passing scoter opened a fast paced morning, and with each following shot it seemed I was also moving higher on the jetty to avoid the fast rising tide.
Throughout the morning Troy had been about a quarter-mile out in the bay, and when he picked up my sixth duck, he radioed that we'd have to quit because the tide was getting too high.
As I was putting the radio down, an eider came across the decoys and one shot sent it down to the waves. It would join the other three eiders and the three scoters in the boat.
A light rain began to fall from the leaden skies as we picked up decoys; good timing. Finishing that, one final check and pick-up of the lobster traps didn't produce any keeper lobsters, but the sea ducks had made for a great morning.
On the boat ride back to the ramp, I asked Troy about stopping at the commercial docks, and always a great host, he agreed and pulled the boat up to the dock. I explored the equipment and was even offered a boat, to buy of course, by one of the local fisherman.
My sea duck hunting now ended, I was ready to put some concerted effort on the local black ducks and wood ducks. That afternoon, the sky was still filled with low gray clouds, but the wind had let up and the rain had ended. After paddling a couple of miles, checking coves and creek mouths, I finally spotted a scattered group of mallards, black ducks and wood ducks in the shallows of a large cove.
I paddled slowly toward a group of blacks, drawing nearer to the feeding birds. As I drew close they began to get nervous, and at 35 yards I gave one more pull on the paddles. The kayak glided through the water as I grabbed my gun. I picked out a single bird, and when they jumped, a load of steel centered on it. It was a beautiful adult drake black duck.
As I paddled around for the rest of the afternoon, I saw a few more black ducks and wood ducks, as well as a bald eagle in a large pine tree overlooking the lake. It was indeed a classic scene.
Troy knocked on the door that evening when he returned from work, and I told him about the afternoon while showing pictures to him of my black duck. Offering more options for the next morning, he drew a map of an area on the lake for a decoy setup. We then spent the rest of the evening talking and re-living all that I'd experienced during the last three days.
The Final Days
The next morning found me paddling on another area of the lake in the predawn hours.
The full moon was shining on the calm waters, turning the lake into a large mirror.
With no wind, it was a great setting as the sun rose over a wooded island across the water from me. There weren't many ducks on the move but the mix of eight black duck, wood duck and mallard decoys, and my call pulled in a couple of small flocks of wood ducks, providing an opportunity to put a couple of the colorful ducks on the water. By midmorning I was preparing to pick up when a single black duck dropped in to check out my spread, and I added it to my game strap.
It had been a good closing hunt on my trip to Maine, or so I thought. After a check of the ponds and a dinner of black duck and wood duck breasts, I went for a long walk along the country roads around the lake. I saw deer, a flock of turkeys and a couple of eagles to close out my afternoon.
My plans had indeed worked out and my trip was all that I'd hoped for, but I received another unexpected surprise that evening. When Troy returned from work, he brought a couple of packages of moose steaks to the cottage!
Along with all of the other questions, I had inquired about his guided moose hunts and asked what moose tasted like. I hadn't expected to actually taste moose, but it was another example of Troy's hospitality.
Thanking him for everything, I told him that I'd be leaving the following morning. That's when he convinced me to go out for one last hunt on the lake. Ah yes, easily persuaded to go on another duck hunt, I decided on one last try for some blacks and wood ducks.
I was again greeted on the lake by a big bright moon, but a frosty morning also brought a heavy fog. It was a feeling like no other as I paddled across the calm water, shrouded by fog with a big moon shining above.
My hunt was short, and I was rewarded with another adult black duck from a perfectly decoying flock, plus a single wood duck that dropped in. This was a great closing to my five days of hunting Maine.
Maine in October has a lot to offer, from plentiful sea ducks to fully plumed wood ducks and stately black ducks. There are also fall scenes of the wooded areas, rugged coastlines, lighthouses, and of course, the fresh lobsters.
If you're looking for sea ducks to mount, the early season won't provide that. But if you're looking for fast action, a new adventure, and a great experience, it's all there and waiting.