Black ducks and teal abound in New Jersey's public marshes.
Hanging like bowling pins in parentheses, four mallards dropped through the trees as the sun barely tinged the eastern sky.
Was I in Arkansas or along the Illinois River? No! I was in New Jersey, near where the ill-fated Hindenburg Zeppelin crashed and burned. Noted for political corruption and shadowy characters like Tony Soprano, New Jersey is also the home of some of the best waterfowl hunting on the East Coast.
A year earlier, I hunted with Reedy Creek Outfitters. We did an old-time hunt using historic Barnegat Bay sneakboxes, canvas clothing and double guns. The hunting was terrific, and we bagged not only black ducks, but also Atlantic brant, birds that winter in the marshes and open salt water of coastal New Jersey. On that hunt, guide Brian LaFay and I hit it off well, and last summer, he called and invited me to return for a puddle duck hunt.
Teal in the Gut
LaFay picked me up early on a rainy, chilly, windy late-November morning, and we drove about 45 minutes south on the Garden State Parkway that skirts the vast Brigantine Marshes, to where LaFay had spotted a concentration of teal. Launching at a private ramp where members of the New Jersey Waterfowlers Association have launch privileges, we maneuvered through numerous twisting and wandering channels and guts. Along the way, we ran through a town of shanties high on stilts to protect against high tides and remnants of hurricanes, some with lights glimmering as other duck hunters were preparing for the blustery morning.
Our twisting and turning voyage brought us to the near end of a gut only 10 yards wide.
As we abruptly stopped, I could hear ducks taking wing, their slumber rudely interrupted by our arrival. LaFay rigged a small bunch of black duck and teal decoys to our left and another to our right, and then placed three Canada goose decoys directly in front. He anchored the boat blind against the shore between the decoys with our backs to the stiff wind. LaFay's boat is equipped with bunkers on the sides for decoys and an excellent blind that he popped up. Protected from the chilly wind and spitting rain, out came two folding stools. We were hunting.
Still too dark to shoot, we sat softly talking about ducks and guns as we heard the whistle of wings rushing to our location. I was shooting the new Beretta Xplor A400 Unico, a shotgun that had only been introduced a month before with a gala presentation in Italy.
Made to shoot about any 12-gauge load you want to stuff into it, I had chosen some of Federal's No. 3 Black Cloud. LaFay and his fellow guides recommend No. 3 shot to clients because they firmly believe in getting birds close before calling the shot. At those ranges, I couldn't argue with the choice of No. 3s, although I prefer the increased density of No. 2s for general, come-as-they-are duck hunting.
Like the rush of a jet engine, a flock of 15 greenwings buzzed up the gut, but it was still too early to shoot. Soon. Then, four teal dropped into the left-side decoys. With legal shooting on, we rose, and on the flush, managed to get one. They sure are fast!
"Black ducks," LaFay said as he pointed to two dark shapes gliding into water about 600 yards from us. Atlantic brant and black ducks are legends on the Brigantine marshes.
"Any chance we'll get some here," I asked LaFay?
"Probably not," he replied. "They normally like to sit on potholes, and don't come to guts like this one," he said.
Still, a couple snuck in on us, but they were gone before either of us could shoot. Many black ducks nest along the tidal marshes of the New Jersey coast. Others migrate from Quebec and Ontario and winter on the Atlantic coast from Maine to lower Virginia.
Sometimes called a "black mallard" because in body configuration, size and flight characteristics they closely resemble a mallard, but are a distinct species. In flight, their nearly white underwings have a distinct flash as it contrasts with their dark-brown plumage. Young black ducks have reddish-orange feet, but as they mature, the feet become a bright red. However, if you want to bag one of these trophies -- the limit is one per day -- New Jersey, centered in their wintering grounds, is a good destination. We saw many black ducks that late November day. Not as convivial as mallards, black ducks mainly fly in pairs or very small flocks.
Stalking a Pothole
Soon the action quieted, and we picked up our small stool. LaFay, a Coast Guard-certified captain, deftly maneuvered the 14-foot boat in the small gut while he retrieved the decoys using a decoy retriever. Decoys stowed, we retraced the route we had followed in the darkness. LaFay uses a GPS unit to pinpoint hunting locations, but still spotlights buoys along the way. On the way in, we flushed numerous flocks of teal and pairs of black ducks.
A half-mile from the launch ramp, LaFay slowed to a crawl, and stealthily peered over the bank of a large pothole. "There are some blacks sitting on the water," he whispered.
"This gut runs up on the other side, and if there's enough water we can get on the other side of them and sneak them. You interested?"
"Sure," I replied quietly. And sneak we did.
We left the boat and duck-walked about 25 yards. As we hid behind a little rise in the marsh, LaFay said, "They are farther than I thought. Can you crawl another 20 yards or so?"
"Why not, we're this far," I replied. Into the gummy marsh mud and muck went the new shotgun as I slugged through low vegetation, briefly recalling my basic training days at nearby Fort Dix.
Finally reaching the very edge of safe advance, LaFay said, "I'm going to crawl about 15 yards to the left, because they'll flush that way, then I'll give the word."
At the command, we stood, and the ducks took wing. At great expense of ammunition, LaFay knocked one down with a final BB load at the very fringe of shooting range. Like an Olympic sprinter, he took off running around to the opposite side of the pool. A minute later, he retrieved our trophy.
Largely Public Hunting
Unlike many areas where land is leased and hunting opportunities limited, New Jersey has thousands of acres of public areas. We hunted north of Atlantic City in the Edwin B. Forsythe p
ublic hunting area on the Brigantine marshes, which like most of these coastal marshes, except for refuge areas, are open to public hunting.
Gesturing widely with his hand, LaFay said, "All of this is public area, and where we brant hunted last year is all public area as well."
Obviously a hunter needs to really know the area, as there are countless guts and switchbacks in which the unaware can easily lose their way. Being lost on a vast marsh in gathering bad weather is not high on my bucket list, and you might very quickly arrive at the end of your list if unwise to the whims of nature and how to get to land quickly. A good, seaworthy boat and reliable motor go hand-in-hand with safe hunting on the sea coast.
Into the Trees
The following morning, LaFay picked me up at 4:30 a.m. We rendezvoused with one of his partners, Ray Rutkowski, at a brightly lit service station, complete with an Elvis impersonator manning the gas pumps -- somewhat surreal at 4:45 a.m. Rutkowski has a degree in wildlife and was instrumental in saving an area called Reedy Creek from development, hence he uses its name for the outfitting service. Our group of hunters assembled, we made a fast 10-minute trip to a nearby horse farm with a meandering stream that is part lake and part moving water. The property is inland south of the Toms River.
This unique hunting situation has a small lake at one end where the stream is dammed, and then the feeder stream makes a right angle and narrows. In the farmyard, we donned our bibs and waders. I checked my gunning bag for shells, and then piled it and my gun into the pickup.
"It's only a short ride," LaFay said. I hopped on the tailgate, and he was right. As tough as the prior day's hunt had been with the marsh crawl, this morning's was a walk in the park.
Walking a short 10 yards down a steep grade, we came to a small blind erected about 10 feet above the water. Brushed with tree branches, it was a perfect ambush. LaFay wore a headlight as I did, and soon I could see his moving rapidly up and down the yet invisible water in front of us.
When the decoys were set and he headed ashore, I saw he was in a small fiberglass boat just large enough for decoys and using double-ended paddle his rapid movement on the water was obvious.
Joe Lamonica, a retired New Jersey school principal, joined us. Away from the urban sprawl, Lamonica talked of nearby trout fishing and short drives for pheasants and other good hunting on public areas.
As legal shooting time arrived, early flocks of mallards began dropping into our decoys.
Like timber hunting in Arkansas, the ducks were visible as they dropped into the trees and then cloaked until they hit the water. Because none of us had a radar-guided shotgun, we passed up several bunches, but as dawn marched inexorably onward and the sky brightened, we could finally see. It didn't take long for us to begin to puff up our game bags.
By 8:30 a.m., the flight slowed. We had shot a banded mallard, which I could not lay claim to. LaFay's pattern caught it as it rose above the trees in the morning gloom.
We gathered again in the farm lot, exchanged handshakes and took photos. Rutkowski, LaFay and I headed to a nearby diner for a good breakfast.
New Jersey is known for its diners, and those that don't please the palate in taste and quantity of food don't survive.
Well fortified, we parted -- me for Northern Virginia with an invitation to return next season for another adventure, and LaFay and Rutkowski to experience more excellent waterfowl hunting on the Jersey shore.
John Taylor is an equal opportunity waterfowl hunter from Lorton, Va.
If you go
The best period to hunt puddle ducks is normally late November through the first week of January. A 2009-2010 two-day nonresident small-game license cost $36.50, plus $10 ($5 for residents) for the New Jersey waterfowl stamp. For more information about Reedy Creek Outfitters, visit rconj.com.