Spotlights from passenger jets descending into New York’s John F. Kennedy airport beam across the black morning sky as four men in an 18-foot Duckwater skim the shallow waters of Long Island’s Great South Bay. The plane traffic is constant, much like the brant flight soon will be after a quick decoy spread of the diminutive geese and a few black ducks are placed in front of a marsh island.
Men hop out of the boat, jumping from a mud pile to the spongy earth of the island, unload gear and load shotguns, using a wooden “No Wake” sign pelted by steel shot from hunts past as a “blind.” Soon the sun crests the eastern horizon and sheds light upon the tidal marsh. Silhouettes of homes and boat docks dot the skyline. To the north is a larger marsh island. Resident Canada geese come off the night roost and head straight for the grassy hillsides. All kinds of water birds stream by. In the periodic silence, you can hear gulls dip their wingtips in the water.
“Welcome to Long-Da Island, again” says Anthony Babich of Elite Long Island Outfitters, in an unmistakable accent you can only be blessed with growing up on this finger of land that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. He’s a young, hard-working guide who has two real jobs at a law firm and real estate agency, plus a bustling media side business, hustling to have the world by the balls and the right girl on his arm, but constantly feeling the pull of pursuing birds on the bays, sod farms and golf courses (any green space is a place to shoot ducks and geese on LI...if you can get permission).
We are old pals, having hunted honkers and mallards together here a few years ago in one of the Northeast’s notorious winter storms that dumped over a foot of snow on LI. He is grinning because sometimes these are the lengths waterfowlers go to shoot a duck here, leaning against a wooden sign on a plod of public mud, surrounded by luxury homes with inbound 747s streaming overhead every 2 minutes.
As you travel further east (or west depending on the boat ramp location), the Great South Bay opens to a more pristine setting, far removed from any human footprint.
“It’s the body of water we are known for, and you can shoot a lot of different birds out there.” says Anthony, or “Ant-knee” on LI.
Clouds of brant lift out of coves and pockets sheltering them from the wind. Most people think these brown birds, about the size of a small lesser Canada, with a white streak across their neck, are best hunted at low tide when they eat grasses exposed by falling water. And they aren’t wrong. But we are hunting high tide; it forces the brant to fly, submerging portions of the marsh they might typically loaf and feed on.
A single comes straight into the decoys and a shot string peppers the water behind it before a second dose of Federal 2s crumples the brant in the decoys. Then a flock of around 10 make a line for us and commit hard. There is probably no other bird—maybe a shoveler—that loves pieces of floating plastic more than a brant. They hardly flare after the call to kill’em. Three lay dead on the water and boat captain Chris Spies sends his eager Lab, who retrieves each without hesitation, or correction, just pick up and drop off.
While waiting for others in the group to finish two-bird brant limits, we take sporty shots on broadbill (what some east coasters call bluebills) and mergansers. They are rocketing through a channel to the north of us. More pellets skip across the bay water than connect with birds, but a few mergs and ‘bills fall, and we celebrate our kills and laugh off misses. By the end of morning rush hour, our brant are on the strap and it’s time to pick up the decoys and motor home.
But on Long Island, there are ample opportunities to chase multiple species, and we are ready for more, hopping in a goose pit for an afternoon Canada shoot. LI’s local honker population is stout, and when cold snaps hit, migrators balloon those numbers even more. Oddly, most geese don’t care to be called to either due to pressure or the sound of calls echoing off homes and other buildings—maybe a mix of both.
Rob Bellini, owner of Elite, is a driven duck man, and one of the few guides on the Island. There’s actually a fair amount of access for anyone with a boat and a diver or sea duck rig, but if you’re not from here, it can be tough to navigate the public bays and know where to find birds—scoter (all three species), common eider and long-tailed ducks are abundant, as are bluebills.
Like several East Coast states New York has some strict hunting regulations, which is a reason to go with an outfitter. Plus, this is an island full of alphas (male and female) that talk and sometimes act like Joe Pesci’s brash character “Tommy” from the movie “Goodfellas,” and it is good to have an experienced guide who grew up here (Rob or Chris) on your side.
Rob gets a lot of people from New York City to come in and hunt Elite’s upland preserve for pheasant and chukar. It’s an easy/social hunt clients don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn for, and a great introduction to wingshooting for newbies. While they are chasing roosters in the morning, the goose flights start and they can see the big honkers landing in fields and want to try a hunt. But the bays are LI’s true gem, and keep folks coming back. Most think money and movie stars when they hear of Montauk or The Hamptons, but the glitz and glamour of mansions, fast cars and beautiful women are a distant second to the gorgeous tidal marshes of the North and South Shores…well, maybe not the beautiful women.
Sweating the Surf
Salty ocean spray showers the back of our necks as Anthony and I ride the chop in a two-man layout boat. The sun isn’t quite up, but the waters of the North Shore are plenty alive as we roll up-and-down in the swells. My stomach starts to churn like a washing machine—should have laid off those final two Coronas last night. Scoters and longtails buzz the rig of longlines and Decoy Rafts (floating mesh blankets you can clip floaters to). It is an inauspicious start. Four flocks and 12 shotshells later, I am still trying to cut feathers, somehow nervously sweating in 20 degrees and a 15 mph wind.
Finally, a three-pack of black scoter rip up the right side of the decoys. By now Anthony is jabbing me for terrible shots, and wondering if I will ever kill a bird. The scoters fly at us like someone pressed a turbo-boost button. I lose sight of them as the layout slides to the bottom of the swell, but know I need to be ready as the boat rises up.
“Lead, lead, lead,” is all that runs through my head, and I pull through the lead bird, fire and the last bird in the flock crumples. “Lead more, damnit, lead more,” and the second shot stings the front scoter.
The boys in the tender boat net the birds quick and longtails are on us instantly. A pair fly around the back of the layout, darting away from us, then suddenly catch a glimpse of the decoys and cruise in. Two more shots tumble them into the surf.
Here’s How Ya Do It
Justin Pruiksma takes a turn in the layout and shoots a longtail in about 2 seconds with a Benelli pump gun, wrong handed. The birds swing hard to his right and he pulls up lefty to drop the hammer. Three more flocks come in and he picks off a bird out of each—old hat for the upstate New Yorker.
The seas are getting rough, so Chris, who never wears gloves no matter how cold it gets, and “Mike the Cop” (he’s a NYC police officer) lift the layout and decoys into the boat and motor to calm waters. We re-deploy, this time with Mike and I in the layout. He is more helpful than Anthony, calling out birds instead of just playing music from his iPhone, Instagraming and laughing at whiffs. Mike smokes a longtail and then makes a scotch double over his shoulder on a pair of scoters, an unbelievable shot. I knock him on the shoulder like we are old buddies and let loose an obscenity-laced congratulations.
Another longtail comes in, and Mike bludgeons that one too. It’s getting late and Justin still has a bird to shoot for his limit, so the pressure is on to finish. The guys come in to adjust the decoys, then Mike points out two white-wing scoters heading straight for us. They follow the line of decoys to my right and actually cup wings instead of giving us a 100 mph flyby. Feet down and almost on the water, I squeeze the ice-cold trigger and both miraculously die—another scotch!
I switch out with Justin and he, of course, kills his final bird in minutes, a deep poke at the very front of the decoy string, and we burn a line across the bay for the boat ramp and warm trucks.
Sitting around the dinner table with Rob, drinking more Coronas and eating sausage and peppas, listening to him break balls (as only a New Yorker can), he perfectly sums up what it’s like to be an LI hunter. Though Atlantic flyway limits and seasons have been pulled back, you don’t feel that here. Not in a place where you can potentially shoot 10 different species of birds over a weekend.
“You go out on these bays and see these birds and it grabs ahold of you,” Rob said “Yeah, the limits and seasons are against us, but there’s not a lot a places you can go to hunt sea ducks and brant and broadbill, and get these Canadas right in ya face in big flocks. We grew up doing this. It’s in our blood, and that’s it.”