January 11, 2022
It was a good omen. The effluent coming out of the stack at the Michigan Sugar Beet plant in Sebewaing overlooking Saginaw Bay was trailing straight up toward the sky. Guide Mike Martin admitted he hadn’t seen very many days like this in the fall of 2020. “It’s been blowing for about three weeks straight,” he bemoaned. “It’s nice to finally see some decent weather.” Hunters Kyle Treadwell, Bruce DeShano and myself seconded the observation as we readied our gear at the boat ramp and loaded it aboard Martin’s 621 Ranger for the 13-mile ride to the middle of the bay.
Temperatures the night before had dipped into the low twenties and a skim of ice over the channel crackled and tinkled like broken glass at our intrusion leading from the Sebewaing marina to the Bay. We hunkered down adjusting Velcro closures, hoods and pulling our hands into thick gloves to shield exposed skin from the icy winds that would greet us when we hit the end of the channel. The layout boat strapped across the gunnels of Martin’s Ranger made the craft resemble a star fighter in the Star Wars trilogy and in the back of my mind I had visions of the boat taking flight once Martin put the hammer down.
Once we reached the end of the ½-mile long no-wake channel Martin slammed the throttle forward and we were speeding across the slick surface. Pushing 50 mph made the run short in duration, but no less excruciating. Martin kept glancing at his GPS and making slight corrections as we sped though the darkness before finally throttling back and drifting to a stop. Daylight was still but a rosy promise to the east.
Martin told us to look for long-tails beginning to stir and it wasn’t long before we spied singles, doubles and small pods begin to trade on the horizon headed towards shallow water on the inner bay and the feeding grounds. We watched anxiously as the number and frequency of sightings increased.
It was almost full-blown daylight when a black cloud of thousands of long-tails rose up off the water a mile or so distant and then pitched back to the surface to the north of us. Another mass that resembled black smoke a little farther towards the mouth of the Bay did the same thing. That was Martin’s cue. “They’re still here,” observed Martin quietly. It was go time.
Old Duck, New Life
Known as old squaw for centuries, the moniker of the duck was changed a little over a decade ago to "long-tailed duck". Clangula hyemalis existed in relative obscurity within the waterfowling fraternity, especially among hunters around the Great Lakes, until recently. A medium-sized sea duck commonly found along the east and west coast of North America, long-tail duck populations have suddenly exploded on the Great Lakes and hunters have taken notice. Long-tails nest in the western Hudson Bay region, coastal islands in the northern reaches of Canada and all across the Arctic. Their traditional wintering grounds on the coasts now include the Great Lakes. Diehards that made long excursions to the Atlantic to harvest trophy birds can now travel to the Great Lakes to get their fix.
‘The number of long-tailed ducks on the western Great Lakes has exploded over the last decade and the area has become a hotspot for them,” shared Greg Soulliere, USFS Regional Science Coordinator for the Upper Mississippi/Great Lakes Venture. “We’re seeing increases in the number of long-tailed ducks on all the Great Lakes. We saw those increases on Lake Ontario prior to Lake Michigan. Lake Ontario has a long history of long-tailed duck sightings.” Lake Ontario’s proximity to the coast and the northern breeding grounds may have something to do with that.
I grew up on Saginaw Bay and don’t remember ever seeing long-tailed ducks on the Bay, but that was 30 years ago. The reason might have been that hunters like myself never ventured out into the middle of the Bay where long-tails typically mass. There was no need to when you could shoot a limit of better-eating greenheads closer to shore. I do remember seeing long-tailed ducks in the spring on Lake Michigan while charter fishing, but never in the fall.
The one thing that has changed since then is mussels. Species of non-native mussels were discovered in the late 1980’s. The Great Lakes have always had mussels, but native mussels are not as efficient as invasive mussels. Native mussels take 3 to 5 years to mature; zebra mussels mature in one year. The arrival of zebra mussels, and to lesser extent quagga mussels, on the Great Lakes has provided a newfound food source for long-tails.
They have found the waters of the Saginaw Bay the ideal dinner table. The only duck to use it wings for propulsion when diving, long-tails have been recorded diving to depths in excess of 200 feet to secure food. The shallow waters of Saginaw Bay must seem like a wading pool to them. The depths of Saginaw make it easy for the aptly gifted long tails to gorge on mussels. Why go searching for food when you can just belly up to the buffet?
Milder winters in recent years have made places like Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay more than hospitable to long-tails. With open water and a preponderance of food, long-tails have no reason to migrate farther south to Lake St. Clair or Lake Erie most winters. Harvest data would seem to prove that.
Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest data from the 2018 and 2019 seasons shows that there were no long-tail ducks harvested in Ohio. Michigan waterfowlers harvested 3,346 in 2018 and 6,019 in 2019 with the vast majority of the ducks taken on Saginaw Bay. That number probably more than doubled in 2020 due to increased effort and targeting of long-tails.
For the record, Wisconsin hunters killed 810 long-tails in 2018 and the total doubled to 1,645 in 2019. The total harvest numbers for long-tails in the entire Mississippi Flyway was 4,164 in 2018 and 7,886 in 2019. In comparison, waterfowlers in New York accounted for 10,515 in 2018 and 11,058 long tails in 2019. Atlantic Flyway hunters in 2018 harvested 24,203 and 27,439 in 2019. Numbers from the Great Lakes may soon surpass those numbers.
Luke Fara has spent a good portion of his adult life studying long-tailed ducks as a biologist at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Service Center in LaCrosse, WI. “There’s this misconception that long-tails ducks are something new on the Great Lakes and on Lake Michigan in particular,” Fara said. “There are records from back in the 1950’s of commercial fishermen finding long-tailed ducks in gill nets set in 200 feet of water on Lake Michigan.” Estimates were that as many as 50,000 long-tails were caught in nets each year.
“The Eastern Great Lakes have a long history of long-tailed ducks traversing from the Atlantic to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie during migration. We don’t see those birds on Lake Michigan,” claimed Fara. Fara said the population estimates for long-tail ducks in North America places them in excess of 1 million birds. “There was an estimate a few years back that the population on the Great Lakes was estimated at 25,000. I think that number is extremely low considering the changes in distribution we are seeing. I also think this is due to a lack of surveys on the open water of the Great lakes. Some surveys have occurred in recent years (2010), but extrapolating a population estimate from those is difficult.” Fara said some Christmas bird counts in the 1960’s indicated that more long-tailed ducks were observed in Milwaukee harbor than the entire state of New York.
Most people don’t see long-tail ducks because long-tails don’t come close to shore. During the radio telemetry studies Fara conducted on Lake Michigan, he rarely saw long tails in depths of less than 70 feet and most often the birds would spend their nighttime hours roosted in 300 feet of water more than 7 miles off-shore. Data compiled from marked birds showed the average distance to shore during daylight hours was 3.3 miles with the average depth of 73 feet.
Mike Martin and Bruce DeShano put some muscle to the layout boat and it slipped of the gunwales of the Ranger like a fried egg out of a Teflon pan. Once in the water, Martin began to feed out the mother line with the decoys attached to the layout boat out of a leaf bag that had been hidden under the boat. A wind-driven spinning wing decoy painted like a drake long-tail perched on a post attached to a circular float marked the end of the line. The decoys were a mixture of scoters and long-tailed drakes.
“Do you shoot many scoters out here?” I queried.
“No. A few, but the black scoter decoys stand out much better,” he replied. Later from a distance it was obvious he was right.
A second line of a dozen decoys was added about 15 or 20 yards to the left of the layout boat. Long-tails buzzed the spread the whole time we were setting decoys.
Kyle Treadwell had drawn the long straw. His quest for a bull long-tail had spanned several years and we agreed he should get first opportunity. Martin explained that getting in the layout boat was kind of like falling off a horse. Just roll on to your side and into the boat. Treadwell accomplished the feat without incident and we handed him his gun, a two-way radio and a box of shells. Martin’s unwritten rule was a box of shells or a limit and then it was time to change hunters. Most hunters never managed to kill a limit with a box of shells, said Martin. Shooting from a bobbing layout is not easy. The wide-open spaces make judging distance difficult and long tails are speedy and elusive.
We pushed off wishing Treadwell good luck and shut the motor down about 80 yards away. Martin instructed us to load our guns because hunters on the tender usually got some shooting, too. He also told us if a crippled long-tail had its head up shoot it immediately because as soon as it dove you’d never see it again.
The tender boat hadn’t come to a complete stop when we looked up to see a white stud of a long tail headed towards the layout rig. The bird dipped, shuddered and then angled around the end of the line of decoys. It was almost slow motion as we saw Treadwell come to a sitting position, level off on the bird and crumple it.
Martin pointed the Ranger towards the spread. Treadwell pointed to where we could see the duck bobbing. As we passed, we gave him a cheer and a thumbs up. We could make out his ear-to-ear grin.
There was no time for accolades. Another snowy white long-tail was taking the same path as the first and Treadwell dropped that one on the second shot. He now had two stunning trophies from which to choose.
Long-tails strafed the layout rig non-stop. Most of the time, it was singles or doubles, but occasionally a knot of a half dozen or more long tails would skirt the outside edge of the decoys. Martin said for some reason they never land in the decoys, doing more of a fly-by, so don’t wait for a feet down posture.
Treadwell continued to hammer away and we retrieved three more for him before he called on the radio. “I’ve got two more shells left,” he advised just as we could all see another duck zeroed in on the spread. Treadwell lurched to sitting position; we could hear the reports from the gun and the bird wheeled towards Linwood to live another day.
DeShano insisted it was my turn in the layout boat. Being a candidate for the lead in the commercial where the person claims, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” I was leery about the transfer. It came off without a hitch. Martin handed me my Benelli Super Vinci, a box of shells and the radio and wished me good luck.
Bird sightings had gone from non-stop to every 10 or 15 minutes by then. I snuggled down into the layout and immediately realized I couldn’t wear my glasses with bifocals. Everything was a blur when I looked at a low angle through the glasses. I stuffed them in a pocket before a bird appeared. The gunwales of the layout seemed to catch you right in the middle of the neck when you were scrunched down into the boat like you should be.
I saw him easily, even without the glasses. It was a mature drake coming from my right and I made sure my gun was sitting in the groove on the top of the layout boat. The duck tilted and twisted like a green-winged teal or mourning dove. I knew the duck was probably farther than he looked as it rounded the end of the decoy string and when I sat up I consciously gave the target a little more lead than usual. The 3-inch #3 load of Fiocchi Golden Waterfowl steel sent him tumbling. I hadn’t been in the boat 10 minutes and I had my trophy long-tail.
DeShano’s turn in the boat produced similar results. The stream of long-tails had slowed considerable from first light, but DeShano had no problem going through his shell allotment. One of the birds he killed was a mature hen. The hen was in striking contrast to the garish drakes we’d been targeting. The rich brown and buff tones reminded me of a drake gadwall; reserved but beautiful. Martin said it was one of the nicest specimens he’d ever seen.