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Sea Ducks of New England

The thrill and mystery of these maritime waterfowl.

Sea Ducks of New England

These hearty big water birds and the ocean they inhabit do not give themselevs up easily, but their pursuit is a unqiue and coveted quest for those who dare to venture into the Atlantic Ocean. (Eric Call photo)

The wheel spun in his right hand. "There are three rules men must follow: You don’t mess with a man’s wife, you don’t mess with a man’s business and you don’t mess with a man’s ducks,” he said laughing, as he turned his head around 180 degrees in the darkness, ensuring there were no lights from lobster boats approaching. He was our captain, Reilly McCue. A New Hampshire native and a sea-duck guiding, waterfowl-photographing, insect-studying, striped-bass-wrangling student of all things wild.

We were headed out on our second day of hunting in Massachusetts. A group of new friends and fellow writers brought out to test the new BE.S.T treated Super Black Eagle 3 from Benelli. An appropriate test indeed. Saltwater eats and wears away at everything in its path, and there is no harsher foe for a duck gun.

Benelli BE.S.T. 

The revolutionary BE.S.T. surface treatment from Benelli is the first of its kind. Spending more than a decade developing BE.S.T., this coating provides corrosion and abrasion resistance with a hybrid Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) and Plasma Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition (PECVD) technology all backed by a 25-year warranty from Benelli.

Diamond-like carbon particles are applied using nanotechnology, resulting in an exceptionally hard surface that won’t ever rust or corrode. The graphitic components of the coating layer also greatly reduce the amount of oil and maintenance required, which is ideal for any salt marsh, sea duck hunter or avid fowl chaser who finds himself in the elements frequently.

I tested the Super Black Eagle 3 BE.S.T during my hunt, but this surface treatment is also available on Benelli’s ETHOS models, and 2021 ETHOS Cordoba BE.S.T.

Bred of Sea and Salt

The ocean is a harsh test for man, too. It requires a heightened sense of awareness and meticulous preparation. There isn’t much margin for error in the middle of December in temperamental Atlantic waters. You need to know the water, understand the weather and trust your equipment. There is a lot of peace of mind that comes with the capable eyes of a good captain, and that man was Reilly.

He was at the helm of a custom aluminum Fab-Tech boat, 25 feet by ten feet wide, with a deep V, non-slip flooring, 250 hp Suzuki engine capable of  dealing with any current and a hydraulic jack plate capable of nearly any depth. It was a mean rig.

Inside its hulk of a frame, three shelves of decoys were clipped in securely, with a variety of anchors, weights, ropes and a few nets for retrieving cripples—an essential tool for any sea duck hunt. There was also the Core Sound double seated layout boat, resting at an angle, with all of our equipment weighing its light frame down in the salty wind. We decked, clipped, strung and anchored our lines of decoys one by one in the dark, circling back and placing each one after the other.

After finishing, we then double hooked our already anchored floating layout boat close to the starboard and Alan and I jumped in. We were set up on a high traffic route of salt water, where the famous Merrimac River funneled into. We were one pit stop away from a massive mussel bed, horseshoed in by a formation of rocks. This is what drew the ducks near.

The sun’s eyes met the ocean and the blue blanket surrounding us lightened into navy, visible light. The sky, in its sharp contrast above the rocking water, was blood red. That is when we saw them. Silhouettes of sea ducks zipped in tight, straight lines above the water, then rose quickly into the sky above us. They were mainly flocks of scoter, governed in number by black and surf scoters.

Sea duck hunting spread
Nestled under a large outcropping and adjacent to a massive mussel bed waiting on the flight. (Nathan Ratchford photo)

We were lying flat, heads tucked down beneath the rim of a double layout boat—strong and sturdy in the breathing waters. This morning, I was paired in the boat with my friend and fellow writer, Alan, and shooting light was nearing. In front of us, four strings of roughly 50 decoys reached out like fingers, squeezing themselves tightly on the surface of the water. Legal shooting light struck, now to wait for a group to commit. I held my Benelli patiently, with saltwater spray shimmering barrel to hand.

Wing beats whistled ahead. There was a group of surf scoters and longtails headed towards us. We waited until they were just above the water, feet above the hand-painted decoys, and then sat up abruptly, pointed down the barrel, and dropped the black birds in a sailing dive to the icy water.

The Mystery of Sea Ducks

The ducks were so plentiful that day I was able to shoot my limit early, and also hand pick two pillow white drake eiders—dropping like thudding clouds from the sky.

Pair of common eider drakes
Beautiful bull common eiders are a heavily sought trophy among East Coast sea duck gunners. (Eric Call photo)

Cold and smiling, I was in awe of what I had witnessed. Thousands of ducks, many from the boreal forest and beyond, flying wild and feeding on mussels. Black scoters, surf scoters, long tails, the occasional white wing and the prized common eider all sailing by.  

I examined each duck with fascination. The yellow and orange hues of the black scoters’ bills; the striking white, black and subtle light green of the drake eiders. Each unique in their design. All of them hardy, wild birds out there in cold Atlantic waters in the middle of the winter. If only we had half the grit. Far less is known about sea ducks in comparison to other species of fowl. Our captain pointed out just how few black scoters have been banded to date. I was shocked to find out only 39 had been banded in the past 90 years. By comparison, mallards sit somewhere around 7 million.


“I just love wetlands. Remote, inaccessible areas where ducks and brook trout live and thrive. Every time I hold a duck in hand I want to ask where it has been. I want to know its secrets,” Captain McCue said, as I carried on gazing at the day’s limit of ducks.

We may never know all their secrets, but out there in the big ocean, sitting in a little layout boat, we catch a brief glimpse into their lives, and that’s enough for me. I will be back again, when the waters are calm, and the weather is clear. As for them— they are out there right now, feeding on mountains of mussels and braving every wild storm.

Sea duck hunter shooting Benelli Super Black Eagle 3
Hunters brave the wind and waves gunning out of open water layout boats hoping for close encounters with sea ducks. (Nathan Ratchford photo)

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