August 17, 2023
“Don’t shoot the brown ones,” Captain Todd instructed. “And if they dive at the shot, hit them again as soon as they pop up.” He passed a shotgun and box of shells to my gloved hands, stepped back to the steering console, and the boat roared away.
It was suddenly quiet in the layout. Zen-like. Comfortable. No sound but the lap of waves. No sight but the silhouette of foam decoys, bobbing against an orange horizon that extended to England, I guess. Unless Greenland got in the way.
“11 o’clock. You see ‘em?” Photographer/videographer Mark Webb was in his own layout boat ten yards behind, collecting footage for Savage Arms. Sure enough, six fast-flapping specks could be seen against the sunrise, 10 yards above the surf.
They were feet-down between our decoy lines seconds later. I sat up and swung. Brown, brown, brown, brown…
The barrel came to rest on the lip of the layout. “All hens. Can you believe that?”
“More on the way,” Mark replied. “Three.”
A large white drake was leading the advance. Driving in hard. Aggressive. Unsettling, even, as he charged the center of the spread like a linebacker. Don’t screw this up.
The first pop was a clean miss at fifteen yards, but a prompt follow-up sent the white bird tumbling. A yearling drake skittered in for a landing seconds later, and Mark put the radio to his mouth.
“We’ve got two down here. Ready to swap?”
It was Bill Miller’s turn next. A wave of a gloved hand, and we surged off to our vantage point some three hundred yards away. He was the third hunter to take a turn in the shooter’s position that morning. Adam Scepaniak had led things off at daybreak, smacking three plump eiders in as many shots. “The Renegauge works,” was his succinct assessment of the Savage shotgun we’d been invited to evaluate over three days of late-November gunning on Maine’s Penobscot Bay.
Captain Todd killed the motor and, once again, a zen-like calm settled on the bay. Yellow sun hit the granite bluff behind us, leaving frost in the shadows. Gulls drifted on the breeze. A seal peeped from the surface, looked around, then dipped under again.
“You think these people mind us waking them up this morning?” Adam nodded toward the colonial mansions atop the bluff. Close enough to hit with a rock, if you had a decent arm. Or close enough for a satin-robed divorcee to cuss us out from the balcony, if she had a decent voice.
“Summer homes. Nobody’s there,” Captain Todd explained. “Beside, even if they were, we’ve got a right to be here. Protected in the Maine constitution. You can hunt or forage or fish anywhere you want below the high tide line. Public resource.”
The owner and lead guide of Penobscot Bay Outfitters (seaduck.net), Captain Todd Jackson is not one of those handwringing men plagued by self-doubt. By the time we had made the 50-minute drive from the lodge to the boat launch that morning, we had come to know right where Captain Todd stood on euthanasia (“there’s a place for it”), underage drinking (shrug), Taylor Swift (“who?”), and the secret to a 30-year marriage (“compromise”). But if you really want to hear Todd’s passion peak, ask him about the Atlantic common eider.
“EYE-duhs,” as Todd refers to them, are in decline. Still plenty to hunt, and his clients fill their limits more often than not, but it just isn’t easy anymore. Birds are smarter, and fewer of them.
“We used to kill eiders from the big boat,” he recalled. “Didn’t even use proper decoys. Just Clorox bottles. Seven drakes a day was the limit. Seven drakes. I used to wait till we were one short of a limit and then spend hours taking pictures with an old wind-up film camera. Look at these.”
We watched a single eider tumble into the decoys a split second before we heard Bill’s shot. “Dead,” the radio crackled.
“Alright, just stay put. Let’s get you a second.”
Todd was asked why he thought the eiders were struggling. “Raccoons, for one thing. Way back, some old timers released a bunch of raccoons on the islands out there to control the gull population. But they also ate eider eggs. You’ll still see ‘em out there, on the islands. No tails. Just little stubs.”
Game Bird Biologist Kelsey Sullivan with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife agrees with the captain’s theory, at least in part. Nesting predation is a real problem for the sea ducks of coastal New England. Seagulls, raccoons, otters….even industrious minks will make the swim from the mainland to gorge on eider eggs. But the real culprit, according to Sullivan? Shellfish decline. Warming waters in Penobscot Bay are pushing mussels down deeper, where they’re not as accessible to diving sea ducks. Less food, less birds. Simple as that.
Bill’s shotgun broke the silence yet again, and Captain Todd fired up the motor.
We launched the boat by headlamp the next morning, just as we had the day before. “Sea ducks fly at dawn,” Todd explained. “You’ll get some movement with the tide, not always. If you’re not out here EARLY-early, you’re not killing your birds.” Other than the distant lights of lobster boats chugging toward international waters, the bay was empty. Black. Cold. Even the steady buzz of the motor seemed to fold into the silence as we skimmed between sea and stars.
Public land waterfowlers who hunt with Captain Todd will invariably ask the same question: why aren’t more guys doing this? Beautiful birds, all on public water…and we never saw another hunter or heard another shot in our three days of hunting. The answer, in a word: logistics.
Simply getting to the waters where sea ducks swim takes a level of experience and seamanship that only years on the bay can provide. “Lots of boats have ended up on the bottom of Penobscot over the years,” Captain Todd observed as he gestured with one hand and kept his other on the tiller. “Big rock here, here, here....” To the untrained eye, the surface was flat. Smooth and sparkling in the beam of the bow light. But where others see a featureless plain, Captain Todd sees beneath the waves to a gutted badlands of peaks and valleys, plateaus and coulees, succulent feedbeds and treacherous shoals.
We were pleased to inform our loved ones before the trip that Captain Todd is a US Coast Guard certified captain who has been plying these waters since the age of five, guiding since 1991 (when the four Millennial hunters in our group were still in Pull-Ups). In the three days we spent with Captain Todd, we never saw him consult a GPS. Or a weather report. Or a tide table. We assumed the pattern of ebb and flow correlated to a daily shift in the captain’s internal chemistry. And that a post-mortem autopsy would reveal barnacles in his blood vessels. We were in capable hands.
After 35 minutes of uncoiling ropes and clipping longtail fakes to a Decoy Raft (“more of a natural look, for longtails and scoters,” Todd explained), it was my turn to lead off in the layout. “We’ll be quarter mile away on some rocks. Radio when you finish your limit. They’ll be coming from that way.” Todd pointed east, where the first pale streaks of dawn were pushing in from the Atlantic. “Watch out for loons.”
I assumed he meant the birds, but the boat churned away before I could ask. The first group of longtails arrived just as the sound of the motor faded. A group of eight, skirting the spread on the right. They were gone before I could adjust my hips to take a shot. Another pair whistled by the decoys on the left. Again, no shot. Then I froze. A pair of large black sea ducks at 12 o’clock, flapping in hard. Scoters. “The drake usually leads the way,” Todd had counseled the night before, “but when in doubt, shoot the big one.” A single shot and a pristine drake surf scoter slapped the water just feet from the layout.
The longtails just kept coming. I spotted a group on my off-shoulder in time to turn my hips and scored a lucky Dutch double, then minutes later picked off a trailing single from a flock on the left. I picked up the radio. “Done here. Ready to swap.”
Bill and Adam followed suit, both returning to the tender boat with fine specimens of longtails and surf scoters. Megan Harten of Savage Arms, our host for the trip and undisputed deadeye of the crew (she makes her living repping shotguns, ok?), grabbed two packs of Pop Tarts and a case of Twizzler’s before settling in for her mid-morning sit in the layout. “I’m gonna take these guys to the other shore for buffleheads,” Captain Todd told her. “Radio me if you need something.”
Captain Todd ferried us over to a sloping peninsula where a broad green lawn extended from a classic New England mansion, complete with white pillars and wood shuttered windows. A jumble of pickup-sized rocks spilled from lawn to sea. The largest of these was crowned by a natural stone firepit. Idyllic, like something from a Martha Stewart shoot. It wasn’t hard to picture a pair of the white-sweatered gentry reclining beside the coals just a couple months earlier.
Drinks in hand, pipes in teeth (one of them a Kennedy, probably) watching the summer burn away. The pit was filled with rainwater and oak leaves now, skimmed with ice, and three wader-clad dudes crouched in the cleft below—waiting for buffs.
I was skeptical at first. Buffleheads are sneered at in my home in the Pacific Northwest, but not in New England. Todd keeps a spread of twelve gorgeous, hand-painted wood bufflehead decoys in a slotted bag and arranges them for his hunters with the same thoughtful care you put into a late-season mallard set up.
The bufflehead shoot gave us a chance to really put the Renegauge through its paces. This gun just wants to swing. Begs for it, really. And there’s nothing like a gaudy drake buff sizzling by at thirty-five yards on open water to give you the opportunity to see how fast you can rip the bead. “This is the softest shooting 12 gauge I’ve ever encountered,” Megan had told us, “Perfect for women.” Or 34-year-old tough guys who don’t like to get punished every time they pull the trigger. We certainly weren’t shooting patty-cake loads on this trip. The ounce-and-three-eighths loads of #2 Remington Premier Bismuth were probably overkill for the buffs but ideal for the Kevlar-plated sea ducks we were gunning from the layouts. We burned through a box or so apiece each day and emerged no worse for wear on the shoulder. Not a bad bonus feature from a gun that cycles reliably and hits where you’re looking.
That night, after cameraman Mark led the way in a communal lobster gorgefest (he downed four by himself and still had room for whoopie pie), Captain Todd asked what we wanted to do in the morning. It didn’t take long for consensus to emerge: black ducks. We’d seen several flocks flying high over our sea duck setups each day. Big groups. Thirty or more. Chuckling. Tantalizing. Exotic, to this group of Central and Pacific flyway shooters. The last bucket list bird to check off for the trip.
“I know a spot we can kill some black ducks,” Captain Todd smiled. “This bay where they like to feed in the mornings. And the tide’s gonna be perfect for it tomorrow.” (Again, he did not consult a tide table.) “But it’s going to be a first-light sort of thing. They may all come at once. And then it will be over. So we’ll need to make it count.”
No surprise, Captain Todd was right. Wings whistled in the dark above the pines. Thirty of them. No, fifty black ducks wheeling hard against the pale blue dawn. We pressed against the bark of black spruce on the shore, willing ourselves to meld with the shadows. Another pass. Feet splashed in the decoys. Shotguns roared. Then another flock did the same. And another. Until the tide receded. And the sun rose. And the bay was calm.
The effect of hunting sea ducks on consecutive days is immersive. It pulls you in. To observe these wild ducks—doing what they have done forever, basically, in the same places they have always done it—demands that you embrace a different rhythm. An ancient rhythm. The rhythm of dawn and tide, wax and wane, sunset and swell, current and gale that has advanced in unbroken succession millennia after millennia after millennia. Most people can’t hear this rhythm, or if they do, ignore it. Not Todd Jackson. This ancient rhythm is the cadence by which he orders his life. And for three days, so did we.
“Look over there,” Todd pointed out the window of his Suburban on the drive back to the lodge. There on the bay, just sixty yards from the highway, some 150 eiders bobbed on the current. At least a third of them big and white. “That’s the plan for tomorrow. Guys coming up from New York. Eiders.”
He couldn’t say the last word without smiling. The rest of us smiled, too. Even now, months after this hunt, it brings a strange solace to consider that at this very moment—as you read these words—the tide on Penobscot is rising or falling. And a man named Todd Jackson knows exactly which it is.