The longer I duck hunt, the less I care about killing ducks.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a heavy strap and a fast-and-furious, shoot-a-limit-in-45-minutes morning. If those ever stop being a thrill, I’ll quit hunting. But these days, I don’t know — maybe it’s age, maybe it’s maturity or just a sense of adventure, but I’m more aware than ever that numbers and body counts are only a piece of a much larger experience. That whole cliché about the journey being more important than the destination, you know.
Duck hunting is rich in experiences and journeys, for sure, and perhaps the richest experiences of all are to be found in the rocking boats and straight lines and rolling waves of sea duck hunting. If you’re still in the body-count-oriented phase of duck hunting, go spend a morning sitting on a hunk of granite in the middle of a roiling ocean, fighting snow and falling tides and shooting at low-flying eiders and not killing any of them, then drowning your sorrows in lobster omelets. There’s no quicker way to learn to appreciate the experience rather than the numbers.
Stonington, Maine, looks like every quaint New England fishing village you’ve ever seen in the movies. From the weathered-wood buildings to the local cafe to the lobster boats at every dock, everything in Stonington screams “charm.” It would be my home base for three days of eider hunting in early November. My hosts were Linda Powell of Mossberg and cigar-chomping curmudgeon Bill Brown, Ducks Unlimited regional director for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
It’s the night before the first hunt, and I’m pumped. “So tell me what you love about eider hunting?” I ask Bill over supper, hoping for a great quote to start this article.
“Nothing,” he grouches in a gruff but endearing New England accent. “Absolutely nothing.” Then he laughs a tough-guy chuckle and we get to planning the next morning’s hunt. Still in need of something I can print, I turn to DU volunteer Shawn Price.
“Eiders are more unique than any other duck,” he says. “They’re such a challenge to dispatch. The whole thing’s a real challenge, because you have to deal with the ocean, you need the right gear, you need a knowledge of the tide.”
I ask him for his best eider-hunting tips.
“Sit still,” he replies. “Put your decoys out on long-line clips, and use heavy-duty decoys because they are going to get shot [Shawn uses Quack brand decoys from Rhode Island]. You need good waders and good gear in general to stay dry. The boat is essential, but the wind is the biggest deciding factor. The less wind, the better, because of the danger factor. If it’s 25 knots or more, we don’t go.”
Less than 12 hours later, sea spray is hitting me in the back as we zip through Deer Isle Sound in a boat in the darkness, searching for that one perfect rock in a sea of a thousand rocks. I’m having a I-can’t-believe-I’m-here-doing-this moment as we jump out of the boat onto a giant hunk of granite and the guys start throwing out eider decoys in long, straight lines.
“Have a seat,” Shawn tells me. A seat? Where? We’re on a rock. There’s no blind. There’s no trees or cover or anything remotely resembling a place to hide. No one else seems fazed by this, and we plunk down on the shoreline and try to get comfortable enough to sit still.
It’s my first sea duck hunt, and I’m scanning the sky as I would for puddlers. Bill says, “Look lower,” and sure enough, there are dark shapes zipping a hundred yards out just a foot off the water. Scoters. They aren’t what we’re here for, but I’m not about to pass up an opportunity. Unfortunately, they don’t give us one.
“Eiders!” someone hollers. Sure enough, a beautiful pair is headed our way. Their trajectory will take them out of range, but Linda pipes up: “I forgot to tell you — if you shoot one, shoot it again. Then when you think it’s dead, shoot it again and keep your eyes on it while you reload.”
“Sure thing,” I say, wondering why she’s being so overly cautious.
We shoot a pair of eiders that morning. The first, a drake, sails in at mach speed, gets nailed with a load of No. 2s, and splashes to the water with a satisfying dead-bird thunk. “Shoot it again!” Linda yells, so someone smacks it again and we all watch the pattern splash around the body, a perfect hit. Then we watch as the “dead” duck disappears.
The next few minutes are a game of Spot The Eider, as the dang thing keeps popping its head up everywhere, soaking up another shell, and diving again to reappear in another spot. Eventually Shawn brings the boat out of hiding on the far side of the island, chasing down the duck a couple hundred yards away from where we shot it and delivering it to shore.
And that’s pretty much eider hunting — shoot, then shoot again, then watch. Eiders are the largest ducks in the northern hemisphere, with drakes weighing an average of 4.3 pounds, and their thick down is the best insulator in the natural world. They’re basically a big flying pillow, and the species’ scientific name, Somateria mollissima, means “she of the soft body.” That’s an undeniably sexy description for a duck, but hold an eider in your hand, run your fingers through the feathers and fluff, and admire the striking plumage, and it’s hard to imagine a name more fitting.
Beautiful and practical as it is, all that down might as well be body armor as far as a load of steel is concerned. You need hard-hitting loads fired from dead-reliable shotguns that can take the abuse of hunting in saltwater. I was using a Mossberg 930 with a synthetic finish; a virtual requirement considering the harsh conditions.
We dropped two birds that morning — the hard-to-kill drake and a blinged-out hen that had been banded in Quebec just a few months prior.
The next two days are much of the same: Cold boat rides, grand laughs and adventure, much ammo fired, few birds down, gorgeous scenery, wet Labs, snow-covered parkas, barnacle-covered rocks, falling tides, icy sea spray, sun, rain, sleet, snow, waves, slightly less cold boat rides, frozen toes, chilled fingers, and meals that involve lots of fresh lobster. Add afternoon strolls around the tourist shops on the bay (most of them closed for the off-season) and trips to the docks for more — you guessed it — lobster, and we had the makings of one spectacular hunting experience.
All in all we killed five eiders that week. Among five shooters in three days, that’s nowhere close to a pile of birds, but when you’re thawing out in a local café, eating lobster omelets and reliving the excitement and laughs of the morning as the hunting tales grow taller and grander with every minute, five birds sure seems like plenty.