THE PER­FECT STORM

A rough, open-wa­ter sea duck hunt in Ch­e­sa­peake Bay proves to be an ac­tion­packed ad­ven­ture

Field and Stream - - CAMPFIRE - By Will Brant­ley

ASPRAY OF 35-de­gree salt­wa­ter hits me in the face ev­ery three sec­onds. That’s about the time it takes for Wayne Rad­cliffe to climb a wave, drop into a trough, and begin the next as­cent. He feath­ers the out­board throt­tle and quar­ters the bow as needed, never too much. The guy knows the wa­ter, and for the most part, he keeps us dry. But the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay is choppy to­day, even for Rad­cliffe’s big cen­ter-con­sole fiber­glass boat. “Don’t worry, guys,” he says. “If it was too rough, we wouldn’t be out here.” A rogue wave breaks across the bow and rains upon a pile of scoter de­coys. Rad­cliffe laughs ner­vously. “It’s al­most too rough.”

But this is sea duck­ing, and get­ting out here has long been on my bucket list. I love boats, big wa­ter, long­line de­coys, and divers that come in low and fast. The best hunt­ing for species like scot­ers and long-tailed ducks—the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect name for old­squaws, which is still used by sea duck hunters—takes place a mile or more from shore. Run­ning that far in win­ter, then set­tling into a lay­out boat for the hunt, is dan­ger­ous. Yes­ter­day, the wind blew too hard to risk go­ing out, and the fore­cast is the same for to­mor­row. To­day is our only chance on a three­day trip, and given how rough the Ch­e­sa­peake is un­der a 12-mph north wind, I can see why.

HIS­TORY LES­SON

We’re hunt­ing off Mary­land’s Eastern Shore, a place so steeped in wa­ter­fowl­ing his­tory that some call it the cra­dle of mod­ern water­fowl hunt­ing. In the early 1900s, the Bay area was alive with mar­ket gun­ning and de­coy carv­ing, which is still cel­e­brated here to­day. Among mod­ern hunters, the Eastern Shore is best known for goose hunt­ing, as At­lantic Fly­way Canadas win­ter here by the thou­sands. The coastal duck hunt­ing for species like can­vas­backs, blue­bills, and black ducks can be off the charts, too. Water­fowl hunt­ing is re­li­gion around here, but even among the de­vout fol­low­ers, rel­a­tively few of the area hunters are equipped and will­ing to tar­get off­shore sea ducks.

This far south, on the At­lantic coast, surf scot­ers and long­tails are the pri­mary tar­gets. Hunt­ing reg­u­la­tions for sea ducks are typ­i­cally set in­de­pen­dently of those for other duck species, but be­cause the sport is so spe­cial­ized, hunt­ing ac­counts for very lit­tle sea duck mor­tal­ity. The birds are ed­i­ble—at best. Most sea duck hunters are se­ri­ous wa­ter­fowlers in search of a unique ex­pe­ri­ence and drakes for the wall. When you’re set up prop­erly for these birds in a lay­out boat, there is noth­ing else like it in all of duck hunt­ing.

CHOP, CHOP

We don’t leave un­til it’s light enough to see, and the boat ride takes nearly an hour. Our des­ti­na­tion is as Rad­cliffe promised: Thou­sands of ducks erupt from the open-wa­ter chop, buzzing around us as Rad­cliffe and his buddy loosen the ten­sion straps on his two-

per­son lay­out boat. “You’re go­ing to shoot mostly old­squaw, but ex­pect to see some scot­ers, too,” he says. “They feed on these un­der­wa­ter bars, and this spot has been full of them. You’ll be an­chored in about 10 feet of wa­ter. We’ll be watch­ing from a cou­ple hun­dred yards away.”

The lay­out boat dips and tips nearly 45 de­grees with each wave. I’ve done a lot of lay­out hunt­ing but never in con­di­tions like this. I gin­gerly step into the rig, know­ing there are real prob­lems ahead if I slip. My wife, Michelle, hands me her 870 and climbs into the boat next to me.

“O.K., I’m ter­ri­fied!” she says, grasp­ing my right hand and nestling down into the boat. Rad­cliffe sets three dozen de­coys on long­line rigs 10 yards from the boat.

“You have plenty of shells?” he asks. Ducks are al­ready dip­ping over the spread. We have four boxes of Black Cloud be­tween us, and I nod yes. “Have fun!”

As he mo­tors away, the first flock of old­squaws is com­ing our way.

LEARN­ING CURVE

Michelle and I come up shoot­ing—and we don’t cut a feather from the rock­ing boat on the first flock. More ducks flit by within mere feet of us, but by the time we’re up and on them, they’re 30 yards off and haul­ing tail. We keep shoot­ing and scratch down a cou­ple of ducks, but noth­ing about the dis­play is pretty. And we’ve burned through most of a box of shells.

“O.K.,” I say, “we’ve got to chill out.” Michelle is scowl­ing and thumb­ing shells into her gun with ex­tra force, as if man­han­dling her 870 a bit will ease her frus­tra­tion. “If it’s not feet down in the de­coys at 15 yards, we’re not shoot­ing. It’s too rough out here to hit much else.”

An­other flock of long­tails wings over­head, their melodic whis­tle giv­ing them away just be­fore we see them. We don’t move. A sin­gle drake—a bril­liant black-and-white bird with a long sprig—banks away from the rest and sets his wings over the de­coys. He pays no at­ten­tion to Michelle as she sits up and de­lib­er­ately shoul­ders her gun. “Kill him,” I say. The drake is 2 feet off the wa­ter, glid­ing our way at 15 yards. She fires once, and the duck is dead be­fore it hits the wa­ter. This time, she’s smil­ing as she reloads—and she’s gen­tler about it, too.

Soon, our lim­its begin ad­ding up. Rad­cliffe mo­tors into the spread with a land­ing net, and scoops up ducks be­fore they drift away. “I knew you’d get the hang of it,” he says. “Ev­ery new sea duck hunter starts out shoot­ing at ev­ery­thing in range. That doesn’t work out here. You have to fo­cus on the birds in the de­coys, and let the rest go. Take your time, be­cause you’re go­ing to get plenty of chances.”

An hour and a half later, we climb back into the boat, our two lim­its filled with mostly old­squaw drakes but punc­tu­ated by a hefty drake surf scoter des­tined for the taxi­der­mist. It’s an­other wet, ar­du­ous ride back to shore, and I can still feel the rolling salt­wa­ter un­der me as I walk across the boat-launch park­ing lot. I’ve crossed a trip off my wa­ter­fowl­ing bucket list—though I’d say my itch to hunt sea ducks has only got­ten a lit­tle worse.

Pretty Bird

A drake long-tailed duck is a tro­phy for any se­ri­ous wa­ter­fowler.

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