COLD BAY, ALASKA

Outdoor Life - - NEWS - By john b. snow

Hunt­ing the Aleu­tian Chain for sea ducks and Pa­cific brant— the most de­li­cious game bird on the planet.

a raf­fle prize. The only mur­mur of dis­con­tent was when the young woman who had sold us the raf­fle tick­ets man­aged to win two guns. But her beet-red com­plex­ion and sheep­ish de­meanor when she claimed her sec­ond ri­fle of the night con­vinced the crowd that noth­ing but good for­tune was in her fa­vor. tough bird I was hop­ing for some of that lady’s luck the next morn­ing as I sat on a rocky beach with Wasley’s dog An­nie next to me. The 11-yearold Lab was a duck-hunt­ing vet­eran, and she lay still on the cold stones with her teeth loudly chat­ter­ing as the tide came in, soak­ing her fur. She sounded like a small gas mo­tor as she pressed against my leg, and I wished I had more warmth to of­fer her. She stayed still as her eyes scanned the hori­zon.

I shot one har­lequin duck that morn­ing as it buzzed through the de­coys, a buck­etlist bird for se­ri­ous wa­ter­fowlers and, for its size, prob­a­bly the world’s tough­est feath­ered crea­ture. It skipped three times on the wa­ter af­ter its wings folded, and An­nie made an easy re­trieve. Us­ing a 3½-inch shell stuffed with No. 2 high-den­sity shot would be ab­surd for most birds the size of that small duck— but not for a har­lequin.

By af­ter­noon the wa­ters had calmed down, and we were able to hunt from Wasley’s lay­out boats in the la­goon. This was our first crack at the brant. With a string of sil­hou­ette de­coys trail­ing off the stern, my lit­tle one-man craft looked like a round-bot­tomed soap dish that had been flipped over and painted gray.

I lay back in the boat, shot­gun be­tween my legs, muz­zle to­ward my feet, and waited. The boat rocked in the small waves, and a bit of sea wa­ter sloshed over the sides and down my back, dis­pelling any no­tions I might have had about snooz­ing in the af­ter­noon sun. The de­coys weren’t very re­al­is­tic. They were painted in a style I’d dub nouveau kinder­gartener, but the brant didn’t seem to care. In short order, three flights of the geese came in, and I shot one bird each time for my limit.

Wasley stood be­hind the cen­ter con­sole of his high-prowed boat and mo­tored around to scoop up downed birds with a long-han­dled fish­ing net. The boat’s bat­tered alu­minum hull was the same non­de­script dull green as the eel­grass. Any beauty one might at­tribute to it would have to be based solely on its util­ity as a work­ing craft. Af­ter I shot my three birds, Wasley picked me up and put an­other hunter in my place. Soon, ev­ery­one had his three geese, and we packed up and headed back to shore. prov­ing ground The brant were cer­tainly the stars of the hunt. There were tens of thou­sands of them in the skies around us. They came in to our dekes like hun­gry kids be­ing called for sup­per. And, as I found out, they are about the best-tast­ing game animal I’ve ever eaten. We still tried for sea ducks, but they proved much more dif­fi­cult to bring to hand.

The other star of the show was the shot­gun we had come to shoot—benelli’s next-gen­er­a­tion Su­per Black Ea­gle, the SBE 3. The Benelli guys were ea­ger to test the gun in the harsh­est shoot­ing con­di­tions they could find, and no place is less for­giv­ing than Alaska.

Salt­wa­ter, sand, bar­na­cle-en­crusted rocks—all are the sworn en­emy of shot­guns, par­tic­u­larly semi-au­tos, which will grind to a halt if they aren’t built tough enough. Add to the en­vi­ron­ment hard-fly­ing birds with ar­mor-like feath­ers that act more like winged

ter­mi­na­tors than nor­mal ducks, and you have the mak­ings of a su­perla­tive prov­ing ground for any fowl­ing piece.

My full re­view of the SBE3 ap­peared in the May is­sue, and the shot­gun also per­formed well in our an­nual ri­fle and shot­gun test (June/ July). What struck me most about the new it­er­a­tion of the gun was the im­prove­ments to its han­dling and pointabil­ity. Changes to the stock di­men­sions—a nar­rowed forend and more ver­ti­cal grip chief among them—gave the SBE3 a more nim­ble and lively feel, which can be tough to achieve with a 3 ½-inch gun.

Benelli also im­proved the gun’s re­coilre­duc­tion sys­tem, and made the bolt lockup more re­li­able, so that hav­ing a mis­fire— caus­ing the gun to go click in­stead of bang—is less likely.

Dur­ing the week­long hunt, my shot­gun per­formed ad­mirably, though I did have one cu­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion where a shell I had just fired was torn in half as it was be­ing ejected, with one piece re­main­ing in­side the cham­ber. That jammed the gun and cost me a bird, though I think it was the fault of the ammo rather than any is­sue with the SBE3. flood wa­ters The dif­fi­culty we had in con­nect­ing with sea ducks clearly frus­trated Wasley, who de­cided to take us to one of his fa­vorite spots on the fifth morn­ing. We drove out of town in the dark along a gravel road, which abruptly ter­mi­nated in a river that was flow­ing dark and fast in the head­lights of the old Sub­ur­ban.

Wasley eased the truck into the wa­ter.

I was seated in the front pas­sen­ger seat— lit­er­ally rid­ing shot­gun, with the Benelli be­tween my legs—when I no­ticed wa­ter pool­ing around my feet and ris­ing fast as we bounced along the river’s rocky bot­tom. The wa­ter kept get­ting deeper, and soon our head­lights were half sub­merged though the op­po­site shore was still far off. “The river’s run­ning high,” Wasley said. Sud­denly, I had a sick­en­ing feel­ing in my gut as the truck be­gan to drift side­ways in the cur­rent. With­out speak­ing a word, ev­ery­body in the Sub­ur­ban de­cided to act on the same thought: Aban­don ship.

We piled out of the truck and scram­bled to un­hitch the Zo­diac we were tow­ing, which was now float­ing in the wa­ter—along with the trailer it was at­tached to—and yank­ing the rear end of the truck down­stream.

The truck drifted an­other 20 feet and came to rest. We tried to push it out but it wouldn’t budge. Af­ter a few min­utes of rum­bling and gur­gling in the dark, the mo­tor died. We were well and truly stuck. Wasley had to call his two younger guides to res­cue us. We ended up mak­ing a 40-yard daisy chain with tow straps and used their two trucks to pull the Sub­ur­ban back to the spot where we had en­tered the river.

We at­tached jumper ca­bles to the bat­tery of our wa­ter­logged truck and con­nected them to the bat­tery in one of the res­cue ve­hi­cles. Mirac­u­lously, the mo­tor coughed, turned over, and started. The ex­haust sys­tem dis­gorged wa­ter like a drowned man com­ing back to life, and we got back into our soggy seats and re­turned to town. Need­less to say, Wasley’s honey hole re­mained un­mo­lested, and our luck with sea ducks failed to im­prove.

In the fol­low­ing days, I did man­age to shoot a gor­geous eider drake with the most mag­nif­i­cent plumage I’ve ever seen, as well as an­other har­lequin. Other hunters in the group added some scot­ers

to our col­lec­tive bag. Other than the black brant, the most nu­mer­ous fowl we saw were the em­peror geese that flew around us, though be­cause of their low over­all num­bers, they aren’t le­gal game. mag­i­cal meat The sil­ver lin­ing to our on­go­ing strug­gles was the brant—par­tic­u­larly at meal­times. Eat­ing them changed ev­ery­thing I thought I knew about waterfowl as ta­ble fare. I like a prop­erly pre­pared mal­lard breast as much as the next wild-game gour­mand, but brant are su­pe­rior by an order of mag­ni­tude.

Keep­ing the fat with the legs and breast is key. Mar­i­nate the birds with olive oil and sea­son­ings of your choice—a good steak rub works well. Fire up the grill and get it hot. Sear the meat, turn­ing it quickly and often. Cook it to a rare or medium-rare level of done­ness at the most. And eat it right away, while it is still steam­ing.

The dark meat of the bird, juicy and ten­der, with bits of burnt fat around the edges, was a culi­nary revelation, ri­val­ing the finest meat— wild or oth­er­wise—i’ve ever con­sumed.

As cold left­overs, the meat loses much of its magic. And if you over­cook it, it takes on a liv­er­ish fla­vor in keep­ing with the rep­u­ta­tion that most peo­ple as­so­ciate with sea-go­ing waterfowl. One thing I don’t know is whether brant is as de­li­cious when hunted in Wash­ing­ton, Cal­i­for­nia, or Mex­ico af­ter they mi­grate. I sus­pect not, since their fat re­serves would be de­pleted af­ter their long jour­ney.

So that leaves any bird hunter with a pretty clear choice. If you want to ex­pe­ri­ence some of the best waterfowl hunt­ing in the world—at least as mea­sured by de­gree of ad­ven­ture, num­ber of hard-to-find species you can po­ten­tially shoot, and taste on the plate—then a trek to Cold Bay might be in order. The snow-cov­ered vol­ca­noes, spew­ing steam and smoke, that sur­round the town cre­ate a back­drop that few wing­shoot­ers will ever ex­pe­ri­ence. And an­other thing’s for cer­tain: You won’t be fight­ing any crowds.

from left: a dou­ble-banded pa­cific brant from cold bay; the au­thor with a limit of brant taken from izem­bek la­goon; a har­lequin hen sur­rounded by the type of heavy mag­num shells used to take down the small but tough sea duck.

above left: pluck­ing a brant in prepa­ra­tion for the grill; brant breasts and legs get­ting a quick sear; goose done rare, placed in a bowl and ready to be eaten. below: an­nie, an 11-year-old vet­eran with thou­sands of re­trieves un­der her belt, brings a brant ashore.

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