Of Sea Ducks, Labradors And Lobsters

Of Sea Ducks, Labradors And Lobsters

Making the most of a "down east" tradition.

Mention the outdoors in Maine to the contemplative sportsman, and his thoughts likely will turn to grouse and woodcock hunting in early autumn, timeless sporting tales from the books of self-described "Mainiac" Edmund Ware Smith, gear from L. L. Bean, lobster feasts, and the like. Yet the state is also home to one of the great conservation sagas of the modern era, the comeback of sea ducks (most notably, the eider), and no career devoted to sampling and savoring all aspects of the sporting life featuring canine companions would be complete without exposure to this unique type of waterfowling.


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Accordingly, when Linda Powell of Remington Arms invited me on just such a hunt, which was to be co-sponsored by Streamlight, I accepted with eager delight. The trip offered an opportunity to participate in a type of traditional hunting which, like the sea ducks that would be our focus, once seemed destined to become part of a world we had lost. Linda explained that our hosts would be Jeff Orr, regional sales manager for Streamlight; Maine native Mike Albert, who for many years had worked in public relations with Streamlight, and a group of his friends.

Mike's buddies included Bill Brown, the regional DU Director, and a number of hardworking DU volunteers--Grant Brees, Greg Prescott, Wally Martin, Jr., and Shawn Prince, all of whom were Maine residents, devoted waterfowlers, dog lovers, and faithful keepers of the rich tradition of hunting rocky offshore ledges for sea ducks. Our shooting party would consist of Linda, Women in the Outdoors Editor Karen Roop; Rick Van Etten, editor of this publication; Jim Fann, the winner of a special Streamlight sales competition; Mike Albert, Jeff Orr and yours truly.


SEA DUCK CAN BE SCRUMPTIOUS


Thanks no doubt in large measure to their diet, which consists almost exclusively of mussels, sea ducks are often treated with disdain when it comes to culinary considerations. Yet if you think about it for a moment, for many mussels are a delicacy, and rest assured that when properly prepared, so are sea ducks. Our Ducks Unlimited hosts offered us sea ducks prepared in a variety of ways. As someone who has, in company with my wife, written or edited a number of game cookbooks, I tasted their offerings with great interest. They varied from simply palatable to flat-out delicious, with marinated breast pieces which had been wrapped in a bacon strip and charcoal grilled being my favorite among the eider fixin's. As is so often the case with wild game, it's all a matter of proper cleaning, preparation, and cooking, and the hunter is always heartened by the opportunity to eat and enjoy what he shoots.

 

Each year the DU group hosting us rents a house in the quaint harbor town of Stonington, located on Deer Isle in Penobscot Bay, for the duration of the duck season. These men know the local waters and ways of sea ducks intimately, and as our experience would reveal, they take great delight in sharing their passion with others. They provided most of the considerable paraphernalia connected with hunting sea ducks--capacious aluminum boats, hand-made silhouette decoys, safety equipment, and Labrador retrievers.


Linda Powell had shipped several of Remington's unique Model 105 CTi autoloaders, along with plenty of Wingmaster HD ammunition, and since sea duck hunting involves travel to one's destination and setting up during the depths of pre-dawn darkness, the Streamlight headlamps and flashlights provided by Jeff Orr were also welcome accessories.

Our first outing soon made it abundantly obvious that the DU guys, whom we had met the previous evening for a pre-hunt shake, howdy, and get to know one another ritual, could offer more than good gear and sort of unofficial guide service. They were seasoned experts. That suited me just fine, because several times over the years I had read Lawrence Sargent Hall's gripping short story, "The Ledge."

The story, which appears in dozens of anthologies, recounts a sea duck hunt where a boat drifting away from a ledge leaves an adult hunter and his young charges helpless against the deadly advance of the area's dramatic tidal changes. As someone haunted by the tale, I found it comforting to know we were venturing out under the tutelage of tried and true veterans of sea duck hunting.

On the first morning of hunting, our party, with half a dozen shooters, the DU sea duck gurus, and a canine companion in the form of a Lab named Scoter, left the launch area well before daylight. Surprisingly, the boat ride involved no more than four or five miles of travel before we idled up to rock ledges and unloaded. I must confess that the fact our ledge included evergreens, an obvious indication of being well above the highest tide, gave me some comfort.

THE SEA DUCK QUEST: IF YOU WANT


The limit on eiders is fairly liberal, with an understandable emphasis on taking drakes, and there is always the chance of getting the odd shot at other species. For example, on the last day of our hunt I shot an old squaw (politically correct types now give them another name, but as my grandpa Joe used to say, "I disremember it"). The experience is one so dramatically different from standard waterfowling that every devoted duck man owes himself a trip Down East. By all means take your dog along, but you would be well advised to hunt with an experienced outfitter or at least with someone with extensive local knowledg

e. It is a potentially dangerous, demanding type of hunting, not one where solo tyros dare tread.

 

We deployed along the exposed rocks, making no real effort to hide. As our guides explained, the ducks focused exclusively on the strings of decoys and would, if the spirit moved them, come within range even though, to me, it seemed like we were so many camo-clad sore thumbs perched atop the ledge. Speaking of decoys, they were an ingenious design which one of the DU fellows had made and painted. In essence, they consisted of silhouettes cut from plywood then painted in appropriate colors. Equipped with a base to keep them upright and linked by cord, they took up surprisingly little room in the boat and could be set and picked up with amazing ease.

Well before shooting light we could see and hear ducks. They spend the night well out at sea then fly in with the dawn to dine on mussels. As the eastern horizon turned from night to light, you could see one wave after another of ducks in the distance. For the most part they flew just off the surface, occasionally rising in aerial undulations as they looked for signs of other ducks feeding.

We had been warned that eiders are tough in the extreme and that their speed of flight can be distinctly misleading. Thanks to their distinctive black and white plumage, the males are easy to distinguish, and our guides urged us to limit our shots to them even though the regulations allowed us a female apiece. When the first group of ducks came within range, Rick and I fired simultaneously at a big drake and it tumbled to the water, only to emerge, dive, and emerge again as our hosts yelled, "Shoot him again!"

Over the coming hours and days it would become obvious why, as more often than not a downed duck took further shots before Scoter could be released to take care of retrieving duties. There was another aspect of the shooting experience that was as humbling as it was revealing. Honesty compels me to admit that the size of the ducks, the fact that they readily came within 30 yards, and their closeness to the water made them seem the simplest of targets. Moreover, hitting the first drake I shot at reinforced that misplaced optimism. They may have seemed low and slow, but rest assured the latter was an optical illusion.

An hour into the first morning a drake ran the gauntlet of shooters unscathed. Linda and Karen Roop only shot one time each, but I'm pretty sure the rest of us emptied our guns. I know I did, and the fact that you can see your shot string hitting the water--each time well behind the target--tells you just how fast sea ducks can fly. The drake did not so much as lose a feather, and having survived he left us behind, intent on pursuing urgent business elsewhere. If ever a dog can show a look of disdain somewhere on the scale between dismay and outright disgust, Scoter bore such an expression in the aftermath of this particular display of wingshooting ineptitude.

THE LEDGE" AND MAINE'S LEGACY OF


Everyone who contemplates a Maine sea duck hunt or, for that matter, anyone who enjoys a sporting story well told, should read Lawrence Sargent Hall's "The Ledge." Hall, a longtime English professor at Maine's Bowdoin College, weaves a masterful tale and leaves no doubt that he had an intimate knowledge of the varied faces of sea duck hunting-tactics, techniques, allure, and danger. The piece, which originally appeared in The Hudson Review in 1959, won the O. Henry Award for that year's best short story. It has since appeared in many anthologies and in 2006 was adapted as an acclaimed play. In addition, those interested in delving deeply into the lure and lore of Maine hunting, fishing, and sporting folkways should read at least one or two of Edmund Ware Smith's many books. They include For Maine Only, Tall Tales and Short, A Tomato Can Chronicle, A Treasury of the Maine Woods, Up River and Down: Stories from the Main Woods, and three collections of the marvelous misdeeds to Jeff Coongate, an endearing poacher with an earthy philosophical bent (The One-Eyed Poacher of Privilege, The One-Eyed Poacher and the Maine Woods, and The Further Adventures of the One-Eyed Poacher).

 

Scoter's owner, retired veterinarian Grant Brees, just grinned knowingly, while one or two of the other guys jokingly muttered, "I told you so." Fortunately, things got better, and over the next couple of hours we had several flights come close enough for shots.

Ducks fell and Scoter was able to utilize his unerring retrieving skills to good advantage.

I even lucked up and sent a solitary old squaw tumbling, then quietly reveled in the mixed praise from one of the DU guides: "Finally, I've got a shooter."

That particular duck would be the sole example of a species other than common eiders we would kill, and almost immediately after Scoter retrieved it we had a situation that caused everyone in the party considerable anxiety. Scoter made a longish swim to retrieve a big drake eider in fine fashion, even though the direct route involved passage through not one but two strings of decoys. However, on the return trip with the duck, Scoter, undoubtedly the most diminutive Lab I've ever seen, encountered problems.

Hung up in the cord connecting the decoys, the dog struggled valiantly but in vain to get through and continue landwards.

Images of the dog drowning with a duck still held firmly in his mouth flashed through my mind, and since folks infinitely more knowledgeable than me evinced concern, the danger was clearly all too real. Once of the DU party raced to crank up a boat, but Scoter's master, showing the kind of understanding which makes for a timeless partnership between man and dog, walked to a different position and beckoned the dog from there.

That took Scoter away from the impeding decoy string and safely to shore with the big eider. There was a collective sigh of relief and spontaneous applause as well as ringing verbal praise in the form of comments such as "Good dog!" and "What a retrieve!"

By mid-morning the first day's hunt was over. We were short of our collective limits but had a respectable number of ducks to show as we watched string after string of eiders fly back to the open sea to spend the day digesting their morning's meal of mussels. It was a truly impressive sight, and thoughts of more of the same over the next two days, with a steak-and-lobster feast and other fine eating in between, buoyed our collective spirits on the trip back to the Stonington docks.

As it turned out, we only hunted one of those two days. Driving rain, with winds strong enough to make any travel in a small boat perilous, led to cancellation of the second day's hunt, but the joys of fine camaraderie coupled with an opportunity to do some shopping in the area (a massive barn filled with tens of thousands of books was of particular appeal to this hopelessly addicted bibliophile) greatly reduced our disappointment.

THE SAGA OFTHE EIDER


Although not nearly so well known or widely publicized, the comeback saga of the common eider in Maine ranks right alongside such ballyhooed conservation success stories as those associated with the white-tailed deer and wild turkey. A century ago, as a result of market hunting, over-shooting, and a dearth of game laws, there were literally a mere handful of nesting common eiders left along the extensive Down East coastline. Today, according to a member of our host DU group who is a state wildlife biologist, that number has risen to 25,000 nesting pairs and continues to climb. Maine has become the premier hunting destination for the common eider, and careful attention to management details mean today's sportsmen can still experience a cherished tradition from generations ago and do so with every expectation of action.

 

Action on the final morning of the hunt was brisk, although for every flight of sea ducks which came within range there were scores of others, lifting and lowering on the horizon like so many waves on an oscillator, passing tantalizing out of range. Our collective shooting improved, although by hunt's end it was all too obvious that we needed every bit of the punch delivered by the Wingmaster HD ammo.

Yet we could all return to our various homes secure in the comfort of knowing several things--for a couple of days we had been privileged to see some exceptional dog work and we had enjoyed the company of a congenial bunch of guys who love the waterfowling experience while epitomizing the conscience of committed conservationists at its best. Most of all, we had briefly been part of an enduring and endearing Down East hunting tradition.

Editor's note
: Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who has written or edited more than 30 books. For more information on the man and his books, or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.

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