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Duck hunting fatal attraction.

January has been cruel to duck hunters. Two recently drowned in high winds and brutal cold at the mouth of the Westport River, where they set out for sea ducks in an undersized 15-foot aluminum skiff out of the Horseneck Beach boat ramp. Their bodies were found washed ashore.

Miraculously, a third companion survived submersion and hypothermia.

Just a week before, a Brown University student drowned out of Fairhaven while hunting sea ducks from his small, lightweight kayak, an increasingly popular, close-to-shore sea vessel which has of late been used to great effect mostly by striper fly fishermen.

For those who have never hunted eiders, scoters, and oldsquaws, they are, with a few exceptions, birds of winter -- stout flyers eminently capable of negotiating heavy winds and withstanding brutal cold at sea.

Their heavy layers of down keep them perfectly warm, but can also make them very tough to bring down with marginal shots or inadequate loads.

Being divers, their legs are placed far back under their bodies. Proportionally heavy, they need to patter a significant distance, running awkwardly on the surface before taking off. This distinctive behavior is much different from the instantaneous, explosive takeoffs of our dabbling puddle ducks of lakes and ponds.

Lines of sea ducks can be seen now flying parallel to shore as they move from feeding grounds to resting waters, especially early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and sometimes during the day in inclement weather.

Hunters seeking them because of their huge populations and typically high-volume shooting opportunities generally go out in small boats, setting out decoys through the end of January.

Some without boats will less effectively hide among rocks on shorelines and jetties, where sea ducks also are known to fly. Normally, those hunters will select a spot with the wind blowing onshore so downed birds will drift to them. A long-handled net and waders are essential if one doesn't have a good retriever.

As sea ducks have keen eyesight and excellent color perception, it's critical to be camouflaged, hunker down and not move. Ducks can differentiate a human silhouette from a great distance and veer out of shooting range.

But when hunters remain adequately hidden, the sea ducks can often be lured quite close over the decoys for extraordinarily exciting action. It's a rugged sport. Unfortunately, our winter sea shows little mercy to those who underestimate its dangers.

I spoke yesterday with Adam Smith, the dean of Massachusetts sea duck hunting guides, to get his take on the tragedy.

"The day they drowned, I listened to the weather and decided not to go out,'' Smith said, making it only the second day of the season he stayed on shore. "It was just 8 degrees. The water was only about 35 Fahrenheit and had a 3-foot chop. And there were gale warnings that later changed to storm warnings. You don't want to take a chance under those conditions. No sea duck hunter should ever go out without paying careful attention to the weather forecasts.''

To the surprise of many, one of the deceased was a veteran outdoorsman who ran the Monster Shark Tournament on Martha's Vineyard. He might have been persuaded to venture out because sea ducks tend to move around significantly in very cold and windy conditions.

I know I've been out sea duck hunting on calm, warm, actionless days and have seen them just sitting on flat water like painted ducks on a painted ocean. We packed up and moved out early on those days. More than once, I've been told the hunting gets better as conditions get nastier.

Making the situation even more challenging, according to Smith, is the forceful character of the Westport River. Current-wise, Smith said, "it's the second-worst river on the East Coast for boating. At the mouth, it typically runs a very fast 9 miles per hour. The worst river here is the Merrimack, which can send out 15-mile-per-hour currents.''

Sea ducks have much allure, but are notoriously poor table fare. The old joke about cooking a merganser, for example, is a typical critique of their inedibility: "Take a skinned merganser. Nail it to a board. Boil it for three hours in spiced salt water. When finished, throw away the merganser and eat the board.''

Smith disagrees with that criticism. Although sea ducks have a strong, fishy taste, thanks to their diet of mollusks and crustaceans, their breast fillets can be ground and transformed into good sausage, which Smith makes to regale surprisingly delighted guests.

On the whole, Smith judges the duck hunting this year as very good. "There are more black ducks around than I've ever seen.'' And eiders have made a significant comeback, according to Smith, because mussels have had a population resurgence in cleaner waters like Boston Harbor. Seeing an eider south of Cape Cod 25 years ago would have made the newspapers. Today, they're commonly being found all the way down to North Carolina.

You can forget shooting black scoters now. These orange-billed, "butter-nosed,'' jet-black ducks arrive in big numbers around the end of October and stay through the beginning of November. Most then rapidly migrate out of here.

Surf scoters are jet-black ducks with flamboyant white patches on their heads and bills, giving them the nickname "skunk-heads.'' They're stunningly plumaged, and currently present in enormous numbers.

White-winged scoters are also jet-black ducks. They're distinguished by a white tear drop under their eye, and white wing patches that become visible only during flight.

Although they were incredibly abundant, providing high-volume shooting last year, they apparently went somewhere else to feed this year. These behavioral vacillations are what makes Smith's job of guiding such a challenge each year.

Typically, sea ducks migrate here from their northern, inland breeding grounds. They quickly establish a daily behavior pattern, which they consistently follow. Very early every morning, the hungry birds fly in relatively close to shore to feed over the mussel beds. After eating, they fly back out to deeper water where they form rafts, sometimes of enormous size.

If you know their feeding pattern, as Smith does, you can position yourself for great shooting just about every morning of the sea duck season. The key is the presence of healthy mussel beds. If you find them, you'll find sea ducks.

While water fowlers come to Massachusetts from all over the world to hunt now, it's imperative that everyone puts safety first to avoid sea ducks becoming a fatal attraction.

Contact Mark Blazis at
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 14, 2014
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