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Jersey shore: the garden state's coastal marshes and open ocean offer awesome public opportunities.

THE SCARLET DAWN BROKE AS A FLOCK OF ATLANTIC brant swept over us as we sat hidden in the bayberry bushes, the receding tide lapping at our feet. The brant wheeled sharply right and settled a tantalizing 80 yards from our decoys. We had taken a chance this morning by hunting puddlers on a tidal pond because the predicted high winds made hunting scoters from layout boats too risky.

I was in New Jersey, better known for organized crime, casinos, muscle-bound ne'er-do-wells at the Shore and urban sprawl. Little is known of the excellent hunting found on Jersey's endless miles of coastal marsh, virtually all of which is open to the public. "We hunt nearly 70 miles of coastal marshes from just south of New York City to well below Atlantic City, and it's all great waterfowling," said guide Brian LaFay of Reedy Creek Outfitters. Indeed, New Jersey's coast is famous for black ducks, Atlantic brant, sea ducks, puddlers and now ubiquitous flocks of Canada geese. You just need to know where to find them.

We headed out on a large boat with Joe Vanderweid and LaFay's black Lab, twisting and turning through the marsh. Arriving at our destination, we left the boat and cut through several groves of bayberrys, then walked around the large pond we were to hunt. LaFay told me to "travel light" the night before, as we had to slog through the marsh to get to our location. A small bag, box of shells, calls and shotgun in an Avery case were my earthly possessions as we left the boat. Although in the middle of a vast marsh, the illuminated hotels and casinos of Atlantic City were in plain sight, making it all seem quite surreal.

"I scouted this last night, and there were lots of gadwall and mallards against the far shore," LaFay said, as we trudged along through the ankle-deep water. We set up with the easterly wind and sun at our backs, ideal for normal conditions.

Sometimes a plan comes together, as it did two years earlier when LaFay and I bagged a near limit of teal and a couple of black ducks, but today was different. It was unseasonably warm for mid-December, and the predicted 25 mph winds would have brought in decoying groups of brant, mallards, gadwall, teal and maybe even wary blacks. But the morning remained calm, and we ended up with a few hours of bird watching.

SANDY'S WASH-OUT

"Hurricane Sandy changed lots of things," LaFay said. "Of course, many people were displaced from their homes, entire towns almost washed away; it was a terrible storm." We all watched New York City's subways flood, and later sew images of New Jersey coastal towns that had become battered disaster areas. But what affect did Sandy have on the hunting?

"Traditionally, where we are hunting just off Barnegat Bay, is puddle duck territory," LaFay said. "When Sandy came up the coast, the puddle ducks all headed about 30 miles inland. The storm pushed about six feet of salt water over the marsh right where we are standing.

"Look here," he said, pointing to a wisp of dried grass hung on a bayberry bush. "That's marsh hay that was picked up as the storm surge washed over this area. The water was that high! How the eel grass and sea lettuce the brant eat survived, we still don't know, but brant typically aren't here, they're out playing around the channels and open bay waters. The marsh is very resistant to change, so in another year or so it will likely rebound into what it was before Sandy."

Old paintings and sketches of wild-fowling along the Atlantic show long strings of birds on the horizon, most likely brant. They feast on eel grass submerged in many feet of water at high tide, congregating to feed as the ocean recedes. On this day, the brant seemed happy to sit and tantalize us with the hope of a shot when they flushed.

I first learned of the action of the tide during my military service at Fort Myer, Va. Advised of the duck hunting prospects at nearby Fort Belvoir on the Potomac, I set my decoys the night before opening day, and when I arrived was surprised to see them all sitting high and dry on a mud flat. Being an Illinois boy who hunted the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, I thought they had opened the dam to control the water flow. Then strangely, the water came back up. Later that day, the Fort's game warden gave me a fast study about tides. The rise and fall of sea water widely affects every inch of the tributaries that flow inland for miles. Sandy struck on a rising tide, making her all the more damaging. Although much is still unsettled and many are without their homes, it seems the ducks, geese and brant will find a way as Mother Nature heals the marshes and wetlands.

EYE-LEVEL DIVERS

The next day turned cold and clear with a strong wind, and LaFay laid out a plan to put us on the birds. Each boat carried a layout rig. These pumpkin seeds are made to ride just above water level, blending with the sea. LaFay carried a double layout boat, and deployed me in the single about a half-mile away from the two-man rig.

Guide Jay Andrews untied the last of the lashing that held the boat tightly to the forward portion of the mother ship and slid it onto the choppy water. I jumped in while he held it tight to the boat, then like the famous Nantucket sleigh ride of whaling days, dragged me to the prime location.

My back was square to the wind, the majority of my shots would be right in front. One flight of brant swept by in range, but I wasn't able to get a shot off. Earlier I had tried a strong left-to-right shot, and ended up with a good-sized zinger on my left bicep, trying to shoot left-handed.

With my layout boat secured, Andrews put out about 18 oversized bufflehead decoys, and pulled away several hundred yards.

The buffleheads didn't wait long. Layout hunting is incredibly fun, as the ducks have no idea you are there until you rise to shoot at eye level as they decoy. I've hunted from a sink box, or battery as they were often called, on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec where this style of hunting remains legal, and hunting from a layout boat is very similar. The sink boxes many use on the St. Lawrence are sit down-style, so that you shoot from the standing position. Because of their construction, layout-boats necessitate shooting from the sitting position, and for a right-handed shot, unless you are very quick and agile, which I am not, it is almost impossible to swing on a bird on your right side. Andrews positioned the decoy rig so that the ducks favored the left.

As the morning progressed, the wind also increased, and the cold water began to hit my head and neck, prompting me to raise the little canvas curtain behind *the cockpit to keep the spray off. Each time I connected with a buffy, I called Andrews who headed out to retrieve the dead bird. When hunting sea ducks and divers it is necessary to ensure that they are dead as they will dive and escape retrieval. Virtually all my shots were within 20 yards, hit with a charge of No. 2 Black Cloud or Blind Side, requiring few follow-up shots.

As the morning lingered, the huge raft of buffleheads riding the choppy water well out on Barnegat Bay gathered more and more passing birds, and by about 11 a.m. the skies were empty, and we headed in.

For a wildfowl historian, hunting the marshes of New jersey holds a special joy. The Barnegat Bay sneak boxes were invented here. Polled or rowed, then pushed into the marsh grass along a gut or flight path on the bay shore, with the wind curtain erected and the boat brushed with native marsh grass, it was the perfect blind for the times. Protected from the wind and concealed, the hunter could pass a long cold day in relative comfort while hidden from prying eyes.

Today's hunter, if he scouts and knows where to go can experience hunting on the same scale.

To book a hunt with Brian LaFay at Reedy Creek Outfitters, visit www.rconj.com.

RELATED ARTICLE: JERSEY METRICS

1 750,000 acres of huntable public and.

2 341,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas.

3 One-third of black ducks in the eastern U.S. and two-thirds of brant in North America winter in NJ's marshes and coastal bays.

4 Seven-bird limit on sea ducks, no more than four of which can be scoters (season is 107 days from Sept. 24-Jan. 25.

5 NJ has a September early Canada goose season with a 15-bird daily limit (electronic calls permitted, shotguns can hold up to seven shells and shooting time ends 30 minutes after sunset).
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Author:Taylor, John M.
Publication:Wildfowl
Date:Sep 1, 2013
Words:1517
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