Shots erupt from the second boat in our party when a single stools to their rig. We can’t be sure if Mike Panos, Paul Psak, or Joe DeMartino did the shooting. They are out of sight, tucked along the bank a couple of hundred yards up the creek. I’m betting DeMartino was the triggerman. The bird flew off.
After the early flurry of activity, the morning turns quiet. Few brant are about. At least near us. There is a cloud of black dots alternately dropping and lifting on the far side of the bay.
"Once you find out where the brant are going for food, you’ve pretty much got it licked,” Everson says. “I thought for sure they’d be in here today. But from what I’m seeing, they’re going way up the bay on the other shore, or behind us, near the bridge.”
This is my first experience with brant. And there are few more likely places to find them than the New Jersey coast. The limit is two per man. If the birds show up and our shooting remains steady, I’m figuring we’ll be out of here by nine o’clock, unless we hang around and wait out the black ducks, which sounds like a good idea to me.
We are set up in a quiet spot in the Great Bay Wildlife Management Area. We see only one other boat on this chilly 32-degree morning. And the operator was likely a fisherman.
Brant number two arrives. It’s Everson’s turn. And he, too, makes this exercise look easy. Our boat is two for two. And then a funny thing happens—my gun barrel develops a horrific bend. I go zero for six on consecutive shots. The brant have turned into air show acrobats. Humble pie is now on the menu. Everson takes extreme delight in assuming the role of server.
“Like I said,” Everson snickers, “just wait.”
So now I’m trying to figure out what has gone wrong. If personal shooting history means anything, I’m probably way behind these birds. But that first one was a snap.
“They can be tricky,” Everson says. “I tell people about hunting brant, and they always look at me like ‘How hard can that be?’ Unless you’ve tried it, it’s not as easy as it looks. They’re usually moving faster than you think they are.”
The next morning, we are joined by DeMartino and two other relative newcomers to the brant world, Steiner optics gurus Sven Harms and Frank Devlin, who has no problem as the first man up. One shot, one bird. I chuckle to myself. And then proceed to miss, and miss again.
Everson is beside himself with delight. The sea hay attached as camouflage to the boat blind side panel riffles in the breeze of his laughter. But he has seen this frustration before, all over this marsh, territory where he used to run 100 traps a day before school when he was a teenager. He knows his way around this neighborhood. And he knows brant.
Harms benefits from watching the early shooting displays. At least with his first bird. From then on, for all of us, it’s either feast or famine.
Shotshells may be at a premium by the end of the morning. As the shoot unfolds, it becomes clear that this venue is a contradiction between old and new—or perhaps a melding of the two. The Seaport Museum, which heralds the area’s long seafaring heritage, is within sight, as are the neon lights of Atlantic City’s gaming establishments. I’m told there are no more buildable lots in the area, and smaller houses are selling for $350,000 and up. Tear-downs on nearby Long Beach Island go for half a million dollars. Yet here we sit, shooting at the odd brant and calling to black ducks as waterfowlers did a hundred years ago.
“You’ve heard of Harry Shourds, the decoy carver?” Everson asks. “He lived here in Tuckerton, and he’s pretty famous. He may have hunted exactly where we are right now.”
Somehow that makes me feel better. As great a carver as Harry might have been, I’m figuring he probably missed a brant once in a while, too.