By John Pollmann
From frozen salt spray and divers on the Atlantic Ocean to airboat rides in tropical temperatures for Pacific Flyway ducks and geese, the following five hunts represent the extreme conditions hunters can find while pursuing waterfowl in North America.
Layout Boats and Diving Ducks on the Great Lakes
Peter Wyckoff started hunting diving ducks in the Great Lakes to extend the number of opportunities during Michigan's waterfowl season. As it turns out, decoying redheads, bluebills, canvasbacks and long-tailed ducks from a layout boat on Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake St. Claire has become his favorite way to hunt ducks.
"The reward doesn't come without some risk," says Wyckoff, who works in Ducks Unlimited's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "You're hunting sometimes two to three miles offshore in three-foot waves from a boat that has most of your body below lake level, and the weather can change for the worse in no time. You can't ignore the danger of it all."
Safety precautions take shape in the form of specially-designed layout boats with cowling that gives precious inches of extra freeboard to keep water out, as well as standard items including life jackets, flares and a tender boat equipped with a marine radio.
"The conditions are extreme, for sure, but there is nothing like the thrill of seeing those divers right off the end of the layout boat. The excitement level is so high," says Wyckoff. "It's an experience like no other."
Body-Booting on the Susquehanna Flats
Expansive beds of submerged wild celery and widgeon grass have long attracted ducks and geese to the Susquehanna Flats on the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay. It is an area steeped in tradition and home to one of the more extreme methods of waterfowl hunting in North America – body booting.
Wearing a survival suit and standing in water anywhere from knee- to chest-deep, decoy carver and long-time body booting enthusiast Charles Jobes says the initial reaction to the experience can be overwhelming.
"There you are, standing behind your stick-up on a tidal flat sometimes a mile or two out in the water and all you can really see are the decoys on the water. It is a humbling experience," says Jobes.
Besides standing in near-freezing water for hours on end, Jobes believes that many hunters struggle with shouldering and swinging their shotguns at decoying mallards, black ducks and Canada geese.
"The survival suits have become less bulky, but the picking up the gun off the rack on the stick-up is different than picking up a gun from the floor of a blind or whatever," says Jobes, who has been body booting for close to 50 years. "Then you have the added resistance created by water pressure; it all makes it more difficult to get on a bird. But it is still just a neat way to hunt. Body booting on the Flats, you'll see and experience stuff like never before."
Late-Season Eiders on the Atlantic
January is not the most opportune time to run a boat out into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Rhode Island, explains Captain Brian Rhodes with the Swampers Guide Service, but if a hunter wants a chance to harvest a prime drake common eider it's the right time and the right place to get it done.
"The hunting conditions are very difficult. The extreme cold and wind and waves and freezing salt water spray – the experience is a real challenge for hunters and it's really hard on gear, but you have to go where the birds want to be," says Rhodes. "There is an excitement to the hunt and a sense of tradition that make it worth all of the effort."
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the hunt, Rhodes says, is actually making a shot on an eider or any of the other diving duck species that visit the rig.
"I always tell people that are planning to hunt out here for the first time to imagine getting on a carnival ride and trying to shoot trap," says Rhodes. "On the ocean, your shooting platform is in constant motion and so are the birds. But there's no place I'd rather hunt ducks. I love it out there."
Mexican Brant and Cinnamon Teal
While cutting his teeth as a hunter in Mississippi, 80-degree weather during the waterfowl season typically meant empty skies and quiet decoy spreads, says Ramsey Russell of Get Ducks wing-shooting adventures, but those warm temperatures are the norm while shooting limits of Pacific black brant geese along the Mexican coastline.
An airboat ride begins a typical morning for the brant hunts, which take place along the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez, where the geese congregate to feed on massive beds of eel grass, their primary food source.
"These birds start their migration up in the Arctic with stops in Alaska and along the Pacific coast, but they may only stop and stay in one area or bay for a day before taking off and moving south," says Russell. "Hunters who target these birds tend to be ‘all in' on brant. They are the textbook example of a die-hard, extreme hunter and are deeply invested in the experience, and they come to Mexico because it is where the geese provide the most consistent hunting opportunities."
In addition to brant, Russell says that this area of Mexico provides hunters the opportunity to bag prime drake specimens of blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal, which are decoyed over freshwater ponds often in the center of large agricultural fields.
"And it can happen all at once," says Russell. "I've seen hunters shoot three times into a mixed flock of teal and drop one of each species. Crazy things happen."
Alaskan King Eiders
Perhaps the most extreme waterfowl hunt in North America takes place on the waters of the Bering Sea, where hunters target hardy king eiders in conditions that border on unbelievable.
"From launching the boats off the beach into big breakers to dealing with the ice that builds on hunters, guns and other gear, this is probably the toughest hunting you can find," explains Charlie Barberini, a guide with Aleutian Island Waterfowlers. "Then on top of that you're trying to shoot a fast-moving duck while bobbing up and down in a small boat; it's not uncommon to shoot a box or more of shells to get one bird."
The hunting heats up in this land of cold, snow and ice off the coast of Alaska when King eiders begin to stage on the open sea, typically starting at the end of December and running through January. Hunts take place along points and reefs where the ducks will fly in to feed on mussels and small crabs.
"This can still be up to a mile off-shore in some places," Barberini says. "There you are, hunting off an island in the middle of the Bering Sea, surrounded by the beauty of Alaska; it is so different than anything else you can experience as a duck hunter."