by Tom Keer
I have read about duck hunting in Mexico and various parts of South America. Some day, I hope to experience that style of hunting. I would love to be in a blind gunning for a dozen different species of ducks in a t-shirt, all the while getting a suntan. Until that day I will have to content myself with early-season sea-duck hunting on Cape Cod - the early season being October.
The common time to sea-duck hunt in New England is exactly as most writers have portrayed it over the years. Men with icy beards hunting eider in the salt water among rocks, ledges and in-shore islands. Retrievers wearing neoprene vests. Maybe a wirehair with ice in its beard. Grayish-white barrels, colored from frost that turn wet when a trigger is pulled.
We hunt sea ducks in the coldest, windiest, snottiest weather, because that is the time they are here. It is the time when the majority of the sea ducks have moved South for the winter, their southern climes being New England. There is an exception to the rule, and eider, surf scoter, whistlers, bufflehead, old squaw (long-tailed ducks) and others start to show up in early October, thereby making early season sea duck hunting very different.
It may be cold in the northern latitudes, cold enough to make the birds migrate to a winter roost. On Cape Cod, the early season coastal waterfowling begins in October and brings with it an average temperature of 53.3 degrees. Sometimes, Indian Summer can turn up the heat by 10 to 15 degrees. There ain't much rain either.
October ranks number three in the least rainy month category in this area, beat out only by June and July. What does that mean? It means by all standards, duck hunting would stink. Warm, dry and windless days is what to expect in October on Cape Cod. So why would anyone want to duck hunt on a blue bird day with no rain and 60-degree temperatures? Because you can shoot several different species while wearing a T-shirt and getting a sun burn. Just like in Mexico and in South America.
Migratory patterns begin earlier and continue later than most folks think. We start to see the first sea ducks arrive in the middle of September. We'll see them while out fishing the fall run for striped bass and bluefish, a sortie that also doubles as a duck hunting scouting mission. These flocks are the front-runners, and every day that passes, a few more show up. By the time the season opens in early October there are big rafts of ducks, and they are all concentrated. They are new to their terrain, and they haven't spread out to explore. As a result, you'll find them concentrated in enormous rafts, all on the dominant tide lines.
When they've recovered from their long flights, they'll start to move into other areas and settle into aggressive feeding patterns. In October, there are still big schools of baitfish around, from menhaden to silversides, sandeels, shrimp and mollusks, like mussels and clams. These big schools make for easy pickings for most sea ducks. When the brant show up in a few months they'll head straight for the eel grass, but that's a different story.
A day for ducks means lots of wind and rain, and on the coast that is true as well. The one difference, though, is that because of the tides, the birds need to move around. Every six and a half hours, an area can go from deep to bone dry and exposed. Add another six and a half hours and it's back to deep. It's an oddity, knowing that the water you're hunting can turn into a sandbar.
As the tides ebb and flood, current seams and depths change. On a dropping tide, a duck doesn't need to work as hard to find a meal. With a twelve-foot tide, the lower the tide the less water the duck has to swim around in to find a meal. And on the dropping tide, the bait is concentrated in that lesser amount of water. A flood tide spreads out the bait and adds depth to the terrain. Because of more water, ducks push into higher reaches, like higher up in coves or estuaries or further up a beach. In the ocean, a blustery, rainy day adds value to the dropping tides.
And if you have a blue bird day, the ducks will still need to move.
Hunting around the changes is a good way to take advantage of a sunny day. Set up around the lower watermarks. In a four-hour spell you'll see the water go from shallow to fully drained back to shallow. During those times you'll see a lot of ducks moving. You'll also see them moving a lot around the top of the tide, right when they're moving from active feeding to roosting. If you set your decoys on the inside of a tidal seam you'll have birds moving out of their roosting spots to their feeding spots regardless of the wind or the rain.
Time of day doesn't matter, but the tide does. You won't even have to fumble around in the pre-dawn hours, and if the tide is right we can get a quick hunt in on a long lunch hour.
Just remember to apply sun screen before those duck hunts.
If you can't hunt south of the equator this year, give early-season sea-duck hunting a try. The bag limits are high by American standards, and you'll have a lot of shooting in a short period of time.