By Bill Buckley
Chasing sea ducks along the coast of New England isn’t your typical waterfowl hunt. Adventure seekers come here in search of long-tailed ducks, common eiders, Atlantic brant, and three species of scoters. But wise hunters know that the elements play a major role in the experience, perhaps more than in any other type of waterfowling, and that safety should always be a paramount concern. Here are some things to keep in mind if one of these amazing hunts is on your bucket list.
“Wind is the number-one factor in planning a hunt,” says Captain Ruben Perez, owner of East Coast Guide Service. “Rough seas can be extremely dangerous. On a relatively calm day, I might hunt 15 miles out in the open ocean for long-tailed ducks or scoters, but I’ll head for protected bays if high winds are in the forecast. The weather rules every decision I make—even what boats I use and how many decoys I set.”
“Where I hunt, primarily in Cape Cod Bay and Rhode Island Sound, tides rise or fall 12 feet every six hours,” Perez explains. “Not only do I have to keep sea levels in mind to reach where I want to hunt, I also have to anticipate what the water level will be hours later. In funnel areas, tides can flow like a river, and if you anchor too close to shore, your boat and decoys may not hold.
I prefer to hunt out of layout boats, but strong tidal currents can render them unsafe. And if you hunt with a dog you have to pay particular attention to the tides, waves, and currents.”
Sea ducks typically spend their nights out on the open ocean, then fly to feeding areas closer to shore, where they key in on mussels and crustaceans. Scoters and long-tailed ducks like to feed in open water, with longtails also preferring deeper channels. Eiders are less particular and are often found feeding anywhere from deep waters to right up on the beaches.
“I hunt open-water traffic areas if possible, where I don’t have to target individual species and can offer clients lots of diversity,” Perez says. “But on windy days I hit food sources in protected bays. Sea ducks swallow mussels whole, keying in on mussels the size of your thumbnail. They’ll feed hard in the same area, then shift to another area once the mussels get too big. Always pay attention to shifting food sources as well as areas each species prefers.”
Given the unpredictable weather and potential rough seas, Perez recommends boats over 20 feet. He uses a 26-footer, and while he’ll hunt out of the big boat when the wind dictates it, he says layout boats are much more effective. Using two layouts at a time and rotating four hunters, each client has good opportunities to pick out prime specimens.
Because sea ducks fly low over wide expanses of water, highly visible decoys work best. “Big, realistic, contrasty decoys get the job done,” Perez says. “Sea ducks are very species specific, so if I put out two or three species of decoys, I separate them. Which decoys work best depends on location. In Maine, there are more eiders than anything, although there will be scoters and longtails early on. South of Rhode Island you’ll see very few eiders, so I stick with scoter and longtail rigs.”
Like most big-water hunters, Perez uses long lines, typically with 15 decoys on each line. Since the birds often land outside the rig, he places the decoys tight to his hunters to ensure close shots. Each decoy attaches to the main line with a two- to three-foot drop line. “Usually one line of decoys is plenty,” Perez says. “The more you set, the farther away the decoys—and shots—will be. Also, as a safety precaution, if a squall suddenly appears, having to pull in a big spread wastes precious time.”
Sea ducks are deceptively fast and tough. Perez recommends 3-inch 12-gauge loads of steel 2s with a modified choke. It’s plenty of knockdown power if you can get the birds in close.