At best, sea duck hunting is rough sport. But at this time of year, getting to offshore gunning grounds and back can be chancy business, at best. While painting a sea duck-hunting scene recently, I visualized the dangers attendant to late-season “birdin’,” as Down Easters would say.
In painting the dawn sky, I thought about the risks of running a boat loaded with gunning gear across a bay lit only by a sliver of moon and a sprinkling of stars. “You have to be half crazy,” I thought, picturing hunters squinting into deep-freeze darkness while water running from the corners of their eyes froze on wind-chilled cheeks.
It matters not that a sea duck hunter may know the name and location of every rock and ledge in a bay or reach; winds and tides have a way of moving things, if you know what I mean. So do men: Recently, my hunting partner Al Mitchell encountered an unfamiliar object while running a familiar course to an offshore ledge.
“It was just getting light and I was cruising along at about half-throttle,” said the avid sea duck hunter who was born and raised in Southwest Harbor. “The windshield was frosty so I was peeking over it. All of a sudden I saw what looked like a row of stakes in the water dead ahead. I cut the engine and coasted up to an aquaculture pen someone had anchored in midchannel. The pen’s frame was sticking out of the water. If I’d run into it I could’ve been in a hell of a mess.” Small boats or big ships, someone has to stand watch.
While mixing olive drab for the boat in the painting, I recalled sea duck-hunting disasters that resulted from unseaworthy watercraft. Personally, I’ve said prayers while watching three men head offshore in a flimsy 14-footer loaded with gear and saddled with a 10-horse outboard. Seas build in a hurry when winds and tides engage in their endless arguments, and there’s nothing more sobering than wondering if you have enough boat to bring you home. Life jackets? In 40-degree water they only prolong the agony.
Let’s face it, one wave breaking over the bow can start a 14-foot boat wallowing. The next wave will swamp it. Aside from that, a 10-horse motor isn’t enough to hold the bow into the teeth of what coastal fishermen call a “good breeze.”
Simply put, the cardinal rule of sea duck hunting is bring enough boat. Well do I remember the muscle-knotting-cold morning when Al Mitchell, Jerry Ramsdell and I were on a ledge in Blue Hill Bay. A roaring northwest wind had chilled the 0-degree temperature down to about 35-below, the ice-glazed decoys were rolling over and the entire ledge was encased in frozen spray, not to mention us. Even eider ducks know enough to raft and keep warm in that kind of weather. Consequently, nothing flew. Allowing that at least we weren’t bothered by black flies, we soon took up the decoys, pointed the bow into 3-foot, white-capped seas, and began the two-mile run to the landing. Thankfully, Al brought enough boat – plenty of bow, beam and depth powered by a 35-horse motor – to bring us back safely. Even at that, the boat labored under the weight of slush-ice and freezing spray.
In painting the rig of decoys I was reminded of the importance of sound lines, stout snaps and swivels and anchors that hold. After getting situated on a ledge, there’s nothing more aggravating than watching a decoy – worse yet, the whole rig – being whisked away by wind and tide.
You may know that “ledge hopping” is not an exercise that would be appreciated by a nervous person. I thought about that while painting the hunters into the scene. More often than not, boarding a ledge means crawling over the side or off the bow of a bobbing boat to foot-feel your way onto rocks and granite slabs greasy with rockweed; all the while realizing that between the boat and the ledge, there may be more than enough water to float your hat. Considering that such scenes usually are played in predawn darkness, the adage, “Look before you leap,” takes on special meaning.
A word about dogs: Diligence is imperative to working a retriever off a ledge. In most situations, it’s wise to lift or at least assist the dog out of the boat. A dog trying to leap from a frosty seat or bow deck can easily slip and fall, thrashing and flailing, onto angular granite that doesn’t give an inch. Holding your breath won’t help a bit.
Equally important is choosing a place where a retriever can enter and leave the water easily. Unfortunately, few offshore ledges offer that opportunity. Lugging 5-pound eider ducks onto a steep, barnacle-encrusted ledge is strenuous work for the most well-conditioned retriever, not to mention the chafing of feet and pads. Like a dedicated athlete, a retriever worth its collar has the heart to play through pain. A retriever’s master, however, must have the heart to know when to take his dog out of the game. Most important, always bring fresh water for the dog.
For the most part, the sensible way to fetch downed sea ducks is by boat. But that’s not without risk, either, which I was reminded of while painting a flock of eiders scaling on set wings. Usually, one hunter hurriedly casts off to fetch downed ducks, which disappear quickly in a choppy sea.
Keep in mind, the unsure footing of a frosted or snow-filled boat is compounded by the action of wind and water. Consequently, a hunter leaning over the side can be toppled overboard in a heartbeat if the bow is suddenly slapped by wind or wave. Retrieving from a boat, therefore, is done easiest and safest by two men: one to handle the boat, the other to handle the ducks. Regarding the latter, a landing net or boat hook is helpful.
At best, sea duck hunting is rough sport. But late-season hunting can be pure punishment – and dangerous. Maine’s sea duck season continues through Jan. 20. Be careful.
Tom Hennessey’s column can be accessed on the BDN internet page at: www.bangornews.com.