sea duck hunting
As I mentioned in several blog posts this week, I travelled to Rhode Island on Sunday for two days of sea duck hunting with Captain Brian Rhodes of The Swampers guide service. I’ve travelled to Manitoba twice and all over the South and Midwest to hunt ducks and geese, but despite growing up in New Hampshire and living for the past 12-plus years in New York City, I’d never taken advantage of the awesome sea duck hunting off the coast of the Northeast. Several friends and colleagues have hunted sea ducks from Maine to Massachusetts in the past few years, and all of them have raved about the experience. I was psyched to check out the Rhode Island scene, to say the least.
Sea duck hunting is unlike other types of waterfowling for several reasons. The targeted species and the salinity of the water on which they swim are two obvious ones, but dealing with the tides is a real game-changer. Most any jamoke can kill a few greenheads or Canadas if he keeps at it long enough, but to kill eiders and scoters, a sea duck hunter must know the ways of the sea. The tides and current play as big a role in a sea duck hunt as wind and weather. Neglect them and you face a really bad day at best. At worst a cold, watery demise.
Every day for three straight months Capt. Rhodes rises at 4 a.m. and knows his day can go one of two ways: The birds that he spent the previous afternoon scouting will cooperate, decoying beautifully all morning, and his clients will have a fine time burning through boxes of shells as they squeal with glee with every slap of the trigger. Or, the birds will have mysteriously disappeared overnight, the weather will be horrendous, his boat will experience engine problems and his customers will become horribly seasick as his boat pitches and yaws on an unrelenting sea. That’s one hell of a toss-up. The fact that he willingly subjects himself to this kind of potential misfortune every day of the season earns him a ton of respect in my book.
In addition to Rhodes (left), I hunted with two of his fellow Avery Outdoors pro-staffers. Bryn Witmire (center) is from central Pennsylvania and specializes in Canada goose hunting. Mike Bard hails from a small town west of Syracuse, NY, where he runs Game Hogg Hunt Club and guides for diver ducks on Lake Ontario, Oneida Lake and the Finger Lakes.
Avery’s year-old Buck Brush camo pattern
We were all decked out in gear featuring Avery’s year-old Buck Brush camo pattern. “A woodsy pattern in the ocean?” you ask? Well, obviously, there wasn’t any brush to blend into, but it did break up our outline against the rocks we’d set up near, and it helped us blend in with the drab color of Brian’s TDB duck boat. Anyway, sea ducks are not remotely as wary as freshwater waterfowl. In fact, we sat no more than 20 feet from the decoys without ever pulling the blind up over the boat. Sure, some birds would peel away as they approached if someone made a sudden move. But there were plenty of birds that came cruising into the spread without a care in the world.
Maiden voyage of the Mojo Eider
I’m proud to say that I was present for the maiden voyage of the Mojo Eider. Rhodes’ brother had taken a Mojo Mallard decoy and painted it to look like the common sea duck. Then he affixed it to a 40-inch length of PVC pipe, which he had stuck in the end of an old foam lobster trap buoy. With a couple of weights attached to the bottom of the buoy to keep it balanced, the Mojo Eider got busy pulling birds into our spread even before the start of legal shooting time.
Dekes on dropper lines
The rest of Rhodes’ spread comprises two or three dozen-decoy lines of both drake and hen eiders. Weights are tied to either end of the main line to keep it under the surface, and a dozen dekes on dropper lines are clipped to–and spread out along–the main line.
Beaver Tail Light
The first morning we hunted north of Beaver Tail Light between the towns of Jamestown and Newport, two of the oldest old-money towns in all of New England.
Duck Hunting Real Estate
We hunted within sight of some primo real estate, most of which are merely summer homes.
A successful duck hunt
This drake eider absorbed a load of No. 2 shot from my shotgun moments after the start of shooting time on Day 1. It was my first sea duck and the last bird we’d bring to the boat that day.
Benefits of a Full Choke
Eiders are remarkably tough birds, which is why Rhodes stresses using a full choke. Either the bird will take a big dose of pellets or it will likely escape unharmed. Their feathers and down are like armor, and Rhodes says that sometimes he’ll pick up a dead bird and shot that failed to penetrate will literally fall out of the feathers. The coloration on a drake eider is quite impressive. Mature drakes have a green hue on their heads and a light rose color on their breasts. Eiders drink through the yellow fleshy patches on either side of the beak, which act as filters for the salt.
Point Judith duck hunting
The birds had stopped flying by 9:30, so we went back to the launch and headed into town for breakfast. After eating, we drove down to Point Judith, the southern-most point in the Ocean State, to check on a tip from one of Rhodes’ buddies. Sure enough, there were a ton of birds tucked up against the center break wall south of the port, but the wind wasn’t right for going after them right then, so we decided that’s where we’d hunt on Day 2.
We launched in the dark at 5:30 a.m…
…And motored through the quiet port out into the ocean. As we made our way past the docked fishing boats we spotted two strobes in the water and the smell of diesel fuel was strong. We learned later that a 30-foot boat hauling an unfathomable 10,000 pounds of herring had sunk there the day before. Talk about a bad day.
The Eastern Horizon
With the decoys set and the sun peeking over the eastern horizon we readied ourselves for the morning flight.
Shooting a flock of eiders
And fly they did. For 30 to 45 minutes after the start of legal shooting time the sky was filled with flock after flock of eiders. The shooting and reloading was non-stop. Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming, and with the challenge of trying to time my shot with the crests and troughs of the 3-foot waves, I missed far more birds that I hit.
A handsome drake
But we did end up with 9 birds in all, including this handsome drake.
Rhodes’ Lab Bella
Rhodes’ Lab Bella made some awesome retrieves over the course of the morning, swimming 40 and 50 yards through the chop to grab a downed bird. She also gave us a scare on one retrieve when she got tangled in a decoy line. But we motored over to her and hauled her aboard, and within minutes she was diving into the water again to retrieve another duck.
Waterfowler Brian Rhodes
I couldn’t have asked for more from my first sea duck hunt. Brian Rhodes is a die-hard waterfowler, a skilled captain, a true professional and a hell of a nice guy. To book your Rhode Island sea duck adventure, visit his web site and drop him a line. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
OL travels to Rhode Island for a dose of salty waterfowling.