Photo Essay: Hunting Eiders on Opening Day in New England

If you want to chase eiders in New England, you must first pay your dues to the mighty Atlantic

Hunters and a dog on on the New England coastline.
Hunters and a dog on on the New England coastline.Bill Buckley

Weather happens fast on New England’s coast in winter. What starts as a subtle shift in wind direction, a gathering chop on the vast Atlantic Ocean, can soon build into a raging nor’easter. It can happen in a matter of hours. Running the surf in these conditions is out of the question, and even hopping across protected bays, can get dangerous.

Sea duck hunters live in a world of wind, waves, and rocks, and they know they’re at the mercy of the ocean. That’s why they obsessively check tide tables, sea height, wind direction, and wind speed. They design their hunts to make sure they can safely boat to the spot where they glassed birds the night before, and return home when the hunt is over.

Here, the ocean dictates where you can hunt—and even whether you can hunt at all. If you don’t have a Plan B, C, and D, you might find yourself sitting at the boat ramp at first light, watching roiling waves through a rain-smattered windshield, searching your phone for the nearest breakfast joint.

Hank Garvey’s original plan for the Massachusetts sea duck opener was to hunt out of layout boats around offshore shoals that hold eiders, scoters, and long-tailed ducks. But he quickly abandoned that idea when faced with 35 mph winds and raging seas bearing down on the coast. Even with Garvey’s stout 17-foot Pacific boat, we had to stay within only the most sheltered bays. For the first two days, the hunting was hit and miss, scratching down a few birds in second-tier locations where it was calm enough to safely set out decoys and hunt from shore.

But on the third morning, when the storm and sea swells finally died down, the action picked up. The ducks came in low and fast and unwavering. As Garvey’s veteran hunting buddy observed, “One good hunt out of three days? That sounds about right.”

Waves splashing against rocks on the New England coastline.

Surf and Turf

Waves of a nor’easter pound a jetty along the Massachussetts coastline. Like all true wilderness, the north Atlantic commands respect and caution. Conditions like this—with 35 mph winds and 10-foot seas—are too dangerous to hunt in. The sea ducks that thrive in this rugged environment command respect, too. These hardy birds migrate on ocean winds from northern Maine and the Canadian Atlantic coast to winter in Massachusetts south to the Chesapeake Bay.Bill Buckley
An eider sea duck flying into a decoy spread.

Tough Sledding

A juvenile drake eider hovers over a wooden decoy sled. These are cheap to make, easy to stack, and stand out well on the water. They’re an integral part of the hunting tradition.Bill Buckley
Two hunters in a duck boat hunting eider.

Riding the Storm Out

Garvey and his son Hank (or “Little Hank”) head out at daybreak. Most duck hunters like to be on the water well before sunrise, but in this case, a late start was necessary to judge swells and avoid hazards along the coast.Bill Buckley
Hunter carrying gear and hunting dog in the surf.

Hitting the Beach

Little Hank—the nickname belies his 6 foot 3 inch frame—carries his dog Brizo to shore so she can stay dry until her first retrieve. The Lab is more appropriately named. Brizo is an ancient Greek goddess who was the protector of mariners and fishermen (and, presumably, sea duck hunters).Bill Buckley
A hunting dog retrieving an eider sea duck.

Good Dog

Brizo retrieves her first-ever sea duck, a drake eider. What the 40-pound Lab lacks in size, she more than makes up for in heart.Bill Buckley
Hunter aiming shotgun in the surf.

Coming in Hot

Little Hank bears down as a flock of eiders swings over the decoys. Sea ducks are typically low fliers and often approach the decoy spread just a few feet above the surf.Bill Buckley
A gray seal laying on a new England beach.

Seal Problems

Gray seals and harbor seals (like this one) hang out on rock piles along the Massachusetts coast. Garvey doesn’t send his Lab for retrieves when seals are nearby because they could get aggressive.Bill Buckley
3 eider sea ducks on the ground.

Bucket-List Birds

These two drakes and one hen are part of a four-eider limit. Periwinkles, attached to the barnacled rock, are a staple of the eider’s diet. These elegant birds are considered lifetime trophies for most duck hunters.Bill Buckley
A lighthouse on the New England coast.

Guiding Lights

Lighthouses still line much of the New England coast. They serve as navigational beacons and mark the most dangerous waters. They’re also a reminder that the might of the sea is not to be taken lightly.Bill Buckley
mussels and barnacles on sea rocks.

Crush Diet

Mussels are among eiders’ favorite meals. These ducks swallow their food whole and rely on their powerful gizzards to crush the shells. Eiders have been known to dive down 60 feet to feed.Bill Buckley
A hunting dog in vest jumping into New England Atlantic surf

All In

A little cold sea water doesn’t discourage Brizo from plunging in after another eider. The neoprene vest wards off hypothermia and helps keep her performing at full speed.Bill Buckley
Traditional sea duck decoys in the water.

Hand-Crafted

Traditional duck hunters to the core, the Garveys carved and painted their entire sea duck spread, a skill that’s still respected among New England hunters. But the result is far from high art: This deke shows all the scuffs and pellet holes of a hardworking piece of gear.Bill Buckley