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.”