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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.