Glen Burnie's Jeff Smith, Odenton's Bobby Wainwright and I spent some time recently in Smith's boat near Tilghman Island and trying, without much success, to fill our daily limits on sea ducks.
Scoters, oldsquaws and eiders are the species of sea ducks that visit the Chesapeake each year. Favorite hunting spots of mine include the areas around Tilghman and Poplar islands and Eastern Bay.
Sea ducking is like shooting pheasant-sized doves with a 50-mph tail wind behind them while standing on one leg in a rocking chair. It is just about as much pure fun as a hunter can take in a single outing.
In this game you want to carry along at least two full boxes of steel BBs or #2s, and possibly a third full box for insurance.
The daily limit is generous -- five, except for scoters, which is four. To collect the full bag, I'd fully expect to eat up 50 rounds of 12-gauge magnums and maybe steal a half-dozen shells from the third box -- on a relatively calm day on the Bay.
The difficulty in this game is a combination of the ducks' blinding speed coupled with the problems inherent with trying to hit a target from a consistently bobbing boat. On a day when there is a little chop in the Chesapeake, four boxes of ammo would be a wise decision.
"You've got to lead these birds twice as much as you think," Wainwright said as we pulled two eiders out of a string of about a dozen.
"Not only are they fast," Smith noted, "but because they skim the top of the water, the blasted birds are on top of you before you know it."
Just then another string sprang into range on my side of the boat. I swung my over-under 12-gauge ahead of the lead duck about 6 feet and slapped the trigger. I missed by 15 feet or more and brought down the fourth duck in the line on a right-to-left crossing shot.
Norman Haddaway, perhaps the best known of all the Chesapeake Bay sea duck guides, once told me, "Always go for the lead duck and you'll usually put one in the water. More often than not, that unlucky duck will be third or fourth in line, but a wise gunner will swear that he was going for that bird all along."
Haddaway, who was popularized by Annapolis' George Howard Gillelan in his book on the subject, "Gunning for Sea Ducks," also advocates the use of full-body decoys.
Says Haddaway: "Amateurs and beginners usually use painted plastic milk or bleach bottles for decoys. You paint them black except for a square white strip and they do work."
Smith, Wainwright and I were gunning on a relatively calm day over three dozen painted milk cartons a few days before Thanksgiving, a little later than usual for me.
Ideally I like to gun the last week of October and into the first two weeks of November, primarily because of the pleasant weather. After Thanksgiving the gunning is just as good, but the weather often leaves something to be desired. Use caution when deciding to go out through the season closure on Jan. 20.
We enjoyed almost constant shooting from sunrise to 11 a.m., when we called it a day.
To prepare a sea duck properly, begin by fileting out the breasts as soon as possible after the guns are put away. It is important to trim all fat away from the meat. Then place the breasts in salted water in a refrigerator for a day and prepare them as you would any other duck.