Hunt Carolina Sea Ducks Now!

Hunt Carolina Sea Ducks Now!

Sea ducks give serious North Carolina waterfowlers a way to get more out of their season. (December 2005)

Author Mike Marsh with a Pamlico Sound drake surf scoter, identified by the color of the bird's bill.
Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh

Every waterfowl hunter daydreams of skies filled with flocks of ducks, dipping their wings with abandon to a spread of decoys. Magnifying the daydream is a perpetual hunting season that never ends, with plenty of shooting as long as the weather is cool enough for the hunter to wiggle his rear into his waders.

While the daydream is impossible to fulfill, a hunter can come close by extending his season in what is referred to by sea duck hunters as "regular" duck season. With a little imagination, planning and timing, you can add sea ducks to your bag as part of a special expedition in the breaks between the regular season.

My first experience with sea ducks came at Lake Norman, the "Inland Sea." Located a five-hour drive away from the coast where sea ducks normally fly, the huge lake is the last place I expected to find a sea duck. Yet, an immature hen oldsquaw was attracted to a spread of diving duck decoys. But when I asked around among other hunters, only one or two hunters even admitted they had shot scoters migrating through Catawba River lakes.

A long time has passed since that first sea duck came to my decoys far from the ocean. The oldsquaw has even been renamed the "long-tailed duck" to conform to political correctness.

Most hunters across the state are unfamiliar with any sea duck species. Besides the long-tailed duck, eiders and scoters make up the web-footed winged game collectively called sea ducks that migrate to the state's sound and ocean waters each winter.

The bag limit is traditionally seven sea ducks; no more than four may be scoters. The special sea duck hunting area includes waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and any tidal waters of any bay that are separated by at least 800 yards of open water from any shore, island and emergent vegetation are designated as special sea-duck hunting areas in North Carolina.

Sea ducks must be included as part of the regular bag limit for ducks during the regular duck season if not taken inside the sea duck zone.

Eiders are primarily northern birds that inhabit rocky coastlines, so they seldom migrate far enough southward to fill a Tar Heel hunter's bag. Eiders have a sluggish flight, alternating between flapping and gliding, unlike the flight of any other duck. Common eider drakes are large, with white extending from the bill to the tail and across the back. King eider drakes have white necks and white upper wings. A large orange knob on the forehead is distinctive. Eiders are so rare along the state's coastline that most hunters never see one. Still, it pays to study a field guide before setting out on a sea duck hunt because an eider is a legal duck if it strays south.

The most common sea ducks are surf scoters and black scoters -- also called American scoters. But there are plenty of white-winged scoters as well.

The migration depends upon weather. It is somewhat predictable, with the earliest arrivals of black scoters reaching the sounds during October when sea duck season opens. Behind the black scoters come surf scoters. They fill the ocean and sounds with family groups or huge floating masses that number tens of thousands.

As the weather turns colder, surf scoters enter the sounds and rivers to join the black scoters. White-winged scoters arrive on the ocean and most of them stay there. But enough of them enter inland waters to keep hunters guessing which species is heading toward their decoys.

Long-tailed ducks winter inside the sounds and rivers, staying mostly in family groups. A drake long-tailed duck is the trophy bird of Tar Heel sea ducks. While an eider would be a trophy because it is a rare visitor, a hunt for a long-tailed duck is a doable deal, with the bird prized for its long, sharp tail and striking dark and white plumage.

Black scoters are the only waterfowl that have no white on their plumage. I once sent a black scoter hen wing to USFWS as part of a wing survey and they had difficulty identifying it because there was no recognizable pattern. But the drake has a bill with a yellowish orange base that stands out in flight.

The male surf scoter appears black from a distance. But at close range, he is a strikingly handsome duck, with a black, red and orange bill and a white pattern on the head. The rest of the body is nondescript because it shows mostly black.

The white-winged scoter drake has a light patch on his forehead and cheek. But the white patch on the wings sets him apart from the surf scoter and black scoter. To confound identification, the females are much more nondescript than the males. Most hunters choose to shoot only drakes because they are the largest and most identifiable birds.

Hunters downplay the eating and enjoy the shooting when it comes to sea duck hunting. Supposedly, they taste of shellfish. But in reality, they taste like sea ducks, meaning in culinary terms they have "robust" flavor.

Soaking, boiling, frying and grilling all have their supporters among those who eat sea ducks. Those who hunt them regularly prepare them as jerky or grind them and add them to spicy dishes, such as sausage, meatballs or burritos.

So why hunt sea ducks if they aren't tops on the table? The plain truth is that it's so much fun, it's a good thing most hunters don't want to bother with making them edible. Waters crowded with hunters would make them too wary to hunt.

A sea duck hunt doesn't have to take place at dawn to have a good chance for success. The best way to hunt them is by scouting until two big resting or feeding flocks are found. Setting up between them and you're in the game, since sea ducks trade back and forth throughout the day.

Sea ducks will usually pay no attention to a boat, even a white one. Perfect camouflage is unnecessary, especially early in the season before much hunting has taken place. Later, if ducks seem wary, a camouflage net or parachute draped over a boat is all it takes to conceal it.

The important thing is to remain still until ducks are within range. Moving before they are close enough for effective shooting will alarm them into aborting their approach.

On calm days, hitting a sea duck in full flight is not difficult. But someone familiar with shooting puddle ducks is in for a surprise if they cripple a sea

duck.

A sea duck can swim 100 yards beneath the surface before coming up for air. Puddle ducks, when not killed outright over open water, are still relatively easy to retrieve. But sea ducks present a long-winded challenge. If the water is rippled, the challenge becomes an impossibility. The bird comes up. A shot is taken and the bird dives, lost among the waves. Fortunately, scoters have a characteristic that helps hunters retrieve them. They whistle when they come up for air. Shutting down the motor and remaining quiet allows the hunter to find a wounded sea duck by sound.

No matter how well a hunter shoots a scattergun while standing on solid footing, he will certainly miss many sea ducks if he hunts them under prime conditions with the wind strong enough to almost swamp his boat.

The boat is anchored after the decoys are set. Waves rolling beneath the anchored bow create shooting conditions unlike anything any hunter can prepare for, unless he has practiced shooting from a rodeo bull.

The bow of the boat has the most lift and therefore is the worst shooting position. It is better to stay amidships. Amidships is the fulcrum area for the lever of the boat and has less up-and-down movement. Hunters must minimize this seesaw movement by standing in the most stabile part of the boat, standing to shoot and keeping their knees bent while shooting to cushion the rock and roll.

Most misses occur when the shot strikes high or low. The second most probable cause of a miss is shooting behind the bird. The large size and slow wing beats of a surf scoter make it appear the bird is moving slowly. But they are flying as fast as any diving duck, so shooting behind them is commonplace.

Luckily, they fly so low they endanger decoys. Shot pattern strikes can be seen as they hit the water and the shooter can adjust accordingly.

I remember a sea duck hunt with Pamlico Sound guide Lee Parsons. He acted as the spotter while I fired at a sea duck from a boat that rocking so hard it should have been an amusement park ride.

"High! Low! Behind!" he exclaimed.

The bird flew on, missing not a single feather.

After I missed a crippled duck on the water by 2 feet with the gun barrel synchronized to the boat roll as it pitched over a 2-foot wave, he explained the bent-knee technique. The bead of the shotgun acts as a balance point, like a gyroscope. The hunter uses his body to maintain the alignment of the bead by being non-rigid and "going with the flow."

"You have to learn to time the shot to the rhythm of the boat while keeping the lead you need," he said. "All it takes is a little practice."

Yeah. Right. The only practice for shooting sea ducks is shooting sea ducks. Hunters who try it on a windy day should allow at least a box of 25 shells for a limit of four scoters or they may go home disappointed. On a calm day, a hunter can take four scoters with four shots, provided they are good opportunities. Sea ducks are cooperative, so most hunters have ample chances to take their limits.

Sea ducks are large and hardy, but they are not shot-proof, as some hunters who can't hit them have surmised. For success, an open-choke shotgun loaded with high-velocity loads of small shot is the ticket.

A load of No. 2, 3 or 4 steel shot centered on a sea duck at 30 yards will result in a fast retrieve. Try the same shot at 40-plus yards and you may run out of ammo trying to retrieve a cripple. Some hunters shoot tungsten designer loads. But they are unnecessary when shooting sea ducks in flight. Their better ballistics don't make up for waiting until the birds are close enough for effective shooting with wider patterning loads. But they can save a lot of time in retrieving cripples. Scoters are hardheaded birds and shooting small steel shot at cripples can waste shells due to open patterns and low impact energies. A few shells loaded with tungsten No. 6 shot can save time and lost ducks.

Dogs are an asset for retrieving dead sea ducks. But a dog can't out-swim a diving cripple. Sea ducks lie on their backs when crippled. Therefore, hunters should keep the dog in the boat until a sea duck is floating on its belly with its head down.

The boat should be tied to a float with a clip to allow quick release. After a duck has been retrieved, the boat can be re-anchored in the same position.

Still, a wind shift or a change in the position of the sun as it reflects into the eyes of approaching sea ducks can change the best shooting position. Sea duck spreads take a lot of work to set up. Therefore, it's easier to move the boat to a better shooting position than it is to pick up the decoys and move them to account for a shift in the approach pattern.

A classic sea duck rig consists of anything but real duck decoys. But for purists, nothing but a magnum scaup decoy painted black with a splotch of white on the head will suffice for a scoter decoy. Most hunters use black foam net floats with a line run through the center as a sea duck rig. A black scaup decoy here and there along the line is enough to imitate a flock of sea ducks. Bleach jugs or half-liter soft drink bottles painted black serve just as well.

Some hunters take sea ducks from deep-water areas of the sounds and the ocean. They let lines of decoys out on fishing reels or rope and let them drift behind the boat and tie them off to a cleat. But in the shallower waters of the rivers and sounds, decoys can be anchored directly to the bottom.

Parsons uses cinder blocks or mushroom boat anchors to hold decoys. He pays out a polyethylene line with commercial fisherman's long-line clips tied to the line at 4-foot intervals and clips on the decoys as the line is let out. He adds an anchor to the tag end of the line and drops it to the bottom. If he must move the decoys to create a shooting lane or a passageway for the boat, he lifts one anchor or the other and pivots the entire string of decoys to a new position. He always keeps the line tight before he drops the anchor. The decoys should be set in straight lines to create flyways that radiate out from the boat because sea ducks fly straight along the lines of decoys, bringing them to the gunner.

He sets four to six strings of a dozen decoys. The floating ropes can be a problem for a dog. The dog can clear the line with his front legs, but his rear legs hang on the rope and endanger the dog. Before sending his dog, he lets downed ducks drift downwind of the decoys.

"A dog can be a joy to watch and save a lot of time and trouble," Parsons said. "But you have to be careful on a sea duck hunt. Keep the dog steady until the duck is clear of the decoys. It's big water out there and he can get in trouble so fast you can't get release the anchor up in time to save him. Don't be in a hurry to send him to retrieve a dead sea duck and remember to get the cripples yourself."

For season dates, hunters should call the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commiss

ion at (919) 733-7291 or visit ncwildlife.org for sea duck dates and other regulations prior to planning a hunting trip. The North Carolina season typically begins in October and extends into January.

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