By Tom Migdalski
The end of the holiday season marks the beginning of New England’s harshest weather. By now, inland waters are frozen, open fields are snow covered and blustery northwest winds are raking the region.
During the coldest winters, severe freezes cause coastal marshes and launches to ice over to the point of being inaccessible by waterfowlers. On the other hand, mild winters will leave shoreline marshes wide open, and those will be shot out or hold only a few well-educated birds. In either scenario, the marshes probably aren’t the best bet at this time of year. But when the puddle duck scene is slow on bright, calm January days, conditions are ideal for venturing off the coast for some red-hot sea duck shooting.
New England’s sea duck season (“sea ducks” include three species – scoter, eider and old-squaw) is still open this month in most regions. These hardy birds fly and feed on schedule regardless of fluctuations in weather patterns. In fact, light winds, flat seas and cloudless skies – poor conditions for marsh hunters – are not only much safer for sportsmen, they also make the decoys more visible and the gunning better on the open ocean.
Another advantage of sea duck hunting is that the season is usually still open for a few weeks after the dabbler season closes, making these challenging divers a great way to extend your days on the water. Other bonuses include the availability of hundreds of thousands of unmolested birds that dot the coast from Maine to Long Island, light gunning pressure and liberal bag limits. And when breasted, marinated and cooked properly, they aren’t bad eating.
Because the seas are so vast, however, the one prerequisite for plentiful shooting is to first locate the birds’ feeding and staging spots. Grab a pair of binoculars, drive to the shore shortly after sunrise and scan shoreline shellfish beds, bays, harbors, shoal waters and points to see where the birds are holding. Be ready to hunt there on the next available calm day. If you are unaware of any such locations in your area, here are some biologist-recommended choices to try near you:
Maine stands alone as the premier sea duck hunting location in the nation. One reason is because there are thousands of rocky ledges and islands along the 3,500 miles of rugged coastline where hunters can set decoys and fill their limits. Maine boasts an average of about 20,000 sea ducks harvested annually. Of that total, approximately 85 percent are eiders. The remaining 15 percent are composed of scoters and old-squaws. But according to biologists, that estimate number is probably low because of the difficulty in taking a census of sea duck hunters.
“Last year in Maine,” said Brad Allen, waterfowl biologist at Maine Fish and Wildlife, “I would say the sea duck season was very good and will probably continue to improve. Good numbers of all three species of scoters, eiders and old-squaws were abundant through the season.”
Allen said that getting a reliable count on reproduction results is difficult because sea ducks nest throughout the reaches of the Arctic. But breeding conditions are thought to have remained favorable. Maine does have its own nesting eider population, and their numbers have been excellent in recent years.
Public-access sea duck hotspots in Maine are far too numerous to cover – any water you can reach by boat is fair game. But one place that is frequently recommended by waterfowl biologists is the Casco Bay region, which offers some of best sea duck opportunities in southern Maine. This area offers easy access to water, plentiful birds and good local accommodations for duck hunters. Harpswell Sound, which empties into Casco Bay, is one of many good bets here.
From Cooks Corner outside of Brunswick, follow Route 24 to Bailey Island. Once at Orr’s Island find Cobwork Bridge, where a small launch is on the Harpswell Sound side of the bridge. From the ramp, motor beneath the bridge and head eastward to Pond Island, where there are many rocky structures that shelter rafts of sea ducks all season.
Yarmouth is a second favorable access place for Casco Bay. You can put in at Falmouth Foreside at the town landing on Route 88 or try the Royal River off Route 1. Eiders often commute among the nearshore islands, which provide decent gunning.
However, in balmy weather conditions, hunters are likely to encounter better flights toward the outer bay and the open ocean.
For a closer look, check out the Casco Bay region on maps 5 and 6 in DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.
If you don’t have a seaworthy duck boat, a shore-bound gunner can hunt from the jetties on both sides of the Saco River mouth. A small parking area and cartop ramp is at Camp Ellis on the northern side of the river entrance. To get there, take Route 9 east from Saco to the northerly portion of the river’s mouth. Be sure you have a dog to retrieve downed birds and be mindful of the strong currents that course through the area at peak tidal flow.
For 2004-05 regulations, dates and bag limits, visit the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Web site at www.mefishwildlife.com.
To purchase a (mandatory) state waterfowl hunting stamp, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State Street, Augusta, ME 04333; or call (207) 287-8000.
For visitor information, contact the Maine Publicity Bureau, P.O. Box 2300, Hallowell, ME 04347; or call (207) 623-0363. If you are unsure of your open-water skills or the seaworthiness of your equipment, you’ll have an excellent chance of success by taking a guided trip, which can be arranged through Maine’s Professional Guides Association at (207) 785-2061.
Although the Granite State’s shoreline is very small, it holds good numbers of sea ducks. But New Hampshire’s coastal season has historically ended in late December, so if you can fit in a hunt or two before the last day, try the area along Portsmouth Harbor and the Piscataqua River’s mouth. All-tide ramps with plentiful parking are at Rye Harbor State Marina in Hampton off Route 1A on the west side of the harbor. Two more ramps are in Kittery off Route 103. For more details, see DeLorme’s New Hampshire Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 61.
In addition to a New Hampshire hunting license, you’ll need a HIP permit and state and federal duck stam
ps. For more information and updated regulations, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at (603) 271-3211 or visit the department’s Internet Web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
From New Bedford to the Cape, Massachusetts has some of the best eider hunting opportunities anywhere.
A good place to start is Lynn Harbor. The lengthy coastline from Lynn to Plymouth is excellent sea duck territory. Visitors may get ramp site and sea condition information from the Lynn harbormaster at (781) 592-5821; or see DeLorme’s Massachusetts Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 41 (C-29).
Information on accommodations may be obtained from the Lynn Chamber of Commerce at (781) 592-2900, or the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce at (508) 830-1620. See maps 58 and 59 in the Gazetteer for particulars.
The Merrimack River and its connecting coastlines of Plum Island and Salisbury Beach also offer several top gunning options. Sea ducks fly in and out of the river mouth here making any of the tidal ledges inside the river entrance good spots for action. A public ramp is on the north side of the river at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation.
For more information, contact the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 100 Cambridge Street, 13th Floor, Boston, MA 02202; or call (800) 447-6277.
Hunting regulations, bag limits and directions can be found on the MassWildlife Internet Web site at www.state.ma.us/dfwele/.
The farther south you travel in New England the fewer eiders you will find. While Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have bountiful eider populations, Rhode Island has lower numbers and most of Connecticut has none. However, Rhode Island offers a huntable mix of sea duck species and Connecticut boasts good numbers of old-squaws. To guarantee success in these two southernmost states, you’ll need to make some scouting trips to find out where the birds are gathering.
A good place to start looking in Rhode Island is Little Compton and Sakonnet Point, which are at the south end of Route 77. This arm juts into the ocean and has several small islands off its end. There is a state boat launch on Sakonnet Point Road on Route 77.
To access this area, see maps 72 and 73 in DeLorme’s Connecticut/ Rhode Island Atlas and Gazetteer.
In upper Narragansett Bay, hunters will find sheltered waters and a mix of sea ducks and bay divers. Patience and Prudence islands WMAs and nearby Hope Island are significant waterfowl holding spots. For access, there are town-owned launches on State Street in Bristol Harbor and at the end of Church Street off Route 114. On the west side of Narragansett Bay, Wickford Harbor in North Kingston offers protected ramps for gunners wishing to access the bay. One ramp is on the east end of Intrepid Drive off Route 1. The other is along Pleasant Street. You can put your rig out between Jamestown and North Kingston.
For additional hunting information, maps, regulations or a copy of The Atlas of Rhode Island Wildlife Management Areas, contact the Rhode Island Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Wakefield, RI 02879; call (401) 789-0281 or (401) 222-1267.
For lodging and travel arrangements, contact the Rhode Island Tourism Division, 1 West Exchange Street, Providence, RI 02903; or call (800) 556-2484. The Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Web site is www.state.ri.us/dem/.
Connecticut’s shoreline has many easily accessible harbors where old-squaws raft in huntable numbers beginning shortly after Thanksgiving. Scoters prefer more open water, and their winter numbers have been down in recent years. Scoters also move through Nutmeg State waters earlier in the season, so your best bet for them is to plan a trip for late October or early November next season.
Connecticut’s waterfowl biologist, Min Huang, said that his state doesn’t winter as many sea ducks as other states do, and hunters don’t take advantage of the birds that are here, which makes hunting pressure very light. This is an excellent opportunity to get away from the marsh crowds and have the entire ocean to yourself!
One big benefit of hunting in Connecticut is the relative safety and calmness of Long Island Sound compared to the open Atlantic. Any experienced sea duck hunter knows that old-squaws shun rocks, but hunting directly from a boat in the sound is a great way to coax them into your rig to fill a bag limit.
For your best chance at ‘squaws, be sure you’re set to shoot before sunrise. Old-squaws fly out to mid sound during the afternoon, where they rest and drift through the night, and then at first light they commute back to shallower bay waters to feed all morning. That’s when you’ll have the best action.
One good area for small pockets of commuting old-squaws is anywhere from Branford to New Haven Harbor. To access Branford Harbor from the west, take Interstate Route 95 to exit 53 and turn right off the ramp onto Route 1 in Branford. From the east, take Exit 54 and head south to Route 1 west. Just beyond the train bridge, turn left onto Route 142 (Short Beach Road), and then turn left on Stannard Avenue, which becomes Goodsell Point Road. Turn left into the parking lot opposite the marina.
There is plenty of parking here during the winter. Be cautious of poor ramp conditions at low tide.
After launching, head downriver and out into the harbor. Continue past the Mermaid Rocks and set your old-squaw rig anywhere between the Mermaids and Taunton Rock, or you can venture a bit farther southwest and set up between Taunton Rock and Cow and Calf Rocks. You can also head west and rig off Short Beach. But as with anywhere else in southern New England, hunters should be cautious of submerged rocks and be sure to motor using a strong spotlight with one finger on a local chart. You can find the Branford area on Map 25 in DeLorme’s Connecticut/Rhode Island Atlas and Gazetteer.
If you want to try your luck at the few eiders off Connecticut, your best chance is in the far eastern end of Long Island Sound. Both the Stonington area around Sandy Point and Stonington Harbor breakwater are good choices. You’ll also find good numbers of old-squaws in these parts. Access is from a launch at the state-owned Barn Island WMA. To find it, take Route 1 to Palmer Neck Road south to its end at the head of Wequetequock Cove. See this area in Map 30 of the Gazetteer.
For a crack at late-season scoters and old-squaws, try the entrance to the Connecticut River where it meets the sound. The Old Saybrook area offers some fair hunting from the jetties. Excellent access is available at the Baldwin Bridge launch. To find it, take I-95 to Exit 69 at Route 9. Take either Exit 1 or 2, turn right and follow Ferry Road to the new, large boat ramp under the bridge. Head south for about a mile downriver. Stay in the channel to avoid hitting rocks near mid-river. The area is shown in maps 27 and 28 in t
Guilford Harbor has also always held some numbers of scoters and old-squaws. The channel out of the East River is rock studded on both sides, so be sure to take a strong flashlight and stay within the channel markers.
Once you have cleared the farthest channel marker, head east toward Madison about halfway to Tunxis Island before setting your rig for a shot at scoters, or stay in the harbor area for old-squaws. The East River separates Guilford and Madison.
To find the ramp, which is on the Madison side of the river in a good duck marsh, take Exit 59 (Goose Lane) off I-95 and head south to the light. Turn east (left) onto Route 1 and follow it to Neck Road on the right. Continue on Neck Road out to Grass Island, where it becomes a dirt road, and the launch is on the right. See Map 26 in the Gazetteer for details.
To the western end of Long Island Sound are the Norwalk islands, which are known for their wintering old-squaw population. Access the area from a launch in Veteran’s Park. Take Exit 16 off I-95, turn left off the exit ramp, travel to the end of the street and then turn right. You will find the park entrance just before the drawbridge. For more information, see Map 19 in the Gazetteer.
Additional information on Connecticut hunting, including a waterfowling guide, is available from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, State Office Building, Hartford, CT 06115; call (203) 424-3011, or visit their Web site at www. dep.state.ct.us/index.htm.
For visitor information, call the Connecticut Office of Tourism at (800) CT-BOUND or visit the agency’s Internet Web site at www.state.ct.us/tourism.
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