Here's a look at where to go for some great winter sea duck hunting in New York's Long Island Sound. (January 2006)
Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg
It might be hard to imagine that there could be world-class waterfowling so close to one of the largest cities in the world, but in fact New York's greatest concentration of wintering ducks is around Long Island. Many species of ducks are included, but the more unusual hunting opportunity is for the sea ducks that winter in the area.
Mike Wasilco, a senior wildlife biologist in New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 2, is an avid sea duck hunter.
"The numbers looked pretty good last year," Wasilco said. "It seemed like last year they were in different areas. There were huge rafts of ducks at Montauk Point to Shinnecock Island."
Weather conditions made hunting rough on the days he hunted. A lot of other hunters probably experienced the same thing.
"It seemed like there were a lot of eiders out there, along with scoters," he noted.
Early in the sea duck season, the situation can change fast because more ducks are moving into the area, but by January, the migration is finished and duck movements are localized.
"You may have a lot of movement as the wind changes because birds try to get away from rough surf. They'll move farther offshore where there are just swells," Wasilco said.
The favorite sea ducks are white-winged scoters and eiders. Hunters often prize eiders because they are less common, viewing them as trophy ducks. Which species is more abundant can vary from year to year depending on nesting success.
"Oldsquaws are probably most widespread," Wasilco said. "They'll come into the bays along the south shore. The scoters and eiders tend to stay out on the bigger water."
The eating quality of the sea ducks is a matter of both opinion and the way they are prepared. Most important is cleaning away all fat deposits. Most hunters skin and fillet the breasts. Marinating or injecting can improve the flavor of the meat.
SEA DUCK TACTICS
Sea duck hunting is a radical change from puddle duck hunting. Some things are similar, such as decoying, but even this is somewhat different.
"Some days the birds will come in and try to land," Wasilco said. "It depends on whether you're where they want to be or if they are just passing by. Decoys make them pass a little closer than they would otherwise. Generally, traveling flocks are looking for an area to rest that is out of the waves, or they are looking for foraging areas."
Sea ducks feed heavily on shellfish, including mussels and clams, and may feed in water that is deeper than 40 feet.
"There are mussel shoals off Montauk Point, and that's why you see them out there," Wasilco said.
Getting into sea duck hunting around Long Island can be a daunting undertaking for a couple of reasons: access and safety. There are not many places where the general public can get to the sea ducks without traveling across open water, which can be treacherous any time but particularly during winter.
"There are some areas where you can hunt sea ducks from shore," Wasilco said. "Probably the best opportunity for that is at Cedar Point County Park.
"The sea duck-hunting area is the tip of a big, narrow point that sticks into Peconic Bay. There are pit blinds that hunters draw for. Basically you're looking at pass-shooting." Wasilco explained.
This long point may be 70 yards at its widest point and is about 5 feet above sea level.
"Incoming birds just pop up and over. You get some pretty good shooting there and you don't need a boat," he said. "Most hunters time their shots so the birds drop on land, or make sure you have a dog! You'll also want to wear waders so you can go out a ways."
Hunters can expect oldsquaws, surf scoters, black scoters, white-winged scoters and eiders. Generally, oldsquaws and scoters are the most common species.
To reach Cedar Point County Park, take Montauk Highway east to Stephen Hands Path in East Hampton. Turn north and continue to Old Northwest Road. Turn right onto Northwest Road. Bear left and continue to Alewive Brook Road. The park entrance is about 100 yards down the road.
For more information, contact the Suffolk County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, P.O. Box 144, Montauk Highway, West Sayville, NY 11796; call (631) 854-4949; or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hunting from shore is uncommon on Long Island because of shoreline access problems. Sea ducks do not often come close enough to shore for good hunting, or hunting might not be allowed in areas where they congregate.
Wasilco recommended bays along the south shore for oldsquaws, including Great South Bay, Moriches Bay and Shinnecock Bay. Good hunting may be found from Heckscher State Park to Great South Bay.
"There's a fair number of other launches and ramps that are open to the public," he noted. "Many of the ramps in winter don't get as much use, so there's no fee in the winter."
Heckscher State Park is 50 miles from Manhattan on the south shore of Long Island in Suffolk County. Take the Southern State Parkway to the park entrance.
For park information, contact the Heckscher State Park office, P.O. Box 160, East Islip NY 11730; or call (631) 581-2100.
The DEC has several areas that are open to hunting from shore; however, dogs or boats are necessary to retrieve ducks, and boats are generally necessary to reach the better sea duck hunting.
Hunting from shore is generally focused on puddle ducks or bay ducks, but hunters may find some sea ducks, particularly oldsquaws.
A free, three-year permit is required to use these areas. Permits are available from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, ATTN: Sporting Licenses, SUNY Building 40, Stony Brook, NY 11790-2356.
There are DEC-maintained boat ramps at the U.S. Coast Guard Station at East Moriches, along county Route 21 north of the Long Island Expressway, Exit 67, off South River Road east from Edwards Avenue at Calv
erton and along Route 25 at Riverhead.
Two sections of Fire Island National Seashore near Smith's Point and near Fire Island Inlet are open to waterfowl hunting. This area is managed by the National Park Service. Permits must be obtained in person starting about a week before the hunting season opens.
For more information, contact the Smith's Point Station at (631) 281-3010; or Fire Island National Seashore Headquarters, 120 Laurel Street, Patchogue, NY 11772; or call (631) 289-4810.
Boats may be launched at Captree State Park for access to the waters off Fire Island. The park is 48 miles from Manhattan via the Southern State Parkway and the Robert Moses Causeway at Exit 40. Proceed south from there to the park.
For park information, contact the Captree State Park office, Box 247, Babylon, NY 11702; or call (631) 669-0449.
Before setting out on your first sea duck hunting venture, Wasilco offered the following advice:
"I would definitely recommend that hunters not go out alone. Have plenty of anchors and anchor rope. Generally, hunting is in water that is 20 to 50 feet deep. It can get rough fast."
For more information about hunting sea ducks in New York, contact the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Region 1, SUNY Building 40, Stony Brook, New York 11790; or call (631) 444-0345.
For more about travel in New York, contact the New York State Division of Tourism (North America Group Travel), Empire State Development, Empire State Plaza, Concourse Level, Room 110, Albany, NY 12223; or call (800) CAL-LNYS, Ext. 47624.