It's a challenge to hunt New York's coastal sea ducks, but there are ways to get in on some great coastal shooting this month. Our expert has the story.
Photo by Tom Evans
By Mike Bleech
With puddle duck numbers inconsistent and competition for them intense, avid New York waterfowlers are turning to sea ducks for late-season sport.
And what sport it is! From the smallish longtails (old-squaws) to the relatively big eiders, these hardy diving ducks love to fly with a tailwind at speeds that leave puddle duck hunters shaking their heads. Their typical low-to-the-water approach means you might not see them coming until they are suddenly in and then out of range. Sea ducks will come to decoys, but if they do not crash land into your decoy spread, they can be gone in the time it takes to raise your shotgun.
A DIFFERENT GAME
Unlike puddle duck hunting, sea duck shooting is an open-water game. Crossing ocean bays can be very dangerous during winter due to storm swells and cold water. Large, seaworthy boats are necessary. Sea ducks seem to ignore boats and hunters, but most sea duck hunters still use camouflaged gear.
Sea ducks include black scoters, white-winged scoters, surf scoters, long-tailed ducks and a few eiders. Bay ducks, such as goldeneyes (also called whistlers) and the diminutive buffleheads, are usually classed as "sea ducks" because they are commonly seen in the same places as divers.
Many sea duck hunters also target brant during the late season. Great South Bay, Hempstead Bay and South Oyster Bay are a few of the most likely places to find brant. Other smaller bays can also provide good shooting. Because of the decline of sea grass beds, brant sometimes can be found inland feeding on grass.
THE HURDLES BEGIN
As with any type of hunting on Long Island, hunting sea ducks requires a tedious, complicated permitting process. Special permits are required to hunt many of the marshy wetland areas, but no special permits are necessary for hunting once you get onto open water other than a hunting license, federal duck stamp and Harvest Information Program (HIP) permit. All waterfowl hunters 16 years of age and older must have a 2004 federal duck stamp to hunt during any of the 2004-05 seasons. Federal duck stamps cost $15 and are available at most post offices and sporting goods stores. Stamps are also available by calling (800) 382-5499.
All migratory game bird hunters must register each license year and for each state in which they plan to hunt migratory game birds. To register, call (888) 427-5447. Registration takes about five minutes, at the end of which a confirmation number is given as proof of compliance.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation encourages waterfowl hunters to consider purchasing a $5 Habitat-Access Stamp when they purchase their license. Funds derived from the sale of the new optional stamp help support DEC efforts to conserve habitat and increase public access for fish and wildlife-related recreation.
Most of New York's sea duck hunting takes place at the north end of Long Island and off the south shore.
Although you are generally home free once you get onto open water, there are confusing exceptions. The town of Southampton claims ownership of the bay bottom and requires duck hunters to be town residents or in the company of a resident guide. A private gun club has exclusive rights to most of Bellport Bay. Local municipalities may pass ordinances that prohibit the discharge of firearms. The DEC does not provide information about these situations, so it's up to the hunter to do his homework.
Access to the water is severely limited. Various agencies and municipalities control the available boat launch ramps. Fees are charged at some, with different fees for residents and non-residents. Public boat access areas require permits, and although some fees and permits might not be enforced during January, do not plan on this.
DEC boat ramps are near 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 of Edwards Avenue at Calverton, and along Route 25 at Riverhead.
While a boat is necessary to reach the better sea duck hunting, the DEC has several properties that are open to hunting from shore, and there are some opportunities for sea ducks.
A free three-year permit is required to use these areas. Permits are available from NYS DEC, Attn: Sporting Licenses, SUNY Building 40, Stony Brook, NY 11790-2356.
Dogs or boats are almost always necessary to retrieve ducks. Tides can alter water levels several feet, which poses hazards to duck hunters who wade to hunt sea ducks or use dogs to retrieve their kills. Be sure to check the daily tide tables, which are available from newspapers and other local sources.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Six areas are managed by the Suffolk County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. County residents are given preference, but there are opportunities for non-residents. For information, contact the Suffolk County Parks office, P.O. Box 144, West Sayville, NY 11796; or call (631) 854-4949.
Two sections of Fire Island National Seashore, near Smith's Point and near Fire Island Inlet, provide good public sea duck hunting. This is one of the better opportunities for newcomers to sea duck hunting. It is managed by the National Park Service.
Seasonal permits must be obtained in person starting about a week before hunting season opens. For information, call Smith's Point Station at (631) 281-3010, or write to Fire Island National Seashore Headquarters, 120 Laurel Street, Patchogue, NY 11772; call (631) 289-4810.
Boats can be launched at Captree State Park for access to the waters off Fire Island. The park is 48 miles from Manhattan by way of the Southern State Parkway to Robert Moses Causeway, Exit 40, and then south to the park. For park information, contact Captree State Park, Box 247, Babylon, NY 11702; or call (631) 669-0449.
Tentative dates of the late duck season for Long Island are Dec. 11 through Jan. 30. The season for sea ducks runs from Oct. 16 through Jan. 30. Final season dates and regulations will be posted on the DEC's Web site at www.dec.state.ny.us. For additional information about waterfowl hunting, contact any DEC regional wildlife office.
The special sea duck season for the Long Island Zone applies to o
uter coastal waters only, defined as the coastal waters of New York State lying in Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Great Peconic Bay and associated bays, and any ocean waters lying south of Long Island. The daily bag limit for this season last year was seven sea ducks (scoters, eiders and old-squaws), including no more than four scoters.
Brant season is tentatively set for Dec. 12 through Jan. 30 in the Long Island Zone.
THE LOWER HUDSON
There is a marginal opportunity for hunting waterfowl in the lower Hudson River, although puddle ducks are far more common than sea ducks.
The hunting season for ducks and sea ducks in the Southeast Region is tentatively set for Nov. 13 through Jan. 2.
Nontoxic shot is required for all waterfowl hunting in New York State. Eight different nontoxic shot materials have been approved for waterfowl hunting in New York.
Hunters are encouraged to report any banded birds they shoot to the Federal Bird Banding Lab at (800) 327-2263. The best time to call is weekdays between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., but extended hours and weekend coverage are planned. The operator will want to know the band number and how, when and where it was recovered.
Bands can also be reported online. Tens of thousands of ducks and geese are banded in eastern North America every year. Band reporting by hunters helps managers determine appropriate hunting regulations for each species.
For more about hunting on Long Island, contact NYS DEC, SUNY, Building 40, Stony Brook, New York 11790; call (631) 444-0345.
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