December 13, 2021
On active duty with the U.S. Navy, my son Daniel lives within sight of Chesapeake Bay. He and I both grew up hunting ducks, but neither of us had ever seen a sea duck, let alone hunted them. So, when I visited Daniel and his family last fall, he and I jumped at the opportunity to hunt the fabled waters of the bay.
We met Joshua Bourne of Wingman Guide Service in Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore of Virginia one chilly December morning. Well after shooting hours started, we pulled out into Chesapeake Bay, kicking up flocks of ducks. We anchored in open water more than a mile from shore and watched ocean-going ships dominate the endless horizon.
Growing up hunting waterfowl in various habitats, everything about this scene went against my nearly six decades of duck hunting instinct. Normally I sit in a pit buried next to an inundated field, stand in freezing flooded timber, crouch in marsh grass or watch for mallards to settle into a pothole from a camouflaged boat, so I felt strange crouching behind reed matting lining the gunwales of Bourne’s 23-foot boat that any bird could see for miles.
"Hunting sea ducks is different from hunting puddle ducks in the marshes," said Bourne, who also operates a full-service lodge in Somerset County, Md., for various types of waterfowling and fishing. "With puddle ducks, we go into the marsh or flooded timber in the dark to set up at a previously scouted location. For sea ducks, I very rarely hunt without first seeing birds that day. Scoters dive for clams, oysters and mussels. They sit over their food sources during the day, so we set up where they’re feeding."
That strange feeling quickly vanished as a single large, dark bird rocketed low over a small cluster of black decoys bobbing in the waves 30 yards away. As it approached my end of the boat, I had the honor of taking the first shot of the morning. With one blast of No. 2 Hevi-Shot, I bagged our first bird of the day, a drake surf scoter, and my first sea duck.
With the wind and bay currents, Chesapeake hunters must retrieve their kills quickly or risk losing them to the sea. When hunting, Bourne attaches his anchor line to a buoy, and when he doesn’t have a retriever along, he simply unhooks the line from the buoy and motors over to pick up the bird. Then, he returns to the buoy and resumes hunting in the same spot minutes later.
"We’re sitting in about 10 feet of water, but sometimes I’ll hunt in water out to 30 or 40 feet deep," Bourne said after collecting my future wall prize. "Scoters prefer shallower water. They also like to feed where oystermen or clammers are working. When the watermen work the bottom, they expose food for the ducks. The birds absolutely see the boats, but that means food to them, so they are not shy about landing near boats in open water."
TIPS AND TACTICS
When setting up, we followed the old maxim of "coming at them out of the sun." Flying toward the rising sun, birds couldn’t see us in the silhouetted boat.
"Currents affect the boat," Bourne said. "Probably 99 percent of the time, the boat will be parallel to the decoys with the wind coming from one side or the other. In this part of Chesapeake Bay, currents run north and south, and the predominant winds are always north or south and a little eastern."
On previous open-water hunts, I’ve always put out massive decoy spreads. Bourne doesn’t do that for sea ducks. He usually uses two-dozen decoys that match the species common to the area. We set out all surf scoter decoys attached to a decoy net for quick deployment. He used mostly drakes but sprinkled in a few hens for realism.
"When I learned to hunt as a boy from my father, we used milk jugs or crab buoys that we painted black," Bourne recalled. "Now, we use realistic decoys attached to a decoy net. With it, we can put out a cluster of decoys in a tight area. The birds naturally swim into the current, so I clip a long line to the back of the net. That allows decoys on that line to look like they’re in a perfect line to approach the other birds in the cluster."
Sometimes, sea duck hunters wave black flags at birds flying in the distance. Similar to the concept of mechanical spinning-wing decoys, birds see the flash from long distances. That black flash replicates the wings of scoters preparing to land.
During our hunt, surf scoters steadily came into our decoys in singles, pairs and small flocks all morning until we bagged our limit of drakes. It’s hard to judge distances in open, featureless water, so it’s crucial to place the decoys within shooting range of the boat. Magnum No. 2 or BB loads with tight chokes are necessary to down these tough birds. Sometimes, we easily dropped a duck on the first shot, only to have it dive and resurface at extreme range. Some swimming cripples required multiple shots to kill them.
"Surf scoters are a little bigger than mallards, but 5,000 times tougher," Bourne quipped. "They can take a lot of punishment."
Surf scoters and black, or common, scoters are the predominant sea duck species in Chesapeake Bay. A white-wing scoter is a trophy here. White-wings are larger with a very significant white patch on the wing. Bourne also shoots long-tailed ducks, though they typically prefer deeper water than scoters.
Both Virginia and Maryland set different seasons for sea ducks and other waterfowl and designate special sea duck hunting zones, so be sure to check the regulations before hunting.
Explore the storied national and hunting history of Chesapeake Bay.
Perhaps no other waterbody more richly connects with both the history of the United States and waterfowl hunting than Chesapeake Bay. Europeans first visited the area in the early 16th century, but Native Americans hunted here for millennia before that.
Just up the James River from Newport News, Va., visitors can explore a replica of the Jamestown settlement established in 1607 or visit the colonial capital of historic Williamsburg. A short drive from either, history buffs can tour the Yorktown battlefield where George Washington defeated the British Army in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.
On the Maryland side, waterfowlers might visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. The museum highlights the history, environment and culture of the Chesapeake Bay region and includes a section on the history of waterfowling in the area. If visiting the weekend of Nov. 12, check out the 50th annual Waterfowl Festival in Easton.
Local communities provide accommodations and facilities on both sides of the bay. Sample the famed Chesapeake Bay crab cakes and other seafood at many waterfront restaurants.
From Bay to Plate
Sea ducks can make for a surprisingly delicious meal.
Sea ducks don’t enjoy a favorable reputation as table fare, but the birds are quite tasty if prepared correctly. Some describe the mild, flavorful meat as tasting like venison tenderloin, and the birds can be prepared in many ways. You could breast them out and fry the boneless chunks, or wrap the breasts in bacon and grill them. Add a little barbecue sauce and season to taste. Others put the breasts or quarters in stews and gumbos. Or you can slow-cook them with assorted vegetables, mushrooms and other ingredients of choice.
I cooked ours by first seasoning the skinned duck breasts with Cajun seasoning, garlic powder, onion powder and a hint of ginger. Next, I heated a cast iron skillet to a low to medium-low heat and melted bacon grease in the skillet. Once the grease was melted, I added the seasoned duck breasts and slowly sautéed the meat and seasonings in the skillet, flipping the meat every five minutes. After four flips, the breasts were ready to eat. The meat was served over rice with gravy and some bread on the side to soak up the gravy. — Daniel J. Felsher