When it comes to extreme sport, late-season eider hunting is waterfowling’s X Game. It is duck hunting on the edge, with the weather conditions, specialized gear and danger quotient often pushing the limits of what the average waterfowler will endure. Even the quarry is over the top, with the common eider being the largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere—and one that can absorb plenty of nontox before succumbing. The only thing that would make the sport more extreme would be if the birds attacked, which, come to think of it, they occasionally do, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
With thoughts of how wild such hunting can be, it’s no wonder I felt somewhat cheated last December as our group relaxed on a coastal-Maine island in unseasonably warm temperatures. Where was the challenge? Where was the thrill? We’d witnessed a beautiful sunrise, listened to the tranquil sounds of the harbor waking, and now we sat sipping coffee and watching the decoys float listlessly on calm seas. It just wasn’t right!
The day had begun painfully early, with our party of 10 rising before sun-up, pulling on waders and camo and making our way two blocks to the Stonington town boat launch. We’d loaded our gear and a pair of black Labs into two Lunds, then motored out of the harbor and through a series of channels to a granite formation in the Deer Island Thorofare. Captaining the boats were Bill Brown and Wally Martin, who were sharing hosting and guiding duties with fellow Ducks Unlimited members Shawn Prince and Grant Brees as well as Brad Allen, Bird Program Leader for the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. Once Bill and Wally had put the gunners ashore, they’d taken one of the boats and set out strings of handmade decoy sleds and full-body floaters before heading to the other side of the bay to watch from afar.
Shawn, Grant and Brad had stayed shoreside to help organize the five Guns, who included Remington’s Linda Powell and Scott Hanes, Wildfowl Magazine Editor Paul Wait, Pennsylvania freelance writer P.J. Reilly, and me. We had taken up positions along the water’s edge, doing our best to minimize our profiles and blend with the rocks. After that it had been a matter of waiting—and enjoying the mild temperatures.
For the first hour there was little action, as the occasional single and short string of eiders came winging past from their night roosts on the bay to the shallow-water mussel beds where they would feed. The birds typically travel just off of the water, and once in a while a flock would gain altitude to check out the decoys but then drop down again and fly on.
Eventually a pair of drakes—obvious from their black & white coloration (versus chocolate brown for hens)—swung close to the decoys. We were shooting a combination of Remington pumps and autoloaders coupled with the company’s Wingmaster HD nontoxic loads, and a fusillade sent the lead bird cartwheeling across the water. Shawn’s Lab, Scout, a handsome, solid dog with a thick rudder of a tail, powered out through the decoys and delivered the bird to hand.
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that eiders are one of my favorite gamebirds. Not only do I find them beautiful, but I also admire their ability to survive in the harsh environment of the coast. It’s hard not to respect a duck that can weigh upward of six pounds, especially one that can dive 65 feet to forage for the mollusks and crustaceans that make up its diet. Some hunters downplay the birds’ “sportiness,” going as far as to call them “flying pillows,” but with eiders able to cruise almost 50 mph over distance, I’ve never found them too easy to shoot—or once knocked down too easy to finish . . . .
A bonus on this hunt was meeting Brad Allen. Being in charge of Maine’s bird program, Brad is knowledgeable about a variety of species, but I learned that he is especially fond of eiders. (“Eiders and woodcock are my two favorite birds to study, hunt and gab about,” he said.)
By the time I worked my way over to see the dead drake, Brad was already there. He was holding the duck almost reverently, cradling it in one hand while smoothing its feathers and wiping away blood with the other. It’s little surprise that with all of the work Brad does with eiders, he treats them almost like family.
We talked about the birds and their success story in Maine—from a population low of only two breeding pairs in 1904 to today’s estimate of 23,000 breeding pairs. Still there are concerns about fluctuations in numbers, and in 2009 the state reduced the daily bag limit from five eiders to four.
When I mentioned having read about the species’ low breeding success, Brad confirmed that common-eider duckling mortality is among the highest of all waterfowl. He told of an island off the coast of Maine on which 1,000 nesting hens had produced about 4,000 ducklings, but due to predators—mostly greater black-backed gulls—only three ducklings had survived.
I followed up by asking about the practice in which biologists use dogs to retrieve hens from nests in order to band them. Brad said that this is done in Nova Scotia but that he is not a fan of the technique—not only because it results in a 10-percent mortality among the ducks but also because he believes there’s a good chance that the hens may get so stressed that they don’t return to the nests. Brad prefers manually catching hens as they’re sneaking away from their eggs, because after the birds are banded and released they may believe that their nest sites are still safe.
While we were talking, there came a yell from amongst the rocks: “Bird at 11 o’clock.” Brad and I crouched down and spied a lone drake beating his way toward us. There was no doubt that the duck wanted into the decoys, but as he neared the edge of the spread he must have seen something he didn’t like, because he began peeling off. Two shots splattered the water behind him and hurried the bird along.
Then the drake did the strangest thing. Eiders normally are reluctant to fly over land, but this one flew about 100 yards past our island, circled and took a direct line that would bring him right over us. Making no sudden moves, I reached for my shotgun and pushed off the safety, and when the bird was almost overhead, I stood and fired. The big duck folded in the air, his momentum carrying him in a long arc that ended with an audible splash in the brine. What I didn’t see was that the drake’s fall had taken him just past P.J., almost hitting the hunter in the head. “Thanks a lot,” P.J. deadpanned from behind a large boulder. (OK, so maybe this wasn’t a “full-fledged attack” as alluded to at the beginning, but almost getting clipped by a five-pound duck is still pretty extreme . . . .)
As the tide inched higher, it forced our group to seek new perches among the rocks. Eiders continued trading back and forth, kicked up by lobster boats and several draggers plying the ocean floor for scallops, but the activity slowed as the morning wore on. By noon we had eight drakes in the bag and were ready to head portside for a big seafood lunch.
The following morning we were back at the launch at O-dark-thirty. During the night clouds had moved in, the temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up. There was a chop on the water and a bite to the air. Now this was more like the eider hunting I’d been hoping for.
There were no macho second thoughts about shrugging on PFDs this day, as the groups loaded into their respective boats and motored out of the harbor. The destination was a larger island farther offshore, the thought being to intercept more birds earlier in their flights.
We off-loaded and set up on an exposed point, hunkering down in the barnacle- and seaweed-covered rocks at the water’s edge. Again strings of decoys were set to direct birds to the Guns like runway lights.
The action started much sooner this morning, no doubt because we were closer to where the eiders had roosted. Singles, pairs and strings of up to a dozen ducks came frantically winging across the water—first appearing as mere shimmers on the horizon, then materializing into black & white and brown forms moving at speed.
I had elected to sit with Brad and enjoy the show, and it was great fun watching drake after drake barrel into the decoys and, just as they were about to set down, take fire. Some splashed into the drink and barely waved a wing; others were knocked down with plenty of life remaining. Which is why when hunting eiders it’s always a good idea to use the first shot for birds in the air and save the next two for follow-ups on the water.
One drake in particular absorbed several loads before Grant Brees’s Lab, Scoter, reached him. Then the duck started to dive. Scoter is a diminutive female, but she’s relentless, and she swam circle after circle, waiting each time for the drake to resurface until finally she was close enough to lunge and grab him. She whined with excitement all the way back to shore.
The fifth bird of the morning was a mature hen—the first of the trip. When Scout delivered her to Shawn, Brad asked if she had a band. No, she didn’t. “We must have missed her,” Brad said, as if he knew every hen in the bay.
I scuttled over to Shawn and retrieved the hen, then laid her beside a drake. Only up close can you appreciate the subtle beauty of these birds: the black barring on a hen’s chest, back and wings; the olive-green wash behind a drake’s neck and the hint of peach on his chest.
Brad took time to explain how the ducks eat, using their powerful beaks to pull mussels, crabs, urchins and so on from the ocean floor. They then swallow them whole and let their muscular gizzards crush them. He cited a study that showed that eiders will fly an average of only 20 minutes between their nighttime roosts and shallower-water feeding areas (one bird flew an average of four minutes), where they fill up and spend the rest of the day loafing and digesting. This explains why the action is often so fast in the early morning and only spotty later—when hunters depend on boat activity to push the birds around.
True to form, the shooting had slowed significantly a couple of hours after sunrise. Grant picked up a white towel and began flagging, and he was able to draw several birds to the set.
Shawn was getting bored, too. “Hey, Ralph, have you ever heard an eider call?”
“No, I didn’t even know they made one.”
He cleared his throat and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Here eider, eider, eider.”
His effort was less successful . . . .
At 9:30 we had to pull up in order to get some of the crew to Bangor for afternoon flights home. By then there were a dozen eiders lying in repose on the seaweed. We stowed guns and gear and climbed into the boats, and I cinched my hood in preparation for the raw ride back to port.
In reflecting on the trip, I was thankful to have taken part. It hadn’t been the adrenaline-fueled, man-versus-wild adventure I knew eider gunning could be, but the opportunity to learn about the birds and share the experience with hunters new to the sport had been rewarding. After all, any chance to be on the ocean hunting a great gamebird is a thrill.
Ralph P. Stuart is Shooting Sportsman’s Editor in Chief.
- By: Ralph P. Stuart