I’m halfway to being able to say I have hunted ducks from coast to coast. I have the east coast checked off the “to do” list with a recent hunting trip off the coast of Maine this past January. As we have done the last several years Rene, Leo, Phil & I planned our annual waterfowl hunting trip, with this year being a trip to West Rockport Maine to go after Sea Ducks in December 2013. We had a schedule issue with the guide as we lost out on the dates we hoped for to another one of his clients. The old snooze you lose analogy came into play. So we regrouped and planned for early January 2014. As many of the readers from up here in New England can attest to it has been a brutal winter this year. When our January Sea Duck hunting weekend was approaching, so too, were 12 inches of snow, single digit temps, and high winds, sort of the not so perfect trifecta of reasons to keep you from hunting. As our guide Clifton Ames says “you can handle any combination of two of these things but the third strike usually puts an end to the hunt”.
For those who don’t know Cliff Ames he is a seasoned guide from Rockport Maine. He owns and runs Ten Mile Guide service with his wife Amy. Cliff has been guiding for many years and it shows in his preparation and the details he puts into his hunts. This will be the second trip hunting with Cliff for Leo & Rene, and my first. Phil ended up passing this year as he is in his 70’s and felt the cold January temps and frozen hunting conditions would be a bit too difficult for him. Perhaps it is more that he is getting wiser with age versus being physically unable to handle it. Either way he chose not to make the trip this year. With this being my first Sea Duck hunt I was very excited to go regardless of the conditions.
Our trip would start with Rene picking me up at my house at 7am, and then we would pick up Leo by 8, so we could get an early start to our 7 hour drive east from our homes in Vermont. Then it turned into he’d get me at 8 and we would get Leo by 9. Then it was get me at 9 and Leo by 10. So we finally show up to Leo’s at 10:30 after about 25 text messages back and forth teasing Rene on finishing his housekeeping chores and asking if he was getting his hair done before he came to get us. Like all our hunting trips half the fun is getting there and the banter between buddies that goes on during the road trip to our various hunting destinations. This drive took us through VT, NH and Maine which allowed for a few stops along the way for lunch and of course the Cabelas in Portland Maine where we bought our licenses and picked up a few items we needed for the hunt. I was teased for buying trapping supplies while on the way to a Sea Duck hunt. I don’t get over to Maine much and this is the closest Cabelas to where I live. To me stopping at Cabelas is what going to Disneyland is like to a 9 year old kid. After they pull me kicking and screaming from Cabelas with the numbers nearly wore off my debit card we piled back into Rene’s Honda Pilot and headed north to Rockport. We pulled into our hotel The Country Inn located right in Camden / Rockport Maine which is very hunter friendly and got the keys to our 2 rooms. Rene has worked out the details for our hotel stay and like last year secured adjoining rooms. This works well as we use one room for stashing most all the gear while the other is used to kick back and have a few beverages.
With it just being the 3 of us we do the typical key grab to see who will be doubling up and who will have the other room to himself. I’m not sure if I lost or Rene lost but it worked out that he and I had to share a room. If asked he would say he lost the key grab game. So we piled all the gear into Leo’s room and Rene and I set up our room which would be our home for the next 3 nights. Once we unpacked our gear we piled back into the Pilot and headed up the road to the local grocery store for supplies and some food for diner. The next day’s hunt will come early as we needed to be up at 4 am and make the short drive to Cliff’s in the morning to get the details of the hunt.
Being January in Maine it was a bit cold as we arrived at Cliff’s but the excitement of the hunt erases any thought of the temps from our minds. We have been talking about this hunt for a year now and for me having yet to harvest an Eider, Scoter or Old Squaw I was pumped to get out after them. To stay politically correct the Old Squaw are now being referred to as Long Tails out of respect for the Indian heritage. I personally thought calling them Old Squaw was very respectful. If you have ever seen one up close you have to admit they are very beautiful and strong, both at rest in the water, and in flight. After the meet and greet at Cliff’s and a review of the plan for the hunt we loaded our gear into Cliff’s truck and boat and set out for the harbor where we will launch out in pursuit of the much sought after Sea Ducks.
Shortly after arriving at Port Clyde, and despite Cliff’s advance warning of the boat launch being icy, Rene takes a header and slides up under the boat. While not sure whether to continue to laugh uncontrollably, or to lend aid to a fallen friend, the choice is made for me as Rene sprung to his feet with a grimacing painful look on his face. Realizing this isn’t very nice to be finding such humor in my friend’s misfortune I gathered myself and asked if he was ok. He offered up a few words, one of which rhymes with “duck”, and the other word was “you”. I quickly returned to my uncontrolled laughter as I realized he would be fine. Cliff was unaware of this whole event as he was working to get the boat ready for launch. Leo too was unaware of Rene’s recent battle with the icy conditions as he was busy stuffing toe warmers into his socks.
As one can imagine there is a lot that is required to prepare a boat and it’s hunters for the subfreezing hunting conditions. The plans from the get go was to launch at day light to allow for a safer voyage out to the island Cliff had picked as our ambush point on the unsuspecting Sea Ducks. As we slowly motored our way through the marina passing each frozen boat hooked to its mooring the sun was making its way up into the sky. At that moment I realized this was going to be a great day and I knew regardless on the days take it would be a truly memorable day of hunting. It wasn’t long until we reached the island Cliff had planned for us to set up on. Before doing so Cliff wanted to motor farther around the bay to get a look at the next day’s potential set up and allow us to see the birds that were filling the bay. We quickly took notice of all the Eiders, Scoter and Old Squaw that were working the waters. I had reached the point where it was already worth the trip and the rest would be a bonus. Cliff circled back to the island and we started to go into decoy deployment mode as we had around 3 dozen decoys to set out on gang lines with 6 decoys on each main line. This method flowed quickly and smoothly with Leo & Rene working the decoys while Cliff maneuvered the boat. The decoy deployment team of Leo & Rene worked well as they had done it on many occasions. Their ability to set out decoys is matched by no other and if you choose not to take my word for it, just ask them, and they will tell you. There is a personal side joke that goes along with that last sentence. I will pause just long enough for me to laugh out loud.
Once we had the decoys set up like fingers on a glove jutting out from the edge of the island Cliff pulled up close to the shore to allow Rene, Leo & I to unload and climb to our chosen spots and ready ourselves for the hunt. The conditions despite being cold were as perfect as they could be just calm enough to keep the Seas from being too rough but enough wind which would surely keep the birds moving. With the three of us settled into position Cliff motored away to take a spot hidden from sight of our set up. Rene, Leo & I were close enough to each other to communicate but far enough to be safe and allow us to cover the entire spread. As we sat there taking in the sites of our surroundings facing east with the sun on the rise we had a few Eiders buzz our decoys. As luck would have it, the decoy spread was set in such a way that funneled the birds to my side. These Sea Ducks proved to be as fast as they were tough. Before I knew it I had a pair sitting in the decoys off to my right. I quickly shoulder my Benelli and launched a few 3.5 inch Federal # 2s as they were making their escape. The third shot was more of a wave good bye as they flew off. It took longer to get off the 3 shots than it did for Rene & Leo to start in with their comments on my 3 misses. I couldn’t blame it on the sun as I was the only one smart enough to have my sunglasses with me. I just flat out missed and underestimated the toughness of these birds. It didn’t take long before my next opportunity would present itself. This time I was successful and with that pass I had my first Eider. A beautiful drake followed by a hen moments later.
Over the course of the next few hours despite several misses, Leo, Rene & I managed to knock down a few more Eiders. Around noon we decided to pick up and do some float hunting for Old Squaw. This technique is like drift boat fishing but with the person in the front of the boat holding a shotgun versus a fly rod. The hunter up in front of the boat keeps an eye out as the boat floats toward a raft of unsuspecting birds, in this case they were Old Squaw. Once the birds feel we are to close for comfort and make their escape the wind tends to push them into range where the hunter has 3 quick shots. Rene I and proved to be successful with this approach with Rene knocking down a gorgeous drake and I taking a hen. The reason I took the hen and not a gorgeous drake like Rene was with all the guns stored safely away while in route on the open water it would end up being Leo’s Stoeger that was chosen for the float hunt versus my Benelli. Although the gun performed flawlessly when Rene & Leo used it moments ago it jammed for me just as a drake & hen Old Squaw were directly overhead. I managed to clear the first shell and get the second round chambered successfully getting off 2 shots. I knocked down the hen Old Squaw stone dead with my first shot then scanned the sky for the drake which had peeled off during my frantic malfunction correction. I did give a futile attempt at the drake as he used the wind at his back to put the much needed yardage between him and me. I turned to my fellow hunters with a crazed look in my eyes only to find them both bent over from laughter and nearly at the same time saying “Nice Shooting”. I had all I could do to not put Leo’s Stoeger on the bottom of the bay. Once we recovered from that event we decided to motor back in and grab a late lunch at the diner near where we launched the boat earlier that morning.
As we made our way back into the harbor slowly passing the boats that we passed on our way out we seemed to become more aware of the details we had missed on our trip out. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the hunt that had us so focused that we missed the little things like the names of all these vessels. I tried to imagine all the fishing trips the boats had taken over the years and the stories and the memories they had made. Many of these boats are well over 50 years old and must have been handed down to generations of new fishermen. As we passed by the boats we all just go quiet for a moment, sort of paying respect to the fishermen that make their livelihood from the sea. Sure many of these are recreational boats but Cliff told us how the locals have fished and trapped lobsters in these waters for decades and how the rights to be able to do this is passed on to the next generations.
With the boat safely on its trailer we make our way into the diner for a much needed hot meal. The diner is appropriately named Port Kitchen and owned by L. L. Bean heir Linda Bean. We had to assume just looking at the place we were in for a real treat. It had that old fisherman’s wharf thing going on. When we walked through the doors there was an open kitchen area off to the back with a bar positioned so you could watch them cook your meal. It had that come on in and sit down for a while smell of fresh cooked food in the air. Despite being so hungry I would have eaten a cardboard box there was no fear this meal would require me to do that. I paid little attention to what the others had ordered as I was focused solely on getting my 3 eggs over easy, toast, bacon and home fries. My order did not disappoint me, topping even the opening day breakfast we have each year at deer camp. There is something about a fresh cooked breakfast after a long cold morning of hunting that just can’t be beat. Although we could have stayed there for another hour once we realized they didn’t serve alcohol we needed to make our way back to Cliff’s to put up the boat and clean the birds. I of course was tasked with the chore of cleaning the birds. I cleaned the Eiders and the hen Old Squaw but left Rene’s drake Old Squaw so I could have it mounted upon my return to VT. Cliff was kind enough to offer up some space in his freezer to allow the duck to freeze up overnight. I could have done the same with the drake Eider I shot but I really liked how the Old Squaw looked with its long tail feathers and coloring I could tell it was a mature bird. This will take its spot in my game room and forever tell the story of the day we hunted sea ducks in Maine.
Shortly after the boat was put up and the birds were clean we chatted with Cliff and his wife Amy for a bit before heading back to our hotel. Not unlike most hunters we needed a few ounces of scotch poured over a handful of ice to thaw us out from the hunt. The scotch did its job setting us up for a bit of a pre-diner buzz, so we showered up and were ready to head out for diner. Our original plan was to head about 30 minutes south to a restaurant Rene & Leo promised would serve up a great meal. However our alcohol consumption proved that it would be wiser for us to walk across the parking lot to the Mexican restaurant next door where we could continue in the spirit of the hunt while eating the much needed food required to counter act an afternoon of drinks. We made our way over to the restaurant and were quickly seated. The food and drinks followed with many laughs as we relived the events of the days hunt. Our meal ended and we made our way back to the hotel. We knew that 4 am would come quick, and after the day we had, it was minutes not hours before we were all asleep.
It’s funny how easy it is to get up at 4 am when you’re heading off to a hunt versus heading off to work. There were concerns with the weather this morning as we had seen the forecast the night before. We sort of suspected we might not have a 2nd day of Sea Duck hunting which is why we stayed out so long the day before. The forecast was for the trifecta of reasons not to hunt. We still suited up and headed to Cliff’s who was already up and had his truck running. We could tell when we walked into his kitchen that things were not looking good. Cliff is a master guide and a boat captain so we allowed him to make the decision whether to go or whether to pull the plug on the hunt. One of the down falls of a January Sea Duck hunt in Maine is the potential to not be able to get the boat in the water. We were faced with high winds cold temps and the potential for ice to break up and flow through the bay. The risk of death more than outweighed the desire to hunt. If it were December there would be smaller bays that would be open and would have allowed us to sneak out and tuck in calmer waters where the birds would have likely wanted to be as well. But with the consistent days of below freezing temps all of these smaller bays were froze over.
Having decided to call the hunt, and with it being Saturday and there being no hunting Sunday we decided to go out to breakfast to visit more with Cliff. We drove around a bit and realized we made the right call. The flags were straight out from the wind and the seas had 8-10 foot rollers. We enjoy duck hunting but we enjoy living to hunt another day even more. Now that the decision was made to cancel the hunt we used the early morning hours to head back to the hotel, pack our gear, load up the Pilot and head west. This would save us a night’s stay at the hotel and the costs related. We had to swing back by Cliff’s to settle up and grab Rene’s Old Squaw before heading out. First stop was back at Cabelas to buy more stuff that we probably didn’t need. We popped into a pizza place and had a few slices for lunch then started the drive home. Of course Leo couldn’t drive through New Hampshire without restocking his liquor cabinet. I have never seen anyone use a shopping cart at a liquor store before. After this final shopping spree we piled back into the Pilot that now had less than 2 square feet of free space left in it from the 2 trips to Cabelas and Leo’s Liquor run. We didn’t get too far into Vermont when we came upon a snow storm that had the three of us wondering if we should have stayed over in Maine one more night and drove back Sunday.
Despite Rene’s NASCAR style pass on a state plow truck, we finally made it back to Leo’s and then back to my place. Although the 7 hour road trip back to Vermont turned into 10 hours I don’t believe Rene was even halfway down my driveway when I already began to look forward to next year’s trip. Like every hunting trip I have ever been on, it’s the time spent with family and friends and the memories that are made that will truly last a lifetime.