In November, I traveled to the picturesque town of Stonington, Maine to hunt sea ducks in nearby Penobscot Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean.
I’d always wanted to visit Maine, at least subconsciously, and jumped at the opportunity to expand my hunting horizons. Our hosts were a quartet of die-hard local waterfowlers and dedicated Ducks Unlimited volunteers who enjoy sharing the Maine sea duck hunting experience with others and drawing attention to sea duck conservation.
Sea ducks in Maine consist of three species – eiders, scoters, and long-tails. They differ from other ducks (which Maine’s hunting guide simply calls “regular ducks”) in that sea ducks are rarely found very far away from salt water.
This isn’t to say puddle and diving ducks aren’t also found along the coast. Indeed, some divers, such as buffleheads and goldeneyes, could be considered sea ducks. However, these species can also be found far inland. For instance, I’ve shot buffleheads here in Nebraska, but it would be highly unlikely (virtually impossible) to ever see an eider here.
Eiders were what we were after on Day One of our adventure, specifically common eiders. They are the largest and most common of North America’s four eider species. Our hosts ferried us to a granite island far out in the bay via two duck boats. The predawn boat ride was beautiful. The water was calm and tree-covered islands surrounded us.
Arriving at our chosen spot, I helped one of our hosts, Bill, set out two strings of a dozen eider decoys apiece near the island while his companion, Wally, expertly maneuvered the boat. The other boat deployed a third line of decoys, including a wind-operated spinner, to complete our spread.
Bill and his buddy, Brad, a state wildlife biologist, stayed on the island to look after us hunters, while Wally and his pal, Ronnie, managed the tender boats. They would pick up any downed birds that fell too far out for Bill’s yellow Lab to retrieve.
Mossberg 930 Field and Pro semi-autos were provided for our use. The 930, like most Mossberg shotguns, has a top-mounted safety that allows both right and left hand shooters to safely use the gun. It took a bit of getting used to initially, but quickly became second-nature.
Eiders were flying into the decoys almost immediately, even before some of us had our guns loaded. One made the mistake of flying past me on the far left side of the spread, and I dropped it. The duck hit the water in a spectacular splash, but then dived before I could finish it. The guys in the boats eventually caught up to it.
Shortly thereafter, we noticed some birds were escaping on the other side of the spread, so I volunteered to cover our right flank. Most eiders continued decoying to the center of the spread, but I managed to knock down another single that came in low from the right.
It fell close enough for Bill’s yellow Lab, appropriately named Eider, to swim out and retrieve it. Eider delivered my eider directly to me, capping off a fantastic morning punctuated by seal watching and a brief nap in the warm sun.
Our group of four hunters finished with 11 eiders overall, including three stunningly white mature drakes. The hens were likewise beautiful dressed in their subdued browns and greys. Maine allows up to five sea ducks to be taken per person, but only four of any single species. Although we were well under the 16 eider limit, it was still a great shoot.
On Day Two, we returned to the same island, but the weather had changed overnight and now featured wind, rain, and even sleet – typical Maine sea duck weather.
Once the tide dropped, I returned to my same rock on the right side of the spread. The shooting was not as good as the previous day. While the others managed to down a few eiders, not many birds flew my way.
That is until a lone duck appeared overhead. I raised the 930 Pro and dropped it, then shot it again as it hit the water. It went belly-up.
It was a common merganser.
Maine allows the take of up to five mergansers per hunter per day (only two can be hooded mergansers). Mergansers are a fish-eating duck with long bills and sharp teeth. I’ve shot several here in Nebraska, but they’re not the tastiest. As a result, they’re often unappreciated by many waterfowlers.
While everyone agreed I’d made a great shot, I still took a lot of good-natured ribbing over breakfast for that merganser.
Although a fifth hunter had joined our group on Day Two, only eight eiders, mostly hens and juvenile males, were bagged – plus my merganser.
Despite the weather, the day ended on a decidedly high note. We feasted on fresh lobster and bacon-wrapped scallops that evening and looked forward to the third and final day of our Maine adventure (which we’ll discuss in two weeks) with great anticipation.
Jarrod Spilger writes an outdoor column for The Independent.