1/31/2012

One Delaware Black Duck

I've always said I'd rather be lucky than good.  I'm usually neither.

Such was the case when, back in mid-December, we left for a week-long Christmas visit with inlaws in Virginia.  It's not that I don't have great inlaws, in that instance I am truly blessed beyond compare.  But no matter how far delayed the migration or poor the hunting, to leave for a week during duck season is neither lucky nor good.

Snap! It really is duck season somewhere.  So I called a friend and begged an invite.

Hank had said, heck yes come up and hunt.  When I telephoned him from Virginia for directions to camp, the hunt report was less than encouraging:

Hank: "It's slow.  Bad slow.  We've not been hunting hard and not killing too many. We still need snow cover up North."

Me: "Story of my life. Every duck hunter's life. So where's camp?"

Hank: "We'll kill a few ducks, but if it weren't for you coming up, I'd be at the office getting something productive done."

Me: "Relax.  I don't want but ONE duck.  Just one."

Hank: "Yeah, yeah, I know. A black duck."

Me: "No.  A banded black duck."

Hank (howling hysterically): "I'm a duck hunter, not a miracle worker, and you're crazy (not exactly his words - there were a few skillfully used expletives tossed in for proper effect, too, but that pretty much sums it.)"

Even in darkness the change was startling as the DC-Metro Beltway ceded to the manicured-looking farms of Delaware and quaint towns wrapped in blinking Christmas cheer.  I was greeted at Hank's camphouse by his black, tail-wagging lab, Ryder.  We looked at property maps, talked about waterfowl hunting, habitat management and conservation practices long into the night.  And it wasn't lost on me that every time the words "black ducks" were mentioned Hank grinned in recalling that I only wanted ONE.

By moonlight we walked through tall, rustling corn stalks that shrouded a 2-acre duck pond.  The smell of saltwater marsh hung in the near-breathless air, reminding me that we were hunting a stubby finger of land pointed into and surrounded on three sides by Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  Good place for black ducks, Hank had reiterated.

Shooting time arrived soon after the last of Hank's over-sized, hand-flocked (or hand-fuzzed as I called them) decoys had been pitched.  The whir of whistling wings jarred the silence and before we knew it, 3 green-winged teal pitched into the decoys and left 2 shy.  The next half-hour brought a pair of mallards that soon joined them on the blind bench.  We waited.

During the next half-hour, Ryder paced his wet paws in place, looked upward through the blind opening and gently pleaded to the duck gods to bring more.  Reminding me of the commercial, bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon, I soon made Ryder a deal: "I'll shoot another duck if you'll bring me the band."  Ryder's tail agreeably thumped on the deck.

The sun had risen over the horizon and subdued the blue, predawn darkness with hues of copper-golden lighting.  From the east a duck worked into the spread, too high the first pass, but recognized immediately as a black duck, its white underwings strobing contrast to its burnt umber plumage.  On the final pass, it rounded in low from the east, closer to the water, backlit by sunshine.  A single shot dropped it into the standing corn behind the blind.  I followed Hank and Ryder to watch.

With the duck in his mouth, Ryder passed by Hank and returned toward the blind.  I was directly in his return path, and he handed me the black duck.  My black duck.  A banded black duck.  Probably the first and last time that Ryder ever hands a duck to anyone other than Hank - because great retrievers  are like that - but a deal is a deal!

We shot more decoying mallards for the remainder of the visit, watched them pour into holes after shooting light by the hundreds, but it was all afterglow.   Thanks to a friends Hank and Ryder, I had my one Delaware black duck.

Ramsey Russell, GetDucks.com

1/24/2012

Alaska King Eider Hunting Is All About Getting There

The hardest part was getting there.  We arrived to St. Paul Island at 2:30 a.m. (that's 5:30 a.m. at-home time). It was 12 hours later than expected.  My clothes and guns made it. Those of outdoor writer, Brian Lynn, did not until a day or so before we left. He survived comfortably thanks in no small part to modern-day Columbia Omniheat technology.

The wind howled with gusts up to 50.  St. Paul Island averages about 25 mph.  The lowest wind-chill I can remember was minus 11 F.  Wetness: spray over the bow of the boat; rogue waves unpredictably coming from nowhere, dousing from head to toe when hunting the ice-encased, rocky points.  Wet stuff turned to ice quickly on St. Paul.  That was a good thing.  It didn’t drip for too long!

Everyone in camp shot trophy king eiders.  Most achieved non-resident season limit of 4 king eiders.   All clients this season did equally as well, underscoring that this Alaska king eider hunting package remains the most practical place in the world to successfully hunt king eiders.  One very lucky hunter shot the 10th-ever banded king eider ever reported. (Watch Video: Trevor Peterson describes collecting his banded king eider).  

Due to horrific northeast winds, our group shot mostly from points. Until the snow had melted sufficiently, getting there required a 4-5 mile ATV ride after we'd parked the truck as far as we could drive it. 

King eiders, harlequins, and oldsquaws.  Sea ducks hug the water, staying behind waves to mitigate wind drag.  Ideal wind for hunting points are gale force blowing directly towards the shoreline and awaiting hunters - it pushes some of them near or over the bank.  The rest are seen parading in flocks about a hundred yards or more distant.  The single day that the winds subsided sufficiently for us to safely take to the water in force, we camp hunters bagged 10 kings.   Our boat also scored 2 pacific common eiders, juvies though they were, as welcomed bonuses. Scratch them off the list until I can return for some serious Pacific eider hunting in Cold Bay.

One afternoon we busted through daunting 5-to 6-foot breakers at the west-side launch and finally hunted "The Slick." We boated upwind of rafted long-tailed ducks (oldsquaws), drifted into them (hidden, in part, by the huge swells).  The scene resembles a swarm of bees near a kicked hive with ducks circling the boat, returning greedily to the slick.  We took turns picking long-tailed drakes, repeating as needed until we had filled our limits.  It was an enjoyable half-hour.  And wouldn't you know it - king eiders like that area, too. South of The Slick and nearer the wave-churning area colloquially known as The Washing Machine, Brian and I each picked up our final drake king of the trip that afternoon.

Recovering downed birds can be an adventure.  At least for hunters unaccustomed to extreme sea duck hunting adventures.  From the boat, we motored up and deftly plucked them from the cobalt-colored water with rubber-gloved hands.  From the shore, things got trickier.  The surf brings them in. Imagine scrambling down those icy rocks, reaching into the surf that gets mid-thigh deep and grabbing one. The guide-staff were pros in these regards. On Sea Lion Neck, a rock-studded protuberance south of Northeast Point, there was a span of about 50 yards outside of which felled bird recovery was unlikely.

For oldsquaws and harlequins, 1.25 ounce steel 3s and hevishot 6s worked perfectly.  Hevishot 4s are ideal for the eiders.  The Battleaxe Browning Two-tube (Citori), chambers 3.5-inch rounds, and size 2 steel and hevishot seemed to hold a superior pattern in the St. Paul winds.  I once read that the tradition of Indian shikars demanded one-shot kills for the noble Royal Bengal Tiger.  In hunting Alaska king eiders, the analogy seems apropos: they're a pelagic species that are not relatively plentiful where humanity can actually access them near shore, at great peril and discomfort nonetheless. You have got to play for keeps; to assume that each opportunity at a nice drake king eider may be your last or only. Go under-gunned for neither Bengal Tigers nor King Eiders.

From boats, the strategy is to troll a tail-line rigged with over-sized, hand-fashioned, burlap-wrapped foam king eider decoys.  Birds from a distance will toll into the decoys, but this method is also like spotting for birds while saltwater fishing – we’d actively look for birds while trolling the water.  From the upwind side of rafted birds, we'd then idle and drift.  Kings and oldsquaws, especially, will often pass right over the decoys during their departure, easily within range.

Petite, new-denim-colored harlequins prefer close proximity to rocky shorelines.  It's a daunting task to hang over the bow and scoop one up in between waves crashing the shore.  They were very abundant while hunting Alaska king eiders at St. Paul Island for hunters so inclined.

A sky-blue crown frames a prominently large knob as bright as sun-ripened citrus: king eiders are beautiful and certainly among the most exquisite crown jewels of waterfowl collections.  But I choose first and foremost to collect experiences.  To have experienced all that duck hunting has to offer entails a week of Alaska king eider hunting.  It is cold.  It is wet. It is windy.  It is true King Eider ambiance.  The real challenge is getting there - not necessarily closer to trophy king eiders, but nearer to a state of mind whereby the pursuit of king eiders is not insanity.  It becomes instead a dedication to an ideal.  In these regards, maybe king eiders trophies are mere reminders of our having finally gotten there.

The ice flow was a scant 10 miles beyond St. Paul Island’s Northeast Point when we left. Locals say they'll be iced in until spring.  Within a few weeks they will be walking miles out over the area we boated to hunt seals and eiders that will congregate in small openings. Am glad to be here.  At home.

View GetDucks.com's King Eider Photo Gallery: Alaska King Eider Hunting



See Alaska King Eider Hunting Video Testimonial Below:


video

1/13/2012

Packed for King Eiders

It's a commonly accepted truism: duck hunters are crazy.   Cold and wet is a combination best poured from a frosty mug on a hot summer day.  But leaving Mississippi on a cold January morning bound not for the sun-baked sands of Mexico, but for a 40-square-mile piece of  bare, wind-swept rock situated smack in the middle of the Bering Sea nearly 800 miles northwest of Anchorage - to duck hunt - evokes a whole new realm of insanity.

Unless you're going to hunt the most coveted duck species that is practically unavailable elsewhere in the world: the King Eider.  Then it becomes a matter of dedication.  King eiders make their living diving deep beneath the ocean's surface to feed primarily on molluscs.  They rarely stray far from the fringes of floating ice that comprises the polar ice cap.  I'm reminded of the reality televison series Deadliest Catch, when during the winter opilio crab season there's always the mad rush to pull their traps and avert catastrophe as the ice sweeps southward.  It's that south-bound ice mass that drives king eiders full-force to the shores of St. Paul Island, the northernmost piece of rock for which there exists any practical amenities whatsoever to accommodate duck hunters, or anything else for that matter.

King eider hunting is not for the faint of heart.  Yesterday's forecast was low- to mid-teens with a 25-30 mph wind that whipped windchills deep into negative territory.  Average wind speed is about 15 knots.  That's average.  On the best of days, hunters find protected water in a small boat, and other times hunt from ice-encrusted rocks along the shore's edge.  During the worse of times, hunters hunker inside waiting on horrific winds to abate.  There are about 6 total hours of daylight to hunt.  King eiders seem most active during the first couple.  The limit is 4 king eiders.  Per year.

Besides king eiders, there are a few cold-hardy long-tailed ducks (used to be called oldsquaws), harlequins, and maybe even white-winged scoter.  Spectacled eiders are strictly off-limits to hunting but will sure be a joy to see if the opportunity avails.  The island is rife with feral foxes in many colors that were initially stocked by Russian-immigrant furriers.  That's why the .17 HMR is nestled right next to the recently cleaned, degreased and graphited 12-gauge Citori.

As if actually hunting king eiders in Alaska weren't extreme enough, getting there is equally challenging and not without its own unique risks.  Between unpredictable Alaska weather and PenAir flight schedules, trip interruptions and delays are a when not if situation.  Trip Insurance, check.  Weight is an issue for small commercial airline companies servicing remote Alaska, and just because you make it on board is no guarantee that your checked baggage - with all that state-of-the-art gear designed to keep you warm and dry - will arrive too.  Which makes packing everything you might possibly need an especially daunting task because it is best packed in a carry-on.

I managed to pack all essential items into a 39-pound carry-on: heavy 5mm neoprene waders, a box of 3-inch steel shot, several warm layers, extra wool socks, tobacco, toothbrush, and pocket knife.  Who needs clean boxers for a week at duck camp, or more if weathered in?  I'll let you know how it goes.  Think warm thoughts.

Ramsey Russell, GetDucks.com