This marks the second year I’ve made the pilgrimage to Stevensville, Md., to hunt sea ducks. If you’ve read a couple of my stories about forays with Capt. Brandon Moore and Chasin’ Tail Charters, you may remember that my very first sea duck came from my 2019 trip out on the Chesapeake Bay with Moore, my girlfriend’s dad, Pat, and his friends.
So it was with great excitement when the text came through my phone months ago that we were setting up a trip with Moore, I knew I was going, Hell or high water.
Well, there was certainly high water.
As we pulled out of Smithsburg, Md., en route to Stevensville, Pat told us Moore was experiencing big swells. One of Pat’s friends, Kurt, noted from the front passenger seat that we’d have some rain and high winds, too. While the swells were something of concern to me, I figured the birds would be flying early with the rain system passing through.
“It says the rain is supposed to stop around six o’clock,” said Ed, the final friend of Pat’s to join us on the hunt.
That gave me a lot of hope, as sunrise was set for 6:57, meaning legal shooting light began at 6:27. Being his first bird hunt, we gave Ed some words of encouragement and tips before we pulled into the marina around 4:45 a.m. We hopped out, loaded up and were on our way out.
The choppiness of the water was immediately apparent. Normally, Moore would put us in a floating blind, but because of the high swells, we would instead be hunting off the back of his boat. As we started our 5-mile taxi out to the spot where Moore would release his buckets of scoter and oldsquaw – now known as long-tails – decoys, waves crashed across the boat’s bow windows, making it look like we were in an automatic carwash rather than the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. When we got to our spot, we started loading our shotguns and throwing on the last few layers of our clothing as Moore and first mate Stephanie Shields set the spread. First light was quickly approaching, and I was ready to get some birds.
But adversity arose along with the sun. I missed my first shot, and the empty shell got stuck in my receiver. Those birds made it away unscathed, which was fine to me since there were only two that dove into our spread. I dislodged the stuck shell just in time to get another two shots off on the second group of scoters that were gliding towards our spread. My second shot fell behind the fast bird, so I took a bigger lead for my follow-up, which misfired. Thankfully, Kurt knocked one of the birds.
Sea ducks are notoriously tough birds, and it’s typical to shoot them another time in the water. So, as I tried to forget my early-morning issues, Moore told me to shoot the bird again which was now in front of me. I loaded another shell and killed the bird quickly. We drove over to it and picked it out of the water, a scoter hen.
Not long after, a single bird came in. “Kill that bluebill!” I heard Kurt yelling behind me as the bird crossed my path. I led the fast bird and pulled the trigger. Another misfire.
Knowing something was actually wrong at this point, Shields had an extra box of BB in the cabin of the boat. She ran down and got it for me, just in time for another group of birds. I didn’t have a shot on any of them, but Kurt did, who picked off another one. After making sure it was dead, we picked it up and moved the boat to another side of the spread. The final big wave of birds came in, and I finally knocked one.
Another thing sea ducks are notorious for is diving once being mortally wounded and drowning themselves. They’ll also try to dive and escape their pursuers. Working fast, we began to maneuver the boat over to the bird, which was rapidly floating away with the more intense water that was ripping below us. As I watched it float, I tried to direct Moore to it but lost track of it. I didn’t see it dive, but to be safe I grabbed my binoculars to get eyes on it. After searching for a long few minutes, we assumed it killed itself and moved on.
Despite a common occurrence for sea duck hunters, I felt terrible I lost a bird. Just like someone wounding a deer or elk and losing it, I felt a sense of disappointment in myself and became sick to my stomach.
The last hour went by slow. Oldsquaws zipped by out of range and scoters circled our spread, but nothing came close enough for a shot. I was increasingly becoming sick, too, something that hasn’t happened since I was a teenager on my grandfather’s sailboat outside of the Newport, R.I., harbor. That eventually culminated in losing my breakfast to the black void of a contractor bag, but it sure did feel better for the rest of the bumpy, wet ride back.
We all drove back to the Smithsburg park and ride, and said our goodbyes. Kurt took his birds, and the rest of us took our memories. Ed seemed pleased with his first duck hunt, one that by all means is uncommon. I was happy just being able to go out and sit on a boat for another year, especially after COVID-19 all but destroyed some peoples’ year. Pat was happy as well, which he noted on our drive back to his house.
Then, Tuesday morning, we were able to revisit the day after having some more time to think about it all.
“Guys, thank you for the great morning,” Pat said in our group text. “As I get older, it’s less about numbers of fish caught and birds bagged and more about a great experience, professional and safe environment and sharing it all with you, my friends. Also, can’t forget the stories: Lots of wind, questionable shooting, waves of water and waves of nausea.”
“Well said,” Kurt replied.
Well said, indeed.