Down East duck hunting filled with quiet moments, expectation
I’m not a good duck hunter, but that doesn’t stop me from duck hunting. The only sound I can make from a duck call is a single, mediocre sounding “quack,” and I miss a lot more ducks than I’ve met.
My headlight dangles around my neck; There is enough moonlight that I don’t need when walking towards the coast across a swamp near Machias, my hometown. I love to hunt in the east. The coasts are sparsely developed and the ducks are not pressured by other hunters. Even though it’s a cold 15 degrees, I start to sweat. I slow down my walking. I carry bulky neoprene waders, a layout blind on my back, a backpack on my chest, and my Benelli shotgun over my shoulder. In my arms I carry a small blind for my dog Argos. I don’t want to sweat in these temperatures because as soon as I stop moving, my sweat will cool me down.
I get to where I want to hunt in the little tidal bay and look out over the water. A trickle of fast flowing water cuts through the center of the bay. I look at my watch. An hour to legal hunting, 1½ hours to sunrise. It’s a flood and will soon have enough water to appeal to ducks. Perfect. Outside the bay, the open ocean is calm. A light breeze from the north annoyingly blows my hair in my face. I dump everything I was carrying on the swamp and dig some black duck bait out of my backpack. I slip through the mud in the bay and throw bait in the mud. In an hour they will be swimming in the water.
I quickly close the pieces of my blind together, also set up Argos’ blind and tilt it towards the baits. Then I collect a handful of marsh grass and tuck them into the sides of our blinds to camouflage us. I keep cleaning our blinds until I hear quacks and look up to see a group of ducks soaring low over me. I check my watch – 15 minutes until legal. In contrast to geese, which “sleep”, ducks are up early and fly, often before the legal hunting season. The legal hunting season for the entire state is half an hour before sunrise in Bangor, and I’m much further east. The sun rises earlier here and the ducks fly earlier here.
Argos Brittany waits patiently in his kennel during a duck hunt in Down East Maine. Image Credit: Courtesy Christi Holmes
I give Argos the command “kennel” and he reluctantly enters his blind. Argos is a Brittany, a pointer breed that cannot be instinctively obtained, but its instinct to freeze around live birds and be calm is an excellent trait for hunting waterfowl.
I blindly lay down in my layout and fold down the doors above me. I pull on my face mask and lie down on my lap with my 12 gauge and point at the baits. I struggle with impatience and boredom and am tempted to reach for my cell phone to type, scroll and click. My normal days are full of hustle and bustle and to-do lists, but during the hunt I need to stay present in the moment and be ready for anything. The sky turns to watermelon and lavender. I am ashamed that if I did not hunt, I would never watch the sunrise.
A pair of black ducks land in the bait and I check my watch. Seven minutes to legalization. You fly away with a couple of quacks who are made nervous by the immobile bait.
It’s finally legal and I’m charging my Benelli. My eyes scan the horizon with my finger for safety in case a duck comes within shotgun range. I am starting to appreciate this quiet moment and reconnect with nature.
The sun rises over a coastal swamp on a perfect day for duck hunting. Image Credit: Courtesy Christi Holmes
For a short time I participate in what people have been doing for millennia. I will be a gamer in this wild world.
I sit up on what the doors of my blinds open and fire my gun.
“To fetch!” I tell Argos and he jumps into the cold sea towards a dejected Drake Bufflehead.