Holy Waters

Maine's Penobscot Bay

You know it's a different sort of duck you're after when you're crouched in a crevice on an exposed granite ledge among spruce islands in the North Atlantic. But that's how you hunt eiders and scoters on Maine's rocky coast.

Maine has the best sea duck hunting in the Northeast, and the center of the action is Penobscot Bay, midway up the coast. Tourist towns like Camden, Belfast, and Searsport are good destinations from which to base your hunt.

Sea duck hunters here rig two dozen decoys a few yards upwind in a long V. If all goes right, sea ducks will appear on the horizon, flying low in long black lines that intermittently balloon upward as they look for feeding flocks that indicate underwater mussel bars. When they spot your setup, the birds will rise, turn, and fly right along the line of decoys, intending to land at the head of the V.

The shooting can be fast, because when sea ducks fly out to feed, each group follows the birds ahead. To those behind, ducks that fall to your guns appear to be landing, and the next flock is likely to bear straight in.

Unless you're an experienced sea duck hunter with a seaworthy boat and intimate familiarity with local waters, don't go on your own. Conditions can be dangerous. This sport requires expert knowledge and a lot of equipment, which is best provided by a licensed guide.

On most guided hunts, you'll be taken out to the shooting area in a big boat with gunning dories towed behind. The guide will set your decoys and get you safely established on a ledge, or will set you up in a layout boat with decoys trailing off the stern. He'll provide you with a handheld radio, then watch from a distance in the boat that brought you.

The bag limit is big at seven ducks. Carry two boxes of magnum loads of No. 2 nontoxic shot per day. Dress in layers, because the weather is unpredictable and temperatures can change fast. Insulated waders or hip boots are essential, as are long, waterproof, insulated gloves. Sea ducks only make low-pitched grunting sounds, so calls aren't needed. You can use a long-handled pole with a black flag attached to attract distant passing flocks.

One of the region's best guides is Todd Jackson of Penobscot Bay Outfitters (888-732-3825; www.seaduck.net). He's based out of Searsport, right in the heart of the bay. Other licensed guides offering classic Maine sea duck hunts are listed at www.maineguides.com, or call 888-200-8008.