Earlier this week I reported on poor puddle duck hunting along the Atlantic flyway. Well, the bad news extends to seaduck hunters. A survey of guides up and down the coast points to low numbers, high pressure, and hard days on the salt water.
“I hate to say it,” said Clifton Ames of Ten Mile Guide Service. “I don’t want to give you a bad report and have no one come hunt, but we’re seeing fewer ducks.” Ames hunts Maine’s mid-coast, traditionally know for some of the best eider hunting in the country, but over the last three or four years, as winters seem to get warmer and warmer, the flocks are getting thinner and thinner.
“The biggest flocks you’ll see now is 400 and 500 birds,” he said. “Ten years ago it was 10 times that. We’re still getting birds–the guides that are good at it–but the hey day of setting up the decoys and three guys having a limit in the first half hour doesn’t happen any more. The hey day is over.”
Ames has noticed eiders showing up later, too, and thinks the warmer weather keeps them loafing in northern Canada longer. Years ago it wasn’t uncommon to see huge flocks in October in Maine, and hunting stayed hot nearly all season long. Now Ames suggests his clients book trips in January.
With fewer eiders, though, there seem to be more scoter. “I don’t know if there are more scoter, or if we’re looking at them harder because there are fewer white birds,” he said. More scoter here seems to support the theory that warm weather is holding birds farther north than usual, as scoter typically winter south of Long Island Sound. Ames also reported good numbers of Oldsquaw and goldeneyes.
Down the coast in Massachusetts, conditions sound a little better, according to Capt. Jack Golini, of Jack Charters. He generally hunts the Merrimack River south to Boston Harbor. “The eiders are starting to move down,” he said. “I’m seeing a few more birds moving in earlier than they did last year, which has me thinking it could be a cold winter.” A push of scoters recently moved south, he said, and now the waiting game for colder weather and more migrators begins. Oldsquaw and goldeneyes are also starting to show, he said.
Farther south, in Rhode Island, it’s yet to really happen for eider hunters. Despite thin numbers, Avery Pro Staffer and Swampers guide Brian Rhodes managed to put clients on two banded eiders last weekend–very bright, old drakes, as you can see in the photo above. One of the birds was banded in 2005 in Washington County, Maine, making it a seven-year-old bird. Still, he said, it’s been pretty slow.
“Hopefully cold weather will move in, because the birds are pretty shot out. Last week two groups of guys set up 300 yards on either side of me. Another group of guys came out late,” Rhodes said. “The pressure on these birds has been unbelievable.” He figures with the warm weather the season is running a month behind.
Down off the New Jersey coast, things don’t sound much better. “Seaducks are hit or miss,” said Mike Briel, of West Wind Outfitters. He typically hunts Barnegat Bay south to Atlantic City. “Not a lot of seaducks out there. Oldsquaw are doing well, but surf scoter are few and far between. We had a good barrage earlier in the year, but with no new weather coming in it’s been slow.”
Right before Sandy there was a good push of birds, but since then it’s been slow, with a lot of high pressure hunting situations, like Rhodes described. Briel said he’s gotten to the point where he’s not hunting weekends.
“Everything I’m hearing, from here down to Maryland, guys are sweating bullets to get a limit together,” Briel said. “But that’s the thing about duck hunting: never count on anything.”