Maine’s sea duck season runs through the end of January with some of the best gunning often occuring late in the season. But it’s not a sport for the feint of heart. Late-season eider hunting can be fraught with problems and perils, as I can well attest.
There was one particular day when the mercury dropped into single digits, tempting us to stay home. But with boat, gear and plans previously prepared, we persevered. It was so cold the rubber gas line became brittle and broke, rendering my motor useless. Stubborness or perhaps foolishness won the day.
Not to be deterred we reverted to a more primitive means of locomotion – rowing. Going out in the light breeze and slack tide was manageable. Coming back proved more problematic.
While rowing furiously against the steady tide and growing wind, I broke an oar.
Thinking quickly, I handed the remaining sound oar to my hunting partner, then ran to the bow and began kedging – throwing the anchor forward and pulling the boat. We made slow but steady progress and eventually reached shore, and learned a valuable lesson.
Then there was the day we chose to forgo the boat and hunt from a point of land that jutted out into the bay. The birds were flying well and it wasn’t long before my partner Jim dropped a hen eider. I sent my lab Jack to retrieve it but the wounded bird dove just as he reached it.
The ensuing chase began humorously but soon turned quite serious. Each time the bird resurfaced, Jack pursued. The gusty winds, ripping tide and the wounded bird were all headed out to sea, pulling Jack farther and farther from shore. In hot pursuit he ignored my shouts and whistle commands to return. I felt helpless and desperate as I watched his black head grow increasingly smaller in the distance. A frantic search for some means of rescue turned up nothing and even if I could summon help it wouldn’t arrive in time.
Then something miraculous happened. The tiny head was getting bigger. With the same gusto he pursued the bird, Jack fought his way back to shore. By the time Jack made solid footing he and I were exhausted and we all decided to call it a day.
That wasn’t the first time old Jack had been traumatized.
Several years earlier we were hunting from a stone jetty on a day so cold my beard and mustache soon become covered with ice. Jack made several fine retrieves but on the walk back he slipped on the slick boulders and his leg jammed between two. After we’d extricated it he refused to go any farther and I had no choice but to carry him all the way back.
Those were the old days. I take a more cautious and practical approach now. Equipment is checked and rechecked before every trip. Weather forecasts are monitored diligently and extreme conditions usually means we stay home. But on those golden days when the wind lays down and the mercury rises just enough, we venture out on the bay seeking the fast-paced action of big drake eiders and wheeling flocks of oldsquaw.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: