Duck hunting in general has changed a lot over my lifetime, from hand-carved wooden blocks to mass-produced plastic decoys, from lead shot to steel and other non-toxic alloys, and from waxed cotton coats to windproof and waterproof breathable laminate apparel.

But I don’t think any specific subset of the sport has changed more than sea duck hunting.

When I started hunting what the locals referred to as coots, it was a largely underused resource. The upside was nearly nonexistent competition. The downside was a profound paucity of proper equipment and adequate advice. Fortunately, my mates and I had a pretty solid handle on the basics of puddle duck hunting. How different could it be?

Duck hunting clothes, in those days, consisted largely of military surplus wool-lined cotton overalls and coats, in olive drab, tan or dark navy blue, and black rubber hip boots. The only camouflage pattern available was the one designed by Uncle Sam, but you didn’t need it for the naive sea ducks.

Our standard puddle duck guns and loads would suffice, but decoys proved a bit more problematic at first. After searching the Herter’s catalog, we learned that commercial sea duck decoys were virtually nonexistent. The few coot shooters around at the time either paid a small king’s ransom for custom-made cedar or cork blocks, or simply spray painted Chlorox jugs black. So my first string of eider decoys came from my mother’s laundry room.

Next, we needed a boat. I called in a favor and was able to borrow a 20-foot white oyster skiff. The centrally located cleaning table made a good place to transport decoys and other gear, and served as a functional seat. The birds didn’t seem to mind the pure white hull, but the 12-foot mast did hinder our wingshooting at times.

But it wasn’t much of a problem, because the gunning was like nothing we’d experienced before.

Shooting started at first light as rafts of hundreds, sometimes thousands of eiders and scoters dispersed up into the bays and channels to feed on expansive and at the time unexploited mussel beds. The gunning was nearly nonstop until all had reached their seven-bird bag limit, which didn’t take long, regardless of how many gunners were in the group.

That presented another problem, the solutions to which illustrated that big changes were already under way. After quickly burning through the paper-hulled shotshells my father had given me, I had to buy some of those “modern” plastic hulled ones, an expense that ultimately prompted me to reload my own shotshells. And more enhancements were on the way.

The 23/4-inch shells we shot proved barely adequate and so were quickly replaced with 3-inch versions, once those became readily available. That, in turn, required new guns chambered to handle the longer, more powerful loads, so my old Lefever Nitro Special side-by-side was replaced with a brand new Ithaca autoloader. While we were a century too late for the golden age of waterfowling, we were witnessing the dawn of sea duck hunting’s heyday.

Over the next two decades, the sport’s popularity skyrocketed. Several things contributed, including inland waterfowlers increasingly frustrated with fewer ducks, tighter bag limits and more competition, enterprising nimrods seeking new and different challenges, and folks drawn by tales of typically fast and furious shooting.

Filling a daily bag limit of seven birds was seldom a problem, regardless of how many hunters were present. You could easily burn up a couple boxes of shotshells in a single morning. The resource seemed virtually unlimited and a new guiding industry popped up. But still more change was on the way.

It began subtly. Wildlife agencies began noticing declining duck numbers. Following their suggestions of voluntary restraint, some of us ceased shooting hens and increasingly stopped short of filling our daily bag.

It wasn’t enough, and further declining numbers prompted tighter bag limits. Meanwhile, recovering puddle duck numbers and a boom in resident geese lured more wader wearers back inland.

Jump ahead a couple more decades to the present, and it’s a very different scenario. Winter aggregations of birds have dwindled from tens of thousands to thousands, in some places from thousands to hundreds, and in others have declined from hundreds to dozens. Bag limits have been reduced and reduced again, and seasons shortened.

Still, the tradition remains alive, albeit quite differently. Though fewer in numbers, hunters still brave the briny. Their cotton duck clothing has been replaced with high-performance apparel designed to withstand the worst conditions and adorned with the latest designer camo patterns. Their Italian autoloaders shoot 31/2-inch loads of tungsten or bismuth shot over strings of high-density polyurethane production decoys. Full bag limits are far less common, and there are fewer locals and more guided nonresidents hoping to bag their bucket list bull eider. But all look forward to the coming days when the daily average temperatures drop and the offshore gunning starts to heat up.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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