I shot a duck. Here’s how it went down.
Yesterday was the most astonishingly beautiful January day Cape Cod has ever seen. Temperatures rose into the high 50s, and there was a light breeze out of the southwest. We outfitted our oyster boat, a 17-foot Carolina Skiff, for duck hunting, by which I mean we put three chairs in it. Three, because Bob was going with us.
You may remember Bob as the guy who’s taught us just about everything we know about Cape Cod fishing. Well, turns out Bob hunts, too. He used to hunt ducks a lot, but he hasn’t been out in a while. Okay, 27 years. But the jacket still fit him.
We met at the ramp yesterday morning, and set out into Barnstable Harbor. Our plan was to go fairly deep into the harbor, set out decoys and then drift east, toward the mouth. We knew we’d be at a disadvantage because we don’t have a camouflaged boat but, hey, ducks make mistakes.
It’s easy to tell which birds are hunted and which birds aren’t by the alacrity with which they avoid a boat full of people with guns. Ducks fly away when they’re still way out of range. Seagulls, you can practically run over. Terns circle over your head, laughing because they know the song:
To every tern,
Turn, turn, turn,
There is no season,
Turn, turn, turn,
And no time you may send it
To tern heaven.
Occasionally, though, a duck would make a mistake and come within range. Bob or I would take a shot, or maybe two, and miss. (Kevin, who’s never cared for duck hunting, was driving the boat.) While it’s not surprising that I would miss, Bob is an excellent shot, and it’s very surprising that he would miss.
The problem, I think, is that the kind of shot we use for ducks is so expensive (up to $25. a box) that it’s hard to bring yourself to practice with it much. So you practice with the other, cheaper stuff and the trajectory is just not the same.
I have a 20-gauge, which is arguably not enough gun for sea ducks. I tried to make up for last season’s wrong-shot fiasco by getting 3-inch cartridges of #2 shot. Out of a 20-gauge, that should do the job.
But only if you actually hit the duck.
I don’t know how different the trajectory of the shot I was using was, but I do know I was consistently behind and below the target. Part of this, no doubt, is that I was making various other mistakes, including not swinging through properly, but part of it was that I wasn’t sure by how much to lead the duck or how quickly the shot would fall.
There was one duck, in particular, that haunts me. I had not one, but two chances as it flew by the boat’s broadside, a mere twenty yards out. It was big and meaty, and I missed it twice, low and behind.
“Big and meaty?” you may be asking. “Don’t you even know what kind of duck it was?”
The answer, sadly, is “no.” When they’re flying, all ducks just look like ducks to the inexperienced eye, which mine most definitely is.
The night before, I’d spent a couple of hours studying pictures of ducks, in the hopes that I would be able to tell one from the other. Fortunately, there’s only one kind of duck we’re not allowed to take, and it’s the easily (?) identifiable harlequin duck. You’re allowed to take at least one of every other kind, so identification only becomes an issue once you have one in the boat.
I was pretty sure I could identify eiders, scoters, and long-tailed ducks, which are the three sea ducks you’re allowed to take seven of, and I figured I’d simply limit myself to one of any kind of puddle duck I couldn’t ID; I’d have to be content with a boat full of one-offs. Yeah, like that’d happen.
After we’d drifted around the harbor for a while, missing ducks, we went out toward the end of Sandy Neck, where the harbor turns into Cape Cod Bay. There were more sea ducks and fewer puddle ducks, and the sea ducks weren’t quite as skittish as their inland brethren. Two eiders let us get quite close before they flew, and then went by right in front of me.
My first shot missed, and I thought my second did, too, but after a couple of wingbeats the eider dropped to the water, wounded. Before I could shoot it again it dove, and it came up on the other side of the boat. That was Bob’s side, and Bob finished it off when he had the chance. We didn’t want the poor bird to get away, wounded, and die a long, hard death, which it might have if we had waited for me to get over there to take the shot.
So I didn’t even kill my first duck. I only winged it.
We were out on the water for about six hours, and that was the only duck we had to show for it. Despite its being a beautiful day, it was a profoundly unsatisfying hunt.
I took the eider home, and turned to the world’s leading expert on preparing wild ducks, Hank Shaw, for advice. Hank, who’s known for eating “everything but the quack,” makes an exception for sea ducks. Roasted whole, they taste like low tide, so he skins them and takes the breast and legs. I watched his video, and did the same.
I was left with ten ounces of duck meat, plus a heart and gizzard that I added to duck stock I was making out of one of our ducks. It wasn’t much.
Had we been properly equipped and more skilled, it probably would have been much more. But to be properly equipped and more skilled takes both time and money. The boat needs to be painted, and it needs one of those hula skirts you put around the gunwales so it looks like a patch of reeds. We need more decoys, more realistically deployed. And I need to spend a lot of time at the range, shooting shells that can cost a dollar a pop.
I’m just not sure about duck hunting. A successful hunt yields something very delicious, but also very time-consuming. I’ve processed ducks, and it isn’t much fun. And Kevin and I have taken on so much that we have to start thinking about what we don’t want to do.
I realize that all this doubt may be the byproduct of a profoundly unsatisfying hunt, so I’m going to wait until I do well, at least once, before I make up my mind. But hell mayhave to freeze over first, so I suspect I’ll be in limbo for a good long time.
While I’m there, I do intend to enjoy some eider-pork sausages with caraway and sage.