My first duck hunt

There are just about two weeks left in duck season and, after that, hunting opportunities are limited to things like crows and squirrels. Over the weekend, I did some serious groveling, trying to get an experienced duck hunter to take me along. While my groveling may pay off before the season’s out, I just couldn’t wait.

I know there are ducks in Barnstable Harbor. I see them every time I go out to work the oysters, or to fish. I have a gun, I have my shiny new 2011 hunting license, I have all my waterfowl stamps. Nothing was preventing me from going out and trying to shoot a duck.

Kevin, while not keen on duck hunting, was willing to aid and abet. He called our friend Tim, also a novice duck hunter, and recruited him to join us. Then he called Les, whose boat is still in the water, and asked to borrow it. And yesterday afternoon, on the tail of the ebb tide, the three of us headed out for my very first duck hunt.

The plan was to take the boat out into the middle of harbor, and then drift (you’re not allowed to shoot a duck from a boat under power). Kevin, who wasn’t going to hunt, took the helm, and Tim and I settled into the bow, on the lookout for ducks.

We didn’t have to look far. It was duck central out there. Tim peered through his binoculars and spotted eiders, black ducks, pintails, and buffleheads. All we had to do was to get them in close enough.

I’d seen hunters out in the harbor before. Standard operating procedure seems to be to get a greenish boat, dress in camouflage, and set a string of decoys out behind you. We had neither the right color boat nor the decoys, so we motored out to where the ducks seemed to be, cut the motor, and hoped for the best.

Within the first five minutes, a bufflehead flew about thirty yards in front of us. Tim took aim and fired. He was a little behind – buffleheads are fast – and he tried again. It was the third shot that brought down the bird. We motored over and Tim reached over to retrieve it.

This was Tim’s first duck ever, and although he joked about its rather diminutive size, he was obviously excited. I was excited for him. I’ve been out in the field with a gun enough to understand the satisfaction of success.

Tim stowed his bird, and we went a little farther east in the harbor. The wind was out of the west, and we were drifting east at a pretty good clip when a male eider crossed the bow, heading south, about twenty yards out.

An eider is bigger and slower than a bufflehead, and is reputed to be one of the worst-tasting ducks on the planet. But I wasn’t thinking about how I’d cook it as I mounted my gun and followed the duck’s flight.

It was close in, and flying across the wind, so I stayed only a little bit ahead of it. When the distance between the duck and the muzzle seemed right, and the gun felt solid on my shoulder, I took my first ever shot at a living creature.

Eider down!

I was astonished. My first shot, my first duck. Beneath the adrenaline and surprise, I felt so big and bad.

Until I noticed that the duck wasn’t dead. He didn’t even look hurt, just startled and irritated. And then he dove.

We drove over and, as we waited for him to resurface, my big badness turned to dismay. I was doing the single worst thing you can do in hunting – wound an animal and then not be able to track it and take it.

And then he popped up, twenty yards out. I took aim, but I’m unaccustomed to shooting a stationary object – a sitting duck – with the regular shotgun barrel. The deer barrel is made for that, and has a notched sight to line up, but the bird barrel only has a bead on the end. I did my best, but I missed him low. He dove again. Damn!

We waited, and waited some more. He came up again, this time just feet off the bow. But I wasn’t expecting him to be in so close, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t even get a shot off before he dove again.

And then he simply vanished. We waited, all three of us scanning the water, for longer than any duck should be able to dive. No eider.

On the plus side, that may have meant that he wasn’t seriously hurt – or even hurt at all – and he’d live to outwit another hunter. On the minus side, that was my duck. My very first duck! And it just bloody swam away!

It wasn’t long, though, before I had another chance. Tim, secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t going home empty-handed, generously gave me the shot at the next duck to come in range, another eider. This time, a female.

My first shot missed, but the second, as the duck was flying away from us, didn’t. She dropped right out of the sky.

Redemption, I thought.

We drove over to collect my duck.

No duck. No trace of duck. No feathers, no nothing. She simply disappeared.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Barnstable Harbor is the Bermuda Triangle of ducks. You shoot them, and Neptune calls them home rather than letting you have them. Even eiders, which are reputed to taste like low tide.

I had one more shot before sunset closed in, but it was on the outside of my range and I flat-out missed. We went in, I congratulated Tim on his trophy bufflehead, and we went home, duckless.

It was only when I got home that I realized my mistake. It’s such an embarrassing mistake that I’m reluctant to tell you about it, but I suppose it’s just possible that someone, somewhere, might be prevented from making the same mistake if I go public.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m accustomed to making mistakes, and my various blunders have, at various times, resulted in deerlessness, clamlessness, beetlessness, and root beerlessness. Lessness seems to be a way of life around here.

But this. This was class-A stupid.

It stemmed from My Consult with Andre.

Our friend Andre is pushing eighty, and has a lifetime of hunting experience. When I decided I wanted to go out and try for a duck, I stopped by his house with a dozen eggs in the hopes that he’d give me some good advice. Which he did.

One of the things we talked about was shot size. What should I use, I asked. “Five,” he said, and then ticked off on his fingers, “Or four, three, two, one, or BB. Use what you have.”

And here’s where I went wrong. I assumed that, since a BB gun was a little baby air gun, that BBs were the smallest shot. Therefore, number five had to be the biggest of the sizes Andre ticked off. When I checked our armory, I found that the size I had was seven. Well, that would be just fine, I figured. Large shot might be appropriate for someone whose shotgun skills aren’t all they could be.

Those of you who hunt are undoubtedly now shaking your heads in dismay and disbelief because you know perfectly well that any bonehead with Google and an IQ over room temperature can look up shot size and find out that larger numbers correspond to smaller shot.

There is an upside here. Those two ducks I shot are almost assuredly flying, swimming, and quacking in perfect health. It’s unlikely that number seven shot, at twenty or thirty yards, can even penetrate an eider’s underlayer of down, let alone do serious damage. The only injury was to my big, bad hunter ego.

I have twelve duck-hunting days left to see if I can repair the damage.

22 people are having a conversation about “My first duck hunt

  1. Oooops. Next time.

    I suppose if I weren’t so lazy I could google this, but… Does anyone know where that odd system of shot sizes came from?

    Must be something obscure like the gauges for shotgun size (number of round balls that could be molded from a pound of lead).

    A fresh box of shells, and you’ll soon have a fresh start on your new eider down jacket–and maybe some duck for the dinner you owe Andre.

  2. “Eider down!” This may be a classic duck-hunting joke, worn smooth and shiny from overuse. But it made me laugh. So if you coined this one yourself, pat yourself on the back. I’m sure it’s destined to become shiny from overuse.

    Thanks for the honesty. I’m sure I’m up for much the same whenever I begin hunting. Good luck on the rest of the season.

    • It’s actually my coinage, but no one’s ever sorry to have her joke mistaken for an old chestnut. Come to think of it, it may also be an old chestnut — I probably wouldn’t know.

  3. I haven’t been sea duck hunting in years, but here’s a trick we used to get the flocks of ducks that were way far away to come check us out.

    Ready for this? Take a hockey stick, or any other 5 or 6 ft pole you have handy and tape a black trash bag onto it. When you see a flock of ducks flying way off in the distance, lay down in the boat, raise the trash bag “flag” and wave it back and forth. Used to work like crazy, believe it or not. I remember this method bringing in flocks of sea ducks that were miles away.

    We just used to use strings of randomly spray painted black and white Clorox bottles for “decoys”.

    • That is the weirdest duck hunting tip I’ve heard yet. I wonder why ducks would investigate a garbage bag on a stick. But if they do, it’s certainly a tendency I’m willing to exploit.

      Thanks for the DIY tips!

  4. At least you didn’t have to deal with having to cook and eat a bad tasting duck, unless you just wanted it for the down. I laughed out loud at your joke, too.

    Here’s hoping you’ll have the correct shot size and better ducks at which to shoot next time!

  5. First off, Tamar, congratulations on your awesome shooting. You hit a duck on your first shot, and you hit two of the three ducks you shot at on your first hunt. I don’t think you realize how good that is. It’s good. Really good. Kicks my ass from my newbie days for sure. You should be very, very proud of your shooting – keep up the good work!

    Next: When hunting divers, you must keep shooting until they are obviously dead (bill drooping into the water, belly up and feet paddling air, obvious nerve twitching). I just did my first diver hunt four weeks ago and I’m doing one again Friday, and that’s the deal. We fired 16 shots at one duck, I think, trying to take him down permanently. But the farther away he got, the more time he had to duck when we fired the guns. Literally – he ducked in advance of the shot. They’re that fast.

    This is, fyi, a hell of a tough hunt to start with.

    Now: When shooting ducks on the water, aim just a little short of (on your side of) the duck. People tend to over-shoot on water shots. And when that still doesn’t work, just understand that water shots are way harder than they look – it’s much easier to bring a bird down when its wings and chest are exposed.

    Finally: When you go back out and get one, DO NOT PLUCK IT. Skin it, and remove all the fat. That’s where all the fishy flavor resides.

    Tamar, you rock. You’re my hero! Fellow duck huntress!

    • NorCal — Whenever I need moral support and encouragement, I’m coming to you. Thanks!

      I wish I could take more credit for the shooting. I think it was mostly a combination of slow ducks and lucky shots. I know myself to not be good, and I was pretty suprised that I hit them.

      Funny that Hank (Shaw, at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook) just wrote a post about helping newbie duck hunters — I was mean green jealous of the people you and he took out for their first hunt. I had pretty much the same set of questions, and then some, that your first-time hunters had, but no one to ask.

      Now I know more, and I hope to do better next time. Thanks both for the helpful advice, and the enthusiasm. God knows I can use both! And maybe, just maybe, we can hunt together some day.

      • Tamar, if you could’ve watched me and Hank missing sea ducks today, I think you’d be a little more proud of yourself. Truly – I don’t dole out empty flattery.

        That said, it’s wise to not expect to shoot like that every time. But the fact that you did that well on your first time out bodes very, very well for you. Just keep practicing – at the range and in the field.

  6. The first thing that struck me about your post: no mention of the gun, or thinking about the gun, or fear of the gun. You just put it right into your shoulder and went to town. You must be feeling more confident, which means you’re halfway there to good shooting.

    The second thing that made me smile: bringing someone a dozen eggs to grease the wheels of social intercourse. Eggs are the smallholder’s basic currency. I only gave away a dozen yesterday to someone as thanks for tax advice. It never seems like enough, I know, in exchange for advice about duckhunting or taxes. You are officially country folk now.

    And of course, stupidity shared is stupidity halved, so to half my own share I’ll tell you this story: the first animal I ever shot at for food was a pigeon. All I had in my arsenal was an air rifle. It was sat in a tree, and I hit it smack in the chest. A few feathers puffed out, the pigeon looked at me with mild disgust then flew away. I don’t even think the pellet made it to the skin. I find out later that the feathers are thickest on a pigeon’s chest. Wrong gun, wrong place, no pigeon to eat, only crow.

    I’m sure your next hunt will be a successful one. If you think your duck is a bit dubious in age or perhaps a bit more shot up than you like, confit hides a multitude of sins.

    • You’re right about not mentioning the gun! I hadn’t even noticed. While I was certainly always aware of having loaded guns in the boat, I was focused on the ducks — which is as it should be, I think. A step in the right direction!

      I’ve often thought that it’s a good thing that not everyone has chickens. Then I couldn’t bring eggs when I went to parties, or I needed advice, or I just needed to make a deposit in the goodwill bank.

      I’ve never heard the expression about stupidity. If I tell the story of my mistakes over and over, do I get my stupidity halved each time? A geometric progression of decreasing stupidity appeals to me. Particularly if it ends with confit.

  7. Outstanding shooting, Tamar! Just left me awestruck when i remember my first duck hunting. I shot a lot of rounds and discovered ducks have a quack that sounds like laughter. In future, I would use steel #2 shot in a 3″ load (for a 12 ga.). The reason you focused on the ducks and were aware of loaded guns, but not really focused on the guns is simple…the guns are tools, and the tools are being used properly in a safe manner. Much like a chain saw, a shotgun or other firearm is a tool. Any tool can be misused to injure, kill, destroy or otherwise create catastrophe. A properly used tool is a gift from God. It allows us to focus on the tree or the duck, not the tool. I don’t hunt ducks much anymore, but the best tasting (and hardest to hit) were wood ducks. Keep swinging and follow through, you will get a duck dinner in the end.

  8. You did better than me. I won’t shoot a shotgun as I hate the recoil. I prefer to be the one flinging the traps for the others to take aim at. Now if I could have used my lovely little .22 that would have been a different story. lol Shooting two ducks is really quite impressive! That is much better than I could have done.

  9. Despite being a vegetarian myself the only real problem I have with the duck and deer hunting you do is that it seems to take time away from your posting!

    I suppose we could call it research?

  10. So… how’d that bufflehead taste? It’s the one duck I will never shoot again. Fishy as hell and so small that when you skin it, there’s little left. Nice shooting, and you are probably right: You most likely just pissed off those eiders, which are North America’s largest duck. Next time use No. 1 or BBs on them.

    Eiders will taste fine if you skin them. Remove ALL fat or they will indeed taste like low tide. I have a bunch of recipes for divers and sea ducks on the site, for after your next — undoubtedly successful — duck hunt. Welcome to the club, Tamar! Duck hunting will absorb you. Resistance is futile…


    • The report I got on the bufflehead (I wasn’t there to sample it) was that it was dark, but not too bad. Not fishy, I heard. But they’re so small that they hardly seem worth the trouble.

      I hope you’re right about my next hunt. I think I get to go one more time before the season’s over.

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