Life in Salt: Fall Sea Duck Hunting 25 Miles from New York City
by Owen James Burke
Connecticut hunter Shaun Martin paddles after a freshly harvested bird, barely visible in the background. It might seem insensitive attaching an adjective like serene to blasting birds out of the sky, but between shots (of which there were very few, anyhow) that’s just what it was.
Duck hunting is a sport that’s probably lost to most metropolitan communities like those surrounding Manhattan, save for those who make the yearly pilgrimage to places like Wyoming to tote an antique shotgun over their shoulder, Scottish highland single malt scotch in hand (an indulgent experience which has verifiable merits of its own). But many blue-blooded New Yorkers, if not most, would probably shudder to know that one is perfectly within their rights to wield a shotgun in Long Island Sound, within close proximity and sight of New York City.
A 3:30am wakeup with a 4:30am launch in 15-degree weather is not my idea of a normal day on the water. Far from it, and certainly not if fishing lines aren’t involved. But this this past weekend I met up with friends and Connecticut hunters Shaun Martin and Jess Gabrielson for an early morning duck hunt, and that was just where I found myself — my toes, fingers and nose dry, cracked and nearly frostbitten, breaking through ice in an aluminum skiff filled with decoys, guns and ammo, with little but the New York City skyline lighting the way.
Jess Gabrielson, shoving off well before first light. Because you probably won’t be leaving your duck hunting boat in the water all winter, a cheap aluminum skiff (which would otherwise gather oxidation) with a small outboard engine, a reliable trailer and a car that can tow it is all you need.
Calling them in. During the 19th century, duck hunters would capture live birds and tie them to a tree or some brush on the ground so that their quacking, or distressed squawking, would lure other birds in. They were dubbed “live calls,” and unlike their friends which would no doubt end up full of lead shot, they were oftentimes taken on as family pets.
Sea ducks flock heavily through Long Island Sound during the winter months on their eastern flyway, and with a few decoys and a kayak or a small skiff, you can easily pass your time and fill your freezer.
But first a little history…
Photo: Long Island Genealogy
Duck hunting’s history on Long Island Sound goes back centures. Of course, the first people to hunt ducks on Long Island Sound were the Native Americans, who it is believed taught the colonists how to hunt waterfowl – and survive. During the Civil War, when there were no laws, the numbers of ducks slaughtered was inestimable. Captain Wilbur Corwin of Bellport and an acquaintance once reported shooting 640 ducks in one day. I can’t say I’ve ever seen 640 ducks in one day. Still, a hundred years ago, duck hunting made up a great deal of supplemental income for Long Islanders and Connetians. Until 1918, when conservation laws began to protect the birds, duck was probably one of the largest sources of income for watermen around Long Island Sound, behind the oyster and the striped bass.
Four long tail drakes who met their match Saturday morning, fairly and sportsmanly, it must be said.
On this freezing morning, we saw only a couple of pairs of black ducks, and though I’m told their numbers are coming back, you’re lucky to see many more. Fortunately, the sea duck population is in excellent shape, and they make for excellent sport. Sea ducks, like these long tails (also known as Oldsquaw) pictured, are currently prolific, and a gunner can bag dinner all winter long on a kayak with a few decoys in calm seas. Granted, sea ducks taste kind of like fish — an odd flavor to strike your palate as you sink your teeth into a duck breast, but their diet does consist heavily of oysters, and if you like game bird and oily fish like mackerel, they’re the perfect mélange for duck confit (when smoked), so long as you soak them in a heavy brine for a few days.
I myself had only ever shot a few guns in my life, and never towards a living being. I sat back for most of the hunt, taking notes and licking my chops with visions duck leg confit oscillating with the passing tide. I hadn’t intended to fire a weapon that day, but one duck came down wounded, and long tails, being diving ducks, are tricky to track down if they’re still in good enough shape to dive. Of course, the idea is to kill the bird on the first shot, but even with the best marksmen not every one drops on the first round. This one had been clipped in the wing, and apart from not being able to fly, was almost unhindered.
With Martin in the layout boat (a low-profile kayak which works like a floating duck blind), Gabrielson, with whom Martin shares the little tin skiff, called The Brant Bomber (brant is a species of small goose), decided to turn the engine over and chase it down. But since he was at the tiller, it became my duty to put the bird out of its misery.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d held a gun. In fact, I couldn’t even remember how to load one. So up we pulled behind the bird, who wisely made for a dive just as I pulled the trigger. Long tail ducks are diving birds, working oyster and mussel beds in depths down to 40 feet. They’re expert free divers, so long as they’re not critically injured, and this one still had a good deal of life in it. A minute or so later, the bird was 80 yards away, now on the other side of the boat. This time Gabrielson, having noticed my restraint and delay on the first attempt, directed me a little more, showing me where to aim, how to fire. I pulled the trigger and in the spray from the shotgun’s discharge, lost sight of the bird. In the back of my mind, I was thinking I’d blown the poor creature to bits. Fortunately it had made another dive just as I fired. Gabrielson, a patient teacher, spotted the bird again, no worse for wear than after my first shot. He put me in the right place, and finally it was over. I wasn’t proud at the three shots it took to harvest the bird, but as someone who values giving their food a fighting chance and respects the bounty the sea provides, it still felt right. Pulling it from the water was far more meaningful just than lifting a shrink-wrapped, hormonally-enhanced Butterball turkey off the shelf at the grocery store.
Shaun Martin (left) and Jess Gabrielson (right) take inventory of our harvest. There was trepidation pulling up to a boat ramp in the middle of a public park on a Saturday morning decked out in camouflage with a boat full of shotguns and dead birds.
We brought the birds home, breasted them — a fairly clean process, in comparison to fish cleaning — and set them in saltwater overnight. The following day they went into a brine of herbs, orange juice and more sea salt.
Duck hunting was a novel experience for me, and I imagine this would be the case for most New Yorkers. Being so close to suburban homes and the major U.S. metropolitan skyline, I felt like I was having too much fun, and that it was something for which we could be arrested. But back at the boat ramp, as smooth-faced bankers and young soccer moms passed by walking their dogs and taking morning jogs along the waterfront, no one seemed to pay us much mind. We came and went without the least bit of trouble. Maybe it was the shotguns. — OJB