The opening day of sea duck season (Oct. 1, 1986) was getting close. After hosting a smattering of out-of-state hunters over the previous few years, I had concluded that it was not worth the problems and anxiety with folks traveling long distances by car and truck or arriving at all hours via airplane. The logistics involved and the concerns regarding wind and weather, which are the determining factors in whether a given hunt has a chance for success, were just not worth the trouble to deal with.
So I decided to pass on long-distance hunters and attempt to only deal with local folks and those traveling for 100 miles or so. Then, if the conditions would not be conducive for a safe and comfortable outing, we could move the day forward or back without too much difficulty.
Shortly after this decision, I answered a most intriguing phone call, which would temporarily set that plan aside.
His first name was Clark and he was a judge in El Paso, Texas. Like others out of state, he got my name and number from MassWildlife.
He received my full attention when he said that he was in the midst of a quest to collect a prime male specimen of every legally huntable waterfowl in North America (of which there are around 50). He agreed when I said that this endeavor would take years to accomplish.
If accepted, my task was to put him in close contact with the three scoter species: the white-winged, the surf, and the black. He also wanted to borrow a shotgun in order to avoid any hassle with the airline. He had the dates of Nov. 3, 4, and 5 (1986) as his preferred days to hunt.
He was arrogant but I was fascinated with the concept.
I explained that the height of the scoter migration was around Oct. 12 and, although we would still see birds, the days of observing 10,000 ducks on the wing would be past.
He insisted on the November dates, as he had other hunts booked for different species all over the country.
He called back the following day. He had booked his flight into Providence, R.I. My dad would pick him up and drive him to the first-class hotel I had booked for him in Mansfield, Mass., five minutes from my house. I would pick him up for our first adventure at 3:30 the next morning.
We began at the outer reaches of Wellfleet Harbor, off Jeremy Point. Clark did not appreciate the long drive or the 30-minute boat ride to get there, even before the decoys were set out, but I had to go where I thought we had the best chance.
The birds were not plentiful but they decoyed perfectly. He collected a few white-winged and surf scoters. Remember, he was not interested in daily limits (seven per license at that time), only perfect drakes.
We left Wellfleet as the birds stopped flying and headed back. I stopped and launched at Sesuit Harbor in East Dennis, where he collected a few more of the same. The birds were few and far between, with no black scoters seen.
On the second day I went back to East Dennis again and ran into a no-wind morning, which usually spells no ducks.
I soon packed up and headed for the edge of Buzzards Bay in Pocasset. A little breeze had come up and the few scoters we saw decoyed right in, point blank, but again, no black (sometimes called American) scoters.
On the third and last day, the wind was blowing too hard from the northeast to launch and safely head out through the breakwater to set up off East Dennis, so I headed back to Wellfleet. When we arrived there, I noticed the flag at the harbor master’s office. The wind had turned more easterly and the velocity had backed off quite a bit.
This meant that it was probably doable back at Sesuit Harbor at Dennis.
The best all-around chances for sea ducks during the migration have always been from just south of Boston at Cohasset down the coast to Wellfleet, with East Dennis being my all-time favorite location. Due to the curvature of the cape, the ducks tend to stay closer to the landmass than off on the horizon.
The ocean had laid down noticeably and we were soon down to business, with many flocks in the air but still none of what we needed. Clark had a late-afternoon flight, which meant that if it was going to happen, it had to be soon.
We set a time to lift the anchor and pick up the decoys.
About 15 minutes before the deadline, I spied a flock of ducks about 2 miles away and heading right for us. I have an eye for waterfowl, and back then, could pick up their movements at extreme distances.
I had no way of knowing what type they were.
As they flew closer, the birds didn’t look big.
The black scoter is the smallest of the three.
The drakes are the only all-black duck in the country, with a knobby yellow-and-orange bill. They were almost over the decoys and I could plainly see what they were when I screamed, “Shoot!” Clark was an excellent shot and he emptied the gun. The result was four prime drakes floating in the decoys.
I had to gather my wits about what had just happened. The last minutes of the last day and we had done it. I don’t believe in miracles, but this was thought-provoking.
Although illegal, the chef at the hotel restaurant froze the birds and packed them in dry ice for the flight home. Clark was definitely silver-tongued and politically connected.
I never heard from him again.
(Robert H. Oberlander lives at Hunter’s Landing in Walpole.)