Hunting scoters & brant on the Eastern Shore.
by Ralph Stuart
When I think of sea duck hunting, I think of extremes. Extreme weather, extreme environments, extreme birds that take plenty of shot to bring to bag. So on that mid-December morning, when our guide, Capt. Jeff Coats, came sauntering across the dimly lit parking lot in shorts and flip-flops, I didn’t take it as an omen for a great hunt.
My comment on his outfit was met with a laugh and reassuring words that we’d get into birds. It might not be the cold, nasty hunting that I was used to, he said, but I would get a good taste of gunning the Eastern Shore.
This came as somewhat of a relief, as that taste is really what I was there for. Having grown up on Long Island Sound and eventually settling in Maine, I have salt water in my veins. Long ago I developed a love of sea ducks and have hunted them in the Northeast whenever possible. But it was the tales of fowling in and around Chesapeake Bay that always had piqued my interest. Gunning the big water with such a storied past had been on my bucket list for some time.
Which is why last fall I jumped at the chance to hunt with Coats, who operates Pitboss Waterfowl, in Ocean City, Maryland. The plan was to hunt sea ducks the first day and brant the second. Joining us would be Alan Corzine, who recently had been named president of Kent Cartridge. Corzine had hunted with Coats previously and kept me updated prior to our hunt—emailing days before that new birds had moved into the area and that Coats’ clients had taken all three species of scoters (black, surf and white-winged).
It was the week before Christmas when Corzine and I met Coats in the convenience-store parking lot, and after filling thermoses and grabbing breakfast sandwiches, we made the short drive to the boat launch. Another group of duck hunters was putting in when we arrived, but there was plenty of room for Coats to launch his 25-foot Bankes boat. After he parked the truck, I was relieved to see him at least pull on insulated pants and a parka.
We motored out past docks lined with fishing trawlers, and then turned north after clearing the inlet. Paralleling shore, we were able to look up the streets of Ocean City—all well lit but almost devoid of cars. Coats told us that the resort town has a year-round population of 7,000 but that during summer weekends it can swell to more than 350,000. I was glad we were there during the slow season.
Upon reaching a particular street, Coats made an abrupt 90 and headed seaward, stopping about a half-mile offshore. The depth finder read 32 feet, but Coats said there really was no rhyme or reason for setting up in a spot other than wanting to be in the birds’ flight line as they traded back and forth between Delaware Bay to the north and Chesapeake Bay to the south. We couldn’t even count on boats to move the birds around, as the ducks were not setting down. They simply were moving from “A” to “B,” and we had to hope that they would be interested enough in us—the only object on the water—to investigate.
Coats put out three strings of a half-dozen mixed scoter decoys—all cork and hand carved by him. Beautiful things. On one string was a black duck block, which we joked was a confidence bird.
We were treated to a spectacular sunrise, against which we could see distant ducks flying. Unfortunately, most maintained course, and when a flock finally did approach, it flared at the last minute without offering a shot. Coats theorized that it was because there was so little wind that the boat looked extra large in the calm water, spooking the birds.
Eventually a pair of black scoters made a beeline for us, and when they reached the edge of the decoys, I rose and dumped both with one shot. One of the birds landed belly up, but I had to finish the other after it dove and resurfaced.
That day we were using Bismuth in No. 3 shot, a new size Kent was introducing, and I complimented Corzine on the loads. He laughed and said that one advantage of the new shells was that they were cheaper, so there was no need for me to conserve ammo by doubling.
We motored over and picked up the ducks, which turned out to be “brown birds”—young scoters that had not yet developed the plumage of mature birds.
When we were set up again, I asked Coats why he hadn’t brought one of the Labs pictured on his website. He explained that a few years earlier he had been hunting with a group that was having a great morning, so there was a lot of blood in the water. While one of his dogs was out retrieving, he looked down and saw a 10-foot tiger shark cruising by. “After that,” he said, “it felt pretty irresponsible to send my dogs in the water.”
As the morning progressed, birds continued passing at a distance—mostly black scoters but also several flocks of surf and white-winged scoters and the occasional old-squaw. Coats began waving a black flag to attract the birds’ attention and was able to get several flocks to give us a look. He said that a couple days earlier his flagging had attracted a clam trawler that thought he was in trouble and that he has taken to notifying the Coast Guard each morning before he heads out, as people from shore have called to report a boat in distress.
As the line grew, Coats began calling—a kind of high-pitched, staccato chirping.
Thankfully we didn’t get any visits from concerned boats, but a flock of five black scoters responded and came barreling in. Coats yelled that the drake was the third in line, and Corzine rolled that exact bird. Close up it was a handsome specimen, with a tar-black body, iridescent feathering on its head, and a yellow, orange and black bill—the colored portion of which Coats said would have become completely orange later in the season.
As it turned out, Coats knew a lot about the birds we were hunting and also about the Eastern Shore and the history of gunning there. While we sat bobbing in the swells, he told stories of epic hunts he had enjoyed and talked about his days as a competitive decoy carver. It was obvious that he was born to be on the water and that he fully appreciated his life as a modern bayman.
But even Coats couldn’t will the birds into the decoys and, though Corzine and I each got several more shots at ducks skirting the spread, we decided to enjoy a bowl of clam chowder warmed on a portable stove and head in.
With Ocean City as a backdrop, strings of hand-carved blocks—a mix of black, surf and white-winged scoters—were set out. The spread attracted several flocks of black scoters even in the calm conditions.
The second morning we woke even earlier, as we had a 45-minute drive to where we would hunt brant. Getting up that day was easy, however, as I was thrilled about the opportunity to try for a species I had seen only in photos.
We launched just over the Maryland border in Greenbackville, Virginia, and motored about 3½ miles across Chincoteague Bay. In water only a couple feet deep, Coats set out several Y-boards containing three brant silhouettes each and a half-dozen large-body blocks. He raised the canvas sides of the boat, and we settled in to wait.
It was another warm and calm day, and the sunrise was again spectacular. As our surroundings brightened, a number of grassed-in pole blinds became visible around the bay, and in the distance we could see Chincoteague and Assateague islands, home of the famous wild ponies. The cacophony of birds sounds was amazing. Gulls, old-squaw, Canada geese—and, yes, the far-off trilling of brant. We also began hearing muffled shots, and then came several reports from a blind a half-mile away, the whomp-whomp echoing across the water.
Coats announced that a flock of brant was up, and a wispy, smoke-like line took form on the horizon. As the line grew, Coats began calling—a kind of high-pitched, staccato chirping. The birds moved about haphazardly—some bunched, others strung out in ragged lines. Then one group of a dozen took an interest in our setup, rising for a better look and swinging our way. Coats’ calls intensified, and the birds called back. They were coming hard now. Committed. When they reached the edge of the decoys, Coats said, “Pick one,” and Corzine and I rose. Corzine was tracking an especially large bird that broke right, while I was able to choose from the rest of the flock. I picked a close bird, swung ahead, pulled the trigger and saw the brant shudder and start to fall. I continued swinging through and picked a second bird, which dropped to my other barrel. And just like that I had my limit.
In hand the birds were beautiful, somewhat resembling Canada geese, with black heads, necks and wings; white throat patches; sooty-brown backs and underbellies; and mostly white tails. They were small for geese, seeming almost fragile, but obviously hearty enough to survive the harsh conditions of the ocean.
We hunted for another couple of hours, listening to brant gabble and occasionally get up and fly about. Coats explained that the birds are very active on the water—cavorting and “arguing” over hunks of sea lettuce, which they eat in addition to eelgrass. Their movements are also dictated by the tides, which control the accessibility of food.
In time a flock of a half-dozen worked toward us and were lured in by Coats’ calling and flagging. But when the birds were at the edge of range, Corzine rushed his shot and sent the geese scattering.
That turned out to be the last opportunity, as I had a plane to catch that afternoon and we decided to pick up early.
It was on the ride back to the launch that I had a chance to reflect on the trip. I had not shot a lot of birds, but taking big bags stopped being important to me years ago. What I had done was experience gunning the Eastern Shore and take a couple of species I had never hunted before. I had enjoyed a taste of classic fowling that had whetted my appetite, and I already knew that I’d return for more.
For more information on hunting sea ducks and brant, contact Jeff Coats, Pitboss Waterfowl.