Chesapeake divers

Hunting, Waterfowl

Maryland sea duck hunt highlights beauty of sport

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – A journalist, orthopedic consultant, welder and deputy sheriff enter a floating blind in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay…

What may seem like the line to a ridiculous joke is anything but that. Two days before Thanksgiving, Capt. Brandon Moore and his first mate Stephanie Shields took a group of waterfowl hunters to the middle of the bay and dropped them off in a blind just before the sun began to crest the hills.

Moore was born and raised on Kent Island – where his charter service is located – and fell in love with hunting and fishing. According to his website, he’s “spent over 20 years with a dredging contractor and aggregate producer that specializes in oyster recovery operations, and the development of oyster and fishing reefs in the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and surrounding tributaries.”

As the sun finally rose over the banks around 6:30 a.m., fiery hues of red, orange and yellow rising above the horizon, the silhouettes of surf scoters began diving around the pod called in by their plastic counterparts.

The Chasin Tails charter boat begins to set up decoy spreads for a sea duck hunt on Nov. 26.

With enough light to illuminate the water, we could see groups of four to six ducks flying in the distance. Luckily, we didn’t have to call them in – none were decoy shy through the first few hours. 

Within five minutes of legal hours opening, a beautiful surf scoter drake came cruising into our 12 o’clock spread. Daryl Mummert, the welder, took a shot at it but clipped it, giving me ample opportunity to take a follow-up shot when it crossed into our 10 o’clock. The 2-shot sailed through the air and knocked the drake down, a quick kill to set off a chain of knocks that the others would get over the rest of the hunt, but more on that in a moment.

What was most surprising about this first bird wasn’t that it came so early, it was that it took two people to take it down. I was unaware heading into the hunt that sea ducks are tough-skinned and that it typically takes at least two shots to kill one – one when it’s in the air, one when it’s on the water. Mummert, a highly-experienced waterfowl hunter, explained all of this in the following minutes with a congratulatory tone.

Mummert’s experience comes from many years on the water with his 12-gauge in hand, and his favorite spot is Chincoteague, Va. He has property there that allows him to head out many times a year for multiple seasons. His experience was invaluable for this hunt, as he would call birds out that were almost impossible for fresh eyes like mine. He also would call distance for us, and taught me that if I think my lead is long enough, it probably isn’t – in short, these birds are fast.

The second bird down came from Patrick Vega, a brown and black surf scoter hen. As Moore’s boat circled around to retrieve it, Mummert’s bird – a surf scoter drake – came in locked giving him a perfect shot. Within 20 minutes, Vega’s second and final bird came in from our 6 o’clock and he knocked it out of the air with ease. As it floated into our blind, we noticed that it, too, was a surf scoter drake.

A surf scoter drake held by Patrick Vega. The drake marked Vega’s second bird of the day.

The males have beautiful white, bright orange and yellow beaks with a hint of red. On the top of the bill are symmetrical black circles that, when looking from afar, look like giant black eyes. Kind of eerie, but gorgeous nonetheless.

The deputy, Tyler Dopson, claimed the fifth surf scoter soon after Vega’s final bird came in. It was a clean shot that easily knocked it out of its dive. And after a long hiatus that saw a couple of missed shots between us, another surf scoter hen came flying in from our 6 o’clock. As it crossed Vega’s path, I pulled up and led the bird for a few seconds. As soon as I had a long enough lead, my shot sailed through the air and found its mark, knocking the hen down hard as it crashed into a wave. A few seconds later, it bobbed above the water and was still alive, so I attempted to deliver the kill shot. Instead, the hen went under again. Worried that a critically wounded bird was going to get away, we radioed to Moore and Shields to see if they could finish it off and net it onto the boat. Thankfully, they were successful.

That hen ended up to be the final bird of the day, and even though we were successful in our own ways it was a bluebird day — in Maryland, the sea duck daily limit is five birds. The reason for our moderate success lies in the temperature, which started out in the mid to high 40-degree range and was 55-degrees when we called it a day around 11:30 a.m. What seems like a chilly day is actually warm for duck hunting, as waterfowl tend to be more active in cold, sub-40 weather.

On the way back, our birds rested on the small, white starboard table. Feathers ruffling in the cool air, it was hard to stay inside and not admire the beauty of the birds and take in the experience of the morning. It was my first-ever duck hunt – a hunt that snapped a long line of nonsuccesses – and to be able to enjoy that experience with others was something I’ll never forget. 

Finally, 40 minutes later, we were back on land. Fresh sea legs returned to their normal mode of function as we loaded up our gear into the truck and changed into more comfortable outfits. As we said our goodbyes and hopped into the truck, tired and happy, we couldn’t wait to recap the day to our respective friends and family — possibly over a nice bag of teriyaki sea duck jerky after breasting out our prizes.

For those interested in a guided hunt on the Chesapeake Bay, Capt. Moore’s contact information can be found at http://www.chasintailch.com/

(Photos by Andrew Spellman unless credited to another photographer)

Masters of elusion: Western Maryland grey squirrels get away during three-day split hunt

Hunting, small game

SMITHSBURG, Md. – It’s crazy to think that an area four hours from your normal hunting spot would breed different quirks in the same animal, but that seemed to be the case when scoping out squirrels in the hills of western Maryland. 

Skunked in Maryland’s Mennonite country in early goose season

Hunting, Waterfowl

CEARFOSS, Md. – Just south of the Pennsylvania border resting between I-81 and the Conococheague Creek is Cearfoss, Maryland – a small pocket of corn and soybean farms in the middle of Mennonite country. 

You can smell it before you see it, a signal that you’re in rural America – even if a big town is just 20 minutes away. As the veil opens and you cross those cow-patty laden farm lines, you may catch sight of folks hitting the fields in search of geese. 

West Virginia whitetail harvest over last decade sees drastic decline

Deer, Hunting

A change is happening in the Mountain State, and it isn’t good. 

West Virginia is known for a lot of poor qualities when put up against the other 49 states, but something that a lot of people aren’t talking about is the consistent decline of whitetail deer harvests. In 2008, hunters totaled 163,603 kills across the four month season. A year later, they only tallied 155,214, and in 2010 that number plummeted to 106,499, a 31.4 percent decrease. Since then, they’ve only surpassed the 140,000-mark once. 

PERSPECTIVE: Don’t fall for the marketing gimmicks when preparing for new, returning hunting seasons

Duck, Hunting

There’s a lot I’ve had to do to get ready for my first year of Maryland’s migratory bird seasons. Especially when it is right around the corner and in a state that’s unfamiliar.