Bath, rather, Historic Bath, as it shows on a map, is an end-of-the-Earth type of town. While historic markers make tourists notice its claim to fame, its waterfowling traditions are not well known. Two hunters hoping to raise its profile headed for the confluence of the Pungo and Pamlico rivers earlier on this month.
“Everybody hunts puddle ducks or divers,” said Richard Andrews, a 36-year-old guide from Bath who operates Tar-Pam Fishing Guide Service and Inner Banks Waterfowl. “I like hunting sea ducks because they offer more consistent shooting. You might go out and shoot some pintails, teal or bluebills. Then again, you might not.”
“Sea ducks” is the collective name for scoters, long-tailed ducks and eiders. They have a special season that runs longer than the “regular duck” season, from mid-October through January. The special sea duck season only applies to certain waters, including the Atlantic Ocean and all inshore coastal waters at least 800 yards from land. When taken outside the special zone, sea ducks are hunted in accordance with the regular duck season bag limits and regulations.
In the special sea duck zone, the sea duck bag limit is seven birds, with only four scoters in aggregate. Scoter species North Carolina hunters encounter are surf, black and white-winged. Other sea ducks include eiders and long-tailed ducks.
“Occasionally, we shoot a long-tail or white-wing,” Andrews said. “Every now and then, someone shoots an eider. We rely on black and surf scoters for 99 percent of our bag, but occasionally have a long-tailed duck decoy.”
Hunting with Andrews was Joe Hawley, a 27-year-old environmental specialist at Goose Creek State Park from Belhaven. They launched at Wright’s Creek ramp and headed into the darkness, light rain pelting their cheeks. Sea ducks and seagulls took flight ahead of the 22-foot boat, silhouetted against a gray sunrise working its way through the clouds.
Once they arrived at a shallow bar, Hawley began setting decoys. Andrews steered the boat clear.
“I usually run 12 decoys on a line, with mushroom anchors at each end,” Hawley said. “I set six lines of decoys.”
Hawley has hunted sea ducks 10 years. Like Andrews, he begins hunting them in October, continuing through the gap in regular waterfowl season and through January.
“Sea ducks because are dependable,” he said. “I usually run layout boats, but I also enjoy hunting from Richard’s scissor rig because it lets you hunt with your friends.”
Layout boats are one-man affairs and one person has to remain with the bigger or “tender” boat to pick up downed ducks. However, Andrews’ boat is big enough to accommodate four hunters. Hawley said he usually shoots black and surf scoters, but has taken four long-tailed ducks.
“A drake long-tail is the Holy Grail of sea ducks,” he said. “I have never killed a drake for mounting. All have been hens or juvenile drakes. I have only killed one white-winged scoter and it was a hen.”
Once the decoys were set, the two-man team opened an arrangement of planks at the bow, removed it from the gunwales and dropped it into the water where it floated. The bow pivot gives the scissor rig its name. Another system of planks remained on the top of the gunwales. They inserted pine trees into holes in the planks to conceal the boat, which Andrews painted battleship gray.
“Sea ducks are getting more hunting pressure, so they are becoming warier,” Andrews said. “It pays to hide the boat and be still when they are decoying.”
Andrews saw a flock in the distance. He began waving a black cloth flag to attract their attention. The ducks turned toward the decoys. Moments later, they were within gun range. The hunters fired and two black scoters fell.
“Motion when they are far away attracts them, but motion when they are close scares them,” Andrews said. “Once they see the flag and turn, I put it down and pick up my shotgun.”
The hunters shot their limits of black scoters. Very few were dead in the air and they quickly dispatched those did not die instantly with No. 7 steel shot. Andrews preferred larger, steel BB-sized shot, while Hawley said he used smaller, steel No. 3s.
“Sea ducks are tough because they have thick feathers and heavy bones,” Andrews said. “I tell hunters to bring two boxes of shells, BBs down through No. 3s, but also bring a box of No. 7s for cripples. They are hard to hit at all when the wind is blowing and the water is rough. The boat is rocking, the duck is flying, and you can see the shot patterns on the water, missing the duck as you empty your gun. If you have only shot puddle or diving ducks, you won’t believe how many shells it takes to shoot a limit of sea ducks.”