As the early dawn gray horizon is slowly absorbed by light hues of orange and pink to the eastward, you lightly rock to the chop in the ten-foot, 200 pounds fiberglass layout boat your hunting guide just anchored you out in. It’s your first time targeting waterfowl on the open water, nevertheless in a small craft with just your buddy laying by your side. All the instructions the Captain went over that morning are running through your head, and with a belly full of anticipation, slight nervousness, and a lot of excitement; you watch the tender boat slowly drift away setting out the large scoter decoys. The Captain's lights dim as he works decoys further out and the orange skies lights raise higher off the water, a few bad jokes are told between you and your buddy, mostly good-natured ribbing over who will miss the most fowl. A short silence is broken by the guide over the radio, “Load up boys, let em work the decoys and shoot em in the face”. Shotguns are loaded and the first few distant sea ducks are seen trading by, all anxiety and nervousness are gone, and you think to yourself how stable and comfortable the layout boat is, you remind yourself not to fall asleep in the slow rhythm of the sound. Stay low, let them come as close as you can, shoot where they’re going, and shoot ‘em again if their heads are up, the captain's words are running through your head. His tender boat is behind you and out of sight waiting to recover and ducks that fall to your 12 gauge number 3 steel shot. The slight chop on the water perfectly camouflages the CoreSound Layout, while you stay dry and relaxed. With your eyes scanning side to side, you spot the first group working the decoys, coming with the wind from behind you they pass the spread of decoys by 75 yards. Just as you thought they were gone they swing 180 degrees, drop elevation slightly and fly straight upwind directly to you. Here they come! Let em come, let em come… Kill em your buddy finally yells, you pop up and are briefly surprised they were a little further out then you thought before you sat up to shoot. Out of the 5 black scoters that committed to the decoys, you two were able to claim one of them with 6 shots between you. You tell the guide on the radio you have a dead bird in the decoys, he kind of chuckles and asks “Just one, ah that's alright you boys will get the hang of it, good job fellas” A few missed opportunities on some single drake surf scoters, and a few more in the bag the two of you are starting to get the feeling of wingshooting from, essentially a moving bed with a backrest. Scoter limits are finally reached, high fives are given, pictures have been taken, the decoys have been picked up as the Captain steams the tender boat loaded with all the decoys, layout, and hunters towards the dock. You can’t help but smile and relive every moment of your first-morning open water layout hunting, you knocked two new waterfowl species off your bucket list, and got a beautiful drake surf scoter to take to the taxidermy. Before you step off the boat, you’re already mentally planning your layout trip for the next season and who to invite to share the experience with!
On the way to the hill, the Guide is smiling inside, most hunters don’t realize the true satisfaction he gets, from successfully introducing sportsmen and women, to new species, new techniques, and watching them put it all together by the end of the trip. The many late nights rigging decoys in the dark, missing the family dinners, working on motors, changing trailer tires, and screwed up weather is all forgotten seeing the smiles and sense of accomplishment on his guests.
The amount of preparation, scouting, and maintenance the guide puts in before each day on the water isn’t thought about by a lot of his guests. He’s done his homework, his boats loaded with not only all of the hunting gear that’s needed for the day but also all of the required safety gear. To make the most of your layout, or boat blind hunt you’ll want to do a little preparation as well. First of all, you’ll want to be properly licensed, a North Carolina hunting license, HIP certification, and Federal WaterFowl stamp are required for anyone participating in the hunt. For any of the hunts that are offered you’ll want to invest in a pair of chest waders, and a good waterproof jacket, depending on the weather layering cold weather undergarments may make your day much more enjoyable. Once you have taken care of being legal to hunt and having the proper attire, it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the shotgun you intend on hunting with (you are required to provide your own shotgun and non-toxic shot for the hunt) most hunters prefer 12 gauges, but 20 gauges are sufficient as well. The goal is to get the birds as close to the hunters as possible, with most shot opportunities being 10-25 yards for these ranges I recommend a cylinder or improved cylinder choke tube (remembering shooting steel tightens your pattern one choke tube size tighter ie. an IM choke tube will shoot steel shot like a modified tube). Steel shot 3” number 2-4’s are the most used and what is recommended, some very experienced hunters have a slightly different preference that works very well. It is a very good idea to spend some time shooting your shotgun and shells and clay targets before the day of your trip, remember shoot where they’re going not where they've been!
So you are licensed, geared up, have your shotgun ready, have spent some time at the range familiarizing yourself with your load and choke tubes. Now, it's time to pack your bag for your hunt! You’ll want waterproof gloves, a warm toboggan, a brimmed hat, sunglasses, some bottled water, a few small snacks, and 2 or 3 boxes of your preferred steel shotgun shells. No matter how well you wind shot, you will inevitably have to dispatch crippled ducks on the water so it’s always a good idea to carry more shells then not enough.
Alright, you have everything ready to go, where are you going to meet your Captain? Well, hunting from the very mobile platforms of layout boats, and boat blinds allows us options that hunting from a permanent stack blind doesn’t. Hunting sea ducks and divers on open water with these mobile methods allow us to go to the highest populations of ducks and the areas that the current weather patterns allow for the safest most comfortable hunt. So, the Captain will make his decision on the best place to meet a day or two ahead of time, sometimes having to change last minute the day before, but everywhere we hunt will be within a short drive of the lodging we recommend staying. With the ability to move to the birds, we ask guests to be understanding of last-minute change of plans, every decision the Captain will make is to ensure the guests have the best experience possible.
Now, we’ve met up, went over safety protocol, and have had a successful hunt, taken pictures to record our memories, now what do we do with our ducks? A lot of our hunters come to harvest a new trophy for the wall, if that's the case you'll want to clean off the blood as best as possible with a paper towel, try to lay the feathers back to a natural state, then take the head and tuck under the duck's wing putting it into a plastic bag and remove the air and put it on ice. It would be a good idea to talk to the taxidermist you chose at this point and see what procedures he recommends.
What do you do with the sea ducks that aren't going to the taxidermist? Scoters have a tainted reputation of not being edible, and that simply is not true. With a little extra prep work and different recipes, sea ducks make excellent table fare. This is how I personally prepare them, you’ll want to keep them cool until you are able to clean them, then you'll want to remove the breast skinless, trimming all of the fat off, next wash them off and lay on a cutting board and hit both sides with a meat tenderizing hammer until they’re broke down and fairly thin. Once you’ve done that, put them in a glass bowl and cover with apple cider vinegar, place in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. Once you remove the prepared duck breasts, you can pan-sear them over low heat in BBQ sauce or just a little oil. Not overcooking, leave the center a medium-rare color, you can serve with rice like it is or cut it up and add it to your favorite gumbo or jambalaya recipe!
Big fish or fishing big, either way, the best way to spend a day