If you do something long enough, you start thinking that you’ve seen every challenge your pursuit can throw at you. That’s usually the moment when, if you are very lucky, life throws you a screwball. How you handle it is up to you.
I was thinking about this as we loaded our hunting gear into a bright white and aquamarine boat that, by rights, ought to have been rigged with fishing rods, not duck decoys. This sure wouldn’t work up in the Sacramento Valley. But we weren’t in the Sacramento Valley. Holly and I were headed out to hunt diver ducks on big water. Really big water, as in the San Francisco Bay. And for that you need a serious boat.
We were hunting with two of the best diver duck guides in California, R.J. Waldron of North Wind Outfitters and Jason Adversalo of Long Barrel Apparel. I’d bought this hunt at a California Waterfowl fundraising auction in 2009, but soon after I tore my Achilles tendon. Now, after more than a year, I was finally going to meet the divers on their own turf.
All my life I’ve zigged where others zag. This extends into my outdoor life as well. Sure, I love mallards and pintails as much as any duck hunter. But these odd diver ducks and their even stranger cousins the sea ducks always have fascinated me. Holly and I do hunt divers from time to time at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, but I always got the feeling that the ducks were on vacation inland from their real homes, the Bay and, beyond it, the Pacific.
I wanted to hunt diver and sea ducks on their own ground. Jason and R.J. warned us that it would be a challenging hunt. “Bring lots of shells,” they advised.
We motored out to our hunting spot through patchy fog and just enough wind to make the trip as raw and cold as any winter morning I spent digging clams on Long Island’s Great South Bay. We huddled against ourselves and didn’t talk much. The motor’s drone and the slap-slap-slap of the waves lulled us into a trance as we watched little islands covered in bulrushes and cattails slide by.
Eventually we arrived at a coastline opposite the city of Antioch and set out our decoys. Diver duck decoys: Canvasbacks, bluebills, bufflehead, and a whole slew of goldeneyes. My friend Evan had warned me about goldeneyes: He’d said they were overly fond of sewage treatment plants and ate fish. And turds. What’s more, the meat of a goldeneye breast will not come off the skin like other duck; you need to fillet the meat from the skin exactly the way you do with a fish. One of Nature’s ironies.
Twilight gave way to a gray, ugly morning. We set up marsh seats — a stool on a spike you jam into the mud — behind a few reeds and huddled again, waiting for the ducks to come.
And come they did. The first to arrive was a pair of bluebills, lesser scaup. Holly leveled one, and the other escaped. Riley the Dog leapt into the water and swam after the bird. Now I’ve seen many duck dogs work, but none like this giant chocolate Labrador. It takes a mighty dog to swim the open waters of the Bay, and Riley was more than up to the task.
No sooner had Riley returned with the bird when another bluebill swept in, practically landing on my side of the decoys. I dropped it with the first shot, but the bird was not dead. “Hit it again!” Jason shouted, and I did. The bird went belly up. My first duck of the day.
Just then a huge flock of bluebills lifted off the water on the horizon. Thousands — tens of thousands — of ducks, flying in a moving cyclone that looked like living smoke. What a wonderful sight! It left us speechless. But those ducks never flew near us, so we hunkered down again.
More birds came, and we soon realized that diver duck hunting is not like hunting the puddle ducks we normally see: Divers are faster fliers than inland ducks, and zoom around just over the water — sometimes so low their wingtips brush the surface of the waves. As a shotgunner, you need to lead the bird twice or even three times as muchas you would a mallard or gadwall. We missed a lot. One reason for R.J.’s advice about bringing lots of shells.
The other reason came when one of us downed a bird. Divers are hard to kill. And, as you might imagine, they dive. And swim. So the second you drop one, you need to jump up to the edge of the island and blast the bird again. But divers possess a preternatural ability to see shot coming at them, and so, more often than not, will dive the instant before the shot hits them. They will then swim away from you. You stand, shotgun at your cheek, holding your breath and praying that when the duck reappears it will still be in range. All this is happening while Riley the Dog is swimming as fast as he can toward your duck. It is considered poor form to shoot your guide’s dog, so you are often blocked from taking a follow-up shot by Riley’s head.
If Riley can’t grab the bird, a mad chase begins. Jason or R.J. will dash around the corner and into their boat, roar off to the spot he last saw the duck — with us on shore pointing to where we last saw it — and attempt to snatch the bird when it surfaces. Needless to say we were not always successful, and losing birds sucks. Big time. I know I lost two, maybe three. They are the only ducks I’ve lost all year.
Still, even with all the commotion the bluebills kept zooming in, and in short order we all had our limit of three apiece. Nothing else was flying, so we amused ourselves by watching bluebills land in our decoys and then standing up and shouting. “Hallooo, Ducky!” The freaked out bird would zip off, wondering what the hell had happened.
After an hour of this, R. J. suggested we move to one of his old stomping grounds. “It’s a little island,” he said. How little? “Little,” he repeated, smiling. He wasn’t kidding.
You’d think there would be no way the ducks wouldn’t see us. But apparently divers and sea ducks don’t really care about people. Divers do what divers want to do. They aren’t very wary birds and go where they please, relying on speed to save them. It usually works.
Not five minutes after we set up in this new spot, a pair pf ducks came inright to the decoys. Again, Holly killed one; she’s been shooting really well this season. Riley brought it in: A mature drake surf scoter, a sea duck. The first one I’d ever seen up close.
A few minutes later, another came in and we all started shooting at it.
Fortunately, I was the one who knocked the bird down. Riley brought itin and we saw it was a young scoter drake, much more drab than the adult. The difference between the two is dramatic.
In the end, we each wound up with five birds, three bluebills and two scotersapiece, although we could have easily shot our seven-bird limit had we shot a little better. Lord knows there were enough birds flying around.
I didn’t care that I didn’t get a limit. This was one of the most exciting hunts I’d ever been on. Holly and I hunt ducks a lot, but being taken out of our element, out here in big water, with supertankers lumbering by, was thrilling. We got to see more ducks in a morning than we normally would in a month, and got a chance to shoot sea ducks for the first time.
If you are a duck hunter and have never done this sort of hunt, it needs to go on your bucket list. Fast shooting, fast birds, and lots of them, all in a very special setting we normally only see when we are out halibut fishing or chasing the wily sturgeon.
There’s only one problem: You’re shooting ducks that are challenging to eat, even for me.
The first rule with divers and sea ducks is to skin them and remove all the fat. Those of you who regularly read this space know that as someone who prides himself on eating everything but the quack, this pains me. But there is no alternative, unless you want to toss sea duck meat in with a fish stew.
Second rule is that goldeneye are wretched, horrid ducks to clean. My friend Evan was right, and the only way to get at the breast meat (which, when skinned, does taste fine) is to pluck the breast, cut out the meat and skin together, and then fillet off the skin and fat. Big pain in the ass.
Know that bluebills and canvasbacks shot in big water might have tasty fat. These ducks often travel inland, where they eat grain and wholesome plant matter. A good indicator is to check the fat by cutting off the tail, which contains a lot of fat. It that fat is white, render some into a small pan. If it is not fishy, pluck the rest of the bird. If it is fishy, skin the bugger.
Sea ducks and any duck with yellow-orange fat will be no bueno. The same thing that colors the fat is what makes salmon meat orange: Crustaceans and other shrimpy things.
So what to do with these divers? I skinned and de-fatted the legs first. These I will braise slowly in a spicy broth and make into a ducky version of my wild turkey carnitas. The breasts I ground up into sausage and burger meat.
Scoter Burgers, anyone? No, really. They’re damn good.
I also used diver duck meat to make duck l’orange sausages, which then went into one of my more outrageous creations, English Duck Pie.
This, my friends, is a meat bomb. It’s based off the English pork pie in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book The River Cottage Meat Book. It includes 1 1/2 pounds of diver duck sausage, nearly 2 pounds of braised and pulled duck leg and wing meat — oh, and 10 ounces of homemade bacon. Booyah! One slice will give you the meat sweats. It must be eaten with good mustard and lots of pickles.
It is a giant of a pie, enough to feed eight hungry duck hunters, or 12 normal people. Too much, you say? Don’t worry, it keeps in the fridge for up to three weeks.
Eating just a small slice makes me think of that wonderful hunt. Everything I knew about duck hunting — the need to be totally camouflaged, shooting skills, calling skills, how to set decoys and how to retrieve fallen ducks — everything I knew was different on this hunt. I loved it, and will be back again next year. Maybe I’ll have finished that pie by then.