| It’s not very often that something truly noteworthy occurs in Maine’s sporting world. Our hunting season dates and bag limits are pretty much the same year after year. Crossbows were added to the mix a couple of years ago in a limited way, and it’s legal to take more than one whitetail during the Expanded Archery Deer Season, but in most cases the laws that were in effect 30 years ago pretty much remain the same.
There’s always the exception, of course, and this year’s big news is for waterfowl hunters. For the first time in almost 60 years, hunters will be able to take three wood ducks (the limit’s been two since the 1960s) and two hooded mergansers (the limit was one per day for decades).
For most hunters’ lifetimes the limit on these species never changed. It’s no secret that the wood duck, protected due to habitat loss when a major hurricane in 1938 destroyed millions of den trees, has been the poster child for conservation efforts throughout the East since the 1940s. (Must have been quite a storm, because it’s taken some 70 years for wood ducks to make a comeback!) In fact, it’s safe to say that more wood duck nesting boxes have been built and erected over the last 50 years than any other species-specific habitat improvement project. Scouts, hunting clubs, even prison inmates have collaborated on wood duck box projects, and there are likely millions of these boxes scattered around wetlands from Maine to Florida, a grand effort to replace dead trees with nesting cavities that have disappeared due to age, logging or development.
In the 1960s it was quite an event to see any wood ducks, let alone numbers of them, and the two-bird limit has been in effect at least since then. Now, the wood duck is one of the Atlantic Flyway’s most common species, almost frustrating in its abundance because there are often flocks of woodies flying around yet fewer of the “big” ducks that have higher bag limits.
The same goes for the hooded merganser, a striking duck with a black head and a white crest. Both of these are among the most beautiful of birds in the East, and hunters who want an eye-catching mount for the den covet males. Similar in size, habitat preference and habits, these colorful species have been familiar sights in Maine and elsewhere throughout the flyway for many years. This will be the first season in modern memory where hunters may take three woodies and two hoodies out of a daily bag limit of six.
Fortunately, wood ducks and mergansers are among Maine’s most common inland waterfowl species. Wood ducks are most common, but there are plenty of mergansers (hooded, red-breasted and common) around as well. You’ll see the “ugly” mergansers most often (red-breasted and common, the latter of which loosely resembles a male mallard except for the trademark pointed, toothy bill). These odd-looking birds are quite common on our local rivers and up to five may be taken per day in addition to the basic bag limit of six ducks. (Log onto the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Web site at www.maine.gov/ifw/laws_rules/hunting_trapping/mig_birdlaws.htm for season dates, bag limits and other details.)
Mergansers of all species feed primarily on fish, mollusks, snails and such, and swimming around underwater keeps them wet and soggy-looking most of the time. In fact, they can often be found draped over a rock or log as they dry out in the sun and wind.
Locally called “fish ducks,” mergansers are said to be fishy-tasting due to their dietary preferences, but they are surprisingly tasty (much like beef) if you skin the bird and remove the fat from the meat. A breasted merganser produces what looks like two pieces of flank steak and is delicious when marinated in Italian dressing and grilled or broiled. I treat sea ducks the same way and the meat is very tasty as well.
Mergansers are not the most difficult of ducks to hunt. It’s almost too easy to drift up on them while canoeing. In most cases they will let you get well within shotgun range before taking off in a loud, splashy flush. They are relatively slow fliers as well, so a seasoned shotgunner should have no problem making a shot.
Mergansers also have the odd habit of flying up and down the river just off the water, often passing well within range of paddling hunters.
They may get up a decent head of steam when flying low over the river, so you may need to lead them a foot or two. Odds are, however, that they will be within 20 or 30 yards when passing by, so you should be able to down a few as they pass by. And, don’t be surprised if they round the corner, turn and head back your way!
Wood ducks are denizens of the swamps and wooded fringes of lakes, ponds and rivers. They especially love winding rivers and streams, flooded timber and secluded, shallow coves. On a given day from opening day till ice-up you should be able to find a limit of three woodies every time you go out. To make the trip a little more sporting, most hunters hold off on shooting the hens, instead waiting for a decent shot at the more (most!) colorful males. Most of your wood duck shooting will be jump shooting on foot or from a canoe, so picking out a mature male is rarely a problem.
Wood ducks are primarily vegetarians and particularly love acorns, which means their flesh is very good to eat. To get the most out of your woodies, skin them and remove all fat before marinating them overnight. Roasted in aluminum foil or a cooking bag, they’ll come to the table moist and succulent. Coupled with asparagus and wild rice, they are one of the true culinary treats of the wild world.
Remember that you’ll need a hunting license, state and federal duck stamps and steel (or other non-toxic) shot for all of your waterfowl hunting. Wear a PFD while boat hunting and try to focus on male birds only. It’s been a generation since we’ve had such generous bag limits on these ducks, so get out there and reap the benefits of our own conservation efforts!