Each fall I try to do something different during Maine’s short but busy hunting season. Last year it was back-to-back moose hunts, the year before it was hunting eiders on the coast . . . the list is long and sometimes expensive and logistically challenging. It’s always pleasant to look back on these excursions and recall the excitement, camaraderie and unexpected twists and turns that are bound to affect any foray into the wild.
This year I decided to do something I’ve been mulling over for several years. I’ve been an avid waterfowl hunter since 1967 (when a federal duck stamp cost $3!) and have been to all the glamour destinations in the East including Maryland, Delaware, coastal Maine, Canada, the Carolinas and even Stuttgart, Arkansas, where literally millions of ducks and geese gather during the fall migration.
But, what I’ve wanted to do for some time is drag my trusty old kayak into a flooded swamp far from the crowds, paddling slowly and quietly through brush, over fallen trees and beaver dams in search of wood ducks, hooded mergansers and the occasional black duck, all species native to Maine’s hidden flowages. Most of these places are impossible to approach on foot because they feature deep, slow-flowing channels surrounded by 100 yards or more of floating bogs, tangled brush and grassy hummocks that, combined, make it impossible to get anywhere close to the ducks, which is undoubtedly why they choose such places to feed and rest during the hunting season.
A kayak is the best choice for these places because the channels are often narrow, shallow and choked with vegetation, but a short, slick kayak can slip over and around most obstacles without making a sound. Also, one can launch a kayak from dry ground and the scoot slowly across wet grass, puddles and increasingly deeper water thanks to the craft’s slick bottom and keel-less design.
I’d been thinking about spending a few days in October focusing solely on back-water duck hunting, and this year I finally dredged up the necessary ambition to get the job done. To get to the bog where I wanted to hunt I’d have to carry my kayak, life vest, paddle, shotgun and peripheral gear across two paved roads, drag it about two miles down old, long-abandoned logging roads and then slide it about 200 yards down a steep, wooded hillside just to get near the water. Next, I’d have to snip a path through dense saplings till I could get close to the water, and finally, I’d have to load up, get into the kayak and scoot my way through brush, weeds and tall grass till I reached the open channel. Of course, all this preliminary stuff was part of the reason I had avoided this adventure for several years. Sounds like a lot of work for a duck! But, like any good bucket-list adventure, I couldn’t let myself ignore the attraction of a day alone on a secluded Maine beaver flowage. Just a few days ago I decided it was do-or-die time.
The carry-and-drag portion of the trek only took an hour, and then getting the kayak into the water took nearly as long because the shoreline brush was so dense. Several times I stopped and asked myself if this was even worth it, but I figured that since I’d come this far . . .
As any fan of paddling can tell you, there’s nothing like shoving off into clear, open water. The channel was deep and dead calm with a barely discernible flow. I was able to drift along at a good pace with very little paddling required, which is a good thing when one is hunting ducks.
Once underway I began to calm down, relax and enjoy the colorful scenery (also part of my plan). The hardwood leaves were at their peak, the water was flat, black and serene and the sky was brilliant blue. At one point a family of otters appeared and circled my kayak for several minutes, ducking and diving while uttering their trademark gurgling chatter. It was fun to see them close up and totally unafraid, but their antics cost me a shot at a pair of wood ducks that flushed around the next bend in the channel. I was not overly concerned, however, because I knew there’d be more ducks ahead and one doesn’t get to mingle with a family of otters every day.
More entertainment came in the form of a flock of warblers that seemed to enjoy flitting across the channel in front of me, some nearly touching the water as they flew back and forth across my bow. They’d hop from limb to limb within the flooded brush, pausing to wipe their bills on twigs just inches above the water. They made no noise and seemed quite tolerant of my presence, but they accompanied me along every inch of the way for the better part of two hours.
It was a perfect day to be on adrift in my kayak and I paused often to admire my surroundings. It was a clear, bright, sunny day, cool and crisp, and I think it was for that reason that I never shot a duck that day. In fact, several times I came upon pairs of mergansers and wood ducks that, had I been more serious about hunting, might not have escaped, but I never even picked up my shotgun when I knew there were likely to be ducks ahead.
This was more of a scouting trip for me. I just wanted to see what was there, what to expect and what it would take to get my kayak into the water. Fortunately, things worked out better than I expected, and when the second half of the split duck season opens Oct. 31, I’ll be more inclined to pay attention to the ducks instead of otters, warblers and colorful foliage.
One might say I had a very successful first day on the water and one more item to cross off this year’s bucket list. I can’t wait to see what happens next time!