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Extreme Sport on the Chesapeake

The waterfowl hunter is a different sort of man — or woman

Courtney Blank and McKenna Merkel with a nice bag of surf scoters and two drake old squaw sea ducks.

The sound of a half dozen rapid shots followed by a pause, then two or three more measured reports rolled in from the nearby Magothy River. I was drinking my first coffee that morning, still in my bathrobe and looking out the front window when I heard the gunfire. It was bitter cold, windy, overcast and an altogether miserable morning. The duck hunters must be in heaven, I thought.
    Foul winter weather drives migrating waterfowl down the Atlantic Coast. It also moves birds that have already arrived off open wind-riven waters to seek shelter and food along the shoreline coves and the tributaries. That’s where these specialized hunters wait, crouching in blinds or shivering in layout boats next to scores of decoys, fingering long, slender shotguns and waiting for their quarry to be attracted into range.
    Waterfowl hunters are not like normal people. During duck and goose seasons, spates of sunny days and moderate temperatures send them into irritable funks. Forecasts of storm warnings and gusting winds, snow or rain, overcast skies and plunging thermometers cheer them and lighten their step.
    Waterfowling is a sport only for the hardy, those inured to harsh, frigid conditions and ready to expend any amount of effort in preparing for their sport. They must also be immune to long days of inaction, for experienced gunners know well that often the birds do not come to the hunter.
    The sport requires specialized hard-weather clothing, tough waterproof coats and trousers with heavily insulated cores. All come in camouflage patterns designed to make the wearer as inconspicuous as possible to the migrating ducks and geese. Those birds have virtually telescopic vision.
    It takes strength and good physical condition because gunning the Chesapeake requires an inordinate amount of hard labor. Preparing blinds and duck boats, lugging any number of decoys, setting them out before sunrise and carrying bags of gear: That kind of effort will raise a sweat and exhaust many before the first shot is even fired.
    Challenges are often extreme. The hardy, long-traveling, powerful birds that test these gunners do not seem bound by the normal physics of flight.
    I remember gunning many years ago on Lake Erie. I was in a layout boat behind four-dozen decoys on a blustery day inside Presque Isle Bay. A string of a dozen canvasbacks had plummeted in from on high. I rose up to lead the first duck by at least a half-dozen feet. My shot struck the water just behind the trailing duck as they flew off. If those geese weren’t exceeding 100 miles an hour, I’ll eat my hat and yours as well.
    In spite of the challenges, this sport has long had a hard corps of dedicated practitioners. And make no mistake, it isn’t strictly a man’s sport. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially these days, when the women in our military are earning Army Ranger badges and queuing up to compete for the most exclusive areas of Special Forces.
    Woman or man, the waterfowl hunter is a different sort of individual.