Predawn always seems darker and more desolate in December. Perhaps it’s the cold that makes it feel that way. It’s a cold that’s deep and penetrating and stings the flesh, and in time seeps through even the best apparel. But deer season is over and it’s time to head out onto the bay for some late-season waterfowling.

Duck hunters are a dedicated lot. Rising hours before legal shooting time to prepare for a day’s or morning’s hunt, they gather the necessary (and unnecessary) paraphernalia unique to their particular quarry. Dog, decoys, guns and blind bags full of shells, calls and more are loaded into the boat for a short ride to the local pond. If you’re lucky and the birds are flying well, you and your companions may bag two or three birds apiece. To the uninitiated, it hardly seems worth the effort.

And all that is on a good day in October or November. Things change in December. Typically, below-freezing and sometimes well-below freezing temperatures make it a much less appealing and potentially more perilous proposition. Like a lazy dog, lubricating fluids and fuels are far more resistant to functioning in the cold. Extra layers of clothing make it more difficult to move, and you may work up a good lather simply pulling on the starter cord of a stubborn outboard motor.

But you’ll need that power, and a bigger, more expensive boat, to reach December’s birds. Inland ponds, lakes and smaller waterways are frozen, forcing puddle ducks to the coast. The walk-to spots are overhunted at best, which means islands are the best hunting spots. And if you’re seeking sea ducks, it means the outer islands.

So this is where we go, though I’m still not sure why. We rise in the wee hours, drive 30, 40, 60 minutes to the ramp. Then we launch and motor out for another 25 or 30 minutes in pitch darkness and numbing cold. It takes another 20 minutes (on a good day) to set the decoy lines, offload hunters, dogs and gear onto the rocks, then double-anchor the boat.

If we figured right and all goes smoothly, all is accomplished before legal shooting time arrives. More often the birds are tolling into the spread while hunters are frantically rummaging through pockets or blind bags for shells and the boat is still being set on anchor.

The early-morning action can be fast and furious. Big eiders bank slowly and turn into the decoys, while dainty oldsquaw wing suspiciously past the outer limits of gun range. A volley is fired and a single birds falls, then disappears into the waves. The dog searches frantically for the bird, head turning this way and that until it finally surfaces and a follow-up shot prevents further escape.

Meanwhile an empty shell, jammed in the action, requires removing your glove to dislodge it. Cold metal burns your flesh and sucks the feeling out of your fingertips until they’re as cold and numb as your toes.

The next flight produces a pair of birds, one of which swims out of range before gun or dog can respond. It’s off to the boat to chase the escapee down, a process that usually consumes a fair number of shells.

In time the tide turns, the flights abate and the decoy lines tangle. You spend another hour picking up gear, decoys and decoy lines, and head for the ramp. The sun is now well up and has warmed the air, but it still bites under power, so you turn away, pull up your hood and stare into the bilge, a mess of slushy salt water, sea duck slime and empty hulls. You wonder why you do it, at the same time knowing you’ll do it again.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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