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Duck shooting on Maine's icy ledges
Duncan Barnes
November 30, 1964
The search for eider can be a miserable experience, but Ransom Kelley makes it comfortable and rewarding
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November 30, 1964

Duck Shooting On Maine's Icy Ledges

The search for eider can be a miserable experience, but Ransom Kelley makes it comfortable and rewarding

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"Let them land," Kelley whispers. "They'll add some life to the decoys." The ducks skid in with a splash and immediately begin to dive for mussels. Then another flock swings in.

"Now," Kelley yells, pushing down the sides of the Canard Noir. West and up and shoot. Three eiders drop heavily into the decoys. "Reload," Kelley yells. Suddenly the water seems to erupt with ducks as the first flock zooms up from the bottom, bursting through the surface like Polaris missiles. Kelley fires two deliberate shots, and two white males drop.

"Two cripples," he says, reloading his automatic. "Clean them up."

Despite their gregarious nature, eiders become quickly educated to the sound of gunfire. Although they will invariably swing over a realistic set of decoys, they will not always drop into them, and much of the shooting will be at passing birds.

"Eiders look as big and as slow as balloons," says Kelley, "but they're deceiving. You start shooting and they ring down for more steam—they've got plenty in reserve. It can be a mighty humbling experience."

Expending considerable ammunition, six or eight shooters can get their limits, often from the same ledge, by midmorning—if not through shooting skill, then by the sheer numbers of eiders swinging over their decoys. The eider shooter may also get some good shooting at coots or old squaws and on rare occasions at harlequins, as beautifully colored as the freshwater wood duck.

The morning's ledge gunning is only part of Ransom Kelley's unique operation. Atlantic Flyway shooters this year are allowed a daily bag limit of three diving or puddle ducks. With any luck at all, Kelley will take care of that by sculling shooters down on rafts of old squaws, whistlers, bluebills, buffleheads and black ducks on the inland estuaries, bays and tidal rivers. His scull, or sneak boat, is 16 feet long, 40 inches wide and so low to the water that when camouflaged with snow, marsh grass or rock-weed it looks like nothing more than a chunk of flotsam moving along with the tide. The gunner lies on his back in the bow until Kelley yells for him to sit up and shoot. The first time he pops up, he very likely will freeze at the shock of hundreds of ducks jumping into the air all around him.

If Kelley finds this a rather irritating quality in a shooter, he has good reason. Wedged tightly in the stern compartment (often with Peg or Bess squirming between his legs and whining softly at the smells and the gabbling of nearby ducks), Kelley is perspiring profusely. Two hours of sculling on a raft of ducks moving with the tide is not unusual, and more than once the ash oar has snapped in his hands from the strain of pushing more than 1,000 pounds of boat, men, dogs, guns and ammunition through the water.

"A good time to scull ducks," Kelley says, "is late in the fall when the inland waters are buttoned up. You scull up while they are feeding—during the last two hours of flood, when the advancing water melts the ice on the marsh, and the first two hours of the ebb, before the marsh freezes up again."

In braver moments Kelley rigs his sneak boat with a canvas spray cover and sculls Canada geese offshore, bucking winds that sometimes hit 30 knots. "It's quite comical," Kelley says. "You spot the geese from the big boat, take a compass course on them and then play hide-and-seek in the waves. You are sculling like hell to reach them, and suddenly you are riding down the face of a wave and the geese are down in the trough of the same wave, looking right in at you. Then you try to shoot at them and watch the waves at the same time.

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