Big game hunting. It's largely the only kind of hunting our family has ever done. Sure, my brother and I grew up chasing squirrels and put lots of spruce grouse into a frying pan, but hunting birds with a shotgun? Nah...not really our thing.
Our son, Connor, who is now 16, has recently joined the local shooting sports team and is in his second season of shooting skeet, trap, and the myriad of games they play. It has been a great learning experience for both of us as we navigate the relatively new world of shotguns and how to shoot clay targets out of the air.
Naturally, several of his shooting peers and their families do a lot of wing-shooting and had showed us photos from their trips both in Alaska and to the lower 48 where they shoot a whole host of game birds from geese, to doves, to pheasant, to ducks. 'Man, we should try that someday, it looks like fun!' was my typical response, not knowing when we'd ever make the time to tag along on one of these adventures.
Sometimes life has a way of working out and I found myself in the right place at the right time to have us both on the first annual youth sea duck hunt sponsored by Alaskan 4-Star Charters who wanted to introduce new young hunters to this type of hunting. The only caveat was that they were looking for father/child pairs that hadn't done it before, which meant we fit the bill. Captain Jody Mason contacted me and instructed us to be at the Whittier tunnel at 7:30am on December 15th.
With a car full of shotguns, waders, cold weather gear, food, and a case of ammo, we headed south from Wasilla and were the first ones in line at the Whittier tunnel. For those that don't know to access the seaside town of Whittier you have to travel through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel which is the longest highway tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles.
Weather warmed continually on the drive and by the time we exited the tunnel at Whittier we were looking at temperatures in the teens. It was starting to snow, pretty heavily, and the whole harbor looked like it was under a thick layer of snow, sometimes several feet thick on sleeping boats in the harbor.
We met up with Tim Thomas and his son, Asher, who were the second group of new bird hunters joining us on the boat. After a gear haul down to the docks, we boarded The Wildlife with Jody and Darryl who would be taking care of us. After a quick brief on safety and rules/regulations, we made our way through the frozen ice floes in the harbor and into Passage Canal, leaving before sunrise.
Daylight presented Prince William Sound in almost grayscale as the skies were heavily overcast and there was snow all along the coast down to the high tide mark. After about 90 minutes in the boat, Jody motored toward the shore where he would drop us four hunters, along with guide Darryl onto the beach. With gear unloaded, the last thing to do was to load our shotguns and wait
Waiting wasn't something we had to do much of. Only after a few minutes we had birds coming into the decoys. In several instances everyone was putting steel into the sky and all of us were getting our first ever experience at waterfowl success. The ducks we were shooting were both male and female Barrows Goldeneye.
Often you can see the ducks flying, eyeing the decoys, and doing a big swoop around to land. We would let the ducks get within range and Darryl would announce 'CUT 'EM!' and we would let the shotguns sing. Other times, it seemed that they would come out of nowhere almost surprising everyone who was actively looking for birds. The heavy snow and overcast skies might have played into that, but it definitely added a level of excitement for sure.
A few mallards flew overhead much out of range and we did miss a few chances at Harlequin ducks, which Darryl affectionately referred to as 'Harleys'. Harleys are an incredibly beautiful bird that can dive as deep as 70 feet into the ocean for up to 45 seconds where they are targeting snails, small clams, limpets, mussels, and other small ocean invertebrates. Flying fast and not presenting themselves well to us, we weren't able to seal the deal on our first Harlequin.
Knowing almost nothing about ducks and duck hunting it was great to have Darryl sharing his knowledge about the subject as we asked all the rookie questions. You can tell that he has a deep love for duck hunting and is genuinely excited to be out there, day after day, doing what he loves.
We moved spots to as second location which happened to be on a narrow peninsula. The snow started coming down harder here after a bit of respite and it was way fun to have the birds coming from behind us as well as they spotted the decoys from overhead. More shooting, more splashes into the water, and more laughs from everyone was had as we doubled our total amount of birds at this location.
The days are short in mid-December and getting back just after dark was something we would have to contend with even wrapping it up around 3:45pm. After scooping the floating birds up from the water and getting all the decoys onboard we were headed back toward the harbor.
Jody presented the boys with two gift bags which contained custom Alaskan 4 Star Adventure hoodies complete with their names, and new ball caps for them to sport as well. Everything about this day was just incredible, and I don't think it was just because we were new, either. Sea duck hunting in the snow is so much fun, and definitely fun to experience it with new friends and family as well.
I'll warn you about the downsides. If you do choose to go with Jody and Darryl just be prepared to get the itch to buy a nice shotgun and get out on the water as much as you can. It's clear to me now why some guys seemed so into it. Its an absolute blast.