Captain Todd Sauerwald is a modern-day waterman. Year-long he plies his trades on the Chesapeake Bay as tugboat captain, crab fisherman and, as owner-operator of Black Duck Outfitters, a professional duck hunting guide. And on his days off? Yeah, he recreationally fishes those same waters. For those wanting to experience layout boat hunting the historic Chesapeake Bay, he’s your guy. What’re Sauerwald’s duck hunting roots and what lead him down this career path? What’re the similarities and differences hunting the Chesapeake Bay nowadays versus yesteryear? What’s layout boat hunting the Chesapeake Bay really like – hunting conditions, species, proper preparations and, importantly, how much ammo might you need?! And what about spring hunting for the greater snow goose subspecies? Like hunting long-tailed ducks over oyster reefs when weather conditions are perfectly miserable, this episode is action-packed with need-to-know-before-you-go info!
Black Duck Outfitters in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
I don’t believe anybody up in this part of the world does it better or has better equipment or more know-how than this man right here.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. Today it is duck season on the Chesapeake Bay. I have hunted a lot of places—I’ve hunted around the Chesapeake Bay, I’ve hunted in Maryland—but I had never hunted on the Chesapeake Bay until this morning. I got my full dollar’s worth of experience today, let me tell you what. I got my experience and then some. It was classic, classic, classic. Forrest and I did a layout boat hunt on an oyster bar for divers. It was a little salty out there. It’s what somebody would call “nautical.” It was nautical out there. There was about a ten mile an hour wind. It was cold for 45º. The coldest 45º degrees I’ve ever been in. We climbed off, on landlubber legs, into layout boats. When the first duck came through, kind of on Forrest’s side, came right into the decoys, I remember I felt like somebody had shoved me into a front-end washer and started it. It’s like I was looking out through this porthole, and I could see somebody just walking calmly down the hall. That’s what it felt like. The birds are moving horizontally, and I’m moving vertically with those waves. Really, really good experience. I would have it no other way. Today’s guest is Todd Sauerwald, my friend and a long-term outfitter with US Hunt List, Black Duck Outfitters. He specializes in Chesapeake Bay duck hunts, sea ducks, divers, others. I don’t believe anybody up in this part of the world does it better or has better equipment or more know-how than this man right here. How are you, Todd?
Todd Sauerwald: I’m well. How are you? Thanks for asking.
Ramsey Russell: I’m good. Todd, how did you get into this business? You’re a young man. How did you get into this business?
Reminiscing About First Time Duck Hunts in Maryland
Then, my father got me into waterfowl hunting. Sea ducks, divers.
Todd Sauerwald: Obviously, growing up living on the water, I was hunting all over the Chesapeake Bay. One of the big credentials that you need to be able to run guided hunts, here on the water, is to have your captain’s license. I started working on a tugboat when I was eighteen, so I had my captain’s license really early. I started reaching out to a couple of outfitters just to try to get a little side job while going through college, in the wintertime when all my other jobs were kind of shutting down. I finally got with Black Duck, and that’s where I started my whole guiding career.
Ramsey Russell: You grew up in this part of the world?
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah, correct. I grew up in Baltimore County. Sparrows Point, Maryland. I was born and raised there. I live six houses down the street from where I was born and raised.
Ramsey Russell: Really? Did you grow up duck hunting with a relative?
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, yeah. My father. I grew up really big into deer hunting, white-tailed deer hunting. Then, my father got me into waterfowl hunting. Sea ducks, divers. We had a farm on the eastern shore where we did Canada geese, and it had a pond where we shot some ducks every now and then.
Ramsey Russell: Did he actually get out on the Chesapeake Bay like we’re doing? The layout boats and all that kind of business?
Todd Sauerwald: Not so much the layout boats. More what we call booby blinds and shoreline hunting and stuff like that.
Ramsey Russell: Booby blinds?
Todd Sauerwald: It’s like a bunch of four-by-four posts in a big box blind, but out in the middle of water.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. Oh, yeah, I get you. I’ve seen those before.
Todd Sauerwald: We just call them booby blinds around here.
Ramsey Russell: How old were you when you started duck hunting? A little boy?
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. Since I could go out on my own and kind of handle my own. Five, six, seven years old. I was first in a tree stand when I was three. Just kind of spitballed from there.
Ramsey Russell: Do you remember your first duck?
Todd Sauerwald: I do, actually.
Ramsey Russell: What is it?
Todd Sauerwald: It was a clip-toe mallard.
Ramsey Russell: Clip-toe mallard? What is this?
Todd Sauerwald: Farm-raised.
Ramsey Russell: A Dupont duck?
Todd Sauerwald: Yep.
Ramsey Russell: A Dupond duck. That’s what they call them, isn’t it? Do they still do that out here?
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. For RSAs and stuff like that.
Ramsey Russell: Really? My first duck hunt in Maryland was on the Swan Creek over near Chestertown. It was crazy, because it was a beautiful day—it was blustery, it was windy, we had all this phrag up and down the creek to hide in—and some of those ducks, mallards— You’d call real loud, and that’s what they wanted to hear. That’s when they’d come, but then part of the flock would bounce off. So you’d call softly, and part of the flock would respond to it and start coming in, but the other flock would bounce. What I later realized was that it was part wild ducks and part Dupont ducks. The Dupont ducks wanted it loud, and the wild ducks wanted it quiet. It was maddening. But we shot a bunch. I shot three banded ducks that morning. They all said “Remington Farms.” That was kind of interesting.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. That same morning that I killed my first duck, it was me and the son of the farmer that owned the farm that we hunted. They had a pond and had a blind on it. They had some clip-toe ducks that they raised. They raised maybe 100, 150 of them, every year, just to try to bring more ducks in. The farmer told us that we could go down there. He’s like, “You guys can kill your limit. Four ducks. Four mallards apiece.” So we went down there, and we shot our four mallards apiece. One of mine ended up being a banded mallard from another farm. It wasn’t a clip-toe duck. It was a wild duck, but it was from another farm that did some banding, ten or fifteen miles up the road.
Ramsey Russell: Really? Wow. Yesterday, I met you over there at Charles Jobes’s shop. We recorded he and Bobby and Joey on a real round-table conversation about this area, about Susquehanna Flats, and their growing up the sons of Captain Harry Jobes, and the sea duck hunting, and heritage, and things of that nature. When they were talking, how much of that could you relate to, having grown up in this part of the world?
Maryland Sea Duck Hunting “Back Then” & Now
Todd Sauerwald: I’m a whole lot younger than those guys are, but even just in my 20, 25 years of waterfowl hunting, I can see a lot of the changes that they’ve talked about. When they talk about “back then,” they’re talking the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. Whereas, me and my friends are like, “Man, I wonder what it was like back then?” Well, they’re living it. Now, I can very vividly remember when I first got into waterfowl hunting by myself quite a bit, when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. We would be shooting our limit of bluebills and cans in November, around Thanksgiving. Now, it’s obviously getting warmer and warmer, later and later, and the ducks are getting pushed farther and farther North instead of migrating South. So I could relate a little bit as far as recognizing the changing and the hunting pressure they talked about. How a lot more people are getting into it. We’re seeing a lot more people like that.
Ramsey Russell: What about the similarities? This region—the Chesapeake Bay, the water, life on the water. To me, during some of the conversations we had in the boat this morning in between my teeth chattering—because I was soaking wet—I thought to myself, “Man, this guy is a Chesapeake Bay man. That’s what Todd is.” How much of it is a similarity? Probably a lot of it, you just take for granted.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. I feel like I do, to be honest with you. Like I said to you earlier, I spend 300+ days a year on the water.
Ramsey Russell: 300 days a year on the water? Talk about that.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. So I work on a tug. Right there, off the bat, I work two weeks on, two weeks off. Right there, I got 185 days that I’m on the water, right away.
Ramsey Russell: What are y’all moving, mostly, up here?
Todd Sauerwald: We do all the cargo and car ships that come into Baltimore Harbor. Anything that you can go into Walmart and Target and buy all comes in a container on a ship.
Ramsey Russell: All those big containers, those shipping containers.
Todd Sauerwald: Yep. Baltimore is also one of the biggest—they call it ro-ro. Anything you can roll on and roll off of a ship, anything with tires or that you can put on a cart. Baltimore is one of the biggest ro-ro terminals on the East Coast because it’s the closest railway to the Midwest. We bring in all the cars that they have, put them on trains, and get them all out to the Midwest, because it’s a lot closer than coming from the West Coast. Right there, that’s 185 days a year, just for what I’m going to call my real job, that I’m working, and then summertime commercial crabbing. I help out a little bit doing charter rockfishing and stuff like that. Then, here, I’m hunting another 60 to 90 days.
Ramsey Russell: A bunch. Yeah.
Todd Sauerwald: Between October to January.
Offshore Fishing in Maryland
It’s just whether you’ve got the guts to go out there when it’s 30°, leaving the dock, to get sixty miles offshore.
Ramsey Russell: I know that Black Duck Outfitters part keeps you busy, and then, for vacation—when you’re not on a tugboat, when you’re not sea duck captain, when you’re not doing a few commercial charters—on your personal time, you go fishing.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. My bug, lately, has been offshore fishing. Going out on the ocean and tuna fishing, marlin fishing. Mahi-mahi, all that kind of stuff. I try to do that at least once or twice a week, on my two weeks off, throughout the summertime.
Ramsey Russell: How far out do y’all have to go, here?
Todd Sauerwald: It varies, time of year, but, on average, about sixty miles.
Ramsey Russell: Really? How long does it take you to get that far out?
Todd Sauerwald: About two and a half hours.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Go trolling?
Todd Sauerwald: Trolling, yep.
Ramsey Russell: Is there a definitive season for that? Talk about the billfish coming in, and then what about your rockfish? I assume you’re calling stripers “rockfish?”
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah, we call them “rockfish.” That’s kind of the local term. For offshore, as far as their season, there really is no season. It all just depends on what the Gulf Stream’s doing with water. The Gulf Stream, obviously, comes from South to North, and then you get what they call “eddies” that spin off counterclockwise. When the eddies spin off, it brings that warm water off the Gulf Stream. In the wintertime, the Gulf Stream pushes farther offshore, but you can get those eddies to spin off and get closer and closer. As long as you’ve got that warm water there that tuna and billfish like—that 60º to 70° to 75° water—you’ll be able to fish them all year long. It’s just whether you’ve got the guts to go out there when it’s 30°, leaving the dock, to get sixty miles offshore.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know. I don’t know about that, after this morning. What were some of your earliest influences, Todd? Did your dad spend that much time on the water?
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. He really got me into the striper fish and all that kind of stuff. We grew up with a boat, my whole entire life. He really sparked the flame of all the outdoor passion that I have. He’s starting to slow down a little bit now, obviously, but, as much as I do it now, he used to do it just as much. We’d always duck hunt. Every weekend, it was a known thing. From September to January, it was a known thing. When I get out of school on Friday—or, even, he’d get me out of school on Friday—we were going to the shore. Whether it was deer hunting, duck hunting, goose hunting—Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we were doing it. Every weekend. Then, in the summertime, it was like a known thing. Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday, we were going out rockfishing.
Layout Boat Hunting Experiences in Chesapeake Bay
What they’ll do is, they’ll rest out on the bigger water, and then, morning and evening, they’ll start trading in and feeding on that bottom there. That’s the food that they’re targeting.
Ramsey Russell: One thing that intrigues me about Black Duck Outfitters, as a US Hunt List affiliate, is the scale of opportunities y’all have here. You have sea ducks, you have divers, you have puddle ducks, you have some geese, and then y’all do the greater snow goose hunts. With great success, I should say. Y’all really go after those birds. I don’t know which one to talk about first, but let’s talk about what we did this morning. The quintessential Chesapeake Bay, pumpkinseed, layout boat experience. You explained to me this morning, in the dark, that y’all don’t really get rollers. Y’all get chopped. How much rougher would that water have to have been before you’d have to say, “We can’t. We’ve got to punt on this”?
Todd Sauerwald: Well, I know that right there towards the end, Forrest said that he took one over the stern and kind of—
Ramsey Russell: Well, I got a few splashes, but it wasn’t a big deal.
Todd Sauerwald: You’re going to get a splash. When there’s a chop like that, you’re going to get a splash. As long as there is not a wave breaking into the back of it; if you’re willing to hang in there, we’re going to hunt them. Obviously, there gets to be a safety point of getting people in and out of the boat. You know how we pulled the Titan right up next to the layout, and you’ve got to climb over the side and get in? It gets to a point, where the layout boat’s going up and the other boat’s going down, where it gets too rough to be getting people over the side of the gunwale.
Ramsey Russell: That boat was very, very stable, though.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. Very stable. They are big, heavy boats
Ramsey Russell: From the main boat, looking at those boats, it was unbelievable how low-profile and invisible they were. Really, I had to squint like, “Holy cow, look at that.”
Todd Sauerwald: It’s funny. A lot of people that we take out, that are doing it for their first time, kind of do the correlation to, like, a kayak. When Forrest called me on the radio earlier, asking if it was stable enough to get up on his knees, I’m like, “Man, you couldn’t flip those things if you tried to.”
Ramsey Russell: He had a radio. That’s what I learned after the hunt. He’s fifteen yards over there. I can barely hear him shouting over the wind.
Todd Sauerwald: He’s on top of it.
Ramsey Russell: My neck is hurting, looking left and right and front for these birds, and he’s Johnny-on-the-spot because he had you going, “There, from the left.”
Todd Sauerwald: That’s exactly right. I was telling him, “Hit the flagger. Here comes scoter around the corner,” and you could see him flapping the flag over there a little bit.
Ramsey Russell: Was he flagging right?
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Because he was just kind of shooing it at him. I thought he ought to be waving, like, East to West.
Todd Sauerwald: I couldn’t tell. When I called him on the radio the flag, he was a little more ambitious about it, but a couple of times I looked over and it looked like he was just giving it a little flick. I think he might have just been trying to warm his hands up a little bit or something, get some movement.
Ramsey Russell: I was telling him, “Look, man, sweep that thing like you’re waving hotty-toddy.
Todd Sauerwald: Like with geese, you know what I mean? Something to get their attention.
Ramsey Russell: Something like that. So you could have let the water get in a little bit of a worse condition than it was?
Todd Sauerwald: It could have gotten worse. Yeah. It’s, obviously, not enjoyable when it gets a lot worse. But safety-wise? Yeah, it could have gotten worse.
Ramsey Russell: Being from the Deep South, and a lot of hunting I’ve done and do, I like clear. I want sunshine. I want wind to steer ducks. I want cold to make ducks move, make them hungry, but I want clear, sunshine, and shadows to hide in. You’ve always heard this old wives’ tale, back home, about it being tempestuous and stormy and windy and cold and raining. I’m like, “Who made that up?” But it is true out on this big water, isn’t it? That’s what will bust up those rafts and make those birds move.
Todd Sauerwald: It helps out a lot. When you get those rough seas like that, you’re not going to be finding big, big groups of birds. I think that driving rain, this morning, is what slowed us down a little bit, but those rough waters are what’s going to get them moving.
Ramsey Russell: Why did you pitch the boats where we did? Why did we set up right there? What was bringing those birds into that location?
Todd Sauerwald: Where we were was a place called Holland Bar. It’s a big oyster bar. Oysters naturally grow on the bottom, there, and that’s what those birds are targeting. Oysters, clams, mussels, stuff like that. That’s what they’re feeding on. What they’ll do is, they’ll rest out on the bigger water, and then, morning and evening, they’ll start trading in and feeding on that bottom there. That’s the food that they’re targeting.
Ramsey Russell: So they’re rafted off in big, open water, just doing their thing, but they’re coming in to feed on those oyster bars and mussel shoals. That’s amazing. Is there any rhyme or reason to which bar they’re going to hit or which side of the bar they’re going to hit?
Todd Sauerwald: No. I think, nowadays, it’s got a lot to do with pressure. There’s certain bars that we know of, around, that, when we’re not finding birds, we know to go check. It’s just like anything else, hunting a feed. When somebody finds them, it’s only a matter of time before everybody else starts to find them. They’ll get busted off of that bar, and then they’ll go to another one. You’ve just got to kind of keep bouncing around.
Ramsey Russell: You just have to stay out with them and figure out what’s what.
Todd Sauerwald: We hunt six days a week. If we’re hunting here one day, where we killed them the day before, and they might’ve got busted out of there, we’ll pick up and go searching.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a lot of work. As someone sitting in your boat, just watching two guys, who spend hundreds of day on the water, deploy 150-pound boats, anchor them, get them just right, and then— God, I couldn’t run a catfish trotline as quick as y’all were picking up those decoy long lines. Y’all made it look so easy. I guess it just kind of comes with the territory. Trick of the trade, or something.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. It’s one of those things where you get a system down. We have people come with us all the time that are like, “Look, just let us know how we can help.” It’s one of those things where you don’t want to be rude, but it’s like, “Nope. Just let us do the thing. We do it every day. It’s easier. It’s just second nature.”
Ramsey Russell: It’s little things. Like Ernie— You were getting a boat in position, and he was fixing to slide a boat off, and I noticed him starting to double-hand coil some rope over here, do something over here. The minute that boat went on the side, he just went into response to something else. Just keeping it safe, keeping anything from happening. It just laid out perfectly. I’m thinking, “Man, how many times has he done something like that?”
Todd Sauerwald: That’s what it is. It’s the amount of repetition and experience. When it’s a day like today, when it’s rough out and you’re trying to do everything you can to make it easiest and safest on yourself, and you’re doing something and a line gets caught on a hook in the boat— That’s the whole reason why he was coiling that line: to make sure it doesn’t get caught on anything before that line comes tight with the anchor. Because when that line comes tight with that anchor, that layout boat wants to go over the side. As soon as you get that anchor ever, you want to make sure you’ve got no tangles. You want to make sure everything is free and flowing. That’s why he was coiling that up and getting it over. Then, before that line even came tight, we had the layout boat over, ready to get in position.
Ramsey Russell: Then, when he pulled that layout boat up, I looked at it and said, “How much does that boat weigh?” Because he pulled it up like it weighed 25 pounds. He said, “150.” I’m like, “Holy—!”
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, yeah. Lifted it right over the side.
Tricks of the Trade: Maryland Blue Crabbing
An average day of trotlining, when crabbing’s good, you’re going to catch four, five, six bushels a day.
Ramsey Russell: Between that and the timing of that wave— I guess he’d just done it a million times. He picked it up, and I’m like, “Holy cow.” He picked it up like I pick up a suitcase off of a luggage rack. It was crazy to see that. It really was. Tell me this: how similar is what we did today—laying out those long lines for decoys, just the whole process—to commercial fishing, to some of the stuff you do crabbing?
Todd Sauerwald: It’s, honestly, a lot like commercial crabbing, as far as trotlining for crabs. Same thing. Our trotlines— I run a couple 1,000 foot lines, and you’ve got a 1,000 foot line with the bait every six feet. There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re putting that line out and you’ve got it in a tote that’s as small as a 55-gallon drum.
Ramsey Russell: I guess with hooks on it?
Todd Sauerwald: It doesn’t have hooks, but it’s got what they call “snoods.” On the main line, you’ve got another small line that comes off it—like a drop off a decoy, almost—and that’s where your bait hangs off, there. That’s one more thing that can get tangled up onto something else.
Ramsey Russell: Can you talk a little bit about running those crab lines? I find that fascinating. I’ve done trotlines, with the hooks and the bait, but y’all catch crabs very similarly up here. That’s pretty interesting to me.
Todd Sauerwald: Same thing. It’s almost very similar to a long line for decoys, like we were using today. You’ve got a big weight on each end. The weight comes up to a float, and then you deploy your whole line to wherever you want it to be. You’ve got it in a straight line. But when you come up, you hook that line where the float is, and you put it over your arm. As you’re going down that line, it’s picking it up off the bottom and bringing it up to the surface, and those crabs are hanging on to that bait.
Ramsey Russell: Those greedy little crabs ain’t letting go, are they?
Todd Sauerwald: No, they ain’t letting go. I’ve seen it before where they’re so hungry that they’ll hang onto the bag as it flips over the hook, and they’ll hang on to it, if you miss it, as it goes all the way back down. That’s the truth, too.
Ramsey Russell: They’re hanging on. I guess we’re talking about the Maryland blue crab?
Todd Sauerwald: Maryland blue crabs, yep. It’s a huge market around here.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Everywhere you go, they’ve got crab cakes. When you let those crab lines out, I’m assuming that they’re going down towards the bottom. They’re not riding up top.
Todd Sauerwald: Correct. It’ll go from your float, but the weight of the line— Usually, you have a piece of chain right in the middle of it, to put a little weight, and it goes down and lays on the bottom. Then, crabs are down there feeding on it, so they’re down there hanging on to it, and they don’t realize it. It’s the same thing as the old-school hand lining. When they’re munching on that bait or that chicken neck, whatever it is— Like you said, they’re greedy. They’re not thinking of anything else but eating. They don’t even realize that they’re being picked up off the bottom.
Ramsey Russell: How many 1,000 feet of crab lines do you put out?
Todd Sauerwald: Personally, I do two 1,000 foot lines.
Ramsey Russell: All right. On an average day. Not the slow days, not the best days, on an average day. I lay my lines, and then what? I lay 1,000 feet of line. Now, do I go to the boat ramp for the day and drink beer?
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, no. No. It’s a constant thing. You run down your line—you’re dipping crabs the whole entire time—and you put them in your call basket so, afterwards, you’ll sort through them. When it’s average, you’ll go down that line; you’ll run to your next line, run down that line; come over and sort your crabs out, your #1’s, your #2’s, your females, your throwback; as soon as you get done doing that, you’re right back on your line again.
Ramsey Russell: You throw back the females?
Todd Sauerwald: It all depends on your license. You’re allowed to keep females, but every license is different.
Ramsey Russell: How many crabs might you catch in 1,000 feet of line like that?
Todd Sauerwald: I’d say the average is twenty to thirty. An average day of trotlining, when crabbing’s good, you’re going to catch four, five, six bushels a day.
Ramsey Russell: Do they move on the tide?
Todd Sauerwald: Yep.
Ramsey Russell: Do you want to follow the tide?
Todd Sauerwald: You want a moving tide. It kind of depends on where you’re crabbing, as well. If you’re crabbing the mouth of a creek or something like that, sometimes the outgoing tide is a little bit better, when the crabs are coming through the mouth. But it’s the same thing when the crabs are moving in. As long as the tide’s moving. It’s just like fishing. You need the tide to be moving for them to eat.
Long-tailed Duck Hunting in the Worst Weather
I couldn’t see the bird to shoot and finish him up, again, because of the chop on the water.
Ramsey Russell: What about duck hunting? Does it matter?
Todd Sauerwald: Not for our birds. We don’t have a very big tide fluctuation. Further up the coast, they have a very large tide fluctuation to where it’s several feet, to where it’s exposing vegetation that isn’t normally exposed. We might have, maybe, a foot to a foot and a half tide change. Between a high tide and low tide, you’re really only going to get eighteen inches, maybe two feet, on a normal basis. You get a new moon or a full moon or— A real hard South wind will flood the bay, actually. It will take all the water and jam it up into the bay. The same thing with the Northwest. Northwest will blow it all out. I’ve seen three or four foot tide changes on a hard Northwest wind that’s blowing for two or three days.
Ramsey Russell: I know we posted some pictures, today, of Forrest and I. Forrest got his first long-tailed duck. He was very excited for that. We were telling you that we only brought 25 shells apiece. I’m thinking, “Man, if I can’t kill five ducks, I’m just going to go sit in the boat.” I’ll tell it first on him, and then on myself. This drake freaking longtail, this oldsquaw, comes flying off his end. “Bam, bam, bam!” I’m like, “Oh, boy.” I hollered at him, “You didn’t bring enough ammo!” I’m sitting here, making excuses. I’m sitting here, looking through a porthole because it’s raining from the North, and I didn’t have a radio of somebody saying, “Look left.” By the time that bird flew into my vision, he was right there. He wasn’t thirty yards out, forty yards out, forty yards to the left. He was ten yards straight right in front of me. By the time I could move and get my hands out of my pockets, get going, he was gone. I was thinking, “Oh, well.” About that time, here comes another one. He went down, off the left, circled up that line of oldsquaw decoys. Twenty yards. “Bam, bam, bam!” I hollered to Forrest, “I didn’t bring enough shells, either.” Well, we got birds today. That’s all that matters. I knew I’d get dialed in. What I just realized is to ignore the vertical movement. Just ignore it. Focus on the bird, snapshot, and shoot like you would. I did knock down that one cripple, that one bird. He fell out there to my left, thirty yards, and I could see him for a glimpse, and then I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see him to shoot, and y’all had to come out to find him. I couldn’t see the bird to shoot and finish him up, again, because of the chop on the water. They’re not a huge duck.
Todd Sauerwald: No, not at all, and we had, probably, a two foot chop today. As soon as you think you’re on something, it ain’t hard to cover a six inch head with a two, two and a half foot chop going up and down.
Ramsey Russell: Forrest dropped one that fell, really, right out in front of me. I grabbed my phone, quick as I could, was going to video it bobbing in the water. Found it impossible. On his back, he was just disappeared there in that chop. Y’all found him pretty easy. You’ve got a totally different perspective, sitting in that Bankes boat looking down. You’ve really got a higher perspective than any of the ducks that came in today. I wasn’t fully laid down—I had my shoulders up against the back, and I’ll say my head was a foot and a half, two foot off the water—and those birds were coming in eyeball level. They are right on the deck. Even the ones I would see trading out there, they were just, maybe, a foot off the chop.
Todd Sauerwald: Right on the surface.
Ramsey Russell: They don’t fly high, do they?
Todd Sauerwald: No. Sometimes the scoters will get a little higher than what the oldsquaws do, but, when I say higher, I mean six to eight feet off the water. Maybe ten feet off the water. That’s flying pretty high, for a scoter.
Ramsey Russell: Like I said, we posted some pictures, and, man, the number of people— That oldsquaw is a big bird for a lot of folks. Got that big, long, beautiful sprig. They are a gorgeous bird. To me, they are. They’re very distinctive when they fly. When he comes into the decoys—to me, it’s dark, especially on cloudy days—you see those race stripes. His tertials are so gray, they’re white. The white belly is just like two racing stripes, or almost like a white bird with a black stripe, and that long tail. You see them coming through, and it’s very exciting. I get excited. It’s easy to pick those drake birds out.
Todd Sauerwald: Especially when you see that big tail sticking off the end of it.
Duck Hunting Out of a Layout Boat – Ammo, Equipment, Chokes, and More
You’re not standing in a stationary blind. You’re laying down.
Ramsey Russell: I know you’ve got some stories about guys that have shot some bullets and shot some waves. Talk about some of the stories. Explain to people what they can expect if they get in a layout boat. On a good day, not on a still, mirrored glass water day when they ain’t going to see nothing at all, but on an average day when the ducks are flying. What can they expect?
Todd Sauerwald: On average days, like I said to you earlier, I tell everybody to bring at least two boxes a person, per day. Because for most people that are coming to hunt, it’s nothing like you’ve ever done before. You’re not standing in a stationary blind. You’re laying down. The most reaction you have is that you can sit up and shoot, and that’s on a calm day. The minute you pull up, and you’re feeling confident you’re on a bird, then you get a little bit of wave— All of a sudden, you’re looking at the water ten feet in front of you, and the bird’s ten feet ahead of you. It’s definitely a challenge. It’s very unique, as you experienced earlier. You’re shooting these birds at eye level. A lot of times, with these birds, it’s not like shooting mallards. When you have a group of mallards coming in and you’re shooting, most of the time, the birds go straight up. They’re laying belly-up, laid up there for another shot. These birds are going to catch the wind and get out of there as fast as they possibly can. Like you said, even when you’re shooting at them, they’re still going to be six inches to a foot above the water, rolling out as fast as they can.
Ramsey Russell: They’re really not terribly fast. They’re flying, but they’re not just superhuman fast. They’re just trucking along. I like to shoot out of layout blinds. I either want to stand or I want to be in a layout blind. That’s when I shoot best. I don’t like sitting. I really don’t even like having to sit in the standup. It’s just added movement. But unlike a layout blind, it’s like putting a layout blind on top of one of those robot bulls.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah, exactly.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s just say that somebody ain’t trying to buck you off, they’re just making it move. That’s what it’s like.
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, yeah. It’s a totally different ballgame. I’ve had people come from all over and say how good of a shot they are, and I’m like, “Alright, you can be the greatest shot in the world, but when you get in that boat and you think you’re on something— I mean, it’s out of your control.”
Ramsey Russell: You will be humbled. If you pride yourself on being 100% or whatever, come give it a shot. You will be humbled. Who holds the world record, or what are some of the record holders, for shots fired per duck?
Todd Sauerwald: My record, to hold true till today, is ten boxes of shells for eight birds.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. I can’t even do the math.
Todd Sauerwald: That’s, what, 250 shots for eight birds?
Ramsey Russell: Do you have to send one of your helpers back to Walmart for bullets?
Todd Sauerwald: No, but, luckily, they were coming for a couple of days and brought some cases with them. They had to pick up more for the rest of the trip, for sure.
Ramsey Russell: Golly. On an average day that you show up to hunt like this, how would you tell somebody to dress for this morning?
Todd Sauerwald: Definitely waders. It’s not a necessity, but they help. When you’re taking a little bit of a splash over the back, you’re going to be sitting in a puddle and getting wet unless you’ve got full GORE-TEX pants to keep you dry. Definitely a waterproof jacket with a hood. Definitely layers. Then, we didn’t need them today, but a lot of times when we’re hunting in the Northwest wind, obviously, you’re going to be pointing Southeast, so you’re looking into the sun on a bright day. So definitely sunglasses. That’s a big thing when hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Plenty of bullets.
Todd Sauerwald: Plenty of bullets. A big thing that I have to tell everybody, too, is gun cleaning equipment.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Todd Sauerwald: Oil and stuff like that. Man, the sal really takes tolls on these guns out here.
Ramsey Russell: Forrest and I have been hunting saltwater the last few days, and we just take the Benelli’s apart and run them under hot water. Just bathe them.
Ramsey Russell: Bathe them, let them dry, and then wipe them down.
Todd Sauerwald: Put them in the shower with you. That’s what I tell everybody. Take them in the shower, rinse them all the way down, dry them off, re-oil them that night. You want to do that every night. The worst thing you can do is put them back in the case.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely, absolutely.
Todd Sauerwald: You put them back in the case and take the air off them, and they’ll start rusting up that night
Ramsey Russell: Rust like an old hook.
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, yeah. Big time.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. What about chokes? This morning, we’ve been shooting some black ducks over in New Jersey. I’m an open choke kind of guy. I shoot that BOSS shotshell. I like that modified choke. A lot of them BOSS boys like a super tight choke. I don’t like a super tight choke. I almost thought, “Ah, I might need to put that modified in. Nah, I’ll just leave this improved mod.” If those birds had hung out there to the far of the decoys—which, I think the furthest decoy was 35 yards—it would have been perfect. But, man, they weren’t. By the time I was up, they were sitting in my lap. Ten or fifteen yards. Really and truly, I think I could have gotten off with a sawed-off shotgun—a liquor store special—this morning, for some of these birds, and done a lot better. They were literally in my lap. I’m shooting a pattern the size of a snuff can at them, and I’m good, but I ain’t great. I ain’t that good.
Todd Sauerwald: That one bird I picked up from Forrest— I couldn’t even fit the 25 foot boat between him and the bird when I picked it up. That’s all. It was close.
Ramsey Russell: It was real close. Of course, he missed it the first two shots and had to get out there on the third shot before he hit it. Still, he just center patterned it. How similar is the diver hunting, like we’re thinking about doing tomorrow, to what we did today?
Best Diver Duck Hunting
I want to say that, on a typical diver hunt, you’re going to shoot your blackheads, you’re going to shoot your buffleheads, you’re going to shoot your ruddy ducks.
Todd Sauerwald: The setup is pretty similar. It really is. It’s different geographically.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of habitat structure are they coming into?
Todd Sauerwald: They’re more estuaries, rivers. Getting off the big water. A lot of the divers that we have are feeding in the grasses up in the riverheads. We have a couple of different areas that we hunt. Maryland’s kind of finicky on their blind sites and how you get them and stuff like that, but we’ve got quite a few spots that you get up into the rivers. A lot of times, the same thing with the divers— They’ll roost out on the big water, but then they’ll come up into the riverheads and feed on some oyster beds and some clam beds and stuff like that. But they’re really looking for that green vegetation that grows up closer to the freshwater.
Ramsey Russell: Do y’all still have wild celery and some stuff like that up here?
Todd Sauerwald: It’s few and far between. It’s around. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know exactly what it’s called, but there’s like a green, slime moss that they feed on quite a bit, on the rock jetties that we have up into the rivers.
Ramsey Russell: Show it to me, tomorrow, if you see some. I’d like to see some.
Todd Sauerwald: I will, for sure.
Ramsey Russell: I may not know, either, but I might. It could be naja or it could be a lot of stuff. It’d be interesting to see. What are the principal species up here? I know y’all get a few canvasbacks when the weather’s right, and the weather patterns are normal.
Todd Sauerwald: I want to say that, on a typical diver hunt, you’re going to shoot your blackheads, you’re going to shoot your buffleheads, you’re going to shoot your ruddy ducks. We get a mix of some mergansers, but our cans and our redheads are very, very weather-dependent. We don’t shoot a whole ton of redheads. We shoot more cans than we do redheads, but they’re very weather dependent. Most of our birds come from the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair, and all that kind of stuff. When those lakes stay open, we don’t get nearly the push of what we normally do when they start to freeze up. You can tell a sincere difference, when those lakes freeze up, in the kinds of birds that we have around here.
Ramsey Russell: We heard the same thing over in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It’s all about that Canadian water freezing. up. We saw a couple of flocks of redheads, which was pretty dang exciting, to me, to see a flock that big. They were like, “Man, that’s nothing. That’s like just the vanguard. Those birds aren’t doing it yet. Wait till those lakes freeze up. The birds come down; they’re everywhere.”
Todd Sauerwald: It’s like that here. When those lakes freeze up, it’s world class. When it’s the best it can be here, we’ll shoot bluebills, canvasbacks, redheads, goldeneyes. We’ll have people passing up buffleheads because they want to shoot their limit of other birds. It can get really good. Last year, we struggled a little bit with our divers. We shot plenty of blackheads. We didn’t do that great with cans or redheads, last year.
Ramsey Russell: Is it mostly lesser scaup?
Todd Sauerwald: We kill an equal mix of both. We really do.
Ramsey Russell: I love shooting those greaters. That’s really kind of an Atlantic Flyway species. I know there’s some out on the West Coast, but, boy, that’s a rare bird in the Deep South.
Todd Sauerwald: It’s funny, too, because we get a good mix of them, but usually, depending on the area we hunt, you’re going to shoot all lessers or all greaters. Geographically, we have them all over the place. You might be hunting five or six miles different, from two different spots, but you’re going to shoot greaters here and you’ll shoot lessers there.
Ramsey Russell: It must be something to do with their diet preference or something they’re feeding on. Something, some subtle difference between the two. That kind of stuff just fascinates me, Todd. It really does. I was just fixing to ask you something else, too. Tomorrow’s weather— It’s not going to be raining.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah, it’s not going to be raining. Should have a little bit of sunlight which, for divers, I prefer a sunny day.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what we want, is sunshine.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. Sunshine. I prefer a sunny day for some divers. If you can set it to where you have that sun at your back, with a little bit of wind to get them decoys moving; that’s going to be your ticket.
Ramsey Russell: Do most of your clients come up here wanting divers or sea ducks? Or both? A lot of guys I’ve talked to, who come up here, just want to come have fun and experience something different. To me, all of us want duck season somewhere else than what we’re used to, back home.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. It’s a good mix, like I was telling you yesterday.
Ramsey Russell: How can you not pay homage to the Chesapeake Bay?
Scratching Off 4 of Your North American 41
Right there, sea duck hunting, that’s four birds they can get off their list: the oldsquaw, common scoter, surf scoter, and the white-winged scoter.
Todd Sauerwald: Right. So, obviously, everybody always wants to come kill cans. I mean, canvasback on the Chesapeake Bay, that’s the waterfowler’s dream, you know what I mean? That’s the king. So we get a lot of guys, obviously, in January that want to do that. For our sea duck season—November and December—for the last two years, I’ve been having a lot of guys wanting to come scratch birds off for their 41, their North American 41. When they come hunting with us, they’ve got the opportunity. Right there, sea duck hunting, that’s four birds they can get off their list: the oldsquaw, common scoter, surf scoter, and the white-winged scoter. That’s four options that we have, right there, for sea duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: That’s fantastic. Do you get all three scoter species?
Todd Sauerwald: We do. We get the commons and the surfs a lot more than the whitewings, but—same thing—when it’s cold up North and it drives those birds down, we do get quite a few whitewings. I had a guy who was a game warden from Oklahoma. He came, he was here for three days, and that was his thing. He wanted to kill three types of scoters and an oldsquaw. We killed them all, and, on the very last day, he killed a banded white-winged drake. It was, like, only the second one that had ever been killed in Maryland. It was pretty wild.
Ramsey Russell: I heard a conversation in a duck blind in North Dakota. This is what I was fixing to ask you a little while ago. I was shocked because—bluebills, blackheads, y’all call them scaup— for the last couple of decades, I’ve been under the impression that they were on the verge of extinction. The limit’s been one, it’s been two; this year, it’s one or two depending on how the state’s opted for it. I’ve heard things about zebra mussels, about nesting, about all this different stuff. So here I am, minding my own business shooting divers in North Dakota, listening to this conversation, this former biologist, who I want to get on this podcast to talk. He says the data suggests a limit of six bluebills and only one hen. What would that do for your business?
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, that would be huge.
Ramsey Russell: For hunting in general? What would it do for just duck hunting, in and outside the outfitting business? Just in this region? You take a bread-and-butter duck, and, if you can shoot six, one hen a day, why not? Is that not, culturally, a huge species up here?
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. In Maryland, when you come out diver hunting— Nine times out of ten, you’re going to shoot predominantly bluebills. That’s what you’re going to kill. Right now, we’re allowed to kill one. We can only kill one up until, I believe it’s January 8th, and then we’re allowed two. Over the last six or seven years, they’ve really jumbled it around quite a bit. It went from one, then it went from two—for one year, they bumped us up to four. We were allowed to kill four for one year. For whatever reason, the following year, they dropped it back down to two. Last year was two. This year, I don’t know what the science behind it is, but you can only kill one up until January 8th, and then, after that, you’re allowed to kill two.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s the conversation I want to have with this particular biologist, who knows and has researched a lot about these bluebills. Are the limits that we’re abiding right now being driven by the science? He doesn’t think so. I’m thinking, “Okay, this guy knows a lot more about it than I do.” When I think Chesapeake Bay decoys, when I think about any of those classic makers around Havre de Grace, when I think decoys of Maryland and Chesapeake Bay, I think cans and bluebills. If any given carver made 100,000 decoy in his lifetime, it had to have been 70, 80, 90,000 of them were one of those two divers.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. When we set a rig, we’re setting predominantly blackheads, because that’s what we see the most of. It’s not uncommon that, when we’re going out diver hunting, you’re going to jump up flocks of a couple thousand at a time. That’s what you’re going to see the most of.
Shooting Snow Geese in the Atlantic Flyway
How can you not want to shoot a snow goose, a different subspecies that’s 30% again the size of the ones we shoot back home, twice the size of a Ross’s goose, and behaves differently?
Ramsey Russell: Yep. Let’s change subjects completely because you mentioned Hunt 41, the 41 species. I believe there’s more; I count subspecies. I don’t count color phases, but you can, however you want to count is your business. One thing I love about this Atlantic Flyway is that there are two subspecies of snow geese. There’s the lesser, the midcontinent population that we’re all familiar with, and then y’all have atlanticus, which is a bigger bird. That’s what you target over here. Are they wintering down here in the Delmarva area? This is pretty much their wintering grounds.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah. They’re right here where we’re at now. We’re here in Annapolis. You won’t see them on the western shore of the bay, for whatever reason. I’m sure it’s agricultural based. On the eastern shore, it’s a lot more ag fields. It’s a lot more open area for them. They’ll go down to the southern part of Virginia. When it gets real cold, I’ve heard of them down in North Carolina. But the Delmarva Peninsula, that’s where they’re at for the wintertime.
Ramsey Russell: When do y’all start that season?
Todd Sauerwald: When the birds are here. When we feel confident that we can get on the field and start killing them, we’ll start chasing them around. Our conservation season starts as soon as our Canada goose season goes out. This year, I believe, it’s February 5th, February 4th, something right around there. That conservation season is two extensions—no plugs on your guns, you’re allowed electric calls—and there’s no limit to them. You can kill as many as you can kill.
Ramsey Russell: At one time—and I know this from doing some research decades ago, more than a decade ago—we used to hunt them. Back in the day, we had a Canadian French outfitter up in Quebec, and we hunted up in Cap Tourmente. Quebec was the first North American establishment. Cap Tourmente, north of there about an hour, was a camp where they went to get food to feed Quebec city. Market hunting. Geese were a big deal. Those white geese were a big deal. As I understood it, they actually killed the greater snow goose down to little or nothing. The government set aside Cap Tourmente refuge as a sanctuary. We were hunting all up around it on the St. Lawrence River. Now, since those days, the population has burgeoned. It’s gone from, let’s say, 30,000 to nearly a million birds. Some of the same problems that we’re having with the mid-continent population of snow geese. When we hunted those birds up there, they just seemed to be a different critter than these little lessers we’re shooting in the lower Mississippi Flyway. They seem to behave much differently. I was telling you last night at dinner, they were really cued into that— There was a 24-foot tidal surge on the St. Lawrence River, and, at high tide, they were on the roost or feeding in the fields. But you wanted to be on that river’s edge when that tide started to fall, because they wanted to be in that literal region, as they called it, where they can feed on the mudflats. All of those birds up there have deeply stained faces and necks from feeding on rhizomes in those mudflats. Even in the fields, they decoyed wonderfully. A little bit more like a Canada goose than a typical snow goose.
Todd Sauerwald: In my opinion, I think they work a little more than what a lesser or a Ross’s might do. They’ll dive by me left and right, but these birds are going to spin you. They’re going to try to pick you apart and spin you and spin you and spin you until they finally work their way down and get in shooting range.
Ramsey Russell: It’s totally different. Again, as an experienced collector, how can you not come to the Chesapeake Bay and do a layout boat hunt, and not chase blackheads and canvasbacks and sea ducks? How can you not want to shoot a snow goose, a different subspecies that’s 30% again the size of the ones we shoot back home, twice the size of a Ross’s goose, and behaves differently? They’re a really cool bird. Back in the day, I’ve seen them shot in the Mississippi Flyway. It’s usually a juvenile or something like that, and their head looks like Baby Huey compared to a regular snow goose. They stand out. They’re big. Sitting in a pile. Well, Todd, run down through your seasons. Run down through your full spectrum of waterfowl seasons, here at Black Duck Outfitters.
What to Expect for the Maryland Waterfowl Seasons
Todd Sauerwald: Okay. Our normal duck season, which means anything but sea ducks, has three different splits. It comes in for one week in October, it’s usually mid-October, sometime around the 14th, 15th, something like that. Our sea duck season, this year, came in October 31st, and it stays in all the way throughout until January 8th. Now, here in Maryland, we cannot hunt on Sundays. It’s only Monday to Saturday allowed hunting, no hunting on Sundays. It’s October 31st, this year, through January 8th. It’s usually the first full Saturday. I don’t know how to explain it. The first full week of November is usually when the sea duck season comes in, and then it goes until the second Friday of January, and that’s when it goes out. Then, in November, our duck season comes back in again for two weeks. It usually comes in sometime around the 10th, same thing, and then it goes out the day after Thanksgiving every year, that Friday. Then they go back out, and then they come back in December 15th, tomorrow, and they’ll be in through the very last day of January. The normal duck season, which is considered our divers and our puddle ducks and stuff like that, has the three different splits, but our sea ducks, when they come in, are all the way through the end of the season. Our Canada goose season really got jumbled up this year. I believe they cut it down to thirty days total.
Ramsey Russell: One bird?
Todd Sauerwald: One bird per person, thirty days total, and they split it up into two different seasons. It comes in this Friday. What’s that date? I believe it’s the 18th or 19th, and it’s in for a week. Then it comes back in again the second week of January, through the end of January
Ramsey Russell: Yep. Right about that time, the first week of February, here comes your greater snow geese.
Todd Sauerwald: Yeah, they’ll be starting to get mixing around in early to mid-January, but when we really start doing every day is early February through the middle of March. We’ll hunt them till they leave, but, usually, mid-March or around St. Patrick’s Day is when they’re starting to catch the South wind and heading North.
Maryland’s Dining Delights
Maryland blue crab cakes, yep. That’s a staple around here.
Ramsey Russell: Besides just a great hunt and species and opportunities; besides a long season to come out here and shoot divers, come out here and shoot sea ducks, come out here and shoot the greater snow geese, maybe come out here and shoot Canada geese, if that’s your thing; besides that, it really is a good destination for— I’ve got a lot of clients who want to travel with their wife. My wife would be happy as a clam on this hunt, because I’m off hunting in the mornings until about lunch. Man, we’re sitting right here in Annapolis, which has got a beautiful downtown. If you’re a seafood lover, holy cow, there’s some good food around here. Everywhere I’ve been, so far, has Maryland crab cakes. Not just crab cakes; Maryland crab cakes.
Todd Sauerwald: Maryland blue crab cakes, yep. That’s a staple around here.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all had something real nice, last night. What was that, clam chowder?
Todd Sauerwald: They have Maryland crab soup, which is like a tomato base, and then you have cream of crab soup, which is like a chowder. It’s a heavy cream with lump crab. Well, last night we had the half-and-half, and that was just what it is. Half Maryland crab soup, half cream of crab soup. You can’t go wrong with it.
Ramsey Russell: Nuh-uh. I had the steamer, which was scallops and shrimp and mussels—
Todd Sauerwald: And clams and potatoes and onions.
Ramsey Russell: I was glad she told me to get that crab cake, because that hit the spot right afterwards. Forrest had the tuna. Tonight, we’re going after raw oysters.
Todd Sauerwald: There you go.
Ramsey Russell: They’re in season right now.
Todd Sauerwald: They’re in season right now, so you’re going to be getting them fresh off the boat, too.
Ramsey Russell: I could eat my weight in Gulf Coast oysters, but I really do think that these cold water oysters are just a little bit better. I hope I don’t get crucified, going home to the Deep South saying that, but it’s the truth. I think they’re better.
Todd Sauerwald: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Cold water oysters.
Ramsey Russell: Todd, how can anybody listening get in touch with you? You’re on USHuntList.com. Your contact information, your web page, is at USHuntList.com for the Chesapeake Bay duck hunt, but how can they connect with you directly?
Todd Sauerwald: We’re on Facebook, Instagram. Just Black Duck Outfitters for both pages. Then my phone number directly, 410-336-7078, or my email, Todd@BlackDuckOutfitters.com.
Ramsey Russell: There you go, folks. Todd Sauerwald, Black Duck Outfitters. Thank y’all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. See you next time.