New England sea duck hunting is an obvious destination for hunters looking to travel beyond their own backyards because it offers a much different experience and diversity of unique species than most other places within the US. To long-time sea duck hunting guide and USHuntList outfitter, Captain Reilly McCue, connecting clients with dream species to include eiders, long-tailed ducks, black ducks, brant and red-breasted mergansers is like putting together an elaborate puzzle. He relishes the challenge. And usually delivers. Here’s why. How’d Capt. Reilly get into sea duck hunting and at what age did he know that he wanted to be a guide? What waterfowl species are available in New England? What’s it like hunting sea ducks in New England? What are reasonable client expectations? What factors determine where different waterfowl species cadres will be located, and when they can be hunted? How are sea ducks hunted in New England and what are some of the challenges? Like tank-sized eiders suddenly appearing low over the chop and hurtling towards the salt-soaked spread, this information-packed episode brings it! Big time!
Sea Duck Hunting: At the Mercy of the Ocean
And a lot of times you don’t need that big boat but the reason why I have it is because the days you need it, you better have it.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I’m your host Ramsey Russell, double R. And today I have got a special guest, Mr. Reilly McCue, and I should say Captain Reilly McCue. Sorry about that, Reilly.
Reilly McCue: That’s all right.
Ramsey Russell: Yep. Captain Reilly McCue, who is the US Hunt List outfitter in New England and become a close personal friend of mine. How are you today, Reilly?
Reilly McCue: Doing just fine, just sitting here and lovely New England. I got a bunch of red maple trees all around me right now, just lit up oranges and yellows and reds, and I got my black lab, and a big old duck water boat right in front of me. And just, getting ready for duck season.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about your duck boat because that is a big duck boat. That’s not a 14, 15 foot jon boat we’re talking about here.
Reilly McCue: No, that one, actually the one I’m looking at is out in the yard because my other boat that is now my main sea duck rig is down at my marina still, for doing a couple more striped bass charters. But my new boat that I’m using, I actually had it custom-made. And it’s just a big aluminum work ball, basically. It’s 25 foot by 10 foot, got a 250 Suzuki on the back. I can throw in my two man layout boat in that thing, and half a dozen guys in there, and still have room for 300 decoys. And I just, I love it. I started running it last January, this particular boat, and man that just gets rid of 50% of the anxiety I had in the morning going out into the ocean. It’s just such a safe boat, itꞌs huge, and I’m just, I’m loving it.
Ramsey Russell: Sounds like a Mississippi River barge, something that size. It sounds like a barge I see on the Mississippi River. It’s so big, but I bet it needs to be. I tell people all the time, a lot of us guides, we’re going to get into the subject. People, a lot of the guys that are going sea duck hunting for the first time. We don’t do that kind of stuff in the Deep South, we don’t do that stuff in the Midwest, we don’t do that stuff out in the Pacific Flyway in Canada. And as you start crawling around, you want to get out and shoot some of these saltwater species, the first thing I tell somebody is you need to understand that when you step into a seat up boat, you’re putting your life and that captain’s hands. Your interest, your welfare, is left to his judgment, and his experience, and his equipment. And that’s a real big deal.
Reilly McCue: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a real big deal. It ain’t like getting on.
Reilly McCue: Don’t I know it.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t like it.
Reilly McCue: It baffles me, some of the folks that sign on with me and they’re just so confident, they just don’t know, they put it all right in my hands, and a lot of times I don’t even think they realize exactly what they’re getting into, just like what you said, they haven’t been in the kind of water. It’s that experience that I deal with every day 10, 11 ft tide wind going one way, tide going the other way. And a lot of times you don’t need that big boat but the reason why I have it is because the days you need it, you better have it.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. That’s exactly right. You know, speaking of rough conditions, wind, and chop, and break and just all that mess, sea duck hunting is not like diver hunting or puddle duck hunting. You’re at the mercy of the ocean. In the tides and my gosh, safety and everything else, and that wind blowing in, some of the more popular destinations are north of where you are in New England. Back in the day, we used to sell hunts up there and what we realized when you get up there, like in Maine, parts of Maine place like that, it’s an ocean rock interface, and anything out of the east whatsoever, you’re probably going to get shut down. We were working with one outfitter up there for years, he is a good outfitter, but every client we ever sent lost. They booked a three-day trip. They would hunt 1 or 2 days. It was just a given when the weather was right and the birds were down and everything was good. They got weathered out. And since we’ve been working with you, and all the many hunters we sent up that way, and worked with, and everything else. You know, you still suffer from that condition because it’s sea duck hunting and you’re at the mercy of the ocean. But at the same time, you have options. I mean, because it’s not the only game in town and that’s a kind of a big advantage to me.
Reilly McCue: Yeah, it is. We’ve got a lot of back estuaries, big bays that you can get in protected areas, and it’s just time you’ve got to, it takes a lifetime to find different areas that you can access for all the different wind conditions. Now, some of the spots you can get into, it might not be one of my greatest spots on a given day, but you can still get out there and play. And a lot of times in the mornings, I meet with the guys, have a little team meeting and kind of throw options at him and say, hey, it’s blowing, it’s blowing hard out of the northwest, I’ve got a spot where we can get some eiders, it’s only going to be a handful. Maybe we should go try this back salt marsh today that’s loaded up with mallards and black ducks, and get a good hunt for the puddle ducks instead of just going out and getting a couple of sea ducks, because the weather next two days looks great for sea ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
The Ideal Species Wish List Location
That New England hunt because beyond a sea duck hunt, you’ve got divers, you’ve got puddle ducks, you’ve got brant, you’ve got geese, you’ve got mergansers.
Reilly McCue: So just kind of, I get a wish list from my group of guys on what species they want to get before the trip. And then as we get closer to their trip, I’m scouting for the different birds that my guys want to get, and then as we get even closer, you know, we see what the weather is. And that is the final thing that dictates what we’re going for on a given day –
Ramsey Russell: So you just opened up a whole bunch of topics right there. You’re talking about handfuls of ducks versus huge bag limits, you’re talking about a wish list and with all my species, you know? Break, break. I get approached by a lot of folks in social media and face to face it shows, and just imagine us regular folks that have hunted Mississippi, or hunted our home state, maybe the neighboring state, adjacent state. And all of a sudden we become aware of the great big myriad of beautiful species in North America and we begin this quest of cracking down the North American list. That opens up two different topics, right? There one is a species collection versus going out and just banging out heavy straps. And it also opens up, you know, what I tell everybody – and why I love working with Reilly is because the way you think and the way you focus on species and stuff like that. And I tell everybody, if you want to go just do a sea duck hunt, contact Riley. But that’s not what makes him tick, what makes him tick is for you to call him up and say you want these five or six species. But what I tell everybody that is venturing out for the first time, you know, this is like a typical question is, man, I’ve hunted Texas and that’s where I’m from, or Mississippi, where is the best place to go knock out a bunch of species off this list? New England. That New England hunt because beyond a sea duck hunt, you’ve got divers, you’ve got puddle ducks, you’ve got brant, you’ve got geese, you’ve got mergansers. You know, I really struggle to think of anywhere that in the Pacific, central Mississippi, or Atlantic Flyway, mainland Atlantic Flyway, where a person can go and fill up an ice chest and put his paws on a whole bunch of possible new species. I don’t think anywhere would top a hunt like what you run because you’re hitting a lot of different habitats and targeting different cadre species.
Targeting Waterfowl Species Cadres
Reilly McCue: Yeah, that’s it. I mean, unfortunate, it’s just what you said, it’s the different habitats. The area that I hunt is broken up into that kind of rock interface. You’ve got the beach habitat, you’ve got the estuaries, you’ve got the brackish up into these river systems, you’ve got fresh water rivers a little further up coming in, and it all just translates to diversity. My record, I had in one day, I had a group of collectors get 17 species in a single day.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Reilly McCue: Isn’t the norm? I think if you got half a dozen, 7-8-9 species in a day, you’re doing pretty good. But yeah, 17. And one day I had another group that came, they did a 9 day trip with me and they went home, they had pairs for 13 different species in 9 days.
Ramsey Russell: That’s good. Give me a list of, we start talking 13-17 species. Well, just roll out a list of this, so people aren’t lost.
Reilly McCue: Yeah sure. And again, just a lot of what I do is manage expectations before guys get here.
Ramsey Russell: Of course.
Reilly McCue: So some of these things we don’t necessarily get every day. But the five sea ducks are my bread and butter. It’s the three scoters, common eider and the old squaws. The common eiders, we occasionally get a second sub species, the boreal as Northern common eider.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Reilly McCue: For diver ducks, it’s buffleheads and goldeneyes. Of course we have all three mergansers. Puddle ducks, pretty much the main one that we target, or my clients are interested in, are black ducks. But when we do black duck hunts, we shoot mallards, we shoot gadwalls, we shoot teal, and a sprinkling of other stuff. And then there’s Canada geese all over the place. We shoot them every week over eider decoys, over sea duck spreads, and then Atlantic brant is a big one as well for guys who come up.
Ramsey Russell: You know, I know this from just, I don’t know, conversations, and talking to a lot of people, but the highest ever – I should say record, mid-winter waterfowl account of black ducks ever in North America was right there in your backyard.
Reilly McCue: Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me. You know, this is where they winter and that’s probably my favorite species. I just love them, they’re just there’s nothing as smart as a black duck. I mean, there’s times you’ll be laying out in the salt marsh, there’s just this labyrinth of tidal creeks. It’s basically, like a giant hayfield with these tidal creeks, you’ll be laying out layout blinds out there. And off in the distance, maybe 8 or 10 black ducks lit in a stream. So you’re watching as black ducks come across the salt marsh and they spot those real ducks out in the distance, and a pair of black ducks spots them and they circle those real black ducks 20 times and then just bailout. Just something wasn’t right?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Reilly McCue: I mean, that’s black ducks, man. They’re just such a challenge.
Ramsey Russell: They’re very wary.
Reilly McCue: So much fun.
Ramsey Russell: They’re very wary birds. They’re one of my favorite North American species and I can’t tell you why, I guess because they’re so rare here in the Deep South. In fact, I’m going to say it’s been, oh, 15 years.
Reilly McCue: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Since I pulled the trigger at one in the state of Mississippi.
Reilly McCue: Then for me up here, even though it’s our most common pulled duck, with what we do, everyone is different. There are so many black ducks that are being bred and hybridized with mallards that it’s, you get one that’s a pure black duck, you get another one and it shows some of the characteristics of the mallard, it’s got some green in its head. You get another one that’s got the white on both sides of the speculum. It’s just, nowadays with this hybridization problem with the mallards, every black duck you get is different, which I don’t know about you, but for a collector, I think that’s pretty cool.
The Challenge of Putting Together the Species Puzzle
That’s one of the things that keeps me on my toes, is when guys have these wish lists and I have to put that puzzle together.
Ramsey Russell: I think it is. You know, getting back to, you’re mentioning handfuls. Sometimes what the weather deals you and the tides, and everything else, and then getting back to expectations, you know, it’s important for people to understand. I travel all over the world, 6800 miles from home looking for a red-crested pochard. Sometimes it comes over the decoy, sometimes he doesn’t. That’s just part of it. And if you start talking to big game hunters that go to, I’m making this up, go African lion hunting – they understand that in the 21-day safari with the best laid plan, the trigger pull may not come. It’s just, that’s hunting. But you know, the interesting thing to me is I talked to a lot of guys that are collecting, and most of the people that commit themselves to checking off the North American species, you know, they would rather come and hunt with you and shoot a beautiful pair of eiders. They spent three days chasing eiders at the expense of not getting other species. So a handful of ducks is good. You know what I’m saying, because okay, I’m going to be able to knock this bird off and then spend tomorrow knocking off other species. Which brings me to – I’m talking around getting to this point right here, Riley. So people understand that you’re not just going out to a body of water. I want to really drive home this point. I’m going to call you up and say, I want to shoot a surf scoter, a long-tailed duck, a common eider, black duck, a brant and red-breasted mergansers. What would a hunt like that entail in terms of mobility, and moving, and time commitment, and where are we going to hunt and sample and see that in your backyard?
Reilly McCue: Yeah. There’s a lot right there. That’s a fun puzzle to put together. That’s one of the things that keeps me on my toes, is when guys have these wish lists and I have to put that puzzle together. So a lot of those sea ducks, you can get the scoters and the eiders is, a lot of times we can get in one spot in one hunt. Sometimes I have spots lined up where you can also get your old squaw right in that same spot. If not, we have some different habitat types that the old squaws prefer. So we might have to bounce, do an early morning eider and scoter hunt, and then go bounce to a sandy flat where old squaws are feeding. You know, the red-breasted mergansers is one that I have a lot of guys come up to get, a lot of times it’s their last bird in their list that they want to get.
Ramsey Russell: It was my last problem.
Reilly McCue: It’s an interesting one. Go ahead Ramsey.
Ramsey Russell: No, I’m just going to say red-breasted mergansers was one of the last of the 41 I put together because that was a tough bird for me to get.
Reilly McCue: Yeah. So with the red-breasted, it’s a couple of different variables. One is the dates that I choose for your hunt. If the red-breast is one of your top birds, it’s going to be a later hunt. They typically don’t pull them out until after Christmas. So most likely I’m going to try and slot you into some January dates if the red-breast is a big one. Now, the other thing with the red-breast that’s pretty fun, is their food source is mobile. You know, a lot of other birds that we hunt, their food stays in one spot. Eider, it’s a mussel bed, it’s there from decade to decade. So with a mobile food source, which is the baitfish that these red-breasts are eating in our ecosystems, one of the things that I do for red-breast is I target them in bottlenecks, river mouths. Sometimes there will be points off the coast line that they naturally get bottlenecked or funneled or crowded into. So there’s different topographical things that I key in on to target red-breasts. And again, it’s just something over time you see flight paths of red-breasts and it can happen from year to year. They just keep on taking these same flight paths to get into areas that are loaded up with baitfish in January.
Waterfowl Diet-Based Micro-Niches
So you combine their dietary preferences with what Mother Nature will let you access on that particular day?
Ramsey Russell: Basically, when you start breaking out some of the species, they’ve all got different micro-niches based on their diet preference.
Reilly McCue: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: So what I mean, can you just elaborate on that just a little bit? What is it about the sand flashes that the old squaws like? What is it about the back bay that the goldeneyes like? Do you know?
Reilly McCue: Well, old squaws, from doing autopsy on them, little shrimp and little worms which must burrow down into these sandy bottoms. The goldeneyes where I get them are up in brackish ecosystems, so where salt and fresh water collide and are all mixed up. And in particular, the goldeneyes that I get are inconsistent spots in different river systems, different brackish places, and they’re all places where detritus can collect on the bottom. So they’re usually deeper holes in bends of the river, basically big eddys, and whatever the old squaws or the goldeneyes are feeding on, they collect down in this leaf litter that’s in the bottom of these brackish ecosystems.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. So you combine their dietary preferences with what Mother Nature will let you access on that particular day?
Reilly McCue: Yeah, that’s it. It’s all about the food to determine where different ducks are going to be. Here’s a good one, so the scoters, a lot of times where I am scoters feed on top of a sand bottom, and that sand is full of certain age classes of hard-shell clams. So these clams will, they’ll get down a foot in the sand. But let’s say like right now, mid-October or even a little later into the fall, we get a big southeast event, blow 65 out of the southeast for 20 hours. So all those clams that are a foot deep are going to get blown from the southeast to the northwest. So a bay may get loaded up with miles and miles of clams that all get deposited into one bay. So that’s an X for a given season, it may not happen that way for decades again because the age class of the clams that those scoters like to eat, and that particular weather event dictated where that food source was going to end up for that given year.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve never heard this. What, do different scoters prefer different age classes of clams? And what age class we’re talking about here?
Reilly McCue: Well, I’ve never really looked up to see how old these things are. But generally, the clams, when you see that kind of an event happen, the clams are an inch and a half or smaller, they’re just little guys, I don’t know, maybe that’s just a year old. I’ll see it, I’ll be taking my daughter on the beach in the summer, and they will be in a tidal pool, and we’ll go over there, and in between the rocks where the current left this little space alone and didn’t wash it out. It’s like pearls, they’re the size of pearls, and there’ll be millions of them in a little area, and I’ll be like, oh man. And then that fall, I know there’s an epic clam, it’s going to be an epic clam season. So this time of the year, I’m doing striped bass charters, I’m out doing my bird photography. I’m running up and down the coast doing trail cameras for whitetails and I’m just, I’m always looking out in the ocean and I’m seeing where birds are starting to stack. And it will build, you’ll know when you got an area piece of beach or big bay that’s loaded up with these clams because it will start building, scoters find it, they go out to roost in the evening, more migrating scoters hook up with them in the night. And then the ones that know where the food source are takeoff in the morning, the other ones that just got there follow them in. Then it just builds, and builds, and builds through the course of the fall until they eat a place out or potentially they don’t, and it’s there all season. Most seasons all have one or two scoters spots where we’ll have thousands of scoters for the whole season. And it’s up to Mother Nature to determine if that’s in a friendly place for me to access consistently with my clients. I’ve had places load up like that with clams that I could get to on any given weather event through the whole course of this season. I’ve had places like that load up where I could only get to it once every two weeks. So it’s food and weather. That’s what dictates how you do out on the big pond.
Ramsey Russell: Man, that’s what I love about my life, is having friends like yourself, and talking to duck hunters and talking to people like you that just, I’m always learning something I don’t know.
A Wildlife Biologist’s Continual Thirst for Knowledge
And then it said what you want to be when you grow up, and on my pass in 4th grade it, said hunting and fishing guide.
Reilly McCue: Yeah, that’s what it’s all about. Long time ago, I don’t know what the catalyst for it was. You know, just some random question for a client and I didn’t know the answer. And it’s just kind of been my goal through my, as I’ve got to be an older, more experienced guy, that I want to have all the answers for my guys, whether it has to do with the ecosystem, and the stuff that we’re actually pursuing on any given day, or even the history. If we’re going across some harbor and it’s got this famous coastal town and there happens to be a big monument or a big church you can see from the boat and the guys asked what it is, I want to be able to tell them what it is.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Reilly McCue: So yeah, constantly searching for knowledge in my profession.
Ramsey Russell: That’s the whole big thing. I think that’s the whole life experiences, we’re always learning, especially about something we’re passionate about. Riley, a lot of your thirst for knowledge and information, and studying the life habits, and history, and life cycles, and whatnot of these birds in the marine environment that you’re hunting them in really kind of stemmed – I know this about you because and I have this in common – you’re a wildlife biologist also, is that correct?
Reilly McCue: Yeah, I studied wildlife biology at the University of Vermont.
Ramsey Russell: What did you think you would do when you were a young college kid? What do you think about that degree?
Reilly McCue: Nothing. That’s the sad truth of it. Here’s a better one. Let’s go back in time a little bit, 4th grade, little school in New Hampshire where little Reilly grew up learning. In the 4th grade, Mr. Marston’s class, we had a bathroom pass for each person laminated and had your favorite class, science, your favorite sport, soccer. And then it said what you want to be when you grow up, and on my pass in 4th grade it, said hunting and fishing guide.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Reilly McCue: So I was, I don’t know how at that point, I don’t think I had ever been on a guided hunting or fishing trip. Dad always had Ducks Unlimited magazines all over the house, Gray’s Sporting Journals. You know, so I don’t know, maybe I got you know the concept of being a guide just from looking at magazines when I was a kid. There certainly wasn’t hunting shows on TV at that point in time. But I probably got it from Ducks Unlimited magazines.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Well, to me it’s unusual somebody knows what they want to be in 4th grade, let alone comes out and it spends his whole life doing that. Well, what did your dad take you hunting? Did you grow up hunting with your dad and did you duck hunt?
Reilly McCue: Yeah I sure did. Well, I cut my teeth on duck hunts. Dad was stationed in Fort Sam, Houston, in Texas. I guess that would have been during the Vietnam times. I was two years old I believe. And he had a blind in the Corpus Christi area somewhere. And I’ve still got some old photos of me, just a little rascal, he had a browning A5 leaned up against my shoulder and a pile of redheads out in front of me, black Lab and a canoe in the background. I’ve been doing the same thing ever since except they’re not redheads. If I got a redhead nowadays, up here, I’d be a real happy dude.
Ramsey Russell: Why you do say that with that species?
Reilly McCue: But that’s one of the few species we don’t see very often up here.
Ramsey Russell: But y’all do shoot some pretty unique species. I know I would tell any, I would tell everybody, do not go to New England to shoot a king eider. Do not go to New England to shoot a king eider. See I repeated it, but it happens, doesn’t it?
Reilly McCue: Yeah. I mean if I was a betting man, I’d go up and see more.
Ramsey Russell: You’d bet?
Reilly McCue: Up on Island X. But yeah, we didn’t. Let’s see, last year I had, this is a good one, I was out, I had my clients on a rocky piece of shoreline and they had two cripple drake eiders that had gone out with the tide. I was probably 3/4 of a mile away from my clients playing pop goes the weasel with these two eiders, and I had my gun in my hand. And a king eider drake flew by me at about 60 yards, and I got on my radio, and I said, boys do not shoot at anything unless it’s a king eider. You’ve got a king eider drake coming right at you, right now. And it was coming, it was lined right up coming right at the decoy spread, and almost there, and a group of about a dozen common eiders came in and sucked up that drake king into their flock, and they scouted around the decoy, spread it about 75 yards and the guys didn’t take it didn’t take a shot at him.
Ramsey Russell: I can’t blame them.
Reilly McCue: So those guys have also shot king eiders on the Island X and Norway. And they were not unfamiliar with the concept of shooting a king which potentially helped them to not pull the trigger at that kind of a shot. But you know, the year before that we got a hand, I think the year before that we got another one. So it’s something that’s definitely a possibility. One of the things I do daily is check birdwatching reports. Let’s keep that in the duck hunting community, that one, I don’t think the birders would like that very much. But I get emails every day from different birdwatching blogs and stuff, and they can help do a little bit of the scouting homework and let you know what’s in the area. So whether it’s a king eider or Eurasian wigeon or a barnacle goose or a Northern common eider, they’re real good about pointing out all the irregularities, the birds we don’t see on a daily basis.
Ramsey Russell: I know. I keep up with your photos on Instagram. And you are an avid photographer, man, you’ve gone all off into that camera stuff. And man, it’s amazing to me some of the species and you just named a bunch of them that you actually get pictures of when it’s not hunting season, you’re out there playing around.
Reilly McCue: Yeah. It’s a good time. It’s a whole another layer to guiding which I wish I had gotten into earlier in my career, but I’m fortunate I’m doing it now. It’s just, it’s amazing what you see when you got that big lens in your hand just going back at the end of the day. You know, you might have a group of eiders, 1000 eiders, and they’re a mile off the coast, and you just take some long-range shots at them, and boom, you blow them up when you get home. You know, that’s when you start seeing all the weird stuff, and you can hone in on him the next day, and just keep figuring things out, keep learning. It’s optics, good optics is always an advantage for hunting. So bringing that big lens around every day, it’s a game changer.
Ramsey Russell: When you were a young man back around 4th grade and you hunted some with your dad, were you all doing sea ducks hunts then?
Reilly McCue: No, back in Texas it was the whole redhead, pintail game.
Ramsey Russell: How you end up in New England?
New Hampshire Duck Hunting Back in the Day
Then we had silhouettes, just junky old black silhouettes, and it was before layout blinds.
Reilly McCue: Then we moved up to Vermont for a couple of years, and dad would target the late season goldeneyes on Lake Champlain, dragged me around. And then from 6th grade on I’ve been a New Hampshire guy, and dad bought a duck camp out on a salt marsh with a couple other guys, and it was black duck hunting. We took camp about a mile away from dry ground on stilts out on the salt marsh, you can only get there by boat.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Reilly McCue: And we hunted black ducks back in the old days.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of decoy did you all use back in those days?
Reilly McCue: It was all bean cork decoys. Then we had silhouettes, just junky old black silhouettes, and it was before layout blinds. We had all upright blind set in different spots, different, it’s called a salt pan when there’s a pond up on top of the salt marsh, it’s called a salt pan. So most of our blinds would be on a salt pan, occasionally on a salt creek. And we could shoot lead back then. It was two black ducks per person per day, shooting lead.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. And you know if you talk to a lot of young people today, I wonder how many would get hooked on duck hunting like you and I have become over a two-duck limit. Oh, you know, only possible two ducks?
Reilly McCue: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, as a kid, if you get kids out there early enough man, I’m telling you one bufflehead, you know, that was my big deal, I just wanted to shoot a duck. Any duck, a single duck. I would see buffleheads in a creek, I’d figure out the timing sequence of how long they would be under the water. If it was 30 seconds, I’d run for 29 and lay down and then watch them pop up. They go down again and I’d run, I’d sprint for 29 seconds again and dive down on the ground and then the thing will pop up, and I’d shoot. That was, just for me when I was a kid, just going back to camp with one duck, one puddle duck or one bufflehead, it didn’t matter. That was what it was all about, I didn’t think as I got older, it was more about trying to get limits and that kind of stuff. But as a little kid I was pure, I just wanted to get a duck, you know, and show the guy’s at camp I was one of them.
What Makes for a Successful Sea Duck Hunt?
With the sea duck hunting, you’re not only dealing with the weather on a given day, you’re dealing with the tide on a given day.
Ramsey Russell: Wow, that’s good stuff Reilly. How did you get into sea duck hunting?
Reilly McCue: Honestly, I can remember the first few times I got him, and I thought it was cool but it was more of the market. You know, initially what drew me to it was just a good market. I knew it was something special. I knew these birds, a lot of guys didn’t have access to. I knew there was a big draw for him. Guys could travel to come and do it. And it was also there just amazing creatures, what they take, where they live and I just, I respected that right off the bat and I saw the world they lived in and I wanted to be part of it, and so it was a combination of just the environment they were in was something that I wanted to be part of, the economic benefits from a young business person’s perspective. I knew I could get guys to come hunt eiders with me. I wasn’t so sure if I could get guys to come hunt mallards, and wood ducks, and black ducks with me. So yeah, it was a combination of events that kind of led me to sea ducks in that realm.
Ramsey Russell: Well speaking of that, speaking of wood ducks, and black ducks, and mallards, you know, when I came up to visit you to scout the hunt, and get to know you, and everything else, my schedule just wouldn’t allow me to come up during sea duck season but it was one of the most memorable duck hunting experiences. I’m going to say it was mid-October.
Reilly McCue: Yeah, Right about now.
Ramsey Russell: And even as I was coming in to the airport, looking out the window, it looked like a New England postcard with all the spectacular reds, and yellows, and colors, and just what you imagine New England being this time of year and it was spectacular. But then we’re bringing your little boat or a canoe, out to some of these rivers. I have called the creek because this little narrow bodies of water winding through this colorful tapestry of maples, and oaks, and beech trees, and gosh, that was so much fun being in front of that canoe and paddling along. And I got understood, we come around that curve and there was a feeder creek coming in. But I find myself holding my breath, and it just you quit pedaling and that canoe would slide. And then maybe there’ll be a wood duck, or there will be a black duck, or it would be some mallards, and they’d get up and it was just jump shoot. But it was so much fun and I’ve never done that before. To this day I’ve never done it again. But it was just enchanting. And of course the first duck I shot, I think you were still putting out decoys or doing something. And the first duck I shot was banded, I couldn’t believe it.
Reilly McCue: I haven’t lined up for you.
Ramsey Russell: You sure did man, if I come to see you again, line up another one.
Reilly McCue: I can do that.
Ramsey Russell: Next time I want a bandit black duck, no pressure or nothing. But gosh, that was such an amazing – and that kind of hunt is so much different than sea duck hunting. So much different, I mean it’s just like different worlds, but it’s from where we were doing that to where you actually sea duck hunt. It’s probably a 20 minute drive. It’s such a varied environment right there. Talk about if you could, what is the difference in puddle duck hunting, which most of us have gotten to do rice fields, compared to sea duck hunting? What kind of work and effort and decoys and riggings? And can you speak to that, what goes into a successful sea duck hunt? You’re on the location, you’re on the X, the clam bed, the muscles, whatever the birds feeding. Now, what? We’re dealing with tide, we’re dealing with deeper water?
Reilly McCue: It’s just, there’s a lot more variables. You know, if you’re hunting out in the corn field or a pond, or a little river, the water level stays the same, the corn is in the same spot, your variables are a lot more controlled. All you have is kind of the wind, wind to deal with on how you set up for the puddle ducks out in the field. And the weather that you’re giving on a given day. With the sea duck hunting, you’re not only dealing with the weather on a given day, you’re dealing with the tide on a given day. I have high tide spots and low tide spots, some of my high tide spots they’re dry ground for half the tide, you can’t put guys on this point because there’s no water for a quarter mile when it’s low tide. And then the weather. You can only get to these spots on different days or they might drive sea ducks into this particular area on a given day. Some of the sea ducks, especially eiders, they’re so big that they’re going to fly into the wind in the morning, and that can dictate where they end up to go feed on that particular day. So just because eiders are feeding on a certain mussel bed on one day doesn’t mean they’re going to be back on that mussel bed a few days later.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Reilly McCue: They know lots of different mussel beds. The wind can dictate where they’re going to end up on a given day and then, okay, so you got weather on a given day. Well guess what was the big pond weather five days ago? Weather that you never even saw offshore can dictate where you can or can’t go. There could have been, you know, we just had a hurricane, I think was Hurricane Teddy came up, maybe a week ago, two weeks ago, whatever it was, we never saw anything from that. But guess what happened a couple days after Hurricane Teddy went by? We got swell. So let’s say, one of my grade A eider hunting spots on a given year, I have to go out a river mouth. And I got guys, it’s an outgoing tide, and I got that swell from Hurricane Teddy coming in. Well, I can’t go out that river mouth with a huge swell coming in and a cranking 11 foot tide going out against it. It makes that river mouth blow up. Now, you wait six hours and it’s an incoming tide, incoming Teddy swell, and that river mouth looks like a sheet of glass. That can change real quick, the tide changes, and boom, all of a sudden, hey guys, guess what? We got to pick up the decoys. We got to get out of here, things are about to change. Well, what do you mean Captain Reilly? It’s beautiful out. It’s not going to be beautiful, you got to take my word for it guys. Can we get, can we shoot one more Reilly? No, we can’t. We got to get out of here, guys. It’s going to change.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Reilly McCue: Well, what do you mean? What do you? Take my word guys.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Reilly McCue: You know there’s, that can be a tough one sometimes with some of my beginner groups of guys and guys that maybe don’t know me. They just, you got to explain it.
Ramsey Russell: Guys that don’t know the behavior of the ocean and how quickly things can change from beautiful to bad. You know what I mean? Most of us in-landers are completely unfamiliar with the ways of the ocean and stuff like, we’re not Popeye the Sailor Man. You know? We don’t know. Its beautiful weather, I want you to shoot another eider. No, no, no, we got to go. It’s going to be bad.
Reilly McCue: Tomorrow. We’ve got tomorrow for that, guys.
Decoy Spreads for Sea Duck Hunting
So the bigger the better in my book. So with that being said, some of the biggest decoys that I use in my daily spread are V boards.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, What about your decoys? I mean you’re putting out totally different rigs. It’s not like, you’re going eider hunting with a bunch of lifetime decoy Texas rigs or something. I mean you’re – it’s totally different, isn’t it?
Reilly McCue: It sure is. One of the things that is really unique to this style of hunting out in the ocean is the tide and just how powerful it can be. Where I am, it’s anywhere from an 8 foot to an 11 foot, a half-foot tide exchange every six hours, so that equals current. So I run long lines, I’ll have, 10-20 lbs of weight on each side of my long line to keep my spread exactly how I wanted to be. Yeah, it’s just, it’s all long-line hunting. So a big mainline, gang rig clips, hooking my decoys onto that main line, and then anchors, big heavy anchors on each side of the main line.
Ramsey Russell: I remember walking through your shop and we were up there hunting and your wife brought out these unbelievably good lobster rolls she had just made. We’re going to talk about the food up in New England here in a minute, and I needed it right there, I was hungry. But I laid my eyes, I saw this these massive, it looked like you took a four by eight sheet ply board and maybe got two decoys out of these huge eiders, silhouettes that you put on some kind of riggins I’d never seen before. Do you remember that? What do you call that?
Reilly McCue: Yeah, well I’ve got a couple of different styles. And you know, basically what my trend is with decoys for these sea ducks is, the bigger the better. Waterfowl don’t have the same kind of vision as we do, they don’t perceive distance like we do. So big decoys are nothing but good, it’s going to help birds see your spread from further away. I mean, it’s a no brainer. So the bigger the better in my book. So with that being said, some of the biggest decoys that I use in my daily spread are V boards. They’re just classic V boards. You can Google it, they’re silhouettes connected with two different cross members, and I’ll run those right on a long line like I do normal decoys. And I also, occasionally five guys laying on the beach, I can use those big V boards to kind of break up my guys laying on a beach on their backs. I have some bigger silhouettes that I do the same thing with, they’re 42 inch long, just kind of hide my guys. It’s all about visibility, it’s a big pond out there. Some days, you’re in a spot where birds, I know that birds actively feed, but you’re also in a travel corridor. So those big decoys, the ideas get some of those birds that are trying to go by to a different mussel bed or different clamp patch of clams to suck into your spread.
Ramsey Russell: Right. When they were those big decoy to pull them on it?
Reilly McCue: That’s what I’m talking about.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s a good point. Those are magic. I’m going to say it’s one of those eider decoys was 3.5 ft long, it had to bend.
Reilly McCue: Yeah. The others are big, bulky. They’re a pain. But you know, one of the beauties of being a guide and hunting this particular way that I’m going to describe, which I call a drop-off hunt, is my visibility of my setup. So I dropped guys off on a point. Let’s say, you’re on an island, we’re connected with radios. I’m off in the distance, and I’m basically the dog, I come into the decoy set to pick up dead birds and to kill crippled birds. Well, the beauty of me being away from my spread is I get to see exactly what it looks like from a distance. And there’s a lot of days where I’m hanging out, the only decoys I can see are those big V boards of mine. All the other ones disappear, whether it’s from the chop or just the sheer distance of how far away I am from the spread. And I noticed a difference right away. The first year I incorporated V boards into my sea duck spreads, I noticed the difference. I saw birds that I have seen thousands and thousands of times go by my spread, at a certain distance. All of a sudden, they catch that wind, they lift up a little bit, and that’s what I know they saw the V boards, and then all of a sudden they make that curl into the wind and start heading over there. So it’s that was a real game changer for me.
Expectations Reconciled with Reality?
We have pride in our work, and you want success more for your clients more than they even know that they want it.
Ramsey Russell: Yep. I can see that. Let’s talk a little bit about, I want to get back to expectations but someone’s going to – it’s a two part question. One, what do you see as a guide to sea duck captain? What do you see? And I know you sometimes get these clients that maybe their expectations aren’t reconciled with reality.
Reilly McCue: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of different categories I guess you could put clients into. My favorite, probably most guys could agree, is just guys they show up, they’re like Riley, just you ask them where you want to go? You know what you want to do? Just take us out Riley. It’s up to you man, you’re the guide.
Ramsey Russell: Never guide the guide.
Reilly McCue: Yeah. You’re the guide, do it man. We have full faith in you, just do it. And you appreciate that. You do the best you can for him and you get what you get. And no one wants success more than a good waterfowling guide, I mean that’s what we live for. That’s what makes us feel like we’re doing good for the world, for our guys. We have pride in our work, and you want success more for your clients more than they even know that they want it. Then you get, you’ll get guys that kind of question what you’re doing a little bit, and they learn, and they see, they admit that they learn. They make some comments maybe day one, then day two youꞌre on the boat ride back to the launch, and they’re like Reilly, they kind of confess to you that hey, I see what you’re talking about now. I had no idea that there was going to be no water in that spot. You got us out of there just in time so we could go do a second decoy set and instead of getting the boat hung up for the day because we wanted to stay a little longer, because we’re doing well. And then you have kind of a third category of guys that just, they think because they hire a guide, success is guaranteed.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, man.
Reilly McCue: You know and it’s so you just, I try to set the expectations low, depending on my prior conversations that I’ve had, whether its email, texting, phone calls, and it’s a lot of managing expectations. You can take care of that ahead of time. You know, if you’re communicating appropriately with different groups of guys, and it’s part of the job.
Ramsey Russell: It’s funny you say that, Riley, because I had some friends, clients come all the way to Mississippi from the little island country of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean Ccean and they wanted to shoot a wood duck. Shooting the wood duck in the state of Mississippi is a foregone conclusion.
Reilly McCue: Sounds like.
Ramsey Russell: Until they showed up and we hunted long and hard for four days and shot a few species, you don’t always shoot my camp before we got some wood ducks. And I believe the first wood duck we shot, those guys were shooters of epic proportion, they banged one down at 80 yard, I didn’t even raise my gun. I’m not watching this wood duck, they knocked him down. And that was wood duck number one. But you know, it’s just, I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know what the weather’s going to be, what the duck’s going to do. I can’t, boy, if I could ever control the duck I would, but you don’t know. You just go, man, you got to go where the ducks are. You know, you want to shoot a wood duck, Mississippi’s great place, but it ain’t no guarantee. You know, that’s the point I’m trying to make. You just got to, and it’s like, I try to tell people, there’s a lot of species to shoot in New England, we’re given all these habitats and these conditions you’ve been talking about. But you know, there’s worse things that happen than having to go back to another great – to the same great destination to get another species. I mean, that’s almost like a consolation, to go back and hunt something else in the same area. That’s kind of a good thing.
Reilly McCue: Yeah, it’s fun. That’s probably the biggest compliment that I can get from a group of guys is getting a phone call, they want to come back again. It means the world to a guide to have repeat clientele. And with me, with the variety of birds that I’m blessed to have up here, you know, the first trip, it’s easy, guys. The real common question, what’s the best time of the year to come? Well, it’s your first trip to New England, it doesn’t matter. Any dates you come, it’s weather depending, as always. You’re going to get really cool birds to take home for the walk, and just incredible memories to have forever. The second trip, as their list of birds changes, and that’s when I get more specific with different dates. So that’s one thing that I have to tweak with repeat guys. So here’s an example if goldeneye or like we were talking about earlier, red-breast mergansers or common mergansers, there’s some birds that just, they don’t get here till late. So if a goldeneye is on a guy’s wish list, the hunt gets tweaked out into January. You know, when we have a greater chance of seeing more goldeneyes. So first it’s easy, any dates work. 2nd trip it gets more specific, 3rd trip even more specific, with the dates and timing and all that stuff.
A Day in the Life of a Duck Hunting Guide
If the tide’s right, sometimes instead of doing a second hunt with that boat, I might set guys up in a location where they can go do jump shooting for black ducks, or maybe do a little decoy set up for black ducks in a little salt marsh somewhere.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me, walk me through, we’re about to wrap up, but tell me, walk the listener, walk me through the typical day. Now let me lay this up by saying that there’s a lot of hotels to stay and it’s the Boston metropolitan area. You stay just across the state line from Boston in the state of New Hampshire in this little hotel that I describe, it’s like a Bob Newhart hotel. You walk in, it’s a small hotel, it’s very nice and comfortable. You walk in and it’s just got this nice older antique furniture, I don’t mean like 1970’s hotel. I mean, just this beautiful little New England hotel environment, and you walk up to the front desk, and there’s a coffee pot going, and the people are just as friendly as Bob Newhart. There’s a restaurant and bar on the premises, and I’m just, I’m in right there. I’m telling you, if you like seafood, oh my gosh, he you’ll eat lobster till it’s coming out your ears, don’t feel you uphold you through the day, but it’s there and it’s cheap. And it’s almost like buying boiled peanuts on the side highway in Mississippi. It’s just everywhere you look, but walk me through. Okay, so I come in a book a trip, say a three day trip or a four day trip. I show up, I check into the hotel, I can’t remember the name that hotel, but I check into that hotel, and what now? Because like I know a lot of the guides up there that I have talked to, or become associated with, and especially clients have told me of their experience up in that part of the world. They got in in the morning, they went hunting somewhere, it was just a sea duck hunt, they were shooting whatever came in same location, or two or three locations over a three-day hunt. And they were back at the boat ramp at noon. Handshake, they’ll see you in the morning, and gone. That was it, that was the end of their day. And of course, I shot a few hours or something. But your hunt a little bit different than that. That’s what I’m trying to set up, that’s what I like about your hunt, y’all pack a lunch. Is that right?
Reilly McCue: Yeah. We’ll have a lunch ready for you in the morning you can take out with you, depending on my group of guys, if they’re savvy with their phones nowadays, I’ll actually meet them at a boat launch. We’ll talk the night before, I’ll give him a Google Maps pin that they can use to get to the boat launch. Maybe there in the morning we go out and hunt. You know, sometimes I’ll be in an area where we can get two or three hunts in right that one area, that one boat launch. Other times, depending on the list that guys might have, and where birds are, and if we have good weather, we might pick up with the boat on the trailer and go hit another spot. If the tide’s right, sometimes instead of doing a second hunt with that boat, I might set guys up in a location where they can go do jump shooting for black ducks, or maybe do a little decoy set up for black ducks in a little salt marsh somewhere. So I tried it. When I was younger, I said, I hunt all day, I hunt as hard as we can and still get a couple hours of sleep at night. You know, we hunt hard, a lot of times that’s dictated by my group of guys, some guys that I have, some groups, they want to do just what you described.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Reilly McCue: You know, they’re all set. They came up to shoot some sea ducks and have a great experience on the water in the morning and the afternoon. They got the ladies back at the end and they want to go. We know we’ve got a line up of little coastal towns and historical things that they want to go do with the ladies for the rest of the day. So it’s really, our hunting day is dictated by the group itself and their expectations. And then once again, the almighty factor of the weather. We may know that the third day of our hunt we’re only going to be able to go into marsh and hunt black ducks. Well, those first two days, we’re going to hunt hard if sea ducks are a real big part of our wish list on that trip.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Reilly McCue: Because we know that third day, we’re going to get smoked. So I try to build it, I try to build our trips according to what the guys expectations and wishes are. And as always, the longer guys can come and play with me, the better off it is. I typically do a three-day hunt, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and another one Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I’ve been starting to do more six-day hunts with different groups of guys that are really interested in trying to, you know, this might be a one time shot to come to New England, and they really want to work on that list of what I have to offer and get it done in one trip.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Reilly McCue: And just doing that full week.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good. That’s a very good point Reilly and I’ll tell you another good point is the fact – I think there’s a tremendous amount to be said for this – is as you mentioned about the guys bringing non-hunting spouses. You know, whether you’re hunting a half day or full day, it’s easy for a lot of us to get a hall pass to go on a hunt somewhere, if Mama can come. And man, I really struggled to think of a better hunt in the United States to bring your non-hunting spouses than New England because while you’re out hunting, she’s got – I mean a great – everything from the warehouse to seafood, to shopping, to just all kinds of cool stuff to see. And I know a lot of clients have brought their non-hunting spouses up there. You know, it’s a great location you. And plus you get to go out and eat dinner together, something like that. And there’s a lot of great restaurants in that whole Boston area, especially if you’re a seafood lover, and I am. All kinds of good place to go. Last question I’ve got for you Riley is, are there any special provisions or gear? What’s just the basic, the standard thing a guy should consider packing for this trip? And let that include ammo, ammo requirements versus shooting puddle ducks in the timber, willows, versus sea duck hunting. Kind of just run me through of what client shows up, he climbs off in your boat, how he’s dressed and what he’s got in his ditty bag. A well-prepared client.
What to Bring on a Sea Duck Hunting Trip
Reilly McCue: Yeah. There’s not too much stuff that I really want, but the stuff that I want my guys to have, they’ve got to have, number one is waders. You know, we’re getting in and out of the boat all the time, it’s a big boat. You got to have waders. If someone doesn’t have waders, which I’ve not had happen for many years, but it’s basically like having a $200 piece of equipment that you got to tote around. Waders, good waterfowling jacket, lots of layers of Sitka gear, just synthetic clothing layers, and lots of it. For a gun, everyone has their favorite gun, a nice Benelli, something quick. Ammo, I recommend 2-3 boxes of ammo per person per day. A good all around load, which obviously there’s a lot of personal preference involved here, but probably number two, you know sea ducks, they don’t give up the ghost very easily. So number two’s, if you shoot a heavy shot, number four’s you can get away with, it’s a great load. It’s almost everything we’re doing is decoy hunting feet down inside of 40 yards. A couple of the little things that I really like to have guys have is a soft case with a sling, I’m all about hands free. Again, we’re getting in and out of this boat, you want your hands. Gun in a case with a sling. You want to be able to see what you’re doing, so a nice headlamp with fresh batteries. And despite all these blind bags that guys have, I’m a backpack guy, throw it on your back, again hands-free in and out of the boat, scrambling over rocks, you’ve got two hands. And then the license we get online. The ammo, I was saying that, ammo gets sent to my address ahead of time, so you don’t have to worry about traveling with that stuff. And that’s about it for gear.
Ramsey Russell: That’s good. That’s a good way to end this thing and I’m a huge Boss Shot Shell fan. Everybody listening knows that. And I would probably shoot number four, I’d probably shoot. And I’d have bet that I’d have some number five Boss Shot Shells in my pocket.
Reilly McCue: Well, I’m looking forward to trying that out. I just got a case of number 4, 10 gauge to try out on these sea ducks this season. I’m looking forward to that.
Ramsey Russell: Be sure, please let me know how that goes. I believe it’s going to be a hammer. I believe you’re just going to hammer those birds and you’re not going to be jack-in-the-box and too many of them pop goes the weasel, as you call it.
Reilly McCue: That’s my game. That’s what I do. The clients shoot them on the wing and then I kill him on the water. So I’m hoping this is going to be a dynamite swat load.
Ramsey Russell: It’s going to be. Reilly, I look forward to following you. Tell everybody real quick, I know they can connect with you ushuntlist.com: New England Sea Duck Hunting. But what are your web pages and social media pages?
Reilly McCue: Sure. Website rpmoutdoors.com. Facebook, I got a fun duck page. It’s called Duck Hunting for Collectors and Taxidermists. And then Instagram where you can see some of my latest and greatest photos. Its @ReillyMcCue, so that’s R. E. I. L. L. Y. M. C. C. U. E. Those are probably the best ways right there. You’ll be able to find my phone number somewhere along there.
Ramsey Russell: Folks. Thank you all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere. I hope you have enjoyed as much as I have. You also have been listening to Captain Reilly McCue. New England, Sea Duck Guide Extraordinaire. Whether you’re collecting experiences, or species, or both, he’s your guide. Check them out on us.huntlist.com. Thank you all for listening and we will see you next week.