I met Clifton on a local hunting forum, where I learned that he ran a nonprofit corporation providing free waterfowl hunting opportunities to veterans. With this being my first year hunting ducks, I wanted to go on as many guided hunts as I could to learn about the sport. After a few emails and phone calls, we settled on January 22 as our hunting day. Clifton told me that I could bring one buddy so I asked my friend Mike to join us.
Mike and I spent the previous night at a vacation house belonging to a mutual friend on a golf course just outside of Ocean City. As we opened the house back up, turning on the heat and water heater, Mike called our friend and said “There’s just one problem: This is the nicest place that Bill and I have ever stayed in together; we may need to go to a cheap motel!” His comment referenced the months he and I spent in Iraq at austere combat outposts and forward operating bases. He was right; we weren’t used to this level of upscale living. After a barbeque dinner, a couple of quality craft beers, and a bit of bow hunting on the Outdoor Channel, we settled into our rooms for a few hours of sleep.
The next morning we got breakfast at a local convenience store, and just before we were supposed to meet Clifton, I got a text from him. “Gonna be five minutes late, we just set out all the decoys.” I told Mike, and he said “Seriously? He already set out the decoys? How early does this guy get up?” We got up before 4:30 that morning, packed up and went straight to the meeting place. Clifton had already been out in his boat, placed the decoys, and was on his way to meet us. The fact is, Clifton had already demonstrated that he runs a very professional operation, with reliable scheduling, prompt replies to emails or texts, and regular communication with scouting updates. This was the polar opposite of the bad experience I had with another local guide service, found through Craigslist, which I hunted with just a week before. Mike and I had been looking forward to this hunt for weeks.
Clifton arrived, introduced us to his friend Ted, a high school friend of his and local waterman, and led us to a private dock on a canal. We grabbed our shotguns and ammo and loaded onto Clifton’s twenty two foot customized duck boat. Ted commanded his dog, Axel, a five year old surprisingly mellow black lab in a neoprene vest, to “load up,” and we motored away through the thin ice covering the canal. After a short boat ride, we sneaked in between Clifton’s decoys and a sheet of ice, set up the blind, loaded our shotguns, and waited for first shooting light.
It wasn’t long after first light that we saw a large wedge of geese land across the inlet. Soon after, buffleheads began orbiting the far reaches of our shooting range. Then, almost unexpectedly, a bufflehead rocketed in like an Imperial TIE Fighter and Clifton shouted “kill it!” I quickly raised and pointed my Stoeger M3500, pressed the safety, and fired two three inch number two steels, sending the hen tumbling into the water just yards away. That’s when Axel’s calmness turned into a disciplined excitement as he dove off the bow into the frigid water to chase the crippled bird. After a long retrieve, Ted pulled Axel into the boat, and passed back our first bufflehead of the day. It wouldn’t be long until we had more.
The next set of passing ducks was a pair of buffleheads approaching from left to right. Both of them, maneuvering like the Blue Angels at an air show, managed to avoid the volley of fire from Clifton and me, but Mike connected with the drake as he dove, turned away, went to full after burner and climbed out. Everyone on the boat congratulated Mike on a nice shot as Axel retrieved the bird.
When Axel returned to the boat he began to shiver, his teeth rattling loud enough to make each of us chuckle. I’m sure Axel was thinking that he’d like to see any, or all, of us make the next retrieve. Ted fired up the propane heater, pointed it towards our furry friend, and covered him with Clifton’s favorite parka (Axel was probably wearing the most expensive coat on the boat!). We decided, much to Axel’s chagrin, that we would use the boat to recover birds for the rest of the hunt as the sub-forty degree waves grew and the ice began to break up. With each shot, hit or miss, Axel still enthusiastically jumped up and the boat would fill with the smell of burning dog hair and neoprene as Ted and Mike would wrestle Axel away from the heater commanding “no bird!”
The rest of the morning would bring us missed opportunities at black ducks, widgeon, pintails, gadwalls, and dozens of merganser false alarms (Clifton doesn’t shoot mergansers because they taste like eels). I’m convinced that if Mike and I were more experienced water fowlers most of those birds would have been in the boat. The highlight of the day, however, was the downing of a drake redhead right in front of the boat. Neither of our very experienced guides had harvested a redhead before, and adding him to the small pile of buffleheads seemed to qualify us as real duck hunters. A short stop at a local shotgun retailer in Easton, MD revealed that none of the shop pros had taken a redhead in over thirty years, so Mike and I knew that this was a special moment.
We decided to end on a good note and turn in as the weather began to worsen. Meteorologists predicted over two feet of snow for most of Maryland, Mike and I had to travel several hours back home and Clifton and Ted still had to recover the decoys. We returned to the dock, unloaded, said our goodbyes, and departed. Mike and I talked the whole way back to the mainland about how this was possibly our best hunting experience ever. With good birds, good company, a good dog, a good boat, and a good guide, Mike and I definitely plan to book another hunt with Ocean City Waterfowl next season.