9:27… I WAS STOLEN in the bay to attract the harlequin.
The water appeared calm – until I began to track the speed at which the current was pulling my bird. I quickened my pace, as if chasing a giant brown trout headed downstream. At first, with the water barely thigh high, I could move at a pretty good clip. But as the surface rose in my gut, my progress slowed to a crawl. Before long, I was deep, climbing along and watching the drake drift further away. To shorten the distance, I steered to do these quasi-anti-gravity jumps from the bottom of the bay, letting the current carry me between bounds, as if I were a spaceman leaping across the moon. The maneuver worked like a charm. Soon my bird was only 10 feet away.
But there was still cause for concern: not knowing how deep my next spot would be. Well, that AND Realizing that the current was moving me towards where I had seen a pod of digging breaches the day before.
Going the distance
The first leap of faith was just coming here – from New York City to Cold Bay, Alaska. For reasons that are not important, my original travel plans were interrupted. Instead of a five-day duck hunt, I would now only have two and a half days. I’ve left home for quick hunting and fishing trips before, but none of them required flying a quarter of the way across the globe to a place where unpredictable weather conditions could easily cut my hunt short.
I had only two days to decide whether I would still go or not. A small part of me wanted to take the trip. Still, a larger portion recognized the rarity of an invitation to hunt Pacific pike and Aleutian pike and—most appealing to me—harlequin. What the hell, I decided. Two days, three flights and 4,300 miles later, I landed in Cold Bay. And, to my relief, the weather for the next few days looked promising.
Winter mixed bag
“This place,” Jeff Wasley told me, “is pretty wild.”
I was in the boat with Wasley, our guide and owner of Four Flyways Outfitters, on our way to pick up a pair of hunters from the plan boats when he made this observation. I have hunted mallards in Maine, so I thought I might have at least an idea of what to expect here. I was wrong.
Maine is a pond duck hunt compared to this country. Here, the water – cold, deep and rough – is most dangerous. Here, the weather — howling winds and precipitation that turns from rain to ice to snow in the blink of an eye — is more punishing. And here, the scale of the landscape—massive snowcapped mountains and volcanoes towering above our decoy spreads—is simply unmatched.
Wild God he was right.
Challenging as hell. The first day, we went far out into the bay to target coots, long-tailed ducks and skaters – and with four of us hunting, we didn’t kill a single duck. In-range shots were scarce, and the ones we did get were tough. Even in mild swells, sitting up and shooting from a bobbing layout boat is no easy feat. We didn’t return to camp totally skunked, though. The one lucky hunter in our crew who had a tag to do so killed an emperor goose.
Later that evening, after dinner, Wasley checked the forecast for the next day. The good news: Bay conditions in the morning would be ideal for a few hours of Harlequin hunting. The bad news: Those two hours would be my only chance at a Harlequin for the entire trip.
I went to sleep that night hoping I’d gotten all my plan boat spirits out of my system.
We launched the boat into a calm bay of glass the next morning. As we headed to our place, all I could think was: Flatter water means more stable boats means easier shots. At least, I hoped it would be.
Wasley threw me and Casey, one of the other hunters, into a pair of presentation boats and set a string of eight baits from the bows. “At 9:25, you’re good to start shooting,” Wasley said before hanging up. I can never remember being so anxious to start a hunt as I was on this morning. Time dragged on as Casey and I waited for the legal light. Checking the clock every time I did didn’t help.
9:12… I took a sip of coffee, followed by a few deep breaths.
9:17… I loaded up, took one last look at the birds and lay down in the boat.
9:18… I looked at the gray, moving clouds. How has only a minute passed?
9:24 a.m.… Off to the left, I heard the odd cacophony of Harlequins. Any second now.
9:25… Four birds – a drake and three hens – came to the spread. I sat down and shot.
The moment of truth
By the time I got hold of my nearly lost harlequin, I was far enough away from the planning boats that Casey could safely fire at the next group that flew overboard. Two blasts, two splashes. I raised my bird in the air to him; he raised his 12-gauge in a congratulatory response.
Knowing that we were hunting on borrowed time – and that the ducks were obviously still being fooled – I had to get right back to the boats. But I was just in no rush to go back. The moments I tend to savor most in the wild—whether I’m hunting or fishing—are those when I’m alone. This was one of those moments.
I looked down at the stunning bird in my hands. I am not a trophy hunter. I couldn’t care less about shelf sizes; I don’t even have a list of animals to check. So it was kind of out of character for me to care so much about these kind of ducks. I’m not even entirely sure when my fascination with harlequins began, but I’m sure it was rooted in a desire to visit and explore the kinds of places—hell wild places—where these birds live.
Places like this, where the sun was just beginning to rise from behind the Frosty Peak volcano. I kept my Harlequin to make him part of the scene. The white feathers around the neck and face matched the snow-covered slopes. The blue and slate-colored feathers on its wings and body reflected the calm water and cloudy sky. And, as if to prove that autumn hues flourish even in a place without maple, aspen or oak, the sunrise gave the photo fiery reds, oranges and yellows.
I stood there wondering how I could have ever thought of not taking those steps of faith that had planted me first in the wildest place I have ever visited and then in one of the most beautiful. I checked my watch.
9:41 a.m.… I thought, There’s plenty of time left to hunt. I continued to watch the sunrise as I headed back to the boats, carrying the harlequin I had come here to retrieve.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.