Most waterfowl guides do it for a living, but Randy Lewis of Wachapreague on Virginia's Eastern Shore takes out clients as an excuse to get away from the office.
Lewis, owner of the Wachapreague Motel and Marina as well as the Island House Restaurant, steals moments during his always busy days to stare out the window at the fabulous marshes he has hunted and fished since he was a boy.
"It's more than I can stand, some days," he said. "It's just not natural for a man to be indoors when ducks are flying. I get a mind to slip away now and then, but something always comes up." He finished off a bowl of his secret-recipe clam chowder and smiled. "But suppose I have gunners booked. What can I do? I'm obligated to go out."
He must be doing it more for fun than money, because his rates are a fraction of those charged by the "cornfield guides" of Maryland's Eastern Shore. Lewis provides lodging, three meals and full guide service (with himself, partner Phil Reynolds, or various cousins or neighbors) for $78 a day. That's less than half what many Maryland guides charge for a couple of hours in a dank, frigid pit blind where you see nothing until the (often bored) guide throws back the top and says shoot. Lewis requires a minimum of two gunners and prefers four.
"That pit shooting for geese is a different sort of thing; I don't know, a lot of people seem to like it," Lewis said. "What we get here is almost entirely ducks, with now and then a flight of snow geese and very occasionally a Canada." He's equally happy to go after puddle or diving ducks, sea ducks, brant, scoters and marsh hens (rails). He'll even undertake to scare up some coots.
Go out with Lewis and you experience the marsh he has loved since his father, Cap'n Zed, took him out sneakboating when he barely could shoulder a .410. There are miles and miles of public marsh between the Virginia barrier islands and the mainland, and Lewis seems to know all their secret places.
He was put to the test during the early duck season last week. The four-day early opener is mean to give hunters a chance at local wood ducks along the upland rivers, and generally is ignored by salt marsh gunners. "Ain't neither duck out there, they're all to the north yet," was the considered opinion of the Wachapreague Liars Club, grizzled coffee hounds who forgather daily around a table in the marina to gossip and recall old times.
It was a daunting pronouncement, since among them the old captains have several centuries of experience in the marsh, but Lewis consulted the wind and weather and his father. "There's a black duck or two around," he said. "Let's go get them."
With hardly a duck in the air there was no point in going to any of his blinds; Lewis slung a canoe across the stern of his cabin cruiser and headed for some creeks and guts that were well off the normal watermen's routes. He anchored in shoal water and then drove the canoe through wind-whipped chop into a sheltered gut with barely enough depth to float the boat. "Got to catch the low tide because otherwise they see you coming," he grunted. "The point of the plastic (ABS) canoe is that it doesn't make a lot of noise when it grounds on oyster shells. If you try this in a traditional gunning boat it sounds like a truck on a gravel road. This is just old-time duckin' with a new twist."
Herons and egrets flushed at almost every bend, rattling the gunner and adding to Lewis's handicap. "When they jump, the ducks go with them," Lewis said. "Just remember that black ducks take off straight up. Later in the season the wading birds are less of a problem.''
Several guts proved empty, but Lewis went on to the next with no less enthusiasm. Then, about the time the sun had begun to take the chill off the marsh, he drove the boat around a bend and almost over a trio of blacks that took off in an expolsion of spray. The gunner recovered his wits in time to drop a pair, which is the limit on the wary and delicious birds.
Next day, to show it was no fluke, Lewis did it again. "Later in the season there'll be ducks in all these creeks," he said. "When my son and I started using this method it was almost too easy; we'd both limit out in the first gut. Now we let the 70-point birds go and take 10- and 25-pointers." The limit is reached when the last duck taken brings the day's total to or over 100 points.
It is exciting hunting, and a way to see the marsh as intimately as the watermen. For those who find the idea of gunning from the bow of a canoe too nervous-making, Lewis has blinds sited on rainwater ponds between the mainland and Parramore Island.
He takes bookings at 804/787-2105.