By Wayne Kruse Special to The Herald
In a long career as an outdoor journalist, one of the few things in the hook-‘n-bullet world I’ve never had the opportunity to try is brant hunting.
Always wanted to, because the small, dark, sea goose carries an undeniable charisma. Limited numbers, limited areas, short seasons. A very sophisticated hunt, requiring scouting, pre-planning, military-style logistics and considerable luck. And if that icy north wind is howling down from the Fraser Valley and you can still manage to take a two-bird brant limit, you’re entitled to wear your cap backward and talk about it a little.
In my teens, I heard of, and read about, the permanent brant blinds built on piling in Samish and Padilla bays, lovingly passed down in the family from generation to generation.
There are still a few of those left, on the south end of Samish Bay, according to state Fish and Wildlife Department waterfowl manager Don Kraege in Olympia.
“Back in the day, there were a number of big floating blinds, too,” Kraege said. “They would hold four or six guys, and some were pretty luxurious, I guess, with wood stoves and all, like those upper Midwest ice-fishing shanties.”
Kraege said the floating blinds would be towed to an auspicious location prior to the season and anchored, “with pretty serious weight to hold them in place. I’ve heard they used a lot of old automotive engine blocks in their anchoring systems.”
The brant itself is a bird with style and panache and a little mystery. Three distinct populations, breeding in the Arctic, can be identified: birds with light gray bodies migrate down the East Coast; almost-black birds come down the West Coast to California and on to Mexico; and ours, somewhere between the other two in body color, either stop here or continue on south.
“Our brant breed on Melville Island in the Northwest Territories,” Kraege said, “and it’s kind of an interesting situation. Birds from the west side of the island migrate down our West Coast, while birds from the east side of the island migrate down the East Coast and across to Ireland.”
All this comes up because enough brant have been counted in Western Washington to allow a hunting season in Skagit County and on Willapa Bay, Jan. 12-13, 16, 19-20, 23, and 26-27. A total of 8,960 birds were counted Jan. 2 during an aerial survey of Fidalgo, Padilla and Samish bays, which is higher than last year’s count of 6,700 birds and similar to the 10-year average. An additional 2,000 birds were counted in Whatcom County.
Kraege said there are about 1,200 brant permits issued each year, but many of those hunters choose not to participate. There were just 214 successful hunters last year, he said, harvesting 638 brant in Skagit County and 80 on Willapa Bay. That was a good season, Kraege said, the best since the mid-1990s.
Oregon hunters take just a few brant annually, probably fewer than 20 birds, but fairly robust hunts in California harvest perhaps 500 or so each year, Kraege said, mostly migrating birds in November.
“It’s a very specialized hunt in Washington, and obviously a few guys have it nailed and take most of the harvest,” Kraege said.
Still, it’s not impossible for a beginner to whack a brant.
Kevin John at Holiday Sports in Burlington said scouting is the crucial element, driving the bay shorelines (Padilla Bay is probably the best bet right now, John said) and stopping to use good binoculars or a spotting scope to locate brant concentrations and flight patterns. Then launch a boat at the Twin Bridges public ramp on Padilla Bay and do the same thing from the water, narrowing down the possibilities.
“You want to try and locate between two groups of brant,” John said, “because birds will trade back and forth between them. Set out no fewer than two dozen decoys, and anchor up (required by regulations) with some sort of camo or blind setup (homemade or store bought) on your boat to break your silhouette.”
John said brant decoys are hard to find, so most hunters use Canada deeks, some painted dark, some not, but most snapped to long lines, anchored and buoyed. “If the weather turns bad, you want to be able to pull those decoys and get out of there in a hurry,” John said.
He shoots No. 1 shot or BBs, he said, because longer ranges are common.
And how are brant on the table?
“Great,” he said. “They feed on eel grass, so they’re vegetarians. They’re not eating fish and stuff, like a lot of the sea ducks.”
If you’re interested in participating, be sure to read the regulations. For the Skagit County season, hunters must purchase a special migratory bird hunting authorization and a harvest record card available from state license dealers. A bird must be recorded immediately, and the harvest record sent to the Department of Fish and Wildlife by Feb. 15. Failure to do so results in an additional $10 fee added to next year’s license.
Any banded bird should be reported by calling 1-800-327-BAND.
For more information, check the department’s Migratory Waterfowl and Upland Game Seasons hunting pamphlet, available at license outlets or online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations.
For more outdoor news, read Wayne Kruse’s blog at www.heraldnet.com/huntingandfishing.