WILLISTON - The goal was as extraordinary to obtain as it was difficult to explain, but that didn't deter John Seil of Williston.
Despite setbacks ranging from tsunamis to cancer, Seil recently completed his remarkable quest to harvest at least one of each of the huntable species of North American ducks. It took 14 years to do so, culminating with a reliable Labrador's long retrieve of a red-breasted merganser from the pesky Merrimack River in Massachusetts in January.
The moment was accompanied by gleeful shouts from a friendly guide who fully realized the difficulties of the unique accomplishment he was witnessing. Seil made a left to right shot on the bird at an estimated distance of 60 yards.
John Seil, Williston, holds a red-breasted merganser taken along the shore of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts in January. The merganser completed Seil’s lengthy quest to harvest at least one of each species of huntable North American ducks.
"When that merganser went belly up, that guide was hooting and hollering. It was an honor for him," said Seil. "That last bird was a big honor. He was making more noise than I was."
The last bird proved elusive to the very end. After the first shot the merganser dived beneath the surface of the Merrimack. Seil said he was "absolutely despondent." Then the merganser surfaced and took flight. Seil's aim was accurate and the merganser dropped into the waves of the storied river.
"The Lab hit the water and brought it back to the dog's owner. He handed it to me," said Seil. "It was a surreal experience. I really can't believe it really happened. This particular bird bedeviled me for one reason or another. It was a great feeling. I finally got my nemesis after a long and arduous journey."
Seil's quest to harvest each of 35 different species of huntable North American ducks began in 2000. His first duck was a redhead drake taken south of Williston. After that beginning, Seil booked a duck hunting trip to Puget Sound. At that point, he knew there would be no turning back from his unique goal.
"It was my first round on sea ducks. I shot six species. A surf-scoter, white-winged, two golden eyes, an old squaw, harlequin and a greater scaup," said Seil.
A priority for Seil was the harvesting of each of the 35 huntable species of ducks during the time of year when they display their most colorful plumage. That meant hunting many of the ducks in late winter.
"You want them fully dressed. That's what you want to see in your collection," explained Seil, who boasts a remarkable collection of mounted ducks.
For the final bird, Seil relied upon his 12 gauge Beretta Extrema 391 and Remington Wingmaster HD ammunition. The latter, which is no longer manufactured, is referred to by Seil as "probably the best darn ammunition ever made."
"The red-breasted merganser is considered a sea duck, but it uses freshwater estuaries and such. I got it right where the freshwater meets the saltwater, where the Merrimac comes into the Atlantic," said Seil. "It was weird looking into Boston Harbor."
The trip to the East Coast destination was not without incident. Seil's scheduled flight out of Williston canceled, so he had to board a second flight the following day. When he arrived in Massachusetts he learned that his hunting gear, other than his shotgun, was still sitting in Detroit. His waders and hunting clothing arrived much later, meaning another day of hunting was lost.
"It was interesting. That took a day and a half out of three days," said Seil "We got hunting about 10 or 11 o'clock the next morning."
Despite river ice that forced another change in plans, from hunting in a boat to hiding on the shoreline, Seil was finally able to conquer his feathered nemesis and complete his 14-year quest.
"This particular bird bedeviled me for one reason or another," said Seil. "It was a great feeling. I went two to three years when I couldn't hunt because of my health."
A confrontation with cancer sidelined Seil, leaving the Williston hunter wondering if he would ever have the opportunity to reach his waterfowling goal. It was a trek that led him to many new places and served up myriad challenges.
When he traveled to "the loneliest place I have ever been" in 2007, St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, a tsunami warning sent Seil and others scrambling for high ground shortly after arrival. When the threat passed, he eventually added a colorful and elusive King Eider to his collection.
In 2008 Seil hunted along the Rio Grande River in Texas under the watchful eye of the Border Patrol. It was there he harvested two Mexican ducks, a drake and a hen. In the Tennessee River, he utilized a scull boat while hunting for canvasbacks and ringbills. He went to the Florida Everglades for a mottled drake.
"It's been a great run. I'm truly blessed with my health recovering," said Seil. "I made so many friends that now come and hunt with me. It is kind of a club within itself. I don't know how many others are doing it. Nobody in North Dakota has done it. I know that for a fact."
Seil said he was aware of hunters in Grand Forks that have been attempting to achieve the same goal. To date they have not, and they've been at it for 35 years. It illustrates both the difficulty and rarity of Seil's accomplishment.
"You are really subject to the conditions and you have to prepare yourself for disappointment," said Seil. "But it lights a fire in your body like you can't believe."
With his goal accomplished, Seil says he is going to devote some time to what he calls "fun hunts." Even those hunts will take him to places far from the potholes of North Dakota.
"The Columbia River has some of the best diver hunts in North America," stated Seil. "There are absolutely stunning birds off the Columbia River."