Recently, good friend Steve Hickoff, Realtree.com’s editorial director and turkey hunting editor, noted that most of my waterfowling humor revolves around shovelers.
Perhaps that’s true, but it struck me odd. Actually, as a passionate big-water diver hunter, many of my waterfowling chuckles stem from mergansers, those goofy-looking, fish-devouring ducks (or cousins of ducks, depending on your biological perspective) that seem so common nowadays.
Mergansers come in three main varieties — hooded, common and red-breasted — none of which get any respect. They’re met with a groan when they streak across our bluebill decoys or spark rough language when someone mistakes one for another type of duck and shoots it. Some folks even cuss mergies for the fish they eat.
But we really should appreciate them now and then. No, you don’t have to shoot them — just give them their due this fall. Here are five reasons to love mergansers.
Hey, mergansers provide an easy topic for a cheap blog post. Ahem. Moving on … .
No duck has as many colorful nicknames as the merganser. My favorites include “dragon,” “sawbill,” “big guy,” “fish duck” and “Catholic duck.” You’ve probably heard others, too. Keep it clean, though.
Seriously? Absolutely. A drake hooded merganser might be the coolest-looking waterfowl on the planet. And drake commons and red-breasteds in breeding plumage are gorgeous. I would love to get a trio of colored-out drake mergies for the wall. I’ve had a gorgeous hoodie for years, but a trophy hunt for the other two might be in order.
The Merganser Slam
Which brings me to another lifelong goal: obtaining the mythical merganser slam. I crossed the easy three off years ago, but I now seek the final piece; the Holy Grail: the smew.
Yes, the smew. It’s a small duck that’s the only member of the genus Mergellus, which places it taxonomically somewhere between the genus Mergus (mergansers) and Bucephala (goldeneyes and buffleheads). Hen smew, like mergansers, are rather drab, but drakes feature an incredible plumage of white and gray, with crisp black lines and a black cheek patch.
The species breeds in the northern boreal forest of Europe and Asia and winters on the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, northern Germany and the Low Countries. Now and then, however, some pass through North America. In fact, I know a guy who knows a guy who shot one near Duluth, Minnesota, years ago.
So unlikely as it might seem, I’m on a quest for a drake smew. Duck hunting friends and I have anointed it as the mythical fourth merganser, and we’re always on the lookout for one. Sure, we probably have better odds of shooting a harlequin duck in the Midwest, but you never know.
Mergansers don’t make the best table fare, which is why most hunters say they avoid them. But is that absolutely true? Probably not. I won’t argue that mergansers taste good, but if you clean them quickly, soak them in salted water, and grill them rare or use them in other dishes, they aren’t that awful. Honestly, I’ve had some mergie breasts fresh off a charcoal grill that were fairly palatable. Conversely, I’ve eaten a few redheads and mallards that would choke a maggot. Let’s be real: Most guys pass up mergansers not only because they don’t taste as good as some other ducks, but also because they look funny and decoy readily. There’s just a stigma about them.
Actually, I know some big-water devotees who gleefully fill merganser limits. Hey, if it’s legal and they make use of the birds, more power to them. I don’t shoot sawbills nowadays, but I have nothing against folks who do. I just don’t need to kill a bird to say I did so or boost my numbers.
But I still look forward to seeing the first few flocks of mergies every November. Some years, when fish die-offs or other feeding opportunities concentrate them on big water, they put on quite a show.
I intend to watch again this fall. And hey, maybe I’ll finally see that smew.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.