Somewhere in the Diver 101 handbook, this message resonates: This ain’t a mallard hunt, so don’t treat it like one.
Big-water diving ducks demand special equipment and tactics. Diver hunting locales and situations often turn dangerous, and your quarry can be as frustrating as a pressured Ph.D. mallard. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the diver game carries several potential pratfalls.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most common gaffes — learned from hard experience, I promise — and how to avoid them this season.
Use Enough Boat
I cannot stress this enough. If you use a watercraft to place decoys, access a shoreline spot or hunt from open water, make sure it’s the large enough for rough seas. Forget skiffs or jon boats. And that 14-foot deep-V might be OK during light winds, but it’s a potential death trap when a 30-mph northeast gale hits.
My buddies and I use a 20-foot Lund Alaskan powered by a 115-horsepower Mercury four-stroke outboard. The boat has a wide beam and high gunwales, and can handle four fat rednecks in pretty rough seas. Even so, the wind blows hard enough some days that we keep it trailered. I’d rather err on the side of safety instead of risking everything for a few ducks.
Also, make sure all gear in the boat is functional. The motors (preferably a main outboard and a back-up kicker) should be reliable. Batteries must be charged, and all lights and bilge pumps should perform flawlessly. Follow all local and U.S. Coast Guard regulations for flares, marine radios and other equipment.
Set ’Em Right
Set your diver decoys however you want. But whatever configuration you choose, leave a large open area for ducks to land. That might be the hook in a J- or U-shaped spread, or the large open spot formed by blocks of multiple-decoy lines and a tail extending downwind.
Divers are fast, and shooting them as they streak across decoys can be fun. However, it’s far more productive to entice them to at least slow down and, ideally, set their wings to finish. If you merely throw out a blob of white decoys, birds will usually zip across it like they’ve been fired from a cannon. Or, they might land well short of the main body. Neither situation is ideal for consistently shooting divers.
Diving ducks typically aren’t as wary as their puddler buddies. In fact, if the wind is right, you can often take them while hiding along shorelines or hunting from fairly crude blinds. The key, however, is to stay low so your silhouette doesn’t stand out from the background.
In the Dakotas, friends and I often use field blinds to lay on exposed mud flats, and divers bomb right in. At home in Wisconsin, we sometimes hunker low along rocky shorelines, and birds never blink. Conversely, guys who insist on using skyscraper-like boat blinds while hunting open water consistently flare ducks.
Avoid the Tangle
Many hardcore diver guys use multiple-decoy rigs, with several mother lines rigged with 12 or more decoys attached. This lets you place a large spread easily and efficiently.
You can run into two problems, however. First, make sure the weights on both ends of the mother lines are heavy enough so they don’t drift in wind and waves. Grapple-hook-type anchors usually dig in and work well. My buddies and I use window sashes, which work fine in fairly stiff winds but can drift when waves build. In those cases, we’ll add another sash to each end of the line, doubling the weight.
Also, when placing decoys from a boat, it’s easy to run over a line and get it tangled in a prop. Trust me, this will ruin your day for a while. One hunter should focus solely on controlling the boat while the other places decoys. Leave plenty of space between lines to maneuver a boat, and leave even more space between lines and a layout boat.
Be a Proud Swatter
Crippled diving ducks dive — a lot. The more and farther they dive, the tougher it becomes to retrieve them. Do not hesitate to hit wounded ducks with as many follow-up shots as necessary to finish the job. I cannot count how many times seemingly dead, belly-up ducks have regained life and started diving like they were barely hit.
Swat them hard and often. You'll be glad you did.
Every diver nut loves days when the mercury plunges and you break ice on your way out of the landing. Just be darn careful about ice while hunting.
Ice on blinds, boat decks and shoreline rocks can lead to injury or worse. Further, as ice accumulates on decoys, they become heavy. In a strong wind, these ice-covered blocks can begin to drift and tangle, leading to a cold, dangerous recovery mission.
Avoid large areas of ice while layout hunting. It’s great to set up just outside a frozen bay and shoot buffies and whistlers. However, when the ice in that bay lets loose and snags your decoys or, worse, layout-boat anchor rope, disaster can ensue.
Last, be very careful when breaking ice with your boat. Some crafts are meant for that and do it well. Others, however, don’t have sufficiently thick hulls. And if you have a depth-finder transducer mounted directly to your bow or another area of your hull, avoid breaking too much ice, as the impacts can tear the transducer mount loose, leaving two dandy holes in the hull for freezing water to rush in. That’s no fun — trust me, friend.
Most divers aren’t tough to identify, especially during daylight. Buffies, goldeneyes, canvasbacks and mergansers are distinctive enough for you to ID them by their silhouettes. However, similar-sized pochards — redheads, bluebills and ringnecks — can be tougher to tell apart in low light or when the sun is in your eyes.
Look for the distinctive heads of drakes, of course, to tell redheads from ’bills or ringnecks. Note color on the wing — gray with ringbills, white with scaup — to differentiate the latter two. If hen ringnecks or redheads fly directly at you, positive identification can be difficult. Ringbills are smaller and typically somewhat darker, but unless you’re absolutely certain, it’s usually best to hold fire. Actually, even hen redheads and hen scaup can be a tough call if they fly toward you. The distinctive white patch behind a hen scaup’s bill lets you identify it. Likewise, flaring the birds at 90 degrees lets you view the hen redhead’s wing color, slightly tawny body color and somewhat more oval-shaped white belly.
Treat ’Em Right, Eat ’Em Fresh
Many diving ducks often get bad reviews on the table. That’s too bad, because most taste great if you treat the meat correctly. In fact, canvasbacks might be the best-tasting duck on the planet.
First, keep your ducks cool. This usually isn’t a problem. Second, make sure to remove bloodshot areas from the meat. Then, soak the meat in salted water in the fridge, changing the water and salt often, to draw out more blood. Most important, remove all fat from the meat (unless you’re roasting a canvasback, of course), as even a small amount can add an unpleasant flavor. Then, cook them hot and fast to no more than medium rare.
And eat your divers fresh. Don’t let them sit in the freezer for six months and expect a meal akin to fillet mignon. Like a diver mentor told me years ago, they’re better yesterday.
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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.