Most diving ducks prefer open water, but you can still score on terra firma
Funny thing about big-water ducks: They like big water. In fact, they prefer to stay there most days.
That’s no problem if you can hunt open water. But if you’re on a point or shoreline, the game changes. Don’t despair, though. You can still experience quality diver hunting from land. Just adjust your tactics and approach.
The Land Lubber’s Dilemma
Bluebills, redheads, canvasbacks, buffleheads, goldeneyes and, sometimes, ringnecks usually prefer to roost, feed, travel and loaf in open water. Their bodies are built for diving and swimming, after all, and aren’t well suited for walking on land. Birds often move more when it’s windy or when fronts approach, and you’ll shoot some divers from land-based setups those days. On bluebird days or even moderately windy days, your chances of success decrease dramatically.
Here’s another rub. Probably because of their natural affinity for open water, divers often avoid flying over land. Further, they’re more likely to land when they see open water in front of them. That often causes them to land short of shorelines and decoy spreads. Unless it’s windy or they’re attracted by a hot food source, they usually don’t charge straight toward a shoreline and then plop down 15 yards from it. The best shoreline spots — points, islands, floating bogs or midlake vegetation — let you set up near open water. Further, because those areas are at least partly surrounded by open water, it’s much easier to decoy birds close, provided you play the wind correctly.
Let’s examine a hypothetical shoreline diver spot we’ll call Bluebill Point. It juts maybe 25 yards eastward into a large lake. The shoreline to the south is relatively straight and featureless. To the north, a large, shallow bay curves northwest from the point about 500 yards to the nearest shoreline. The bay shoreline curves back around to the east — forming a 200-yard-wide gap between there and the point — and the main northern shoreline extends almost a mile farther east into the lake.
Obviously, a northwest wind is best for this spot. When the breeze howls, divers will likely come off the big water and seek shelter in the protected bay. Further, they’ll almost always shoot the gap between Bluebill Point and the northern shoreline 200 yards distant. And even better, with your decoys positioned north of the point, with a landing area to the northeast and a long tail floating downwind, birds can decoy while looking at several hundred yards of open water. It’s a killer setup.
By applying the same principles and adjusting your decoy spread for the wind direction, you see that north, south and southwest winds are also good, though not as ideal as a northwest blow. A straight west wind can be somewhat tricky, but you can get around that by placing your decoys as if the wind were northwest. That way, ducks will still see open water when they approach the spread. Your shots will be at somewhat of a northeast angle from the blind, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
The toughest winds, of course, are anything from the east. An onshore wind is tough. After all, divers have to come from the big water, fly over land — again, not likely — and then set their wings while going away from you. That doesn’t happen often. At best, you might hope for pass-shots during such days.
A breeze from the northeast or southeast is more manageable for Bluebill Point. Birds can still approach parallel with the shoreline, and they’ll see open water as they do so. However, because the wind is blowing toward shore, ducks will try to land while quartering away from shore. So, it’s best to set your decoys somewhat closer to shore and take birds at the closest point of their approach.
If you hunt from an island or midlake vegetation patches surrounded by water, there’s no such thing as an onshore wind, of course. If the wind blows from the east, face west. If it blows from the west, face east, and set your decoys accordingly. All things being equal, life will be pretty good.
Conversely, let’s assume you’re hunting a straight shoreline or deep inside a bay. These spots aren’t ideal, but you can still kill divers there. Winds paralleling the shoreline will be best because ducks can approach with open water in front of them. Of course, winds don’t always blow parallel to the shoreline. That’s when your decoy spread becomes even more important.
Diver hunting is a numbers game. Typically, you must use a lot of decoys.
Migrating divers are accustomed to congregating in large flocks and rafts, so a decoy spread of 150 bluebills doesn't seem unnatural. Further, because divers are creatures of big water, it takes a lot of little black-and-white dots to get their attention and lure them close.
Decoy numbers and placement are especially important if your spot isn't on the X. If you’re in a bay or shoreline off the main lake, it takes more to convince birds that they should visit your area.
How many decoys are enough? That depends. In prairie potholes, I’ve shot loads of divers over one to two dozen decoys. However, birds on the prairies are typically far less wary than migration-hardened veterans on the Mississippi River and points south and east.
When hunting open water, I use about 80 blocks. But that’s in open water, where divers have fewer inhibitions about pitching down amid several of their brothers. It takes more convincing to lure them near land — not so much with islands or even points, but certainly long, contiguous shorelines. In such areas, I’d recommend using as many diver decoys as possible. If you have 100, great. If you have 200, that’s better. Just use as many as possible.
Decoy placement is especially critical when hunting divers from shore. If you set 200 bluebill decoys in a large blob, you’ll likely attract lots of attention, but many birds will probably land short of your spread or just fly over it. Sure, you can still kill ducks this way, but it’s easier if you induce ducks to put their feet down and float into a landing area 25 yards in front of your hide.
As mentioned, diving ducks love to fly over others of their kind when approaching for a landing. That's why J-hooks and other spreads with a long runway-like tails downwind of the main spread work so well for divers. Birds fly over the tail right to the landing area, which, presumably, should be right in front of your setup.
For years, my partners and I have used multiple lines placed in a “Fat L” spread when shore-hunting. This is really just an extrapolation of a J-hook. Typically, we place several lines of decoys upwind of the blind and run them with the wind until the final decoy stops a few yards upwind from the blind. Then, using single-lined decoys or one 14-bird string, we set a long tail from the closest string — your tail should always go on the inside of the spread; no exceptions — downwind and even angling out into the lake. In theory, ducks will hit the tail and follow it to the large open area in front of the main body of decoys.
If we get fancy, we might set one huge body of multiple lines upwind of the blind and then a smaller group with a tail extending from it equal to or slightly downwind. This leaves a huge landing area between two masses of decoys.
Later in the season, when goldeneyes become more predominant than bluebills or buffleheads, we’ll often use a main body of bluebills and cans and a tail solely of whistlers. The white on the goldeneye decoys still attracts every kind of diver, but goldeneyes often prefer to land only with their own kind, so the all-whistler tail really helps sucker them in.
If you don’t have lots of decoys, space them out more than usual to give the illusion of more birds. If you’ve viewed a diver spread from afar, you’ll usually see nothing more than several glints and blobs of white. You can’t tell whether you're seeing 20 birds or 100. That’s what ducks see. They don’t begin to distinguish individual ducks until they’ve approached much closer. If you space birds out to maximize the visibility of your decoys, you’ll at least attract ducks, and some of those birds will decoy.
I’ve heard some diver hunters eschew J-hooks or similar spreads, especially after birds have been pressured for a while. Instead, they space decoys out in a long, loose line, which gives the illusion of a relaxed flock of feeding divers. The premise is interesting. I have no doubt such spreads still attract birds and probably induce them to land in the “holes” between decoys. If nothing else, it illustrates a major decoy hunting lesson: See how birds react to the spread, and don’t be afraid to adjust your blocks.
One final diver decoy note: In many areas, you’ll find puddle ducks — especially mallards — mixed with divers. Puddlers will sometimes decoy to diver setups, but they usually just fly over them and land outside the spread. So, it’s never a bad idea to put a few mallard blocks to the side of your diver decoys. You won’t spook any divers by doing so, and you might get a bonus greenhead with your bluebills.
Diver blinds take many forms: boats, driftwood, plywood castles or even just rock piles. For them to work, however, one thing must remain consistent: A blind should break up your outline.
Divers typically aren't as picky as mallards and pintails. If you’re reasonably camouflaged and don’t move, they’ll usually decoy. Sure, I’ve seen pressured canvasbacks and bluebills fly high and flare like the pickiest of greenheads, but your diver blinds don’t need to be as elaborate as a puddler hideout.
When constructing a diver hunting blind, make sure it doesn’t stick up too much from the shoreline. If you pile some rocks a yard or so high on a sandy point, that will probably suffice. If you build an elevated plywood contraption that looks like the Empire State Building against a flat horizon, it won’t work as well. Stay low, break up your outline and keep still. You’ll be fine.
Whether you own 35 decoys or 350, get out this fall and experience the thrill of diver hunting. Seeing a drake bluebill rip across your air space is one of the true thrills of waterfowling, whether you’re in open water or sitting on shore.
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