Want to shoot more canvasbacks, bluebills, and redheads? Check out these tips for speedy divers
Diving ducks have an allure for a unique cadre of waterfowlers. Just check out the number of big duck boats across the country and the crush of black-and-white decoys in catalogs. Although divers might not receive the respect given to mallards and pintails, they can be tough to hunt. Moreover, the environs they frequent challenge man and gear. If you want to put more ’bills, cans, ringers, and redheads on your strap this season, try these tips.
1) Divers do not react to decoys like puddlers. As my diver hunting mentor put it years ago, diving ducks like to “$#@! on their brothers.” That is, they typically fly over other diving ducks on approach before landing. That’s why spread configurations with long downwind tails — think of them as a landing strip — work well to guide birds within range.
2) Diver hunting is a numbers game. You often need lots of decoys to attract big-water birds from a distance and replicate — and compete with — the large rafts of ducks that congregate during migration. Hoard as many diver decoys as possible to boost your rig, but make sure to put your best-looking blocks on the downwind end of your spread.
3) Fine-tune your shooting. No less a diver expert than Gordon MacQuarrie noted the difference between shooting at rocket-like bluebills compared to “lazy” mallards. During the off-season, concentrate on hard crossing targets, like those on the middle stations in skeet — Nos. 3, 4 and 5. Focus on swinging your gun aggressively and following through. You’ll rarely miss a diver by shooting in front of it.
4) As with geese and mallards in dry fields, big-water divers require lots of scouting. Sure, fresh birds might charge your decoy spread like kamikazes, but those migrators get stale after about two or three days and begin to act like local ducks. Seek good vantage points to glass large areas of open water during various wind conditions. Look for “oil slicks” on the water, or birds pitching in or leaving at dawn and dusk. Note travel routes birds use when flying.
5) Master the bowline knot. Old-timers said you can use any knot you like when rigging decoy lines, anchor rope, and other essentials… provided it’s the bowline knot. This marine-friendly knot is ultra-strong, and fast and easy to tie and untie.
6) Don’t fall for the switch-up. Decoying divers have a habit of changing positions as they finish. That is, the lead bird might slow down as followers overtake it and hit the water first. This creates shooting problems, especially when hunting with a group and trying to stay in your 10-to-2 shooting lane. Focus on one target as the birds finish, and don’t fall into the temptation to shoot an easier or closer duck in someone else’s zone.
7) Fool standoffish whistlers. Diving ducks are pretty gregarious and usually respond well to decoys of any diver species. Goldeneyes are the exception, as they usually prefer to associate with their own kind. Late in the season, bulk up on whistlers in your spread, or go to an all-goldeneye rig to shoot more of these big, hardy birds.
8) Use two shot sizes. Hunters debate the best shot size for divers but usually settle somewhere in the neighborhood of Nos. 2 or 3 steel. Remember, however, that wounded divers have uncanny escape powers, and you must often finish them with a water-swat before they begin diving and disappear. For finishing shots, keep a box of shells loaded with smaller shot — even No. 6 steel. You’ll get more head-shots with a denser pattern and won’t plow through your regular loads in pursuit of cripples.
9) Identifying birds in flight is critical. Canvasbacks, buffleheads, and goldeneyes are relatively easy to ID at even long distances, as their distinctive profiles give them away. However, in poor light or on cloudy days, many pochards — scaup, redheads, and ringnecks — can look very similar. And with restrictive limits on the former two, it’s essential to know what you’re shooting at. Focus on unique traits, such as the red head of drake redheads, the white stripe on the secondary wing feathers of scaup, the white bar behind the bill of hen scaup, or the drab gray wing feathers of ringnecks and redheads. Observe ducks to note how redheads appear “blocky” in flight and seem to dwarf their smaller ringneck cousins. And if in doubt, hold fire.
Set up along flight lines where birds travel to and from roosting, feeding, and loafing areas.
10) Use water to your advantage. Diving ducks are clumsy and out of place on land. They’re built for water. That’s why they typically follow water in flight. Hunt points or even channels that might funnel flying divers. When setting your decoys, always place them so approaching divers see water upwind. They’ll be much more comfortable finishing.
11) Gang-rigs require common sense. These setups are no secret nowadays. Basically, they’re comprised of a long, stout mother line anchored at both ends and decoys attached via shorter — 18 to 36 inches — leaders. Setting out and pulling in a gang-rig line takes a fraction of the time required to place or collect individual blocks. However, during calm conditions, those lines look like… lines. Always try to leave a bit of slack in the lines so they bow with any wind, making them appear more like a natural raft of birds. Or, place some single decoys or V-boards between lines to break up the line effect.
12) Want a bull canvasback for the wall? These are the top five "can" harvest states from 2021, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data: California, 15,889; Wisconsin, 4,740; Oregon, 4,717; Louisiana, 4,131; North Dakota, 3,731. Honorable mentions go to Washington, Texas, Minnesota, and Oklahoma (yes, that Oklahoma).
13) Avoid the kitchen and bedroom. When hunting open water, don’t set up where divers roost or at concentrated feeding areas. You’ll probably blow ducks out of the area after one hunt. Instead, set up along flight lines where birds travel to and from roosting, feeding, and loafing areas. You’ll still decoy plenty of birds but will work and shoot into smaller groups, spooking fewer ducks.
14) Eat your divers while they’re fresh. Diving ducks get a bad reputation as table fare, and to be fair, some don’t rival a mallard or wood duck on the plate. However, many — including canvasbacks, redheads, and ringnecks — are wonderful. With stronger tasting ducks, such as bluebills and buffleheads, trim all fat away from the meat, soak the breasts in salted water (changing the water often), and then grill them to no more than medium rare. They’ll surprise you. Resist the temptation to throw your divers in the freezer for later. The longer they’re frozen, the worse they’ll taste. One final note: Goldeneyes, unfortunately, can taste fairly strong. Again, trim all fat from the meat, soak them in saltwater, and then use them in stews, poppers, or other recipes.
15) Be smart on the water. Boating safety is a huge concern for diver hunters. Often, you must ply large, rough, dangerously cold waters in low light or other treacherous conditions. Make sure your craft is large enough to handle the water you intend to hunt. Hint: Bigger is better. Equip your boat with a large, reliable motor and a kicker backup. Wear life vests, and always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to return. And above all, if conditions look iffy, don’t go. Divers are addicting, but your life and health are far more important.
16)Call? Sure. Diver hunting is a visual game, and the birds often aren’t very vocal, but calling can help in some situations. In areas where divers and puddlers mix, canvasbacks and other divers sometimes respond well to mallard talk. For years, old-time diver nuts have uttered short, raspy “brr, brr” grunts into calls to mimic the hoarse grunts of hen scaup. I’ve never experienced much success calling bluebills, but I’ve used burring with good results on ringnecks and redheads.
17) Mess with the decoys. Diver geeks endlessly debate spread configuration. Some prefer classic layouts, such as the J-hook. Others dig deep into the weeds, with large masses of “blocker” decoys as a main body and elaborate downwind tail configurations. A few even form V-patterns to guide the approach of ducks. All work, but don’t get locked into one spread shape. On calm days, don’t be afraid to thin out your spread and space decoys in a long, loose blob. That’s how ducks act during such conditions. Further, if everyone in your hunting area is using similar spreads, do a 180 and configure yours differently.
18) Anticipate good shots. Calling the shot is always tricky, but it takes on another level of urgency when those ’bills or cans might be in and out of your spread in a millisecond. Learn how divers typically approach decoys — often by banking into the wind and making a long swing — and alert your blind mates of potential opportunities before birds are in range. Then, gauge the approach of ducks. Are they slowing down and seemingly wanting to land, or are they merely passing over at high speed? Be ready for either. Also, prepare for the classic slow-and-go maneuver, when divers approach as if they want to finish but then suddenly smell a rat and flare left or right at Mach 2.
19) Don’t ignore the evening flight. Divers feeding at night? It’s been well-documented and is a direct response to human hunting and boating pressure. And obviously, it makes hunting tough. Scout during evenings to see where birds mass near food sources, and plan to intercept them along travel routes during subsequent afternoons. During calm or balmy conditions, they might only fly during the final hour of daylight. In cold, windy weather, they sometimes get a head start and fly early.
20) Flag for divers. This old goose hunting tactic works on big-water divers, as ducks are accustomed to scanning vast areas of open water for signs of their brethren feeding or loafing. Use a commercial goose flag, or hand-paint one black and white. Raise and lower the flag as distant ducks pass to imitate birds flying and landing. The motion might beckon them closer for a look.