J, V, C: 3 Letters for Small-Water Diver Sets

Pothole hunters, Rejoice. You Can Shoot Diving Ducks With These Easy Spreads

Understanding Small-Water Divers

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1 | Understanding Small-Water Divers

As diving ducks migrate every autumn, they stop to rest and feed in small water accessible to guys like you and me — places where a sack of decoys, a pair of waders, a shotgun and maybe a canoe or kayak are all you need to put ringnecks, redheads, bluebills, buffleheads and even his majesty, the canvasback, on your duck strap.

Diving ducks love small water — marshland sloughs, prairie potholes, farm ponds, stock tanks, river backwaters and bottomland pools — for seclusion. If there’s food in the form of tubers, freshwater shrimp, water-plant shoots, or plant seeds such as wild rice or celery, what more could any duck want?

When conditions are the harshest, small-water diver hunting is at its best. Even divers get blown off the big water.

Stay flexible. If you don’t live in duck country, have somebody keep an eye on things and call you when the birds are in. Then go immediately. I have made many midnight trips to sleep a couple hours in a dilapidated motel room or the back of my Jeep to be ready at dawn the next morning when divers are flying.

Divers feel safe settling into small-water zones. But they still like to stay away from shore. Your decoy spread must lure them within range for a serious look or convince them to dive-bomb in.

Three easy-to-remember set-up plans will bring diving ducks toward your hideout. Just remember the letters J, V and C.

To start, consider what to stock in the decoy bag. If you put an 18-block limit on things (about what a hunter can or wants to haul in on his back), what’s the recipe for a small-water diver hunter’s pothole bag?

* two canvasback decoys (drakes)

* 10 bluebill, ringbill or redhead decoys (or a mix, half drakes, half hens)

* four mallard decoys (two drakes and hens each)

* 2 Canada goose decoys

Enlarge your collection by a half-dozen blocks if you want, if you think you can still lug them. But remember, part of what you’re trying to do is simplify and stay mobile. It’s how you arrange those blocks that matters most.

Photo © Bill Konway

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J Setup

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2 | J Setup

The more-standard V setup (detailed later), with two strings of birds emanating out from your position and the wind at your back, works fine. This J twist can work even better because it brings ducks closer to shore. The setup replicates how diving ducks like to line out.

Pick out a point or bulge of cover jutting into the pond, slough or pool. Hunt the leeward side, and put out a J-shaped line of decoys with a pair of canvasbacks at the far end, and the 10 bluebills, ringbills and/or redheads forming the main leg of the J.

Place a little knot of mallards as the J’s hook. A couple of Canada goose decoys nearby add confidence. Divers trust the wary geese and mallards.

Set the line close to shore (maybe 10 yards out) so that buzzing birds will swing past within perfect range — say 20 to 25 yards.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

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V Setup

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3 | V Setup

A classic V design works as well on small water as it does on big water. My friends Don Metz and Lester Kopel, waterfowl nuts who live and hunt in the far reaches of western Minnesota, prove it every year when ringbills and then bluebills visit their local sloughs and potholes.

A V offers two benefits to a small-water diver hunter:

* The decoys reach out toward open water, mimicking what divers often do.

* You’ll have birds within range whether they land in the V (ideal) or try to join the outer end of one string (which should be about 25 yards from your hide).

Getting the wind right for a V set is easy. Just hike or paddle around the water until you can get the breeze at your back. Put the point of the V right in front you, with the mallards and geese anchoring the spread, and a big canvasback block at the end of each line.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

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C Setup

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4 | C Setup

Sometimes, the combination of cover and wind direction dictates that a V won’t work. Then it’s time to soften the shape of your spread and extend it sideways into a C.

This is an easy setup to plan, and it works best with a crosswind from either direction. Put the open side of the C downwind so the flow travels across the closed side of the C. The goal is to get the ducks coming into the breeze, looking to land inside the C or at the end of either line.

Put the geese and mallards close and string the divers around the closed end and outer stretch of the C, with the big canvasbacks farthest out. Position yourself toward the bottom tip of the C, which is the direction from which birds should approach.

When the diver migration is on, small water offers ducks safe harbor and the opportunity to fill their bellies. Put the J, V and C setups to work. Flex them to your needs, the wind, and the pothole or slough. Then listen for the heart-stopping hum of diver wings on the shoulders of an autumn wind.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

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Everybody knows diving ducks use only big water, right?

That means you need a big deep-V boat stacked high with sacks of blue-billed and red-headed decoys. Put a hefty outboard on the back of the vessel. The hunt might even involve a layout skiff or two bobbing among long strings of white-backed decoys in the gray swells, using the deep-V as a tender.

Or maybe you’re tucked back into a point of bulrushes, cattails or wild rice, sitting tight, watching the open-water horizon, and hoping to get strafed by the jet-roar of pinions on stubby but turbo-charged wings.

No matter how the pursuit is conducted, diver hunting is the stuff of legend. But who has the money or equipment to do it?

You do.

It turns out that diving ducks aren’t so big-water oriented after all. You don’t need tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to splash some black-and-whites onto the water. But you need to understand divers and have a potholer’s game plan in your pocket to shoot these prized ducks on small waters.


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