Big, open water is the domain of diver ducks like canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills, ringnecks, buffleheads and goldeneyes. However, seeking out smaller lakes and reservoirs and applying the right techniques can pay big dividends.
Water, Water, Water
Water resources are abundant in North America in the form of large reservoirs, lakes, rivers streams and ponds. When it comes to diving ducks, however, all waters are not created equal. Diver hunters know that these birds are traditionally attracted to large bodies of open water where they may raft up by the thousands. This is the habitat to which they are best adapted.
Diving ducks have big feet and strong legs for propulsion and their legs are set well back on the body to reduce water resistance. They possess the ability to slow their metabolic rate during long dives. Foods, such as tubers, small mollusks and amphipods are often abundant in larger bodies of water, which in turn attract the masses of diving ducks which migrate each year.
Divers, unlike puddle ducks, use big water for the full spectrum of their daily activities, including loafing and feeding and may never leave the confines of a given lake.
Divers most often dive two to 6 feet to feed and stay down from 10 to 20 seconds. However, they are capable of diving much deeper and staying under for longer periods of time. A canvasback, diving to root for tubers will surface where it dove. A scaup, cruising underwater for amphipods, may surface 50 feet from where it went down.
Not every hunter has access to the big waters. However, they need not despair. Divers do frequent smaller lakes and reservoirs as well. A friend, who once operated a major waterfowl hunting operation in California laughed at me one morning as I broke out three dozen decoys for a bluebill hunt. "You can't attract bluebills with so few decoys," he stated. "Besides they don't migrate through the Midwest anyway."
The air blazing over thousands of wings before daylight sounded like jets. We hunted a 75-acre lake. "Bluebills," I whispered to my friend.
"Can't be," he muttered.
Twenty minutes after shooting hours began, we picked up our last bluebill. We sat for a long while just to watch the birds fly. "Best bluebill hunt of my life," my friend admitted, sheepishly.
There are tens of thousands of small bodies of water across the U.S., which are deep enough to attract migrating diver ducks. Even if you are not in the middle of a major flyway, check out waters near you. Not all ducks fly the flyways. I have found many small honey holes, which few other people hunt, because they don't realize their potential.
How to Hunt Small Waters
Waterfowl hunters far from major flyways often do not own big, open water boats. Use what you have. Numerous times I have used a 17-foot canoe to hunt diving ducks on smaller lakes. Most often, I utilize an 18-foot Tracker Grizzly, which I stencil camoed. I add several sheets of camo material without a frame to give the boat a very low and broken profile.
Hunt the downwind side of the lake. Divers prefer to fly where the water is rougher. Head to where the water is rolling and set up there. Windswept shores bordering open water are key spots to locate.
Do not place your decoys in the stoutest wind on the lake. Begin placing decoys at the edge of rough water and work towards your blind location. Look for a break, a curve in the shoreline, the lee side of a point, or some landscape feature that creates a pocket of water that is a little calmer than adjacent areas directly in the wind. Diving ducks flying the shorelines of smaller lakes and reservoirs often plop in quickly to decoy sets, if the location offers a slight break from the wind.
Choose an area for your decoy set where the wind is blowing parallel to the bank. Choosing areas with a crosswind could cause you to have to change hunting spots every day, but the effort will pay dividends.
Place the majority of your decoys on the upwind side of your blind or boat location. String a mixture of canvasback and bluebill decoys about 15 yards out, heading away from the blind and then curving to make a half moon formation in front of the blind. Leave a 15 yard wide whole in the set and place the remainder of your decoys downwind.
Divers flying parallel to the bank and into the wind that come to the line of curving decoys will almost always follow it in and land in the hole right in front of your blind. If ducks approach from the opposite direction they will hook around and head for the hole. Regardless, with this spread, the shooting will be right out front.
If birds don't land where you want, adjust your spread. First flights will be your guIde. If they don't land where you want, following flights most likely will not, either. Don't wait. Make your set changes early. Moving decoys closer to you of adding a curve or angle to lines are the most productive moves.
If birds are working another area, move quickly. It does not take a pick up load of decoys to attract divers. Just attract their attention and shooting should be good.
A Word on Calling
Diving ducks will decoy readily without calling. However, I have discovered that calling can enhance chances to get the ducks into shooting range. Purrs, barks and coarse quacks are the standard calls of diving ducks. Some companies make calls for diving ducks. However, a standard, double reed mallard call will do the job. It just takes a little practice. Too, calling ducks is a great deal of fun, especially on a small body of water when the divers are pouring in.