January 06, 2022
On a sandy point of land jutting out into a large river, I was introduced to something I had not experienced hunting puddle ducks during my formative years. The blind was simple: a pile of driftwood. Forty drake bluebill decoys tracked side to side in the light current. At my shoulder, my black Lab Jet shivered. They came from downriver—500, maybe 1,000 birds, all bluebills, making their daily flight from the estuary to points upstream.
"Can’t hurt," I told the pup, putting the call to my lips and letting loose a drawn-out growl while flicking the short-handled black flag high, hoping to catch the attention of one or two of the many.
A pair peeled off from the main flock and set a course for shore. A second pair joined them. Then a third. Then 20. Fifty. Suddenly, the entire group veered left, overtaking the fragments, hurtling en masse toward my small square of sand. Beside me, the pup whined. Five hundred yards. Four hundred. Closer. One hundred. The sound of wings cleaved the still river air. Heavy bodies, too many to count, slapped the water. It was a challenge, I’d recall later, but somehow I managed to focus on a single black-and-white standout drake, shoulder the 12 and slap the trigger. He crumpled decisively, as did the drake behind him.
Chaos ensued as hundred of ’bills made their exit. A lone drake lagged behind. I forced the muzzle ahead of his outstretched bill and touched metal, smiling as he cartwheeled into the water.
And then they were gone, a blur on the upriver horizon. One bird lay next to me, Jet having gone on her own for the second. Only then did I realize I was shaking. Only then did I understand what the diver men had known for decades.
Diving ducks—bluebills, canvasbacks, redheads, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and a host of sea ducks—have that effect on a body, even on ’fowlers with years of field experience under their wader belts. They’re just different, the avid will admit. Wild. Unruly. Brutishly handsome. And it’s in part due to the places that divers call home. Big water. Lakes and rivers without beginning or end. Waves and wind. Cold. Ice. Depth. And an element of danger not found on your run-of-the-mill duck pond.
Mike Bard knows this diver scenario intimately. The owner and operator of Game Hogg Hunt Club (gamehogghuntclub.com), Bard and his family make their home in New York’s waterfowl-rich Finger Lakes Region. Many waterfowling enthusiasts are familiar with the gentleman, having read of his quest for the North American Waterfowl Slam—the harvest of all 42 species of ducks and geese available to hunters in the Lower 48 and Alaska. My first question for Bard, a man with such novelties on his waterfowling resume as king eiders and emperor geese, was simple: Why divers?
"Diver hunting became an attraction to me because it was the next level," Bard says. "As kids, we could always find a little swamp and shoot a few mallards or wood ducks. Puddle ducks were something everybody did.
"Then I had the opportunity to chase divers with an older friend of mine out of a traditional layout boat. And I realized this…let’s call it a sense of danger. The water was deep. You went out in the dark into what seemed like an abyss. A mile. Maybe 15 miles out. And the birds fly fast and low to the water. Divers present a different kind of shot. They’re not going to backpedal and flutter down like a mallard. They’re screaming."
For some, a 5-acre pasture pond might qualify as big water. With divers, we’re talking seriously big, and generally deep enough to negate the need for chest waders other than to keep you dry.
"Like a lot of things in life," Bard says, "big water is relative to your experience. I’ve hunted the ocean a number of times, but I’ve seen the Great Lakes and even the Finger Lakes get vicious. To me, big water requires a good shoreline spot, or else you’re going to have to use a formidable boat to get around and hunt it effectively."
Scouting, then, says Bard, becomes more of an undertaking than eyeballing a timber hole for mallards or a marsh puddle for blue-wings and wood ducks. Bard suggests, first and foremost, a navigational map of the water in question—either an up-to-date paper map or an app that clearly shows the water depth.
"Most divers won’t or can’t feed in water deeper than, say, 20 feet," he says. "Most of the time, you’re going to be in less than 20 feet, and there needs to be some type of vegetation for the birds to feed on."
Divers also feed on a variety of fish and shellfish.
"These birds don’t seem to mind roosting on 6-foot waves in 100 feet of water," says Bard. "But when they come in to feed, they want to find those places where they can swim down to the bottom, get the food they need and feed somewhat comfortably.
"Similarly, I’m looking for the lee side of a point—the protected side—where I can be safe and, ideally, out of much of the wind."
Diver hunting and boats typically go hand-in-hand. However, there are occasions when excellent shooting can be had with one’s feet firmly anchored on dry ground.
"Ideally, you’ll have the wind at your back or slightly quartering (away) from shore," says Bard. "Build yourself a simple blind. It’s all about location—water depth and a food source."
When I hunt divers from a land-based blind, I’ll set a spread in one of two ways. If the water’s shallow and safe enough to wade, I’ll rig the blocks on foot. Otherwise I’ll use a lightweight Aquapod or kayak to set the spread slightly offshore.
The spread itself is fairly simple: Two lines of decoys spaced 8 to 10 feet apart upwind, another pair of lines downwind but angled slightly out and in the direction I expect the birds to come, and a “blob” of 12 to 16 single-rigged decoys directly in front of the blind to simulate birds on a food source. Often, incomers will follow the angled line down and into the feeders, making for 20- to 25-yard shots.
Boat Blind Ambition
Any seaworthy skiff large enough to be safe on a chosen body of water could be a diver boat. However, Bard doesn’t take any chances when it comes to his choice of watercraft.
“If you’re going to hunt big water,” he says, “I’d recommend something 18 to 25 feet in length.”
Bard captains a 25-foot Duckwater, an incredibly rugged boat that handles the rock-studded Lake Ontario shoreline without incident. He runs both a hull-rated main outboard and a smaller kicker motor, which he has used on occasion to get him back to the ramp due to a broken prop or weather-related issues.
Other features of Bard’s personal boat include a full blind with some overhead cover, plenty of shelving on both starboard and port sides, interior lighting, swivel chairs, Mister Buddy heaters, two global positioning systems, an ACR personal locator beacon and a marine radio.
When hunting out of boat blinds, I’ve sat over anywhere from 30 to more than 300 decoys. The key when hunting from a boat blind on open water is to play the wind so approaching birds aren’t looking at the boat, but rather the spread. That is, off-set or quarter decoys away from the boat, which—theoretically—forces ducks to commit left-to-right or right-to-left, leaving the blind virtually unseen.
Layout for the Payout
"Everyone needs to do it once," says Bard, speaking of the traditional layout boat diver hunt. "If you’ve hunted out of a layout blind for geese, just imagine the geese coming in a foot off the ground at 40 miles per hour. You can feel the wind from their wings. It’s like100 little fighter jets trying to take your head off."
He’s right; layout hunting is hard to explain to the uninitiated. You lie flat on your back in a fiberglass boat among dozens upon dozens of decoys. Meanwhile, hundreds of ducks attempt to land on your face. Throw in a 2-foot swell, wind and temps hovering just below freezing. Oh, and you’re dressed like Ralphie’s little brother in "A Christmas Story."
Years ago, my wife and I hunted with Mark Rongers, founder of The Mighty Layout Boys, on the Mississippi River over 150 hand-carved and painted decoys. As my wife said at the time, it was like hunting on a work of art.
Rongers setup was simple, albeit time-consuming and challenging due to wind and current. First, he anchored the two-man layout boat. Then, he built the spread to either side and downwind of it, leaving room between the lines to maneuver the tender boat for crew swaps and bird retrieval. A master at his craft, Rongers made it look easy, which it isn’t—though it proved to be deadly.
Shotshell options for late-season birds
When targeting divers, my blind bag contains an ample supply of 3-inch 12-gauge No. 2s, preferably something quick like Kent’s Fasteel 2.0 that pushes 1 1/8 ounces of shot at 1,560 fps, or a slightly larger 1 1/4-ounce charge at 1,500 fps. When it comes to steel, No. 2s are the lead No. 5s of the modern age; that is, they’re a darn near perfect all-around choice for any number of applications.
Better, perhaps, than steel, albeit more costly per round, would be a tungsten, tungsten-matrix or bismuth shotshell like Kent’s Tungsten Matrix, or the newer Hevi-XII offering from Environ-Metal. Though more expensive, these shotshells allow hunters to drop down in pellet size—say, from No. 2 to No. 4—while at the same time increasing pellet count and pattern density—a mighty fair trade-off when it comes to dollars versus load performance.
Finally, add a box or two of swatter loads—No. 5 or No. 6 steel—for finishing birds on the water should the situation call for it.