Bucket-List Birds: The Challenges of Hunting Canvasbacks

The canvasback is often considered the king of North American waterfowl.

Bucket-List Birds: The Challenges of Hunting Canvasbacks

Canvasbacks are big, heavily feathered ducks. Use stout loads of large shot—say Nos. 2 and 3 steel—to put birds down. (Shutterstock image)

Every autumn, diving ducks thrill hunters with their uncanny aerial acrobatics and stunning plumages. But only one assumes the title of royalty.

“If there were only one bird I could go after, it would be the king of them all: canvasbacks,” said Jeremy Dersham, owner of Ridge and River Running Outfitters in Wisconsin. “If you’re a waterfowl hunter, you need to experience a king hunt at least once in your lifetime. There is truly nothing like witnessing the sights and sounds of the birds and the places they call home.”

Dersham knows that well. He annually guides dozens of clients for canvasbacks on the Mississippi River’s famous Pool 9, where tens of thousands of the big ducks raft and feed each fall during their migration. But, as he points out, pursuing these bucket-list birds poses many challenges, and he advises hunters to be prepared when chasing a bull can.

Canvasbacks
Putting hands on a bull canvasback requires some work in terms of scouting and setup. But the hard-won rewards are worth the effort. (Photo by Brian Lovett)

LOGISTICS AND NUMBERS

Migrating canvasbacks congregate on many types of waters but typically favor large, open-water areas with abundant submerged vegetation (such as the ample wild celery in Pool 9). Likely spots include broad prairie sloughs, major river systems and relatively shallow natural lakes or flowages. Further, when the migration peaks, cans often raft and fly in huge groups, which attract considerable attention from waterfowlers. These factors can make hunting difficult.


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“The challenges of canvasbacks are the numbers of the birds utilizing the area, conditions of the places they call home and the hunting pressure,” Dersham said. “There are some days you can’t get a flock to work, or you may have only one flock work you, so you need to make your shot count. Then, other days, we might put 3,000 to 5,000 canvasbacks through the spread. The weather conditions, hunting pressure and bird activity determine that day’s events.”


For starters, Dersham advises hunters to use a large boat that can handle rough water and has a large, dependable motor. Also, as with most diver hunts, you’ll want ample decoys—enough to grab the attention of passing cans and to compete with groups of real birds in the area. Simply throwing out dozens of blocks isn’t sufficient, though. Dersham said your spread must be relaxed and realistic.

“Anyone who has spent time watching rafts of canvasbacks has seen them sleep, feed, preen and stretch their wings all at the same time,” he said. “I’m trying to capture all of that in my spread.”

Moreover, Dersham crafts spreads so approaching birds don’t spot his boat and places decoys to guide canvasbacks sure-kill close for clients.

“We’ve all heard waterfowlers talk about diver setups and how easily they decoy,” he said. “I’ve been in conversations in which milk jugs and other primitive objects were said to be used with great success. Well, some days birds will decoy great, but that’s not the realistic scenario most days afield. Most big-water guys are quite familiar with the J or Nike swoosh setups, and I’ve personally had great success with those. My top priority for success is mirroring the activity of what’s going on with the birds.”


Early in the season, as canvasbacks begin trickling south, typical puddle-duck setups of three- to five-dozen decoys work fine. As bird numbers build, Dersham increases spreads to 150 to 200 fakes.

“I love using five to eight long lines, normally holding 12 to 18 decoys each, and trickling in another four- to five-dozen decoys on Texas-style rigs,” he said. “I want my spread to look relaxed, so it includes decoys in many different poses, along with spinning-wing and flashing decoys to give a realistic look. I will normally set up half to three-quarters of my spread with canvasback decoys, but I’ll also use mallards, buffleheads, goldeneyes, pintails, widgeon and gadwalls to mirror the activity (on the river).”

A WHERE-TO GAME

Hunters can score on cans by identifying traditionally good waters and hunting classic diver spots—points, islands or lee shorelines. However, Dersham said consistent success demands constant scouting, as birds might shift feeding, loafing and roosting areas because of weather, food availability, human pressure and other factors.


“I want to know what the birds are doing on an hourly basis,” he said. “I can tell you, my family will always let me know if I’m out of the loop with bird activity. I’ve been told I become a tad irritable. Setting up your spread 50 yards from a flight line can be the difference between going home empty-handed or giving a few birds a boat ride. Seeing what the birds are doing daily is critical.”

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Dersham normally scouts from his boat with high-powered binos—12x50 Leupold BX-4 Pro Guide HDs. He also uses his vehicle, glassing from high spots to watch specific flight lines and loafing birds and how they react to different conditions, such as wind direction and food sources, throughout the day.

That intense recon gives Dersham a starting point for morning hunts. But he also considers the situation when choosing a plan, as canvasbacks can become pressured relatively easily.

“I’m looking for travel lines and different loafing areas, along with weather and food conditions,” he said. “If I want to kill a few birds but witness the sights and sounds of the migration, I’m looking specifically for flight lines the birds are taking. If I want to try to kill my birds early and get off the water, I’m looking for small rafts of birds feeding on slicks—uprooted celery on the surface of the water. Normally, you can find a few birds using secluded areas where they gorge themselves with celery. When I’m hunting more secluded areas, I’m downsizing my spread and normally trying to run more flocked and sleeper decoys.”

Canvasbacks
Diver setups are crucial. During peak migration Dersham might have as many as 150 to 200 decoys set out to compete with rafts of real birds. (Photo by Brian Lovett)

CAN-SIDERATIONS

Check ID

The 2019-2020 daily limit on canvasbacks in the Central and Mississippi flyways is two, so it’s critical that hunters distinguish cans from similar diving ducks, such as redheads and bluebills. Those skills only come through observation.

“When I was first starting out chasing these incredible birds…I’d take out my old fishing boat, pack it with as many decoys as I safely could and motor out to an island point, parking it on the other side,” he said. “Some days, I’d come home with a few birds, and other days I wouldn’t, but I was always watching their behavior. I’d spend twice as much time watching birds as trying to pull the trigger. Cans in flight were soon imprinted in my brain: the sloping head, flight formations, wings and wingbeats and their size and colorations. I’d go to bed, close my eyes and see them in my dreams.”

Can Call

Diver hunting is visually oriented. However, Dersham said calling sometimes helps bring cans in close.

“Cans will decoy to a normal mallard hen call rather well,” he said. “Canvasback hens make a short, raspy quack sound. When listening to rafts, you’ll hear that unmistakable call coming from hens. When the migration is on, you can normally see cans, mallards, redheads, bluebills, ringnecks and other ducks all loafing together, and you’ll hear cans talking, along with the unmistakable ‘brrr’ sounds from redheads and bluebills. You can make those calls or a normal hen mallard call, or you can look for specific diver calls on the market.”

Bring It

Canvasbacks are big, heavily feathered ducks. Use stout loads of large shot—say Nos. 2 and 3 steel—to put birds down. Further, don’t skimp on shells when dispatching cripples. Even hard-hit cans can dive long distances and escape.

Have Fun

Finally, Dersham offers: Enjoy and embrace the canvasback hunting experience.

“It’s hard to put these birds into words—their regal looks, incredible speed and delicious table fare,” he said. “It’s the history of past hunters, decoy makers and people who paid astronomical prices to have one can served on a silver platter at the finest restaurants in the United States. It’s the places they call home and the conditions you have to endure to hunt them. It’s a bird that truly deserves to be called the king of ducks.”

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