Diving Duck Tactics

From bays to lakes to ponds, and jump-shooting and rowing sculls and layout boats, here's your guide to hunting diver ducks.

Scaup are one diving duck species that prefers to dine on small crustaceans in nearshore and inshore areas. Photo by garykramer.net

By Gary Kramer

Leaving the protection of the harbor, Bill gunned the outboard, and a wall of salt spray came over the bow as we headed into the darkness. Fifteen minutes later, a huge structure loomed darkly ahead of us. He backed off the throttle and then coasted to a stop at the bottom of a permanent waterfowl blind on pilings. It was a grand affair, with space for up to four hunters, a dog and a place to hide the boat.

We put guns, shells and Bill's Lab in the blind and then set out about 100 canvasback and bluebill decoys. They were set in long lines with large weights at both ends to hold them in place against the current. With the decoys in place, we returned to the blind just as the sun peeked over the horizon.

Bill pointed to the east, and I glanced up to see a tight knot of two dozen ducks bound for our decoys. They approached at a speed that brought them to the decoys quicker than I had anticipated. Bill said "Now!" and we stood up and fired. I emptied my pump shotgun, dropping one of the three scaup that ended up lying in the decoys. The dog was sent, and soon I was admiring a drake greater scaup - the first diving duck I had ever bagged.

The rest of the morning was a picture-perfect day for divers. A stiff breeze out of the north rippled the surface of the water just enough to keep the birds flying, the tides were perfect and the birds decoyed like nothing I had ever seen. The experience of setting out masses of decoys, the speed of the birds, how they came to the blocks in large flocks, and the preparation and effort required to hunt them successfully piqued my interest in diving ducks - an interest that has lasted 30 years. While I enjoy hunting puddle ducks, I can't help but appreciate and gravitate toward divers for the unique brand of shooting they provide.

Diving ducks, or divers, derive their name from their primary method of feeding, which is diving below the surface of the water. That's not to imply that divers cannot or do not feed on the surface - only that the majority of their food is reached by diving. They have a compact, streamlined body, and large feet placed farther back on the body than those of puddle ducks. Their musculature is different as well, designed for diving rather than walking on land or rapid takeoffs. In North America, canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necked ducks, greater scaup and lesser scaup represent diving ducks.

Diving ducks can be hunted in a wide variety of habitats ranging from small marshes to large lakes and saltwater bays. Here are some of the areas divers are found in, and some of the special hunting tactics that will consistently put them in the bag.

Compared to big-water areas, which generally require a boat and motor, lots of decoys and a mountain of gear, marshes lend themselves to the freelance hunter. Alone or with a buddy, hunters access the areas on foot or in small boats, bringing with them small decoy spreads and a limited amount of gear.

I have seen numerous areas where ringnecks, which tend to feed in water shallower than what the other divers use, are feeding alongside mallards and pintails. I've also seen marshes where mallards were preening and resting in deep water, while yards away, redheads were diving and feeding. In these areas, the addition of a dozen diver decoys to your mallard spread will bring in divers and add a new dimension to your bag.

Even at many public areas, where puddle ducks are often the most numerous species, your bag will increase significantly if you seek out the habitat favored by diving ducks. Look for open-water areas within a marsh and locations where shallow water drops off into deeper pools. Also, be on the lookout for submerged aquatic vegetation, a prime diver food that grows in water too deep for emergent vegetation like cattails and bulrush. Divers feed on invertebrates as well, so look for them surfacing from a dive with a clam or other food item in their mouths.

While puddle duck hunters certainly kill their share of birds on lakes and reservoirs, big water is the domain of the diver hunter. It just makes sense, then, that when most hunters talk about gunning on lakes and reservoirs for ducks, they're talking about the fun of hunting on big water for divers. And no wonder: The classic vision of a camouflaged boat surrounded by a spread of 100 decoys and a flock of hard-charging bluebills over blocks is the image that comes immediately to mind.

While puddle ducks use these bodies of water primarily for sanctuary, they generally feed in other areas. In contrast, divers use big water for the full spectrum of their daily activities, including loafing and feeding, and may never leave the confines of the lake or reservoir.

A boat is necessary to transport hunters and gear, set out decoys, retrieve birds and find new spots on the lake or reservoir. If you're setting up next to a bank or island and there is cover, pull the boat into or next to the cover. However, in many areas the cover is sparse, and it may be necessary to anchor the boat in open water to intercept birds as they travel along local flyways. In this case, a boat blind and a frame with natural vegetation or camouflage attached is a good option.

Hunters without a boat can be successful at big-water gunning. Some lakes and reservoirs have roads around their perimeter. Travel these roads, stopping at various vantage points to scan the lake with binoculars for ducks. During these travels, I've flushed ducks from a backwater cove, stopped and tossed out decoys, used available cover as a blind and waited for the birds to return. When looking for birds, keep an eye open for sheltered areas, particularly during periods of bad weather and high winds. Divers are tough customers and can ride the waves for hours, but when the wind really blows, they eventually seek more sheltered areas to wait things out. No matter where you end up along the shoreline, concealment of some sort (portable blind, natural vegetation, rocks, driftwood) will be required.

While rivers are widespread and used extensively by diving ducks, they are often the areas least hunted. Virtually all rivers are considered navigable waterways and by definition, once you are on the water, you can hunt almost anywhere. However, look for sections below dams and power plants that are closed for reasons of safety, and adjacent to designated waterfowl sanctuaries.

Conditions on rivers are more variable than on marshes or lakes

and the birds have a tendency to move around more. Water levels fluctuate, and you have to deal with currents and floating debris. From a safety standpoint, rivers can be dangerous, particularly during periods of high water. While these factors make a river hunt a bit more complicated, hunting pressure is generally lighter than is seen at many other areas.

Rivers can be accessed and hunted from either the shoreline or a boat. Boats can be used to scout for birds, transport hunters and their gear, access hunting areas and as a shooting platform. When scouting, look for diving ducks in backwater sloughs, along the shoreline where tributaries enter the main river, near emergent vegetation, behind islands, and late in the season look below power plants and dams where the river stays open even during the coldest weather. All these areas hold ducks at one time or another, and a good decoy spread in the right location will provide action.

The boats used on rivers may or may not differ from those used on lakes and coastal areas. I've hunted for scaup from a boat that I use for salmon fishing - a 16-foot V-bottom aluminum skiff with a 25-horsepower prop-driven outboard. However, because of shallow sections or heavy debris loads, some rivers necessitate the use of flat-bottomed boats and jet drives designed specifically for running rivers. I've also seen flat-bottomed boats with Go-Devil motors used effectively.

Once you have reached your hunting location, the boat needs to be camouflaged in some fashion. Some hunters use blinds that are attached to the boat and can be folded down and out of the way. Even if you have a boat blind with you, there are times that the boat will be used only to access an area, not as a shooting platform. Then it becomes necessary to get out of the boat and hunt from shore. Some of these locations might include a point or a gravel bar where a driftwood blind is used or a rocky shoreline where the best hiding place is among the rocks.

Coastal estuaries and bays, along with other nearshore areas, are the undisputed domains of diving ducks. While puddle ducks frequent salt water, divers and sea ducks make up the vast majority of the tidewater duck harvest.

Divers seek out coastal areas, particularly on the wintering grounds for food and safety. These saltwater areas are prolific, producing great quantities of shellfish and other invertebrates that the birds consume throughout winter.

Hunting coastal areas takes a boat and motor, knowledge of decoys and rigging, and awareness of the tides. Safety must be considered at all times. Like duck hunters who frequent lakes and rivers, coastal duck hunters have to deal with changing weather patterns, bird movements and the other dynamic factors that play a role in a successful day afield. But unlike his freshwater comrades, the coastal duck hunter must deal with the tides - a dynamic force in play every day. Tide books are available at most sporting goods stores and bait shops in coastal areas and can be found on the Internet at this address: www.co-ops.nos.noaa.gov.

Keeping tabs on the tides is vital for two reasons. At high tide there will be plenty of water to run your boat and reach shoreline hunting locations, but at low tide the water drops, and access within the bay or estuary is more limited. Also, without any other stimulus, diving ducks frequently move in response to changing tides.

On bluebird days I've seen flock after flock of scaup pick up and head in one direction on the falling tide. The birds are likely to be moving to a favored feeding area where water depths and currents are more favorable for foraging.

As in other methods of diver hunting, you can use a boat or a shoreline hiding place. Many of the best shoreline locations are on points of land that jut into a bay, estuary or coastline. These points are productive because they reach into the areas the birds are using, and decoys can be placed to attract offshore passersby.

Coastal areas are so large that to reach shoreline hunting locations, set out decoys and retrieve birds, you'll need a boat. It can be pulled up to the shoreline, anchored in a salt grassbed, pulled into a tide gut or merely anchored in open water and surrounded by decoys. The keys to open-water boat hunting are using lots of decoys and placing your rig in a flight path or a feeding area.

Layout boat hunting is among the most interesting of the various duck hunting methods. Born during the heyday of market hunting, the layout boat quickly became popular with hunters targeting diving ducks. Because many of the areas frequented by divers are far from land or are too deep for permanent blinds, the layout boat is considered by many to be the ultimate floating blind.

Layout boats are built to be invisible to ducks until they are over the decoys and in shotgun range. Layouts are wooden or fiberglass wide-hulled boats, customarily painted dark gray, about 12 feet in length with an ultra-low profile. They are anchored fore and aft, with the bow (the more rounded end) pointing into the wind and the hunter facing downwind. The decoys are placed downwind of the boat, often with a string of decoys trailing behind to act as a guide for the birds that will be flying into the wind and toward the boat.

Despite all the advantages of layout boats, their use requires more gear and equipment than most duck hunting methods do. There is the purchase of the boat and associated anchors, ropes etc., a substantial decoy rig, plus a tender boat to transport or tow the layout boat and carry hunters to the gunning area. Once the hunters are transferred from the larger boat to layouts, the tender boat is used to retrieve downed birds.

Scull boats are 14 to 18 feet in length and produced in one or two-man models. A very specialized water craft, scull boats are propelled through the water by a single curved oar that extends from a hole in the transom. The hunter lies down in the boat and works the oar behind his head in a figure-8 motion to propel the boat forward.

Most sculls are made to face downwind so that the approach occurs with the wind in the sculler's favor. The best conditions for sculling are a light chop - just enough to keep any noises muffled and allow the boat to move through the water without a bow wave alerting the birds.

These boats are generally used without decoys, with the operator spotting rafted birds in the distance, then sculling up on them. The hunter sits up to shoot when he is within range of the birds. Some hunters look for rafted birds from the shoreline then launch their scull boat and move to the birds. Others put their scull boats on larger craft or tow them behind larger boats until ducks are spotted.

Over the past 30 years, I've had the good fortune to hunt diving ducks throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. Yet, each morning that I get up with a diver hunt the order of the day, some of the excitement I felt that very first day comes alive. I believe a flock of redheads or scaup, boosted by a 15 mile-per-hour tail wind and coming full tilt toward my decoys is among the

most awesome sights waterfowling can deliver. Go give it a try!

(Editor's Note: Gary Kramer is the author of A Ducks Unlimited Guide to Hunting Diving and Sea Ducks, a comprehensive book on hunting diving and sea ducks, published by Ducks Unlimited. To order an author-signed copy, send $28.45, which includes shipping/handling, to Gary Kramer, P.O. Box 903, Willows, CA 95988, or e-mail gkramer@cwo.com.)

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