Often relegated to the "unintentional bag," Louisiana's diving ducks can provide waterfowlers with some intentional action. (November 2008).
Redheads and ringneck ducks -- also known as "black ducks" -- are often overlooked as primary targets by Louisiana waterfowlers.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.
The number of diving ducks wintering in Louisiana -- primarily ringnecks and redheads -- has been increasing in recent years, offering savvy Bayou State waterfowlers an opportunity to expand their enjoyment in the blind.
Many divers end up in the bag as merely incidental quarry, however, encountered and taken pretty much by chance. To get the most out of these sporty (and quite tasty) targets, one must use tactics varying somewhat from those effective against mallards, squealers, grays and widgeons.
I shot my first duck -- a drake ringneck -- almost 50 years ago on Shreveport's Cross Lake, and immediately got bitten by the diver bug. However, several seasons would pass before I realized the first of those variances. It took place on Wallace Lake -- more of a rather deep cypress slough than a "lake," but the ringnecks, among others, loved it.
I had shot a few of them by that time, usually from borrowed blinds ranging from almost total dereliction to simply not having been brushed for the season. Those that had been built in a brake of cypresses, even if they were in a rather decrepit state, were always more effective than similar ones that stood in open water.
One frigid late November morning, I decided to do some freelancing, and set my spread in an open pocket alongside a sparsely vegetated island, hunkered down in some buttonbrush on the bank and spent several hours shivering, while the ducks passed well overhead on their way to some hidden slough.
I recall catching pneumonia from that morning!
But I survived, and after I recovered, I did a little prospecting, and discovered where those ducks were headed that morning. It was an almost circular opening roughly a half-acre in size and rimmed with thick stands of cypresses. There I could only set my spread in the center of the pocket, shove my duck boat into a narrow opening in the upwind trees and, for the first time in my duck-hunting career, lay out in it.
And the ringnecks came in like there was no tomorrow, offering rather quick but totally committed shots over the decoys. Glorious!
The "layout tactic" has been without a doubt the most important factor in my diver-hunting career; it works well on pintails, too. That aside, it's been effective with a bare minimum of side-cover for my boat and none overhead -- but the point is that the lower you are to the water, the less obtrusive it seems you are to the ducks, and the better they'll respond to your decoys.
And that goes for anywhere you hunt them in Louisiana, be that in a cypress slough south of Shreveport or along the edge of a canal down the river from Venice.
Finding a spot in which ducks appear to be resting or feeding consistently will be a good start. Otherwise, set up in water between 4 and 6 feet deep just off the "main lake," preferably in the lee of a bank. Here a group of three or four smallish cypresses just far enough apart to allow the boat entry into them can make for a great "hide."
Your layout setup should be identical to that for a blind, with the boat a short distance upwind of your decoy spread. The spread should have an opening directly downwind of your position for the ducks to target as a landing zone.
While I've laid out successfully in a pirogue, if it has more than one seat, you probably won't be able to completely lay down in it. If you can, don camouflaged rain gear, place a camouflage cushion against the other seat for a pillow, and stretch out with your shotgun lying lengthwise along your body and pointed toward your feet. When the birds come -- and they will -- all that they'll see will be decoys and a low, very insignificant-looking blob in the trees.
Unfortunately, the character of the water body will in certain instances prohibit laying out. Large, open lakes are one of those, but you can still stay relatively low and unobtrusive. It still involves hunting from a boat -- albeit one a bit more seaworthy than a duck boat.
A floating blind offers the advantage here. Some of the best examples I've ever seen were situated out from Green Park landing on Lake Bistineau. Constructed on pontoons, these blinds were long enough to enclose a 16-foot flatboat and just high enough to provide thorough cover for someone sitting on the boat's seats. Notably, they were considerably lower than the nearby blinds that were much more elevated because of the boat-hide beneath the shooters' box.
Floating blinds are also easily movable from one spot to another, should the birds begin frequenting another area of the lake. I've done it by simply picking up the anchors, moving my bass boat inside it, and idling to the new spot. Take your time -- and pick a calm day!
Finally -- and this is one of the best perks of a floating blind -- they're much easier to build than is a stationary blind. And you can pre-fabricate them on the bank. All you need is a couple of "pontoons" (10-by-10 sills of the right length are fine if you can't locate actual pontoons), some aluminum pipe, ells, tees and handrail "feet" for the frame, some chicken wire, two heavy anchors, rope and some brush.
Once you've put it together in your yard, take it apart, put it on a trailer, take it to a marina on the lake you intend to hunt, and unload it there. Then, head home to fetch your boat and return with it to the marina. Once there, reassemble the blind, launch it, slip your boat inside it, and putt-putt out to where you intend to hunt. Then secure it with the anchors -- one on each end -- and brush it a week or so before the season opens.
Three things to remember about building a floating diver-blind: First, make the frame high enough to hide you when you are sitting on a seat, yet low enough to allow you to pop your head and shoulders up through the hole that you cut in the chicken wire atop the frame to allow you to shoot. Second, anchor the boat on a north-south axis; so oriented, it'll ride a strong nor'wester's waves rather than catch them crosswise. Finally, set it up in a spot that won't conflict with a permanent blind.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
Most folks associate a large decoy spread with successful diver hunting. That's generally true, but all of your decoys needn't be top-of-the-line block
One of the niftiest -- and, apparently, most effective -- decoy supplements I've ever seen was on Caddo Lake between the state Route 1 crossing and the dam. This ol' boy who had a platform blind just off the lake's north bank had augmented his spread with about a hundred Clorox jugs that he had painted flat white in the middle and flat black on each end. Some 15 or 20 of these were tied together on separate lines, one end of which was anchored on the downwind side of the blind. Man, from a distance it looked like every duck on the lake was in front of that blind! Judging from the amount of gunfire that intermittently erupted from it, perhaps they all were.
I never could bring myself to use Clorox jugs for decoys, though I once made some out of 2-by-4s with attached pieces of 2-by-2s for heads -- no bills, but still painted black and white. They would have probably worked better in quieter water, but in the chop that often made up on Caddo's open water, they didn't look quite right. Anyway, you can almost buy a dozen decent ringneck decoys for what a couple of pieces of the aforementioned lumber costs these days.
Whatever you use, remember that divers come to diver decoys just as mallards come to mallard decoys. Sure, there will be the "incidentals" that I mentioned earlier -- divers are rather fond of company, and at times it seems as if they aren't too choosy -- but you'll do better with at least a dozen diver decoys in your spread.
SEVERE WEATHER ADVISORY
In the relatively open areas of many north Louisiana lakes, diver hunting goes on amid some pretty serious weather. If you ever have a chance -- say, on a scouting run before the season opens -- take note of how these ducks ride the waves in a little blow. They may bob a bit, but they maintain their heading, and don't pitch and yaw -- and your decoys should behave similarly. Assuredly, they won't -- but a few ways of producing more lifelike action in them do exist.
First, use heavy decoys. My spread was made up of those now-priceless Herter's Model 50's -- heavy, heavily weighted and low-riding. No "water-keels" here! Second, connect your line to the decoy with a large snap-swivel; it may not make them ride better, but it'll prevent your line from twisting. And finally, use fairly heavy weights and enough line to allow a scope of at least two between the weight and the decoy -- for instance, 12 feet for 6 feet of water -- which will render the weights less likely to drag in the waves. And in case you don't know, that dragging can result in a massive tangle with other lines, thus royally confounding your duck-hunting day.
While divers will often circle a spread once or twice before committing, when they do commit they come in low and fast towards a particular spot in the spread: the opening mentioned earlier; it's sufficient in enclosed areas like the little pocket on Wallace Lake. In any case, the spread should be set in such a manner that the decoys will lead the ducks into a favorable shooting position.
In open-water areas, the time-tested fishhook pattern does this quite nicely. The bend of the hook -- the birds' landing zone -- should be just in front of the blind and padded with most of the decoys. Besides being the spot where you should take your shots, it allows the birds to settle in without passing over or too closely to other "ducks," as that would risk a collision in their hell-bent approach. Believe me, they know enough to try to avoid that.
The point of the hook should extend outward a bit and serve to form a blocking element to birds coming to the hook's bend. And the shank should extend downwind for some distance -- even out of effective shooting range -- to enhance the spread's visibility. I always liked to place two oversized decoys at the end of the shank, referring to them as "tollers." They did seem to get some attention.
Although the best diver hunting is normally associated with pretty wild weather, a surprising opportunity takes place on bluebird days. It comes courtesy of crappie fishermen, who as they motor from spot to spot tend to jump birds rafted up on open water. I've had some great shooting on both Caddo and Bistineau on days when there were many more fishermen about than hunters. If there's just enough breeze to make the decoys move on such a day, then wait it out for a while -- you may be surprised at the results!
While the data herein has been applicable to diver hunting statewide, it is directed toward the part of the state north of the coastal marshes, more specifically north Louisiana's big lakes. Floating blinds, for instance, just don't work in tidally influenced areas -- not for very long, anyway.
Still, plenty of divers are to be found along our coast -- and not only the inglorious "dos gris" (lesser scaup)! The Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the expanse of water between Tiger Pass and the river below Venice is typically loaded up with redheads, as is much of the Atchafalaya Delta WMA. And on a hunt with noted Big Lake guide Capt. Jeff Poe on his lease near the Cameron Prairie refuge, I couldn't believe the numbers of blackjacks we saw -- beaucoup des canards, mes amis! Despite that plenty, most folks hunting along the coast don't complement their pintail and mallard spreads with divers.
They will also futilely fight the low-tide mudflats in their attempt to harvest a few of the "big ducks." Believe me when I declare that decoys don't look very inviting when they are canted awkwardly atop the mud.
By far the finest duck hunting I've ever experienced took place below Venice in a small canal down Grand Pass on days when the northeast corner of West Bay was dry -- well, exposed mud -- from the combined effects of a stout norther and the day's meteorological low tide. Granted, the one-duck limit on those birds at the time was pretty frugal, but on most days my one male can was supplemented with a redhead or ringneck, or two. And I was actually hunting rather than staring disgustedly at lifeless decoys spread across a mudflat before me.
That hunt took place in a canoe whose silhouette was broken by either a stand of canes or a thick patch of elephant ears with me scrunched down very low within it. With nowhere else around for them to go, the birds came beautifully to my decoys.
That's something else that almost half a century's experience with these fine ducks has taught me. Find a little place that they like, and it doesn't take much to convince them to come. Places like the small bar-pit off Two O'Clock Bayou in the West Atchafalaya Floodway, the corner on the south side of Caddo just east of Buzzard Bay, Seven-Acre Pocket -- and that little sweet spot that started so much of this -- on Wallace, and that canal down Grand Pass. You'll probably be more consistent hunting divers on or near big water, but don't overlook the little spots. You may stumble across a real jewel.'‚'‚'‚