December 13, 2022
Intrigued by something different? Great. Those emerald headed-mallards are as lustrous as ever but you know there are so many more birds gracing the same sky. Maybe it’s curiosity to try some birds that fetched a higher price than those orange-footed, curly-tailed fowl back in the market hunting days? Whatever the reason, welcome. Take a seat—I’ll rekindle the flames and fix you an Old-Fashioned on the rocks and discuss those other wonderful waterfowl: the low-flying and beautiful family of divers. When you’re done, you’ll be equipped with knowledge steeped in generations of experience and understand fellow diver freak Tony Smith’s rhetoric, “Who laughs more: a 36-year-old shooting dabblers or a 36-year-old shooting divers?”
Where & When to Find Diver Ducks
Aside from flooded timber, you can find them nearly everywhere. I’ve seen ring-necks in tiny oasis ponds in the middle of the Arizona desert. I’ve heard of hunters gunning canvasbacks in flooded corn. I’ve shot greater scaup (and seen other divers) in the western-most habitable islands in the middle of the Bering Sea. Generally, the larger the body of water, the better chances you’ll have at gunning them. Keep in mind that water depth can have a part to play. Divers can dive to great depths, but it seems that they prefer water 15 feet deep or shallower (makes sense considering most vegetation grows in 15 feet or less—the clearer the lake, the deeper the vegetation can grow).
Your success is mostly dependent on scouting. As mentioned prior, the great thing about divers is you don’t need to waste a morning or evening hunt out glassing for them; they move quite a bit throughout the day, you can pinpoint them at a micro level. On a macro level, the key can be two-fold. Use a map app, like onX Maps, to pinpoint islands, pinch points, prominent points and peninsulas to start. If the body of water that you’re eyeing has a depth contour map, use it. There might be a sunken island, current (an eddy offers plenty of aquatic forage), or a flat that is a magnet to them, as it would be for anglers. Keep a mindful eye for those certain depths.
A guide I’ve been fortunate to hunt with on the Great Lakes sticks to 12 feet deep; it’s at that depth that the water goes dark to them when flying from above—naturally creating their flight paths—and serves as an indicator for easy food. It’s why keeping a fish finder with the lake contour maps affixed to your duck boat could make all the difference in figuring out the lay of the water (and, from a safety standpoint, avoid running your prop aground).
Similarities to Dabbling Ducks:
- They follow flight paths once they’ve established themselves at a location for a couple days.
- When intrigued by a spread, both dabblers and divers work in circles.
- Once in a blue moon they’ll even fly together. A couple years ago, I witnessed redhead hens flying with pintails on two separate occasions on two very different types of bodies of water types about 200 miles away from each other.
- Calling the shot on them is equally as challenging; they may decoy differently, but divers are equally bad spread flirts as are late season mallards and black ducks.
Differences to Dabbling Ducks:
- While both dabblers and divers fly throughout the day, divers are prone to log more frequent flier miles— sometimes, it seems, they just want to fly.
- Divers are apt to sleep in a little longer. No doubt you’ll hear them in the pre-dawn to golden hour ripping by sharing the same sky as the early-bird-gets-the-worm-wood duck, but they generally seem to take to the air one to three hours after sunrise.
- They don’t mind (and even welcome) rough waters.
- Dabblers are the helicopters of the waterfowl world while divers are the fighter jets;. Dabblers circle and drop down vertically, while divers sweep in giant circles, approach low, and land fast horizontally.
Diver Duck Species Roundup
Canvasback: The largest of the pochards (around 2.5 lbs. and 20” long), “Cans” or “Bulls” might be the most emblematic bird in waterfowl. Even the mallard-or-bust hunters would likely esteem a canvasback they shot over a brace of mallards in the same game pouch. They’re also one of the finest on the dinner table—probably because of a prominently vegetarian diet (their Latin name is derived from their favorite food: wild celery). Shoot one of these swift fliers and you’ve earned your place in waterfowling—if you shoot a bull drake in December or January, good luck not wanting to put it on your wall.
Redhead: Another large diving species, redheads, “Reds,” or “Gingers” can be commonly mistaken for canvasbacks, in flight, for those in the northern latitudes. They target a lot of the same things canvasbacks eat, and redhead hens will parasite a canvasback’s nest with their own eggs (redheads are one of the guiltiest species of brood parasitism). Canvasbacks tend to fan out across America’s coasts once they reach Pool 9, but 80 percent of redheads keep on trucking’ and zero in on Texas’s and Mexico’s Laguna Madre—kind of crazy too, considering some first-year redheads were raised by another species, even laying eggs in the nests of the predatory northern harrier. I’d like to think some of them make it after they are incubated, wake up and get the hell out of dodge after being served some regurgitated pouldeau from step-mom Harriet the harrier.
Ring-Necked Duck: Probably the hardest to distinguish diver of the lot. On the wing, drakes can be mistaken for greater and lesser scaup while hens can look like redhead hens. Heck, even the taxonomist blew it, labeling them after the difficult to see rusty ring of feathers around an adult drake’s neck instead of the prominent white ring around its bill. “Ringbills,” “ringers,” or “blackjacks” are often flocked and rafted with various divers on big waters but are also prone to intermix with dabblers on small, wooded ponds—they can do this because they’re the only diver that can spring up from water like a dabbler (all other divers run on top of the water to take flight). Also, unlike other divers, their population is continuing to grow most years. Both reasons why ring-necked ducks are the only diver to crack the top ten of duck species harvested each year. Just like canvasback and redheads, they’re excellent to eat too—most of their diet consists of wild rice and other vegetation.
Greater Scaup: Greater scaup, or greater bluebill are medium-sized with a greater affinity for massive bodies of water like the Great Lakes and ocean coasts. Their diet consists of mollusks and vegetation. Greater scaup account for just 11 percent of the scaup harvest totals in North America. Tough to distinguish from lesser scaup on the wing, the easiest way to determine what you shot is looking at its wings. Greater scaup have a white line of feathers that extends the entire length of the wings. Also, the black on the tip of the bill extends past the sides of the egg tooth.
Lesser Scaup: The smaller, dirtier-looking lesser scaup, or lesser bluebill, is a smaller duck. Despite a decline, lesser scaup still form one of the most numerous populations of divers and extensive ranges of waterfowl in North America. Although they cross paths with greater scaup, lessers prefer interior bodies of water. They, like greater scaup, prefer to feast on mollusks and vegetation. Invasive zebra mussels are becoming a large food source for lessers,which account for 89% of the scaup harvest.
Buffleheads: One of the smallest duck species on the continent, and unlike the pochards, buffleheads nest in tree cavities bored out by flickers and pileated woodpeckers. Males tend to be more monogamous than the rest of the duck world, usually pairing with the same hen for multiple years. Some 90% of the population nests from Manitoba to the west coast. They tend to scatter along all coasts in the winter—remaining in small flocks both in flight and on water, where they forage for mostly aquatic insects, crustaceans, and mollusks.
Common Goldeneye: Common Goldeneye get their name from their yellow iris. Hunters coin them “whistlers” for the haunting whistle from their wingbeats, and they range from coast-to-coast. They also nest in tree cavities where, like wood ducks, ducklings may have to jump from great heights to reach their squawking mom below. Commons eat crustaceans, aquatic insects, mollusks, fish, and some aquatic vegetation. Barrow’s Goldeneye are found west of the Rockies with a few along the north Atlantic coast. Their distinguishing feature is the crescent white markings on their cheeks, purple iridescent heads, and white-dotted feathers on their shoulders on drakes.
Ruddy Duck: Ruddy ducks are the sole representative of the stiff-tailed ducks in North America. They’re one of the smallest waterfowl species on the continent and probably the most unique. They prefer to remain on the water rather than take flight. Their plumage is the reverse of all other duck species: the drake’s summer plumage is the most ornate while the winter plumage is drab like a hens. When courting, drakes slap their oversized bills against their neck so quickly that it forms bubbles on the water.
Diver Hunting Methods
From Shore: Hunting from shore offers the best option for stable shots: your gun mount and feet are much more solid on dry land—extremely helpful when trying to gun down the jet fighters of the sky. If the water is shallow enough, setting out and picking up a super spread of 12 dozen decoys is far easier too. Chances are, you may not be on the exact “X” if you hunt them from shore, so you may have more passing shots at birds than ones where birds fully commit to the spread. Even if there is a stigma for divers being less discerning than dabblers, hunting without a blind in the wide open is an absolute last resort. Do yourself a favor and make a good hide or bring and a-frame to hide behind (it’ll certainly help provide a wind/weather break).
From a Boat: Hunting from a boat offers the luxury of getting closer to birds that might be out of a little deeper—you just tuck the boat into submerged vegetation that is too deep to stand in. Gunning from a boat is challenging—the boat will naturally rock back and forth from waves, guns firing or a dog moving. Concealing a boat is even more challenging. There are many boat blinds out there, but you’ll still sick out like a sore thumb if you don’t match the vegetation you’re hunting in.
From a Kayak/Canoe: If conditions are safe enough, hunting from a kayak instead is terrific. Not only will you be able to quickly disappear, but you can chase down a wounded bird quickly, too. Decoys can take up a lot of room in a boat, so towing them behind can do the trick. Doing this you’ll still go faster, ride safer, and put out a much more sizable spread. If you go this route, just make sure the larger boat is secured with several anchors and is safe to paddle to—make sure it’s anchored in multiple points and wear a PFD.
From a Layout Boat: A similar approach to using kayaks is layout hunting. Layout hunting might be the closest thing to field hunting: Essentially you lay down in a small, stable layout boat (saucer like, low-lying mini-vessel, typically) with the decoy spread positioned in front and around you, much like field hunting. Flagging, just like in field hunting, works in this application too. This in-your-face type of experience is arguably the most fun way to hunt waterfowl; divers appear out of nowhere—your tower will get buzzed—and you’ll miss a lot because they’re just a few feet away. It’s also the most dangerous. Only do this if two or three others can join you. It’s best that you all have logged at least one guided layout hunt, so you can understand how to safely orchestrate a hunt from layouts. You’ll also learn how important it is to position the spread around a layout boat to accommodate left and right-handed shooters. It’s imperative to be on the “X” or, if someone has beat you to the spot, you need to do some scouting or “traffic” the birds by setting up along their flight paths.
Body Booting: Super hard-core and popularized in the Chesapeake Bay, body booters stand in shallow water and hide in the decoys to break up their body’s outline amongst the decoy spread. It gets cold standing frigid water, so be sure to layer up.
Sculling: Another unique option is sculling. Hunters lay low in a sculling boat that is propelled by a large oar to sneak up on an unsuspecting flock or raft of birds. There is an art form to sculling; playing the wind, waves, current, and tide are key. Taking ethical shots are as well. Scull boats are slow, so you want to make sure you’re not chasing them for miles. It takes a long time to master sculling, but the reward is unmatched. Make sure to check your state’s regulations to see if layout hunting, body booting, and sculling are allowed.