March 18, 2023
By Chad Fix
The Complete Guide to Diver Duck Hunting: Part 3 – Guns, Loads, and Safety
With the right gear, gun, and safety-minded mentality, you’ll be ready to appreciate the spectacle that can only be put on by the beloved divers.
With the influx of denser-than-steel shotshell loads and improved ballistics, one could sport a .410 for divers—the unprecedently dense (18 cu/cm) Tungsten Super Shot will stone anything at impressive distances. That said, it’s best to use common sense and practice. Over half of the species of divers listed are small to tiny, so putting a lethal BB on them requires a dense pattern; smaller bird means smaller vitals.
Be sure to check out The Complete Guide to Diver Duck Hunting:
Diver Duck Hunting Shotguns & Loads
We’re out to kill—just breaking wings is unacceptable on divers; it is a very different experience than breaking dabblers' wings. Divers may be impossible to retrieve if they have enough life in them—they’ll dive before the shot even makes it to them—and can take you miles in a boat (you’ll go through several boxes of shells too), compared to dabblers that typically pop up 10 yards from where they originally dove. It’s why many diver hunters continue to shoot at the birds they hit as they drop and splash.
Therefore, it is imperative to pattern shells to your gun and choke. You can inquire on forums on shell and choke preferences and you’ll get 1,000 different opinions. Your shotgun and choke are different than the next person that may have the same shotgun and choke. Do your due diligence in the offseason and pattern, so you know proper pattern density to the distance shoot from. The rule of thumb is for the pellet count in a 30” circle be 90-100 for large ducks and 130 for small ducks – basically somewhere in between will be ideal for divers. You’ll be far more knowledgeable about your abilities and limitations, and, in turn, far more confident in the moments when pulling the trigger matters.
On shells, go with the best in your budget. They’re the biggest difference maker with your success – far more than sporting a top-of-the-line shotgun, decoys, gear, boat, etc. The sea duck guides I know and have hunted with will say to go with as dense as possible of a load with 4-shot being the overall best shot size outside of TSS (9 shot TSS is more than capable of dropping any duck or goose).
Diver Duck Hunting Safety
If there’s one adjective to describe a waterfowler, it’d be hardy, and we’re proud of it. Fifteen years ago, I thought I was impervious to anything. Boy, was I wrong. Waterfowl hunting is dangerous. Diver hunting is arguably one of the most dangerous. It’s why I always wear a personal floatation device (PFD) around water. I had a close call a few years ago where I was wading in current, took a wrong step, and, in a split second, my waders filled up. The current was so strong that it turned my waders into a parachute dragging me underwater. I didn’t wear a PFD that day. Had I, I would’ve still had my gun—I dropped it because there was no way for me to swim effectively with one arm in strong current or safely (doing a front crawl is dangerous with a loaded shotgun). Also, make sure your wader belt has zero elasticity; that was the main reason why my waders filled up so dramatically. If it is made of elastic, replace it with a $6 nylon wader belt you can find online. That was a costly lesson—a $6 wader belt plus a $50 PFD could’ve saved me from losing a $2,000 gun—but at least it wasn’t my life. Always wear a PFD. Trust me, just having one close by or in a compartment won’t be convenient enough when it matters.
Diver hunters are notorious at packing their boats over the United States Coast Guard weight rating of their boats with 4 inches of freeboard. That deathly cold water is no joke. Be mindful of your weight restriction: accounting for not only your blind mates, dog, decoys, and gear, but also your motor/outboard.
Also, be cognizant of the weather. If the weather is starting to go sour and/or waves are building, don’t be afraid to call it. Even if you haven’t overpacked and have plenty of freeboard now, it doesn’t mean you will after packing up 12 dozen diver duck decoys (it takes time) and a layout boat (I don’t care who you are, it can be brutal getting out of one in rough water). That’s why being smart about your rigging is essential too. A spread that may take half an hour to deploy may take an hour and a half to pick up with wind and waves tossing you, the boat, and your decoys around.
Diver Dog Safety
Lastly, if you have a dog, be smart. As mentioned earlier, divers can be very hard to kill if they’re wounded on the water. Don’t send your dog after one until it’s belly up and feet are kicking, or you may put your dog at risk of chasing a bird across the slough or lake. Although it may make for a great story and score brownie points with your blind-mates, it could also spell disaster. Hypothermia is real with dogs. Two of my buddies in consecutive years had close calls with each of their hearty labs—literally on the cusp of losing them.
The legendary Gordon MacQuarrie once said nearly 100 years ago, “Have you sat on a snowy day and squinted through the white curtain at those mail-carrying bluebills? Until you have courted bluebills in snow, you have not tasted the purer delights of waterfowling.” There is no truer statement than this; just try not to miss.
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