Sunrise revealed the most pathetic spread I'd ever been a part of. More of our bluebill decoys were touching than not, and the lapping water caused them to rub together, loudly proclaiming their fraudulence.
"Well boys," Jon said, shaking his head with a little chuckle. "I think our goal just went from bluebill limits to one dead duck. Any duck will do."
The spread's assembly was rushed thanks to a 4 a.m. traffic jam en route to the Potomac River (such inconveniences can occur in the Washington, D.C. area). With no time for long lines, we threw out two-dozen individually rigged decoys. We beached our 15-foot jon boat (we had no means to store a larger vessel) at the edge of the sandbar just after legal light and hunkered in.
And yet, the ducks came.
Big swarms of bluebills mostly, but hundreds of canvasbacks, ringnecks and goldeneyes also left the river's main channel for our small bay in search of mussel beds and baitfish. I promptly shot two drake bluebills and a ringbill, then picked up my camera to film the spectacle. I had barely readied it when a ball of greaters swung in from the left, careening gracefully over the decoys. My buddy Eric scored a Scotch double — "Didn't you hear me call my shot?" he later joked — while Jon shot a true double. We capped our day with cans, a goldeneye and even some round little buffleheads.
The eight-year sentence I served in D.C. taught me lessons that flew in the face of conventional diver strategy: You can kill a lot of divers with just a couple decoys, over water that can nearly be waded in, while hunting out of an old jon boat. Make no mistake, hunters lacking a big, wide boat and space for a large spread are at a decided disadvantage. You don't have the stability to hunt among ice floes or anchor up for a float hunt. You'll spend windy days in bed rather than tempting fate amongst rolling waves; and sometimes find yourself out-decoyed. But if all your budget or storage space allows is a smaller boat, well, you can still find excellent diver hunting.
It's always advisable to hunt where ducks want to be rather than attempting to decoy transitioning flocks, but with a small craft it's practically essential. You don't have space in your boat for dozens of decoys, so there's little hope of pulling many birds off course.
"I would absolutely tell guys with small boats to focus their scouting on feeding birds," says Captain Bob Wetherald, owner of Mid River Guide Service in Newburg, Md. "It's more consistent than hunting loafing areas, because divers may loaf in an area one day and another the next, but they'll pound the same food sources daily. They'll also tolerate a little shooting in their feeding areas, but if you shoot the roost they're out of there."
Scout for actively feeding rafts of birds, which are pretty easily discerned from resting groups as they dip, splash and spray water above themselves in a flurry of activity. Pass on areas with birds that are lazily floating along or even dozing with their heads tucked down on their backs.
If you spot a group of feeding cans or ringbills, you can practically guarantee their return — if you can associate their activity with a major food source.
"If you find them in a bay with good grass or off a point where you know there's a mussel bed, those birds will definitely be back," says Wetherald.
Are they feeding on hydrilla, wild celery or another type of submerged aquatic vegetation? Or are they sucking down mussels and snails?
It's difficult to tell through binoculars, but the birds are likely feasting on crustaceans if they're rafted at the edge of a point or sandbar, jetting out into the water — such structures just happen to be the small-rig diver hunter's best friend.
Sandbars and points can be found near the safety of the bank, areas smaller crafts can traverse without fear. Yet, they also jut out into deeper waters — diver habitat — and provide ideal conditions for mussel beds to flourish.
Additionally, it is through the hunting of shallow sandbars and narrow points that a small duck boat actually offers some advantages over a big rig. Smaller boats can be positioned closer to the shoreline, better blending in with the bank and offering a lower profile.
Picture bluebills coming into the blocks. The reputation they've earned among those who fail to understand them as reckless, even stupid in comparison to mallards, is actually a symptom of how they enter a raft of birds or decoys. They take a more linear approach, coming in at a swift, low altitude. A boat blind sticking out on a point looks to them as if it's part of the bank; circling mallards would immediately spot the blind. And a smaller boat with little freeboard is more easily concealed.
Sandbars are so advantageous to the small-rig diver hunter that it's worth purchasing a topographic map of your hunting area, which can reveal hidden sandbars just below the surface. Once identified, visit these sandbars in November or December. Feeding birds indicate which ones contain mussel beds or succulent vegetation.
Or consider this approach.
"We do a ton of our scouting for diver ducks over the summer, long before the birds arrive," says Avery pro staffer Kyle Scott, who hunts cans and goldeneyes on the Mississippi River. "My buddies and I love to catch catfish, and we know that where we're finding cats, there's sure to be mussel beds. Sometimes the mussels will even stick to our lines as we reel them in. Later in the year, the same spots that produced catfish will produce ducks."
Utilize the Marsh
"This little marsh may not look like much, but she's crawling with celery," my buddy Tim said as we walked the long, floating dock, each of us carrying a dozen bluebill dekes over our shoulders. "The cans love €¦ "
"Canoes — to hunt divers — are you kidding me?" I interrupted at the water's edge.
I doubted the safety of our endeavor, but Tim assured me the winds were behaving and the shallow, slough-lined marsh could practically be waded. I'm glad he talked me into it, because the Minnesota WMA produces: We returned three hours later, nearly out of Black Cloud, with redheads, bluebills, a canvasback and a brace of mallards. The only casualty occurred when I stepped out of the canoe into what I thought was 4 inches of water — try 4 feet. Tim laughed as I stepped out of the hole, waders full of brown water. Soon, I was laughing too as we told jokes over cold drinks and enjoyed the smell of crisping duck skin filling the little cabin.
Nearby Lake Christina, a historic market-gunning site, attracts migrating cans by the thousands. It would be foolish to tackle Christina's deep, often rough waters without a substantial boat, but Tim had undertaken a brilliant tactic: Find a small, sheltered body of water near a major staging area. The place you seek is marginal compared to the large river or lake nearby, but there's a chance it will be overlooked by many hunters, and you can hunt it in a small boat. These shallower, protected areas are particularly ideal in rough weather, when pounding seas force divers to seek the shelter they tend to provide.
"Little bays and inlets located off the main channel of rivers are really ideal," says Wetherald. "If you find one with good grass or a sandbar or two, you're really in the money."
Decoys of Choice
So, you're hunting out of an undersized boat, and you only have room for two- or three-dozen decoys — how do you make that work when you're targeting a species known to raft by the hundreds?
"First and foremost, I'd pick decoys of all the same species, or nearly all," says Wetherald. "Choose whichever species is most predominant in your scouting."
Under most conditions, individually rigged decoys will work best, as it's hard to conceal the unnatural, linear appearance of long lines without ample individual rigs to pitch among them.
"I'd arrange an irregular pattern, and be sure to mix in a few paired birds," Wetherald said.
"In smaller groups, the birds will inherently begin pairing more than in a larger group, so decoys that mimic this look natural. An irregular 'U' where you still have a pocket for birds to land or a modified 'V' make the best small spreads."
Late in the year, you may have to sacrifice realism for a spread you don't have to constantly chase downstream.
"Come late December, when ice floes wash down the river, you have no choice but to use long lines," says Scott. "Ice washes away single decoys a lot more easily than a line with heavy weights on both ends."
I suggest using bluebill or goldeneye decoys, as canvasbacks are the bullies of the diver world. They're big, strong ducks that tend toward aggression when competition is tight for protein. Most divers will decoy to bluebills, redheads or other ducks, but sometimes shy from canvasbacks.
"Visibility also is an issue with a small spread," says Scott. "You don't have many decoys to work with, so you want to choose at least a few with a lot of contrast — goldeneyes, buffleheads, even a few geese set off to one side."
If this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. To kill divers out of a small boat, limited by where and under what conditions you can hunt, you have to put in more effort than a hunter who can simply motor out to the same area he hunted last year and deploy an insurmountable spread.
But, there's nothing better than wiping that big boat guy's eye. Last year, a gentleman who owned a boat that appeared more suited for an episode of "Miami Vice" than duck hunting, approached our modest little rig.
"You boys kill anything?" he asked. "We finally shot a merganser and a ruddy duck in the last hour."
"Yeah, it's pretty tough out there," Jon said, hiding his grin.
The man peaked inside our boat. We had 17 ducks — bluebills, ringers, cans, buffleheads and a drake mallard — all neatly strapped. He shook his head and returned to his truck. It's all the congratulations we needed.