A father and son share a magical morning on Lake Superior.
I grew up in central Wisconsin, not far from sprawling Lake Winnebago. The area is steeped in waterfowling tradition, although in modern days, I wouldn't say the hunting is exceptional, or even good most days. But waterfowling roots run deep here. Lake Winnebago and its connecting waters harbor large rafts of divers during their semi-annual migration. Wisconsin decoy carvers created high-backed wooden caricatures of bluebills, redheads and regal canvasbacks to lure these birds into range on the big water. A special ammunition box and gun cradle, commonly called the Lake Poygan Gunning Box, was invented here.
Although I grew up hunting puddle ducks, it seems the dying embers of this diver-hunting tradition embedded within my pedigree caught a breath of lake breeze and flickered to life when I moved to the Lake Superior region. It's not that I dislike hunting local mallards, wood ducks and teal, but they just don't excite me like a flock of divers jetting just above the surf, air roaring through their pinions on an icy morning.
Like every serious duck hunter, I'm always looking for a better mousetrap. For me, that trap measures about 8 feet long and is painted to match slate-gray November water.
Open-water hunting is legal in Wisconsin waters of the Great Lakes, Lake Winnebago and a few other select waters. And although open-water hunting has its followers on Lake Michigan and Lake Winnebago, on Lake Superior, layout boat hunting is an untapped resource.
After a couple seasons of living near the big pond, I found myself driving across Wisconsin to pick up a homemade layout boat my hunting partner, Ryan, found advertised online in a small Lake Michigan town.
The 8-foot pumpkinseed-shaped boat is rough, but it serves its purpose, even if it is full of empty milk jugs and expanded-foam insulation for internal flotation. For a hunter who wears a duck coat that has been ripped, faded and on fire more than once, function always trumps form.
The curious boat drew strange looks on the ride home. At the bank drive through, the teller asked what was in the back of my pickup as she finished my transaction.
"It's my spaceship," I deadpanned.
Dad came out to examine the strange craft when I rolled into my parents' driveway to visit before heading home. He walked around the fiberglassed-plywood boat, studying it from all angles.
If it would have had tires, he'd have kicked them a time or two. Finally, after a few presses on it to test its rigidity, he ambled up into the boat, which was rested across the sides of my pickup box. Seated inside, he swung an imaginary shotgun barrel a few times.
Buffleheads keep many layout gunners in business when larger diving ducks such as bluebills and redheads aren't flying.
"You know, I always wanted to try layout hunting," he mused.
He was pushing 60, but I was surprised when he said he'd come up north to layout hunt with me. He'd never made the five-hour drive north to go duck hunting before. We made plans, and in two short weeks, it was time for our hunt.
Back home, Dad hunts mostly puddlers, so I thought I'd ease him into it. The first day, I brought him to my favorite little ringneck lake. I told him it would require about a 200-yard paddle in a canoe in the dark, heavily laden with duck and goose decoys, shell boxes and a blind. We made the journey in the darkness with freeboard to spare and without tipping over. Later, in the light of day, he commented,
"That's way more than 200 yards!"
"I know," I responded. "I figured it was the only way I could get you out here."
The first flock of ringnecks emerged in full mid-season form. In typical ringneck fashion, they appeared, buzzed the decoys, and were gone. One stayed behind, downed by my shotgun.
Despite decades as a Wisconsin waterfowl hunter, Jerry Shead had never hunted from a layout boat in open water.
"Those things are fast!" Dad exclaimed.
We missed our share of ducks and geese that day. Our bag consisted of a couple of ringnecks, some teal and a pair of geese. I hoped it would be enough of a warmup for him. And for me.
The next morning was the inaugural hunt from the layout boat, which had been named Divers Misery by the previous owner. I'd layout hunted once before, so I hoped I could at least get us some shooting.
We got off to a slow start. A frozen throttle cable on my fishing boat turned tender craft kept us at idle speed. Flocks of divers rose and scattered in the darkness on the slow ride out into Lake Superior. Things looked promising.
I was using my new gang lines for the first time, so there were a few kinks to work out of the system as we hurried to set up. Flocks of ducks buzzing overhead heightened our sense of urgency, but we continued to dump decoys overboard in a V with the layout boat positioned at the juncture of the lines. By the time we were set up, season had been open for 20 minutes. Missing first-light shooting is inexcusable to me because often that's the only shooting I get. I hoped we hadn't blown our chance.
Dad took the first shift in the layout boat. He gingerly stepped into the tiny craft from the fishing boat, which goes by the name Vampire, the Buffie Slayer during duck season. I handed him shells and shotgun, wished him luck, and motored off to watch from a couple hundred yards upwind.
In the distance, the city of Ashland, Wis., yawned and stretched to life, its buildings silhouetted by an orange glow on the eastern horizon. It was a memorable sight, but I didn't have time to enjoy it.
I had scarcely dropped anchor when I spotted a pair of ducks flying low over the water, heading right at the decoy spread. The birds didn't see the little gray boat or the camouflag
ed figure inside it. When they were just feet above the heart of the decoy spread, Dad fired the first shot from Divers Misery under new ownership -- a miss. To this day, no one has connected on the first shot from that boat. Dad recovered on the second shot, however, dumping a bufflehead into the still waters of Lake Superior, and when the surviving bird circled back around to look for its mate, Dad assisted the pair in a reunion.
Dad held our bright-orange signal flag aloft, indicating "diver down," but I was already hauling in the anchor.
I motored over to the layout boat and scooped up a bufflehead with a fishing net. I was motoring away when Dad gestured toward the water. I hadn't seen the first bird fall. Two birds in three shots, not bad. Best of all, the layout boat seemed to be working.
I motored off to get out of Dad's way. Ducks were flying in small flocks, indicative of fresh arrivals.
Once again, I didn't even get situated before birds approached the little boat. And it looked like the fishing rod I'd brought along for a chance at a coho salmon wouldn't see any action.
Dad dumped two more birds out of the flock of departing buffies. Four birds is a banner day for us most of the time, but we were just getting started.
Dots in the Distance
The action slowed a bit after the initial rush, but birds still flew around the vast bay. The brief lull gave me a chance to snack on some granola bars for breakfast.
Diver down! The orange flag signals the tender boat to retrieve a downed duck or finish a cripple.
Strengthening daylight revealed numerous dots resembling old pilings just protruding from the water far out in the bay. Later, in the full light of day, we saw that these were not pilings, but rather, a raft of ducks, probably a thousand strong. And through binoculars, most looked to be canvasbacks! We made a mental note to be extra careful of what we shot at when birds came into range.
I was awakened from my canvasback daydreaming by a shot. I turned, and in a matter of seconds, saw the orange flag aloft once again.
I motored over and picked up another duck, this time a ringneck.
"Are you ready yet?" Dad asked. We had agreed to take one-hour shifts in the layout boat, and the hour was up.
"You've got five birds already. You might as well finish your limit," I replied.
There were no objections, and I motored away one more time.
It didn't take long for another flock of buffleheads to lock onto the decoy spread. The birds sucked in beautifully. Following a single report from Dad's 12-gauge, I buzzed over to pick up the bird and relieve my cramped, but smiling, father in the layout boat.
My Turn to Shoot
The action picked up right where it had left off for Dad. Three buffleheads came from farther out in the bay and buzzed the edge of the decoys. I thought about shooting, but they were right on the edge of range. They passed the decoys, then hooked and came right in, focusing on a half-dozen fakes of their own kind mixed in with the bluebill, ringneck and canvasback decoys. The buffleheads were 20 yards away and five feet off of the water when I shouldered the shotgun -- and missed! I redeemed myself on the second shot and deposited a hen into Lake Superior.
The wind was light and the bird drifted slowly, so I did not call for a pickup. Minutes later, a flock of a dozen or more buffleheads blindsided me. They were right in front of me before I saw them. I quickly fired and two birds crumpled. Two more going-away shots didn't draw a feather.
I signaled for a pickup now, and Dad was surprised to find three birds floating among the decoys. The L-word began to creep into my head now, but working on a charter boat earlier that summer had taught me to never mention that word until all the fish are accounted for. I figured that applied to duck hunting, too, and I repressed the thought.
It was now going on mid-morning and the action slowed. We didn't see as many ducks buzzing around our part of the bay, but every few minutes, a hundred or so ducks would get up out of that giant raft of canvasbacks, stretch their wings and alight right where they'd been sitting. It was truly a sight to behold.
Tempting as it was to watch that big raft, I had to keep my eyes peeled. Hunting by yourself in a layout boat, you must be ready for sneaky incomers.
Luckily, I was looking in the right direction when a pair of ducks appeared on the horizon from near the shoreline. They weren't high by shooting standards, but they weren't dragging their feet across the water like most of the birds we'd shot at.
The pair was coming from directly to my right. As a right-handed shooter, it would be a difficult shot. I canted my hips in the boat as far as I could to the right and tightened my grip around the shotgun.
The birds were a long way off, so I had plenty of time to get ready. Then I just had to play the waiting game. Would they fly over the decoys or veer off?
Closer and closer they flew, staying in a line as if drawn to the layout boat. I knew they weren't buffleheads this time. Ringnecks, I figured.
Finally, when they were in range, I raised the shotgun barrel. Even if they flared now, they were committed and they couldn't sneak behind me. But they didn't flare. The pair split, with one bird flying on a course that would put it directly overhead.
The overhead shot plagued me for years. I don't know how many times Dad and I had pass-shot high-flying geese in cornfields. Getting that lead right on an overhead shot was challenging for me. Many times we came home from those trips with just one bird -- his.
Somewhere along the line, I finally figured out how to lead birds flying straight overhead, and now that's the closest thing I have to a sure-thing shot.
My shot was on the money, and the bird crumpled and landed mere feet from the boat.
And that's when the speculation entered my head. Was it a hen bluebill?
For years, I had been trying to shoot a bluebill. Bluebills are Wisconsin's bread-and-butter diver. Not shooting a bluebill w
as almost akin to not shooting a mallard. I'd shot plenty of ringnecks and I'd missed plenty of bluebills. Somehow, scaup had always eluded me.
My eyes were no longer on the sky, but on the drab-colored bird drifting oh-so-slowly toward me. Finally, I was able to snag a primary feather as the bird drifted by. I pulled the bird into the boat and saw the white facial patch. Bluebill! Finally! The curse was off my back.
A Two-Man Limit
I ended up filling out my six-duck limit with two more buffleheads, but bagging them seemed like just a footnote after getting my bluebill.
That little pile of ducks on the boat floor put us in high spirits as we gathered up the gang lines. Not even chilled hands could put a damper on our hunt. Dad and I had hunted for years while I was still living at home. Now, living five hours apart, we don't get to hunt too often.
"When's the last time you shot a limit of ducks?" I asked him.
He didn't have to think long.
"About 15 years ago on the second opener," he said. (Wisconsin has a split season in the South Zone). "Ducks were everywhere that day. We limited out right away. Funny thing was, the next day we hunted the same spot and never got a bird."
His last line proved ominous, as the following day we hunted the very same spot and only shot two ducks.
None of that mattered. We had our limit of ducks -- something I don't think we'd ever achieved together. I had shot my first bluebill, and we had shared a new experience. And hopefully, when the flight is in, we'll be able to dish out some diver misery for many more seasons to come.
Joe Shead hunts ducks near home in Superior, Wis.