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Canvasback Quest

Canvasback Quest

Pursuing the king of diving ducks becomes an obsession.

Cattails tickled my cheeks as I crouched motionless, coiled like a rattler ready to spring from my hideout and fire.

More than half of the continent's canvasbacks stop at Pool 9 of the Mississippi River.

Somewhere behind me, a pair of ducks circled, presumably eying the decoys my partner, Serge Lariviere, and I had set in the darkness minutes earlier. The birds banked hard, whirling inches above the weed tips as they sliced the brisk wind and reached for water among our fakes.


"Wigeon," I said under my breath as the ducks splashed in. The drake swam nervously, its still-developing white cap bobbing on the morning's growing waves.


"It's time," Lariviere called to me from an adjacent head-high clump of marsh cover.My fingers tensed, twitching toward the trigger. My eyes locked on the drake as the baldpate pair vaulted. I rose instinctively, the butt of my stock lifting to the pit of my shoulder. It was an easy shot. Dead on the wing.

But I didn't fire.


Royal Visitors
I love to hunt ducks. Shoot them, too. The wigeon was a fine specimen. Any other day, I'd have eagerly crumpled the bird and proudly paddled out to fetch it.


A quadruple-curl greenhead or cinnamon-headed sprig would have been tempting, but I would have afforded them a similar pass. A day earlier, I had made a bold promise.

"I'm not even going to shoot at any other ducks tomorrow," I professed. "I want a bull canvasback -- just one."

Lariviere, then the scientific director for Delta Waterfowl Foundation, assured me we had a reasonable chance to fulfill my goal.

"We'll try," he said. "I know the canvasbacks have been using a couple of the pools in the marsh. We should at least see some. We'll take some diver decoys and set up on a point."

As Manitoba's fabled Delta Marsh awoke, pods of teal flitted past our pond, and a pair of mallards rode the brisk breeze directly overhead, affording a close-range, albeit sudden, chance had I been interested.

I'll admit I seriously questioned my strategy as a pair of gadwalls backpedaled 40 feet in front of me, but my shotgun remained silent. Today, I was not a duck hunter -- I was a canvasback hunter.

"Paul!" Lariviere whispered hoarsely. "Canvasbacks! In front of you!"

Four of the royal subjects winged sharply across the far edge of the pool 100 yards away, seemingly unimpressed by our line of bobbing blocks. I fretted as they passed over a point on the other shore, and my hopes slumped further as the regal ducks dipped out of sight into the next body of water.

"Maybe they'll get up later and come over here," I reconciled. "At least we saw some cans."

I looked toward Lariviere, expecting him to console me or offer words of encouragement.

But his head was lowered, his attention rapt toward the point. As wings ripped over the decoys, I froze. The squadron swept tight over my shoulder, then bent low over the churning froth in the center of the pool. I didn't have time to worry if I had spooked them. The cans -- two drakes, two hens -- knotted up, then banked hard to run the string.

Time slowed. I focused, my mind settling on shooting the trailing drake as the ducks closed the distance. Somewhere in the final 20 yards, the last duck in line became the first. Both drakes led the charge past our point as I pulled up.

"Boom!"

I scrambled to shuck the empty and rack another round. I swung hard to catch up to the fleeing cans, adding feet to my faulty lead.

"Click!"

A monumental effort to learn the diver-hunting game finally paid off on a bluebird day in East-Central Wisconsin. The author's first canvasback fell from a flock of 15.

Cattails tickled my cheeks as I crouched motionless, coiled like a rattler ready to spring from my hideout and fire.

Somewhere behind me, a pair of ducks circled, presumably eying the decoys my partner, Serge Lariviere, and I had set in the darkness minutes earlier. The birds banked hard, whirling inches above the weed tips as they sliced the brisk wind and reached for water among our fakes.

"Wigeon," I said under my breath as the ducks splashed in. The drake swam nervously, its still-developing white cap bobbing on the morning's growing waves.

"It's time," Lariviere called to me from an adjacent head-high clump of marsh cover.My fingers tensed, twitching toward the trigger. My eyes locked on the drake as the baldpate pair vaulted. I rose instinctively, the butt of my stock lifting to the pit of my shoulder. It was an easy shot. Dead on the wing.

But I didn't fire.

Royal Visitors
I love to hunt ducks. Shoot them, too. The wigeon was a fine specimen. Any other day, I'd have eagerly crumpled the bird and proudly paddled out to fetch it.

A quadruple-curl greenhead or cinnamon-headed sprig would have been tempting, but I would have afforded them a similar pass. A day earlier, I had made a bold promise.

"I'm not even going to shoot at any other ducks tomorrow," I professed. "I want a bull canvasback -- just one."

Lariviere, then the scientific director for Delta Waterfowl Foundation, assured me we had a reasonable chance to fulfill my goal.

"We'll try," he said. "I know the canvasbacks have been using a couple of the pools in the marsh. We should at least see some. We'll take some diver decoys and set up on a point."

As Manitoba's fabled Delta Marsh awoke, pods of teal flitted past our pond, and a pair of mallards rode the brisk breeze directly overhead, affording a close-range, albeit sudden, chance had I been interested.

I'll admit I seriously questioned my strategy as a pair o

f gadwalls backpedaled 40 feet in front of me, but my shotgun remained silent. Today, I was not a duck hunter -- I was a canvasback hunter.

"Paul!" Lariviere whispered hoarsely. "Canvasbacks! In front of you!"

Four of the royal subjects winged sharply across the far edge of the pool 100 yards away, seemingly unimpressed by our line of bobbing blocks. I fretted as they passed over a point on the other shore, and my hopes slumped further as the regal ducks dipped out of sight into the next body of water.

"Maybe they'll get up later and come over here," I reconciled. "At least we saw some cans."

I looked toward Lariviere, expecting him to console me or offer words of encouragement.

But his head was lowered, his attention rapt toward the point. As wings ripped over the decoys, I froze. The squadron swept tight over my shoulder, then bent low over the churning froth in the center of the pool. I didn't have time to worry if I had spooked them. The cans -- two drakes, two hens -- knotted up, then banked hard to run the string.

Time slowed. I focused, my mind settling on shooting the trailing drake as the ducks closed the distance. Somewhere in the final 20 yards, the last duck in line became the first. Both drakes led the charge past our point as I pulled up.

"Boom!"

I scrambled to shuck the empty and rack another round. I swung hard to catch up to the fleeing cans, adding feet to my faulty lead.

"Click!"

"It might only last a couple of hours," he confessed. "The wind blows the birds east off of the Mississippi. If you're diver hunting when it happens, you will have several chances to get a canvasback."

Still at Zero
After the 2004 season, I declared myself to be a bona fide diver hunter. Although diving ducks were far from my sole waterfowling pursuit, more than a third of my annual hunts involved large decoy spreads set near weed points on large lakes. Bluebills had taken over third place in my season bag, behind only mallards and Canada geese. But my lifetime canvasback total remained zero.

"Next season, I will not be denied," I insisted to my less-than-impressed wife as I eyed duck decoys at a sporting goods store. "I'm going to kill a canvasback."

A couple of weeks later, in advance of my birthday, my lady decided rather than wrap up a new shirt or necktie, she'd snap up a dozen duck decoys. Now, I'd have been perfectly pleased with a fresh box of mallards or a new platoon of 'bills, but she had listened astutely -- she plunked down $100 for 12 standard cans.

Certain her duck hunter was going to have a happy birthday, she strapped our toddlers into their safety seats and deposited her bounty in the back of the family minivan. Twenty feet later, my wife's good deed unraveled.

Crash!

The driver across the aisle decided to back out at the same moment. Our daughters were fine. Aside from embarrassment, so were both drivers. And yes, the canvasback decoys survived the collision, too. The van wasn't as fortunate. The body man fixed our thousand-dollar dent, of which we paid a $250 deductible.

Still, I smiled proudly on my birthday as I opened my now $350 canvasback decoys.

A Kindred Spirit
In August 2005, I met Todd Lensing, a waterfowl guide from Ferryville, Wis., at the Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoors Festival in Oshkosh, Wis. Lensing operates Flyway Fowling Guide Service on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River, a huge expanse of water with a plentiful crop of wild celery, the preferred food of canvasbacks. As a result, more than half of North America's canvasbacks stop there each fall, with the migration generally peaking at the beginning of November each year.

Ten days can make a world of difference in plumage. Above, a hunter admires a drake taken Nov. 5 on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River. The author's first canvasback, left, had yet to sport a bull can's characteristic crimson head on Oct. 25.

Although Lensing thrills at putting clients on all species of ducks and geese on the Mississippi, cans are clearly his favorite quarry.

"I've tried, but I've never killed a canvasback," I admitted.

"You should come over and hunt," Lensing quickly offered. "I can't promise anything other than that I'll do my very best to put ducks in front of you, but we kill a number of canvasbacks every year."

I knew my odds had just improved dramatically. As soon as I got home, I etched a large red "C" on the calendar for both November days Lensing had promised I could hunt with him.

The Mysterious Flight
Two weeks before my hunt with Lensing, I embarked on a Saturday morning hunt with a co-worker who had never hunted heavily pressured public duck lakes. Staking claim to a worthy weed point on an October weekend in Wisconsin requires a 4 a.m. launch at the latest.

By the time we worked out a miscommunication about our rendezvous point, it was 4:30 a.m. We motored out into the fog anyway. Actually, I hoped the pea soup would keep other hunters close to shore and we could steal a productive spot despite our tardiness.

The particular area I'd chosen has room for four boats. As we motored past the choice location, a beam of light bounced toward us. Taken. So was the next spot, and the next. I pulled around to the final weedbed, expecting another flash. I circled twice in the darkness to be sure, then jammed the front of the boat into the weeds to wait for decoy setting time to arrive.

We placed decoys in the dead-clam water, then retreated. Legal shooting time arrived before clear shooting light. In fact, for the first hour, the fog thickened. We heard wings overhead twice, but in general, the birds were not moving. We could barely see our farthest decoy, which we had set 50 yards away.

I was dreading the impending visually impaired ride to shore, when suddenly, a gentle waft of air cooled my ears. Five minutes later, the surface rippled and the fog separated. In another quarter of an hour, the entire shroud of moist air was gone.

Our decoys came to life, and I noted the stools were crossways for the newfound breeze: A west wind.

Due west.

Our closest neighbors shot first. A half-dozen bluebills scooped low over their decoys.

One splashed violently, while another faltered and sailed toward us, crashing well short of our fakes. It dove. We eventually recovered the duck -- an adult lesser drake -- and delivered it to the grateful hunters.

Three gunners on the prime point had the next volley. Ringnecks. At least three buckled.

Both flocks had arrived from the west, so we began watching that direction.

"Those are canvasbacks!" I declared, lowering my head in hopes the low-flying, 20-strong vee would veer toward our clump of cover. They knotted, looped and curled right to the hunters in the best spot, who cut four with what seemed like a simultaneous blast of multiple belching shotguns.

For the next two hours, canvasbacks streamed in from the west as the chop built around our hideout. Bluebills rode the air current, too, but most of the flocks were sleek, long-necked ducks with gently sloping heads. Every hunter out there shot a canvasback -- except my partner and me. It wasn't that they didn't like our spread, rather, they just never reached it. Our fakes were the last in line, and birds inclined to work decoys dumped in before they got to ours.

Despite my disappointment, I knew I was witnessing the recipe for the previously mysterious canvasback flight. If only we'd been at the same gas station at 3:45 a.m€¦

Tanning Weather
Originally, I had invited Jim Lee, an outdoor writer from Wausau, Wis., to hunt with me that day. However, he had another commitment, so we scheduled our outing for the following Wednesday. He intended to write a newspaper article about hunting bluebills on big water.

We had no contenders for the choice weedbed on Wednesday. The weather had improved wonderfully, unless you're interested in hunting waterfowl, then the 65-degree sunshine and light winds were not a boon.

With Lee's help, we deployed every diver decoy I owned -- a solid five-dozen mix of bluebills, ringers and my birthday canvasbacks. Tossed out a dozen mallards off to a side, too.

"That's a lot of decoys," Lee observed as I locked the sides of the boat blind into hunting position.

"Let's hope we have some birds around to see them," I retorted.

We did. Canada geese, mostly. All of them were educated enough not to fly near emergent weeds. A pair of common mergansers approached, and I purposely let them pass. A couple small flocks of ducks traded hundreds of yards away, oblivious to our spread.

"A guy could get a tan out here," I joked, peeling off an under layer of camouflage.

A pleasure boater jetted past, a sure sign it wasn't a fantastic day to hunt ducks. Lee's patience was waning. So was mine.

"Jim!" I whispered. "Ducks. Off to my right. Get ready. They're coming in."

The flock turned abruptly 75 yards beyond the farthest string of decoys, then traced a graceful loop to swing over the closest line for a final approach.

I knew exactly what the 15 ducks were, but I didn't say it. I picked a dark head and swung. My shot stopped the duck immediately, and it skipped gently to belly-down rest.

I tried to temper my exuberance because Lee missed his shot, but I just could not contain myself. I know I told him, "That's my first canvasback!" a couple of times. I might even have hollered "Yahoooo!" I would have apologized for not being more humble, but I had finally conquered the king of diving ducks.

Continuing Quest
Ten days later, I killed my second canvasback in Lensing's boat on the Mississippi River.

The next day, I shot my third. I took two more handsome bulls in 2006.

Last fall, I was fortunate to be diver hunting on the day the west winds blew in mid-October. A flock of 40 cans settled into my decoys, and two other flocks and a single bull worked close enough for an easy shot. I fretted at the season closure, but then relaxed my trigger finger and smiled.

The crimson heads of the bulls shimmered as they surfaced while feeding in front of me.

Two hens jockeyed for position, seemingly trying to rip up the same plant. Soon, an outboard roared past. All of the ducks came to attention, and finally, spooked.

"Yahoo!" I yelled as the canvasbacks ran across the shallow lake to gain flight.

Paul Wait is editor of Wildfowl.

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